Saturday, December 31, 2011

Barbara Guest and The Terrible

I fall in love with Barbara Guest's poetry over and over again.

But, I notice, in different ways.

I never realized until very recently how much she is like Gorey.

How much camp there is in her poetry.

She really believed in writing terrible poetry. By terrible I mean camp.

She believed to write about a Miro painting you must become a Miro painting.

You must move in the same way inside the medium of language as he moved (swam?) through the plasticity of paint:

"A dollop is dolloping
her a scoop is pursuing
flee vain ingots      Ho
coriander darks      thimble blues
red okays adorn her
buzz green circles in flight
or submergence?     Giddy
mishaps of blackness make
stinging clouds what!"


I think she understood you could only be a great lyric poet in the latter 20th century by being a terrible lyric poet. By pointing out poetry's inadequacies over and over again. By embodying these great train wrecks in language and somehow making it okay to laugh at them. To marvel at the sublime sculpture such terrible accidents create. And then somehow start doing the salvage work.

Terrible means worthy of being feared. But it also means failure. Fear of failure, of being terrible in the pejorative sense.

But the fact that terrible can mean Ivan or a tyrannosaurus, as well as Charlie Brown and a depressive's Christmas just shows you how funnily doomed the whole enterprise of meaning is.

And that's why I say Barbara Guest wrote terrible poetry.

I mean it as a compliment. That she understood everything is wangled in this universe.

She would love a word like wangle and work with it the way a street artist might work with an abandoned spoon.

And turn that wangled spoon into art.

And only when that spoon reaches the museum will people remove the word "terrible" and replace it with a more pompous adjective.

Even though she does fit in the context of the first New York school of poetry, she fits elsewhere just as easily. That's not true of most of those poets, not even Frank O'Hara. Not even Ashbery.

I see her more with writers like Nabokov. Gorey. Lear. Mina Loy.

But then she could turn around and write poems that are closer to Poe than anyone else.

"Wild Gardens Overlooked by Night Lights" is so Poe it scares me.

This is a rather atypical (and stunning) poem in the Guest canon.

I only realized today that in this poem she's rewriting Poe's "The Haunted Mansion" (and by extension "The Fall of the House of Usher") through The Book of Genji.

What a great spooky, Cartesian poem:

"I float over this dwelling and when I choose
enter it. I have an ethnological interest
in this building, because I inhabit it
and upon me has been bestowed the decision of changing
an abstract picture of light into a ghost-like story
of a prince whose principality I now share,
into whose confidence I have wandered."


This poem deconstructs death. And the self.

The screen is a leitmotif in Guest's oeuvre.

You encounter it again and again, in the context of the artistic tableau, the Platonic metaphor, the Derridean hunt for archi-ecriture, and so on.

"The Screen of Distance" is one of many notable, multipartite poems.

I also realized today that poet Matthew Rohrer is much closer to German poetry than he is to American poetry.

But that's another story.

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