FEATURE ARTICLE by CATHERINE WAGNERObjections to the Beauty-Object: A Reading of Two Poems by Barbara Guest
By Catherine Wagner
[First published in Five Fingers Review, Winter 2006. Editor Jaime Robles]
This talk is dedicated to Barbara Guest, who died on February 15, 2006 and was writing madly beautiful poems till the end.
I wrote the original version of this talk suspiciously easily; it was a diatribe against beauty as a goal for the poem. Rereading it, I realized I disagreed with myself— my objections melted away when I viewed them as a warning, not as an inherent problem in writing.
My thinking began with a worry about how we function as writers when we seek the perfection and completion often associated with beauty. Edgar Allen Poe took this view of beauty to a chilling extreme when he said, “The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” Elizabeth Bronfen, assessing our attachment to beauty in Over Her Dead Body, calls our love for beauty an obsession that’s linked to our horror of death: “We invest in images of wholeness, purity and the immaculate owing to our fear of dissolution and decay.” Our desire to escape change and imperfection leads us to try to make poems that are beautiful objects.
But our forgivable desire for beauty can lead us to separate ourselves from the poem as we write. Since beauty is an attribute of the object, one is subject—that is, agent—and judger in relation to its beauty. Such beauty does not act; it does not have agency. Seeking to produce beauty, to write it, seeks the end of the creation of the poem too early. It puts the afterward in front. Pursuing the poem as beauty-object means pursuing objecthood for the poem, trying to come around ahead of the poem’s trajectory and look at it, take pictures of it, ask whether it’s a beautiful object. The attention of the writer pursuing beauty is on the poem instead of through the poem.
Let me say: I don’t object to beauty or to what I take to be beautiful poems. I love them. I have the beauty-response to Barbara Guest’s poems, the awestruck flushed feeling. But the beauty of a Guest poem is a side-effect of an elegant and committed attention. She has so absorbed her mind in the act of writing that the surface of that act glows with beauty. Here’s a quote from Force of Imagination, Guest’s book on writing:
The ‘spirit’ or the ‘vision’ of a poem arises from the contents of the poet’s unconscious. Let us say the vision of the poem has above it that ‘halo’ you see in religious paintings when an act of special beneficence is being enacted by one of the persons in the picture and that person is given a halo. The poem is an act of special beneficence and the poet is rewarded this halo. The poet is unaware of the halo, just as in the painting the persons are unaware of the halos but it is there as a reward for a particular unconscious state of immanence. Now I am not speaking of a religious state of grace in regard to the poem, the poem is let us say its own religion. I am using the word ‘halo’ because you and I can see it in the painting and this halo has value to us; it reflects a state of mind, or a condition that the mind has attained.
(Force of Imagination, 27–28)
The poem, for Guest, is not in pursuit of beauty. It’s not consciously in pursuit of anything. I interviewed Guest in 1996 and asked her about beauty in her poems:
—So do you make poems to be beautiful?
—Oh, I don’t think I’m guilty of that [laughing].
—Oh, I think you might be.
—I think I want beauty to occur, but I don’t think it really means a reference to…the way a poem can be formed or the way a poem is born.
Guest expands on this idea in Force of Imagination: “Words contain their own beauty of face, but they desire an occupation. They cannot exist on beauty or necessity alone . . . The poet needs to understand the auditory and spatial needs of a poem to free it so that the poem can locate its own movement, so that it is freed to find its own voice, its own rhythm or accent or power” (29–30).
Barbara Guest’s work is so beautiful that I think it’s perfect to use here—the beauty in her work is a result of the beauty of words and the quality of her attention to them; but as these poems point out, a known, predetermined beauty is not their goal or their pathway. I want to address two short Barbara Guest poems—written about 30 years apart—both of which announce a debt to an agency or subjecthood that is not the author’s. The first is “Windy Afternoon,” published in 1962. The poet here expresses an absence of goal a number of times:
Through the wood
on his motorcycle piercing
the hawk, the jay
the blue-coated policeman
Woods, barren woods,
as this typewriter without an object
or the words that from you
The sun lowering
and the bags of paper
on the stoney ledge
near the waterfall
Voices down the roadway
and leaves falling over there
a great vacancy
a huge left over
The quality of the day
that has its size in the North
and in the South
a low sighing that of wings
Describe that nude, audacious line
most lofty, practiced street
you are no longer thirsty
turn or go straight
The “you” at the end of the poem, apparently the street, was the silent woods a few stanzas before; the “you” can also be read as the reader, free to make her own decisions, or the speaker or author of the poem, free to type on the typewriter “without object,” goalless, in fact paradoxically commanded to be so. The confusion of pronouns here is a familiar tactic in Guest’s work that’s been called “multiple subjectivity”—it’s familiar also from John Ashbery’s work. I want to note that it’s not just multiple subjects that we encounter in “Windy Afternoon,” but multiple objects. The street, in describing its own line, is subject and object of itself; and the street stands in for the poem that also describes its own “audacious line” and is both subject and object. The beauty here is a result of the poem’s taking an audacious line with Guest. The poem is not merely object; it’s agent too.
The other poem I’d like to discuss is from Guest’s recent jewel of a book, Miniatures (2003). This is a complete section from the seven-page poem “Pathos”:
Arms flutter close to the body, skating on pure ice, harmonious
body in mellifluous line—
face in profile witheld itself, thin smile,
Lithe her romp!
lithesome her romp upon the indignation of ice.
She is falling!
Shiver of the fallen,
of the tulle skirt.
Disarrangement of composition,
Snow falling from tree.
The self-approving skater romps, creating a harmonious composition, but falls, disarranging the composition. This disarrangement is associated with a natural and rather Japanese, haiku-style description, “Snow falling from tree.” Guest finds beauty in melting rather than freezing, in the uncomposed, discomposed, discomfited, decomposing. The beauty of the scene is not the skater’s goal—she wanted a different beauty; nor, if we read the scene as metaphor, is beauty the author’s intention. Guest, here, creates a scene that suggests beauty be discovered, not manufactured.
Let me begin to argue here against my concerns about the dangers of pursuing beauty. My argument conflates beauty with objecthood. Guest’s poems lead us toward a different definition of beauty: one that does not limit it to the completed, perfected, and static. Despite their materiality, neither beauty nor the poem can be defined simply as objects. Without having consciousness, they have attributes of subjecthood. They act upon the writer; they are agents in the world, able to participate in the making of the poem.
Emily Dickinson asked Thomas Wentworth Higginson whether he would “say if her verse was alive.” A poem that is “alive” emerges from an act of attention that moves us beyond subjecthood and objecthood. That act of attention is an ethical act. A poem that can create the feeling Guest called “mystery” is made in a realm beyond subjectivity in which the poem itself is no longer object, the writer is no longer subject; the poem is involved with the writer in the act of attention, the act of creation. There are any number of ways to describe this mystery—inspiration, the Muses, Jack Spicer’s Martians—the moments when the kite-object that is the poem finds its own way in the wind as the writer holds the line.
The poem in both its making and in its interaction with the reader demolishes the relation between subject and object in exactly the way talking to another human can, when we do it consciously and with attention: no one is not actor, no one is not receiver. But it’s easy as we talk to one another, as we water houseplants, as we make war, and as we write, to cast ourselves in those subject/object roles. So I return to my original suspicion about the dangers of pursuing a poem as beauty-object: when we aim for a known, predetermined beauty as we write, we catch ourselves in the same trap.
Permitted agency, the poem folds subject and object together. It outstrips my will. Like a dream, it enacts an alternate, multiple consciousness. This is the secret ethics of the making of the poem. (The ethics a poem proposes are a separate issue, part of the individual poem.) I want to see poems that pursue beauty as a living, morphing unknown. In the act of attention and imagination that writing ideally ought to be, one cannot attend to the future perfect. I don’t know what will be beautiful to others and to my future self. I want the poem to instruct me about that.
A poem that moves its writer beyond subject and object is a product of astounding attention, the attention Barbara Guest says gathers a halo around it. Let’s say the halo is beauty. A saint doesn’t become a saint to get a halo. A saint gets a halo because she is a saint.
Bronfen, Elizabeth. Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity, and the Aesthetic. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Guest, Barbara. Forces of Imagination: Writing on Writing. Berkeley: Kelsey St. Press, 2003.
Guest, Barbara. “Freedom, Confinement and Disguise: An Interview with Barbara Guest.” By Catherine Wagner. How2 (Spring 2006). A much shorter version of this interview, edited and re-ordered by Guest, was published by Colorado Review in 1997.
Guest, Barbara. Miniatures and Other Poems. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2002.
Guest, Barbara. Selected Poems. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1995.
Catherine Wagner's books are Macular Hole (2004) and Miss America (2001), both from Fence. Her latest chapbook is Everyone in the Room is a Representative of the World at Large (2007), from Bonfire Press. She teaches at Miami University in Ohio.