“When in Trouble Depend Upon Imagination.”

Thanks to The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest, I’m getting to know another New York School poet (as you’ll recall, Frank O’Hara just stopped by for lunch a few weeks back). I like to read introductions to poetry collections because you usually pick up salient quotes from the poet. In this case, Peter Gizzi, author of the intro, does not disappoint, as he shares a few bon mots from Barbara.

Guest said her primary task as a poet was “to invoke the unseen, to unmask it.” This is a variation of the more familiar call for poets to observe what’s there–the visible we often choose not to view due to negligence or engagement with the rat-race (or one might say, today, “social-network”) world, which distracts us. Gizzi calls it “the poetry of revelation and of mystery,” a nice mixture if you can get it.

Guest wrote essays as well as poems, giving Gizzi additional grist for his introduction’s mill. In one essay called “Wounded Joy,” Guest writes, “The most important act of a poem is to reach further than the page so that we are aware of another aspect of the art….What we are setting out to do is to delimit the work of art, so that it appears to have no beginning and no end, so that it overruns the boundaries of the poem on the page.”

Is this just a fancy way of describing resonance–the way works of art that speak to us resemble ripples from poetic stones thrown into the pond of a reader’s brain?

Guest aligned herself with the abstract expressionists, those who believed in “letting the subject find itself.” For Guest, Gizzi writes, “the poem begins in silence” as opposed to noise. Guest says the poem “should not be programmatic, or didactic, or show-off,” rather readers should “go inside the poem itself and be in the dark at the beginning of the journey.”

This contrasts a bit with St. Billy of Collins’ proclamation that no poem should start off in the dark and be in the least bit confusing–that it should, in fact, establish itself in such a way that the reader has a footing and a compass to begin the journey. Differences of opinion make for poetic horse races, as they say.

Back to Guest: “The forces of the imagination from which strength is drawn have a disruptive and capricious power. If the imagination is indulged too freely, it may run wild and destroy or be destructive to the artists….If not used imagination may shrivel up. Baudelaire continually reminds us that the magic of art is inseparable from its risks….”

Guest, author of the words, “When in trouble depend upon imagination,” realized it for the double-edged sword it could be. Moderation in all things, we are told, and we think of alcohol and food first and foremost. Maybe, Barbara reminds us, we should be thinking of imagination, too. Like the Promethean gift of fire, it is incredibly useful until it blows outside of man’s control. Then it is Frankenstein’s monster after not eating for three days. Look out!

Jumping around this massive tome, I find many of the poem’s a challenge in that they tend to be longer works and many are all over the page using space in novel and challenging ways. Call it the conservative in me, but the poem I chose to end this entry is easier on the eyes and the gray matter.

Envoy, then: a little Guest for the rest of this post.


Barrels by Barbara Guest

Y otras pasan; y viéndome tan triste,
toman un poquito de ti
en la abrupta arruga de mi hondo dolor.
Cesar Vellejo

I won’t let anybody
take a drink
out of this barrel of tears
I’ve collected from you.
Least of all another woman.
I see her coming along.
I know the type.
I can tell you what she’ll
be wearing.
I know the type
I won’t like it.
She’ll look at that barrel
she’s had a few in her day.
Not that she’s ever filled one.
She’ll remark casually,
“Sweet water,
good to wash my hair.”
And who doesn’t know
tears are purer
than rain water
and softer on the hair.
Just as she steps toward it
and makes for the cup,
I’ll see phantom you
and what you were
brought up by the sea.
And scraps of paper
from this ditch of my brain
will float on the water
and choke her.