Barbara Guest and the Borderlands of Conscious Production


In her early work, New York school poet, Barbara Guest, explores the borders of language in the same way that her visual artist contemporaries explored the threshold of the artist’s control. As an art critic at the center of the first specifically American movement of international importance she was aware of the artistic explorations of the abstract expressionists and developed a conversation between the written word and painting. Though Guest later found herself influenced more by other writers rather than painters, her essay “Invisible Architecture” puts the subjects of form, borders, and abstraction at the forefront again. It is clear that the influence of 1950’s American abstract expressionists still informed her relationship with the poetic process,

“Invisible Architecture” was included in Guest’s pros collection Forces of Imagination: Writing on Writing (2002). Here she writes about the “desire of the poet to control” at play with moments of “laps”. It is in these moments that the essence of what makes a poem a poem happens. These moments trust that the language of the subconscious, or, perhaps the collective unconscious, will provide a thread as the reader is offered windows of expansion. Like the painters of the New York School who “…advanced audacious formal inventions in a search for significant content.” (Paul 2000) Guest challenged her readers to exercise a more intuitive function of the mind.

It’s worth mentioning the influence of Freud on the creative movements surrounding the New York School because these contemporaneous forms of expression all explored the subconscious – the impulse had always existed, but Freud (and Jung) offered a vocabulary that allowed a direct discussion. In the essay “Invisible Architecture” Guest frequently reminds the writer to let go and allow moments that speak a language we don’t have full control of:

 “Losing the arrogance of dominion over the poem to the invisible hand, the poet campaigns for passage over which the poet has control. Yet the unstableness of the poem is important.

       Also the frequent lapses of control of the poem.”

Notice how Guest employs an unconventional layout even in her pros.

Guest’s poem, “Barrels” conveys mood with a quick choppy rhythm. The lines are short and spitting. Guest’s “structural awareness” is evident in the progression of the poem. It moves down a long list of fragments—angry outbursts. The reader gets the mood, gets the hurt, but they don’t know who “she” is and they don’t know her “type”. She might be many shes and dressed a different way on different days; it’s not important to convey the pattern of feeling. Caroline Williamson writes, “Guest’s work may be written not to be decoded but to be experienced as a pattern of words on the page, carrying their various levels of meaning in the same way that color, shape and texture function in a painting” (Williamson 2008). Guest was at work in the realm of abstraction.

In the poem “The Blue Stairs” we again see an unconventional layout on the page. It’s a long poem—like a staircase. The words to the right might be a thought about the thoughts on the heavier, left-hand side. Can we call it obscure? Maybe, but not for the sake of obscurity. Like a painter who invites the viewer to see evidence of process, Guest is naked in her unknowing certainty. “The Blue Stairs” is a poem about a journey, a riddle, and way of life. For the artists of the New York School this way of life investigation of a universal inner language.

Over her writing career Guest has moved between styles and genres. This is necessary for a writer who explores borders and who won’t harness the poem for the sake of control. Her experimental writing nourishes her later forms of writing that carry with them an expressive quality that allows room for the unknowable to exist. Guest’s poetry is imbibed with a spiritual quality through its insistence to sit with the unknown. Modern painting asked the viewer to do some work—to witness both understanding and unknowing, so does Guest’s poetry. Barbara Guest rose to prominence at a time in American history where there was a turn toward a “seeking oriented” (Wuthnow 1999) approach to spirituality coupled with a more open investigation of the mind. Guest was a poet who made her home exploring the boundaries of these new frontiers.




Paul, S. (2000, January 1). Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Retrieved March 24, 2015, from


Williamson, C. (2008, January 1) . Jacket 36 – Late 2008 – Caroline Williamson: Working Methods: Painting, poetry and the difficulty of Barbara Guest. Retrieved March 17, 2005, from


Wuthnow, R. (1998). After heaven spirituality in America since the 1950s. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Writing for Art of the Rural

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From our small farm you can walk through the hollow and over a piney ridge to Willa Cather’s childhood home. The old white farmhouse is in disrepair and the only evidence of curiosity is a historical marker hidden behind the locust trees. The writer spent her first ten years in rural northern Virginia before her family traveled west, to Nebraska. Cather understood the way of people rooted in place – both youthful agitation and acceptance of inextricable roots.

This duality of sentiment is part and parcel of the rural experience. Rural means different things to different people, and different things at different times in their lives. I spent years living in major cities; my first move away was to attend art school. That’s where an artist needs to be, right? After starting a family, we stayed for job opportunities. Eventually my yearning for open space and love of farm life led us back, but not without some fear of isolation and a questioning of prospects. Routes to education and opportunity often bypass the rural, leading a wealth of creativity and energy toward cities. As the creativity drain increases, the focus on urban experience strengthens. Rural rhythm and ways of being lose visibility, just as our ideas about how artists work and where they can be fulfilled become colored by the amplified urban voice. Writers, artists, and musicians help make sense of our contemporary culture, and their work is needed within rural spaces to explore myth and question assumptions. Our national identity is tied to images of rural life, but change is coming to rural America at a rate that our perceptions are having trouble keeping up with – the landscape is changing, the work people do is being replaced or disappearing all together, and that icon of America, the family farm, is in a battle to survive.

Rural and urban are understood as opposites, but this may be because the conventions and codes we use to understand rural places have not been fully developed. These two places share a more complicated relationship. I’m often reminded of a passage from Cather’s O Pioneers!  “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” These human stories are the nuclei artists and writers build upon and they are bridges for understanding.  By representing and documenting the rural arts we uncover the complexity and diversity of the American experience while, at the same time illuminating our commonalities.


2. (excerpt) 

Discovery is at the heart of how we both make and experience art. “Work makes work” references the artist’s ability to produce, but also suggests how the process of witnessing – and reflecting upon –the work of others helps to advance the entire field. Many myths surround creativity, inspiration, and genius, and often these myths exclude the role of exchange and connection. Nowhere, on the map of American art, is this more palpably felt that in rural America.

From Tokyo to Berlin to New York City, a quick art history review will demonstrate that many of the significant movements in the arts have incubated in cities as – until recently – location dictated cultural connection. With the birth of modern art in the mid-1800’s, geographic proximity became essential for both communication and the innovation of new artistic approaches. Thus, we have inherited an identity of the contemporary artist as closely tied to urban space – while those working in rural areas or confined to their home-place by roles such as motherhood or agriculture remain hungry for visibility and feedback. Even well into the twenty-first century, assumptions still persist that that the work of rural-based artists occupies a place “outside” of our broader cultural conversation on the arts, and that it sacrifices aesthetic depth for sentimentality and a sense of place.

We are now in the midst of a new creative dynamic. New media has provided pathways for previously isolated artists and organizations to collaborate, innovate, and, at last, articulate the specifics of their own artistic vision.