Poet of the New York School
Wednesday 22 February 2006
Barbara Ann Pinson, poet: born Wilmington, North Carolina 6 September 1920; married 1948 Stephen Haden Guest (succeeded 1960 as second Baron Haden-Guest, died 1974; one daughter; marriage dissolved 1954), 1954 Trumbull Higgins (died 1970; one son); died Berkeley, California 15 February 2006.
Barbara Guest was a key figure in the evolution of American poetry since 1945. Her first book of poems, The Location of Things, appeared in 1960 from Tibor de Nagy Gallery, which also published the first slim volume by John Ashbery, as well as work by Frank O'Hara and other members of the New York School. Guest was the only female member of this now famous coterie.
Between then and the publication last year of The Red Gaze, she produced more than 20 books, including a controversial biography of the Modernist poet Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), Herself Defined (1984), and a novel, Seeking Air (1978), alongside collections and sequences such as Moscow Mansions (1973), Fair Realism (1989), and her only original collection to be published in Britain, If So, Tell Me, published by Reality Street in 1999.
The New York School, a somewhat self-ironic label for a group of largely impecunious poets writing in the shadow of the giants of Abstract Expressionist painting, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, can be accused of both securing her début and holding her at arm's length, thereafter. The senior grouping of Ashbery, O'Hara, Kenneth Koch and, subsequently, James Schuyler, would go on to win mainstream recognition, but Schuyler wrote to Guest in an uncollected letter of May 1971 that the "Founders of the School" had been not "a trefoil, but a star . . . and a five- pointed star at the very least".
Critics intent on securing the reputations of Ashbery and O'Hara in particular (and I plead as guilty as anyone, here) neglected Guest under the imperative to establish those poets as being as important to American poetry after 1945 as Eliot and Pound had been to an earlier generation. However, the publication of Selected Poems in 1995 (issued by Carcanet Press the following year) helped prompt a revaluation of Guest, who was now celebrated as materfamilias by younger women writers such as Norma Cole, Kathleen Fraser and the HOW(ever) group, as well as by Charles Bernstein and other Language poets, whose deconstructive experimentalism drew encouragement from her innovations.
Barbara Guest was at home on the margins. Hers is in many ways a coastal, and not a city aesthetic. Shuttled between different sets of relatives, she grew up in Florida and in Los Angeles, born in North Carolina, in 1920, purely because her father (who died when she was still a child) was looking for work there at the time. Witness at the age of six to a particularly wild hurricane that hit the Florida coast, engulfing less cautious onlookers, she testified later to an anxiety over rootlessness.
The poems are filled with images of eroding borders, and a dizzying alternation between sudden flight and plunges into the blue. Her most famous early poem, "Parachutes, My Love, Could Carry Us Higher" mingles dream-like sensations of treading water with trembling in mid-air, an "exquisite . . . suspension" whose hovering ambiguities could stand for the whole oeuvre, as could the slightly breathless (and more than slightly unresolved) lyricism of the poem's ending: "I am closer to you / Than land and I am in a stranger ocean / Than I wished."
There is a saturnine as well as a romantic undercurrent in Guest's sea poems, as in the longer "A Handbook of Surfing" of 1968, when the instructional vocabulary of waxed boards, sandals and wipeout becomes intermingled with phrases such as "dynamite crest", "pullout" and "guerilla wave strength" whose double meanings remind us that this was the year of crisis over Vietnam, and that "You with your lease on World Championship" may be a surfer riding, or a nation going under, the crash of unpredictable waves.
Even here, however, the poet is showing what words can do, not enlisting and honing them for purposes of argument, but permitting their music and their ways of marking the shifting sand of our fond assumptions. The late work is comparatively austere. Yet even so late a poem as "The Luminous" (1999) can say a repeated and Edenic "yes" to the world's "brilliant noise" and its "bright rewards for preparing to strut forth" - even though, and again with that characteristic, dream-like tumble into wryness, "Many loves changes to many times falling into / the day's lucid marshes".
Guest's sense of the marvellous is forever poised on a cusp between a celebration of the magic of the external world, the movement of thought, without which the world would be so much brilliant noise, and the words we use to trace the coastlines of inner and outer reality.
Barbara Guest carried on writing for the rest of her life, though she never recovered wholly from a stroke on Christmas Day 2004. Born Barbara Pinson, she had married Stephen Haden Guest, an English émigré and translator from the French, then working as an editorial adviser to the American Geographical Society, in 1948. Six years later they divorced and she married Trumbull Higgins, author of books on the Second World War, the Korean War and the Bay of Pigs. He died in 1970.
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