Articles

On Don Allen, 'The New American Poetry'

Fifty years should be easily perceptible, but open The New American Poetry and the shock is how ordinary it seems and thus how hard it is to sense the passage of what, after all, have been fifty very real years. When I read Donald Allen's list of great modernists at the beginning of his introduction, for a few seconds, it's as if I'm reading the present. I'll temporarily omit the opening phrase to further this temporal mirage:  “American poetry has entered upon a singularly rich period, [one which] has seen published William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, The Desert Music and Other Poems, and Journey to Love; Ezra Pound's The Pisan Cantos, Section: Rock-Drill, and Thrones; H.D.'s later work culminating in her long poem Helen in Egypt; and the recent verse of E. E. Cummings, Marianne Moore, and the late Wallace Stevens.” [1] Such a list seems, in 2010, obvious: only one name, Cummings, would likely be omitted today. "The late Wallace Stevens" provides a glimmer of temporal shock, reminding us that, in 1960, Stevens would just have died and that Williams, Pound, H.D., Cummings, and Moore would still be alive. Allen's tone is so matter of fact that I have to remind myself of the implicit ruckus he is kicking up in the 1960 world – especially the 1960 academic world: starting with Williams; omitting Eliot; naming H.D. a modernist master. In 1960, to the average literate mind in the U.S., H.D., far from being a modernist master, was a subject best not lingered on, like some maiden aunt's ouija board. In 1960, to name Pound in such an unmarked way was polemical. It had only been two years, after all, since he'd gotten out of St. Elizabeth’s and given the fascist salute as he boarded the boat for Italy. In 1960 (to now quote the opening phrase I omitted above), "In the years since the war" would have meant “since 1945,” when it had only been with strenuous backstage maneuvering that the case of Ezra Pound was dissociated from those of Lord Haw Haw and Tokyo Rose.

But over fifty years, Allen's vision has become common sense. This is reinforced by the plethora of greatest hits scattered throughout the anthology – "Projective Verse," "Howl," "The Day Lady Died" – and names without which American poetry is hard to imagine: Creeley, Ashbery, Whalen, Schuyler. The inclusion of statements on poetics now seems normative, but back then it was not. Robert Frost's introduction to the 1958 Hall, Pack, Simpson anthology, New Poets of England and America – the anthology Allen must have been answering – explicitly bans "critical instruction." [2] In this alternate universe, the passage of time couldn't be more blatantly legible. Here's the first stanza of the opening poem, "Masters," by Kingsley Amis:

 

That horse whose rider fears to jump will fall,
Riflemen miss if orders sound unsure;
They only are secure who seem secure;
          Who lose their voice, lose all. [3]

That could have been written in the nineteenth century – possibly the eighteenth.

But lest we think that Allen's anthology was a juggernaut of inevitability, consider the list he picks to represent the second generation, after the great modernists and leading to his third generation (i.e., to the poets he's anthologizing). It's a list never to be seen anywhere else, not these particular five names together: Elizabeth Bishop, Edwin Denby, Robert Lowell, Kenneth Rexroth, and Louis Zukofsky. Bishop and Lowell would be obvious in 1960, but not Rexroth; Zukofsky and Denby would be outré names indeed. And those happy few who knew Zukofsky would not expect to see him linked with Denby and vice versa. Extrapolate the eccentricity of that list to the anthology as a whole, and its uniqueness becomes more apparent. It was a multiplicious and highly unlikely breakthrough. I say this even though its tremendous deficits of representation have long been glaringly obvious: only four women and one African American out of forty-four poets. If you want to sense the passage of fifty years, those absences are a first place to look. However, while The New American Poetry is nothing but backward in terms of gender and race, it still demonstrates a powerful dimension of poetic capaciousness that retains an enlivening force.

Our present tense common sense can too easily tell us, in its received wisdom, that Olson presides over the anthology, having the most pages of poetry and critical statement, and leading off each section. But Allen's laconic watchwords, that what all this new poetry has in common is "a total rejection [...] of academic verse" and that it is a continuation of "modern jazz and abstract expressionism," hardly apply to Olson himself. [4] Luckily for us, there really isn't much case for a unified reading of the poems and poetics of the anthology.

Yes, there is some anti-academicism, but really, there's not that much that is directly aimed at the academy. Olson writes in his biographical statement: "'Uneducated' at Wesleyan, Yale, and Harvard"; and Edward Dorn: "I was Educated at the University of Illinois, and somewhat corrected at Black Mountain College." [5] The one specimen of iambic pentameter is Kenneth Koch's "Mending Sump," e.g., "Something there is that doesn't hump a sump." At such a moment, The New American Poetry can be read as a polemic against what Frost and his coziness with the university represented.

But the far more striking facts are the varieties of approach to what poetry can do. Allen's capacious, nonstringent vision needs to be brought forward and given credit: breadth of class position; emotional, social, and aesthetic sophistication; the barbaric yawps that fill the book, discontinuously. Here's a small nosegay of this disparateness: "YIPPEE! I'm glad I'm alive! / 'I'm glad you're alive / too, baby, because I want to fuck you"; "Parachutes, my love, could carry us higher / Than this mid-air in which we tremble"; "Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs!"; "But now my the main task of the day – wash my underwear – two months abused – what would the ants say about that?" [6]

Hats off to Donald Allen, without whom our present doesn't exist.

 



[1] The New American Poetry, Donald M. Allen, ed. (New York: Grove Press, 1960) xi.
[2] Ibid., 11.
[3] New Poets of England and America, Donald Hall, Robert Pack and Louis Simpson, editors, introduction by Robert Frost. (New York: Meridian Books, 1957) 13.
[4] Donald M. Allen, ed., New American Poetry 442.
[5] Ibid., 431.
[6] Ibid., 259.; Ibid., 216.;Ibid., 186.; Ibid., 214.

 


On Gwendolyn Brooks, 'The Bean Eaters'

I’ll begin with vehement restatement: Gwendolyn Brooks is an under-read and under-understood great poet of the twentieth century. [1] This is perhaps a result of the artfulness with which she constructed her poems as rhetorical portals: “Black and female are basic and inherent in her poetry,” Hortense Spillers notes, while (particularly before the mid-sixties) “[w]e cannot always say with grace or ease that there is a direct correspondence between the issues of her poetry and her race and sex.” [2] The Bean Eaters in particular deserves attention and interpretation — its poems are layered, sometimes involuted, and also sometimes deceptively simplistic; a bit macabre; emphatically intellectual but with a practical bent; simultaneously abstract and concrete, like Stevens, but without the whimsy; socially penetrating and outspoken, minus pedagoguery.  And they are courageous, despite slant-stated sentiments to the contrary.  For instance, in “Strong Men, Riding Horses,” Brooks writes an assessment of the white masculinity on display in 1950s Westerns, over against her own chameleon-poet subject position: “what my mouths remark / To word-wall off that broadness of the dark / Is pitiful. / I am not brave at all.” [3]

Met with proverbial “mixed reviews” (from a mixed audience), the book was pivotal in Brooks’ oeuvre.  It was more overtly politicized about race, class and gender than her earlier work; at the same time, it was not yet directed more exclusively towards a black audience, but continued her engagement with literary structures linked with the white canon of the generation before.  Techniques, mainly Modernist, informing the work include: personae: Eliotic “impersonality,” etc.; allusion: here as often to contemporary events as to texts; compression: obliquity or ambiguity especially arising from the pressurizing of syntax; and reprisal of traditional forms: ballads (filtered through Langston Hughes and e.e. cummings), sonnets (filtered through Countee Cullen and Claude McKay), and hymns (filtered through Dickinson; indeed, truly remarkably so, as in “Priscilla Assails the Sepulchre of Love”: “I can’t unlock my eyes because / my body will come through / And cut her every clothing off / And drive herself to you”). [4] The poems are less given to fragmentation and montage than to phrasal paradox, elliptical, gnomic insight, closural decoy — and, of course, they mostly involve irony.  

Brooks’ irony in this book is not detached or bemused — it is often angry and provoking, as in her famous “The Lovers of the Poor,” in which white “Ladies” from “Lake Forest, Glencoe,” very wealthy suburbs of Chicago, arrive in the black ghetto “in the innocence / With which they baffle nature” of “Something called chitterlings” — “God shield them sharply from the beggar-bold!”  Similarly scathingly sarcastic is “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi.  Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon,” Brooks’ highly self-reflexive poem about the 1955 murder of Emmett Till — “From the first it had been like a / Ballad. It had the beat inevitable. It had the blood. / A wildness cut up, and tied in little bunches” — which ventriloquizes the vexed consciousness of Carolyn Bryant, the white Southern woman over whom he was killed. [5]

At times, Brooks’ irony doesn’t circulate easily between reader and author, but builds complex and even contradictory epistemic economies that refuse clear positioning of the reader vis-à-vis speakers, narrators, and author.  She does first-person voices suiciding in an artifice that their self-ironic lines make plain — and no, I don’t mean “We Real Cool” — but “A Man of the Middle Class”: “I’ve answers such as have / The executives I copied long ago, / The ones who, forfeiting Vicks salve, / Prayer book and Mother, shot themselves last Sunday.”  No utterance of redeeming self-knowledge, nor speech of an urbane smartass: it’s the author performing coming out the character’s neck, expressing an anger at a limited, condescending repertoire that could otherwise with good reason be used against the very persona in question.  “The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock” presents the thoughts of a reporter for the black weekly who, in the wake of Eisenhower deploying troops to Arkansas to enforce school integration, finds it hard to get his angle: “‘They are like people everywhere.’” And the narrator of “In Emanuel’s Nightmare: Another Coming of Christ” retells a story suspiciously similar to that of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), a film in which a human-like alien is repeatedly killed while attempting to warn mankind of its bellicosity.  In Brooks’ poem, the man “born out of the heaven” leaves, forced to accept man’s love of war, while the narrator’s concern to name everything with the right words points to language itself as a fomenter of violence.  

But my favorite poem is “A Lovely Love” — not the Brooks you thought you knew:

Let it be alleys.  Let it be a hall […]
Let it be stairways, and a splintery box
Where you have thrown me, scraped me with your kiss […]
                                                                                        Run.
People are coming.  They must not catch us here
Definitionless in this strict atmosphere.



[1] See, for instance, Danielle Chapman’s claims in “Sweet Bombs,” Critical Insights: Gwendolyn Brooks,  ed. Mildred R. Mickle (Pasadena: Salem Press, 2010), 91-102.
[2] Hortense Spillers, “Gwendolyn the Terrible: Propositions on Eleven Poems,” in A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction, ed. Maria K. Mootry and Gary Smith (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987) 224.
[3] Michael Davidson, Guys Like Us: Citing Masculinity in Cold War Poetics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003) 63.
[4] For some discussion of Brooks’ relation to Dickinson, see A. Yemisi Jimoh, “Double Consciousness, Modernism, and Womanist Themes in Gwendolyn Brooks’ ‘The Anniad’,” in Critical Insights: Gwendolyn Brooks, ed. Mildred R. Mickle (Pasadena: Salem Press, 2010) 118.
[5] For an excellent reading of this poem, see Vivian M. May’s “Maids Mild and Dark Villains, Sweet Magnolias and Seeping Blood: Gwendolyn Brooks’ Response to the Lynching of Emmett Till,” in Emmett Till in Literary Memory and Imagination, ed. Harriet Pollack and Christopher Metress (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008) 98-111.

On Robert Duncan, 'The Opening of the Field'

Re Opening

The poems in Robert Duncan’s The Opening of the Field were written between 1956 and the beginning of 1959, the final two referring to events of 1958: the publication of Louis Zukofsky’s Barely & Widely and, on October 13, the US release of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Duncan appears to have known since his teens that he was going to write a major work, a mature writing that would propose a poetry on the scale of Ezra Pound’s Cantos, William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, Charles Olson’s Maximus, and Zukofsky’s interrupted project “A”. [1] The Opening of the Field and the four books that follow are that work.

Duncan took care to set the stage for the best possible reception of this project. He gathered his early writings, those composed up to 1950, into a Selected Poems as part of City Light’s Pocket Poet Series in 1959. Works written between 1950 and 1956, the poems ultimately gathered in the Fulcrum Press edition of Derivations, were issued for the most part as a series of chapbooks, some published by Duncan himself through his press Enkidu Surrogate. But, as he acknowledged in a list of “Books by Robert Duncan” in the Selected Poems, The Field (Poems 195659), was unpublished, and for much of 1959 had no good prospects for finding a publisher. Duncan had had an agreement with Macmillan that had come apart over his insistence that the book’s cover use the artwork created for it by his lover Jess, a homey sketch with a collaged photograph of children playing a circle game.

That Duncan had even thought to turn to a New York trade publisher is telling. He was notoriously fussy with his publishing, not permitting Ferlinghetti to reprint Selected Poems, insisting that the first volume of Ground Work be set in Courier to capture the “true copy” of his typed originals. [2] After contemplating publishing The Field himself, Duncan finally let Donald Allen — with whom he was in constant correspondence over the subject — take the project on as a Grove Press Evergreen Original. It came out in October of 1960 with Jess’ artwork used as the frontispiece, and a clever Roy Kuhlman cover design that used the photo of the kids under an abstract “falling leaf” pattern. Both the title and author’s name are in what I believe to be Robert’s own handwriting.

Although the Duncan I first met in Jack Gilbert’s class in 1966 argued adamantly against all forms of revision, the title of this volume changed between 1959 and 1960. There were also changes in the poems and in their order. “Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow,” the book’s first poem, had originally been titled “Having Been Enraged by John Davenport.” [3] But this was to be the start of a great project, and Duncan wanted very much to get it right.

He was very conscious that he was proposing a writing that could be as continuous as The Cantos. But like Zukofsky and Olson before him, Duncan also found the need to break down parts within. Each of the five books that make up this unnamed project can be read as collections of discrete poems. In addition, two very different ongoing sequences — The Structure of Rime and the Canto-like series Passages — are woven in throughout. In 1974, when I wrote in an essay on The Opening of the Field for John Taggart’s issue of Maps devoted to Duncan, that Duncan might issue these two sequences as separate volumes, Duncan replied — in an annotated copy of my essay he gave to the Australian poet Robert Adamson — that Structures and Passages belong to the books in which they appear as is! They have never been issued separately, though in fact both would make great little books on the scale of Spring & All, say, or Tender Buttons. The Structure of Rime as an individual book would have made Duncan’s role in the formal elaboration of the American prose poem apparent, something for which he has never received sufficient credit. [4]

1960 was also the year of The New American Poetry, which also was why Duncan was in constant contact with Allen. To hear Duncan tell it years later, Allen had been little more than Duncan’s apprentice in the creation of that anthology — and some of the women not included there have concluded that its sexual politics do indeed reflect Duncan’s influence. But what interests me today is just how much Opening of the Field was itself no less of a power play than the anthology. One thing is clear: Duncan worked hard to reconfigure our understanding of the American poetry landscape at the exact moment he was trying to launch his defining project,

a place of first permission,
everlasting omen of what is.

 


[1] It had stalled in 1950 after number twelve. Zukofsky would not pick it up again until 1960.
[2] When the paper the original typesetting by David Melnick proved unable to produce a clean enough image for offset printing, the entire volume was typeset a second time.
[3] The British literary critic of the 1950s, not the Puritan founder of New Haven, CT, though Duncan possibly had that echo in mind.
[4] Duncan had written published prose poems as far back as 1940’s “Toward the Shaman,” and pioneered the letter-as-prose-poem mode that Jack Spicer would make famous in After Lorca. In some important ways, Duncan is the bridge between the high modernist experiments on the part of Stein & Williams and John Ashbery's Three Poems in the early 1970s.

 


On John Cage, 'Cartridge Music'

I’m extremely pleased that Al has graciously allowed me to initiate the symposium [as staged on December 6, 2010] with a discussion of John Cage’s Cartridge Music — a published work materialized by the electronic erasure of its own writing.This remarkable piece underscores some of the fundamental questions of the 1960 project: how are we to experience or historicize, much less write through a moment of cultural and literary history? What means of access do we have to 1960, represented by a selective cross-section of various activities and productions, intertexts and unlikely connections, uncanny harbingers and anticipatory plagiarists across 366 calendar days? 

I’m particularly delighted to present in this live-form group-blog format — discussing selected artifacts in the context of a disjointed series of abbreviated “posts from the forthcoming respondents here at the Kelly Writers House. I’ve been following Al’s one-man show, the marvelous 1960 blog, for a number of years. Reading historical artifacts as he does, relating each within the immediately contemporaneous context of a single year, brings to screen what Theo van Doesburg called a “space, simultaneously agitated in all directions.” [1] This work extends out into innumerable points of intertextual reference, while the references differentially locate the work in historical space-time.

One of Cage’s first forays into electronic composition, Cartridge Music served as a tool for composing the famous essay “Where are we going? And What are we doing?,” delivered a year after the score’s publication in 1960. From here, the piece underscores everything from glitch-hop and noise to No Input or Onkyo-tei sound art in Japan (if you spend any time at noise shows, you’ll find the score outlines the structure of most anarcho-improvisatory electronic music operant today). The premise seems simple: remove the needle from a phonographic pick-up — oh dear, I hope I haven’t lost anyone, my generation has lost touch with analog pick-ups — a cartridge forms a relay between the needle, which sits in the groove of a record, and an amplifier, which amplifies the vibrations into projected sound through a loudspeaker. So you replace the needle with “all kinds of small objects […] such as pipe cleaners, matches, feathers, wires, etc.” which you can then scratch along the grooves and surfaces of anything you like, from a cymbal to a body to the floor of the stage. [2] The vibrations in the replacement needle are then amplified into massive abstract sounds. There’s also an iconic score of insanely difficult visu-tempo-musical complexity and contact mic variants. We can highlight how Cartridge Music modulates Cage’s earlier statements on indeterminacy: previous to 1960, Cage “had been concerned with composition which was indeterminate of its performance; but, in this instance [Cartridge Music], performance is made indeterminate of itself.” [3]  

He combats the static historical remnant of the work by formal definition, scripting all elements of transmission and inscription. Like a painting to be burned or a happening that forbids audiovisual recording, Cartridge Music replaces the needle, that perennial tool of decipherment and inscription, with absurdly ineffectual writing objects: slinkies, toothpicks, feathers, miniature American flags, and so on, all of which scream their objecthood in an electric wail over the performer-controlled loudspeaker in a moment of time-space. Our quandary is in attempting hear Cartridge Music today. While there are occasional recordings, it in fact shouldn’t (or doesn’t) exist. The recording needle intrudes on the piece — as Kittler reminds us, citing Rilke’s dream of tracing the coronal suture of the human skull, or the fantasy of reanimating Goethe’s larynx — replaying a recording Cartridge Music is a technical impossibility (if, for Kittler, the gramophone presents the real, Cartridge Music plays the unreal). [4] To deform Cage: “Cartridge Music uses several media performing programs that they have determined by means of the materials. But one media’s actions unintentionally alter another media’s actions, because the actions involve changing the amplitude controls and the inscription controls. So you may find yourself playing something and getting no sound whatsoever.” Cage continues in 1980: “I’ve worked with David Tudor in what we call live electronic music. Synthesizers lead toward a taped version of something that is fixed, and I’ve tried to keep things changing. I myself don’t keep a collection of records. The few records I have I don’t use as records because I don’t have a machine to play them on.” [5]

In his book How Early America Sounded, Richard Cullen Rath shares a marvelous Cagean anecdote that I’d like to rebroadcast in conclusion:

The Puritan John Gyles wrote a short book during the 1690s. In one part, he described happening upon what sounded to him like “a Woman washing her Linnen with a batting staff.” He was in the deep forest, though. As he investigated closer, he found that the sound came from land turtles “propogating.” He had, he claimed, heard them from half a mile away. Presumably, the turtles would sound the same today. Gyles was writing for an audience that he assumed knew the sound of batting staffs on laundry, a sound no longer common to life in the twenty-first century. The turtles let us listen in not only on their amorous adventures, but on a sound culled from everyday life, one that marked the hearer as being within a half a mile or so of a familiar community. [6]



[1] Theodore van Doesburg, "Film as Pure Form," trans. Standish Lawder, Form, no. 1 (1966): 7-8.
[2] “Cartridge Music,” John Cage Database, http://www.johncage.info/workscage/cartridge.html.
[3] Gil Weinberg, “Interconnected Musical Networks – Bringing Expresion and Thoughtfulness to Collaborative Group Playing,” (diss., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2003), 28.
[4] Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, film, typewriter (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999, http://books.google.com/books?id=zSrte54_9ZwC&pg=PA43&lpg=PA43&dq=kittle... http://books.google.com/books?id=zSrte54_9ZwC&pg=PA43&lpg=PA43&dq=kittle....
[5] John Cage, Conversing with Cage, ed. Richard Kostelanetz (London: Psychology Press,  2003), http://books.google.com/books?id=PjUIbHb7lFcC&pg=PA89&lpg=PA88&ots=KjvrN....
[6] Richard Cullen Rath, How Early America Sounded (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005), http://books.google.com/books?id=0946oDkasdIC&printsec=frontcover&dq=ric....

On Barbara Guest, 'The Location of Things'

Barbara Guest’s remarkable first book, The Location of Things (Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 1960), establishes that it is possible to reclaim gendered space, and this possibility is manifest in language itself. As Julia Kristeva writes, “Writing is an act of differentiation and of participation with respect to reality; it is a language without a beyond without transcendence.” [1] The act of writing is human, and in being human it is gendered. By presenting or writing a female text, the writer internalizes and recycles the desire for the dominance of masculinity, meaning the historically accepted male language. In “The other window is the lark’ on Barbara Guest,” Rachel Blau DuPlessis writes, “Once more, as so often in the fifties, female figures are positioned in an asymmetrical binary system through which they are habitually left behind as all too normal, all too tedious. Indeed, they must, by definition, be left behind for anything amusing and lively to thrive.” [2] These binary realities (particularly relevant when situating Guest in the male-dominated New York School) coupled with the alienation and surveillance of the Cold War, make Guest’s domestically divergent poet(h)ic lens even more striking — mandating that the poem opens up to something more than “public speech.” [3] Robert Bennett describes these spaces as “deliberately constructed both to unsettle conventional expectations about the nature of spatiality itself and to suggest instead intimations of a more complex world in which both ‘proofs’ and ‘illusions’ of ‘stability’ are subverted by a profound awareness of the chaotic contingencies of modern life.” [4]

The Location of Things indicates sovereignty of the writer over the inanimate.  If this title was “A Location of Things,” this control would not be present, but the use of “the” leaves the impression that this “location of things” is an absolute, a constant. And, in contrast to several nonfiction bestsellers of that year, including Better Homes and Gardens First Aid for Your Family and Better Homes and Gardens Decorating Ideas, Guest presents readers with an alternative to the “woman in the house” — rather, as Lynn Keller writes, “Guest indicates that love, romance, and a man’s protection — all essential to the gender divisions of the fifties feminine mystique — cannot possibly do all that they are supposed to do.” [5] Guest displaces the relationship between woman and house that the public is accustomed to and creates a new relationship, quite different from the one indicated by the househelp books sold that year. Sure, “no one listens to poetry,” yet one can’t help but salute this new architecture Guest establishes here — a “Shifting Persona,” where, “without the person outside there would be no life inside.” [6]

Beginning with the poem, “The Location of Things,” the book launches into a deconstruction and reconstruction of the domestic.

Why from this window am I watching leaves?
Why do halls and steps seem narrower?
Why at this desk am I listening for the sound of the fall
of color…        
Am I to understand change, whether remarkable
or hidden… [7]

We begin with the repetition of “why,” an interrogative adverb; instead of describing a situation, Guest questions it.  In his 1941 “Foreword to a historical geography,” Carl Sauer writes, “houses are historical geographic records.” [8] Rather than literally placing the speaker inside a house, Guest offers readers the chance to involve themselves in the architecture of this inquisitive space — to build a “record” through engaging with language.  Anna Rabinowitz refers to this as how Guest’s “language seeks ways to become that which it sets out to name; poems where the page functions as pictorial space…” [9] The real power of this collection is in its poeticization of the painterly priority of “defining space,” while redefining the domestic. We see this aesthetic re-visioning of space in lines like: “This roof will hold me. Outside the gods survive” (“The Hero Leaves His Ship”). [10]

“Sunday Evening” begins:

I am telling you a number of half-conditioned ideas
Am repeating myself,
The room has four sides; it is a rectangle,
From the window the bridge, the water, the leaves… [11]

“Safe Flights” ends:

The house is a burden to the weak cyclone,
You are under a tent where promises perform
And the ring you grasp as an aerialist
Glides, no longer. [12]

This dichotomy of inside/outside, voyeur/actor resonates through out the book and continues to remind the reader that women do not have the luxury of occupying space in the same way men (her male contemporaries) do/did. In these early poems, we see the surfacing of Guest’s commitment to poetry that works as painting or architecture — poetry that demands the reader look at the thing in front of him/her and then let it teach them to occupy space, with one eye on object and the other on the gendered body that views it.

In closing, this amazing first volume anachronistically reminds us, as Yi-Fu Tuan writes, that “the built environment, like language, has the power to define and refine sensibility […] without architecture feelings about space must remain diffuse and fleeting.” [13]


[1] Julia Kristeva, Language: The Unknown (New York:  Columbia University Press, 1989), 24.
[2] Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “The other window is the lark’ on Barbara Guest,” Jacket 36 (2008).
[3] Edward Brunner, Cold War Poetry: The Social Text in the Fifties Poem (Urbana: The University of Illinois Press, 2000). One of the main accomplishments of Beat writing — specifically Ginsberg’s “Howl” — was that it turned poetry (which was previously much more of a private art) into “public speech.”
[4] Robert Bennett, “Literature as Destruction of Space: The Precarious Architecture of Barbara Guest’s Spatial Imagination” Women’s Studies no. 30 (2001): 43-55.
[5] Lynn Keller, “Becoming a Compleat Travel Agency: Barbara Guest’s Negotiations with the Fifties Feminine Mystique,” in The Scene of My Selves: New Work on New York School Poets, ed. Terence Diggory and Stephen Paul Miller (Orono: The National Poetry Foundation, 2001), 219.
[6] Jack Spicer, “Thing Language,” in My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer, ed. Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2008), 373; Barbara Guest, “Shifting Persona,” in Forces of Imagination: Writing on Writing (Berkeley: Kelsey St., 2003), 3642.
[7] Barbara Guest, Poems: The Location of Things, Archaics, The Open Skies (Garden City: Doubleday and Company, 1962), 11.
[8] Carl O. Sauer, “Foreword to Historical Geography,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 31 (1941): 124. Full quote from Sauer: “The study of house types basically is the study of the smallest economic unit, as that of village or town is that of an economic community. In both cases description seeks the meaning of structure in relation to institutionalized process, as an expression of the culture area. Houses are historical geographic records. They may date from a former historical stage, or they may, as current buildings, still preserve conventional qualities which once were functionally important…”
[9] Anna Rabinowitz, “Barbara Guest: Notes Towards a Painterly Osmosis,” Women’s Studies 30 (2001): 95-109.
[10] Barbara Guest, Poems: The Location of Things, Archaics, The Open Skies (Garden City: Doubleday, 1962), 20-21.
[11] Ibid., 26.
[12] Ibid., 32.
[13] Yi-fu Tuan, Space and Place: the Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1977), 107.