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Barbara Guest's "A Way of Being"

Updated on June 29, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Barbara Guest

Source

Introduction and Text of "A Way of Being"

In a 1992 lecture titled "How I Got Out of Poetry and into Prose," babbling narcissist Barbara Guest made the following incoherent remark:

Poetry is where the concrete object is bathed in a new atmosphere lifted out of itself to become a fiction. The poet is not there only to share a poetic communication but to stimulate an imaginative speculation on the nature of reality.

The upshot of such a claim about poetry is not all that distant from the equally narcissistic babbling incoherency of laughable Robert Bly and his deep image:

An image and a picture differ in that the image, being the natural speech of the imagination, can not be drawn from or inserted back into the real world.

More examples of Bly's ludicrous effusions can be found here and here.

These poetasters, however, are not useless. They provide a plethora of eventual pieces from which the serious purveyor of poetry may invent and re-invent reality from the gobbledegook concocted by these frauds. Language issues cohere, dissolve, run amok and then coalesce around stunning features of bravado as well as misinformed platforms. The poems remain impervious to skepticism, only as they exude the stench of the underbelly from which the failed features of postmodernism faked their way from modernism.

A Way of Being

There we go in cars, did you guess we wore sandals?
Carrying the till, memorizing its numbers,
apt at the essential such as rearranging
languages. They occur from route to route
like savages who wear shells.

“I cannot place him.” Yet I do.
He must ascend indefinitely as airs
he must regard his image as plastic,
adhering to the easeful carpet that needs
footprints and cares for them
as is their wont in houses, the ones we pass by.

Such a day/or such a night
reeling from cabin to cabin
looking at the cakewalk or merely dancing.
These adventures in broad/or slim
lamplight,

Yet the cars
do not cheat, even their colors perform in storm.
We never feel the scratch, they do.
When lightning strikes it’s safer to ride
on rubber going down a mountain,
safer than trees, or sand, more preventive
to be hid in a cloud we sing, remembering

The old manse and robins. One tear,
a salty one knowing we have escaped
the charm of being native. Even as your glance
through the windshield tells me you’ve seen
another mishap of nature

you would willingly forget,
prefer to be like him near the hearth
where woodsmoke makes a screen of numbers and signs
where the bedstead it’s not so foreign as this lake.

The plateau, excursionist,
is ahead. After that twenty volumes
of farmland. Then I must guide us
to the wood garage someone has whitened
where the light enters through one window
like a novel. You must peer at it
without weakening, without feeling
hero, or heroine,

Understanding the distances
between characters, their wakeful
or sleep searchingness, as far from the twilight ring
the slow sunset, the quick dark.

Commentary

Grappling with gobbledygook offers the commentarian a chance to let her mind spread out over the landscape, pick up a few nuts, crush them against the cold, hard truth that fakers do exist, they are real, and they sometimes succeed on this mud ball of a planet. But on the other hand, truth will out, no matter how long it takes.

First Movement: Memorizing a Money-Box

There we go in cars, did you guess we wore sandals?
Carrying the till, memorizing its numbers,
apt at the essential such as rearranging
languages. They occur from route to route
like savages who wear shells.

Barbara Guest's poem "A Way of Being" consists of four movements in eight versagraphs (free verse paragraphs). In the first movement, the speaker begins by making a statement and then asking a question in the first line: "There we go in cars, did you guess we wore sandals?" The reader's first puzzlement sharpens on the question, no doubt, wondering at the prescience of the poet's perceiving that the reader would be wondering if the occupants of the cars were wearing sandals.

Then the speaker asserts that the occupants of the cars were, "Carrying the till, memorizing its numbers," indicating that the people in the cars were transporting a money-box and that they had committed to memory its contents. The speaker then claims that such was appropriate because they were "at the essential such as rearranging / languages." Minds that are capable of memorizing large quantities of number are also able to manipulate words.

Second Movement: The Paradox of Non-Recognition

“I cannot place him.” Yet I do.
He must ascend indefinitely as airs
he must regard his image as plastic,
adhering to the easeful carpet that needs
footprints and cares for them
as is their wont in houses, the ones we pass by.

Such a day/or such a night
reeling from cabin to cabin
looking at the cakewalk or merely dancing.
These adventures in broad/or slim
lamplight,

Yet the cars
do not cheat, even their colors perform in storm.
We never feel the scratch, they do.
When lightning strikes it’s safer to ride
on rubber going down a mountain,
safer than trees, or sand, more preventive
to be hid in a cloud we sing, remembering

Then the speaker paradoxically claims that she cannot recognize someone, a man presumably, but yet she does so anyway. She finds this a happy coincidence because the guy rises in the air like the image of a plastic bag. But the speaker then turns to uncertainly again as she realizes that she must have been sticking to a carpet, which hankers after feet, as most carpets in houses do.

At least the houses they we passing led her to appreciate such a blighted thought. The speaker then catalogues a possible series of activities that would range within her mind's eye were she to experience "Such a day/or such a night / reeling from cabin to cabin / looking at the cakewalk or merely dancing." The speaker asserts that in such "adventures in broad/or slim lamplight" even the cars "do not cheat, even their colors perform in storm"—a fact for which the speaker is eternally grateful.

Third Movement: The Smell of Mishap

The old manse and robins. One tear,
a salty one knowing we have escaped
the charm of being native. Even as your glance
through the windshield tells me you’ve seen
another mishap of nature

you would willingly forget,
prefer to be like him near the hearth
where woodsmoke makes a screen of numbers and signs
where the bedstead it’s not so foreign as this lake.

Half-way through the poem, the speaker embellishes her accumulation of wisdom that riding in cars and memorizing the money-box contents have afforded her, and still she complains: as someone peers at her through the car's windshield, she smells that some other accident has already happened.

The "mishap of nature" is that they have managed to leave the native charm that they possibly could own, if it weren't for those pesky discombobulations. But the speaker is not deterred by any misfortune natural or supernatural as she would wish to like some guy who is chilling near his own fireplace, and she would eventually come to comprehend that nothing is as ambiguous as being in a place the smoke coming from wood paint pictures of numbers and signs on a screen. She admits that she would not be willing to forget.

Fourth Movement: Skirting and Admonishing

The plateau, excursionist,
is ahead. After that twenty volumes
of farmland. Then I must guide us
to the wood garage someone has whitened
where the light enters through one window
like a novel. You must peer at it
without weakening, without feeling
hero, or heroine,

Understanding the distances
between characters, their wakeful
or sleep searchingness, as far from the twilight ring
the slow sunset, the quick dark.

And if the "plateau, excursionist" could apprehend the speaker's mutitudinal forbearance, she would skirt the issue but still be able to admonish the others where a huge acreage of farmland seems to scuttle in her massive nostril. But the speaker is still the one who truly understands the landscape, and she is not reluctant to guide others to a garage made of wood which someone else has painted with. Because of the whitening, they can detect that light can travel through the window and remind them of a novel. The speaker then gives a strong command: Keeping staring and do not get weak.

The reader may interpret the command in two ways: (1) If you look closely you may seem to be staring, but you are probably just becoming alarmed. (2) You may become weak if you stare long enough and seem to be alarmed as you stare. Either way works because in the end they have discovered that they are quite a distance from twilight and sunset and are slouching into the dark which is very fast, Therefore the speaker will be able to leave the poem without even beginning to comprehend the many miles that exist between "characters"—a feat she had started to work on in the beginning.

Grappling with Guest

Life Sketch of Barbara Guest

Barbara Guest was born in Wilmington, NC, 6 September 1920. She graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1943 and died 15 February 2006 in Berkeley, California.

Guest's poetry career earned her inclusion in the New York School of writers, along with the ilk of James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch, John Asbury, and Frank O'Hara. This group of writers had come to despise the confessional poetry of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Robert Lowell.

The New York School opted to take their inspiration from painters such as Larry Rivers, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning. The more abstract, even the more nonsensical the work, the more this group salivated over the prospects.

Deeming poetry not the place for ideas, they instead focused on individual words instead of meaningful groups of words. Unlike William Carlos Williams, who concocted the notion, "No ideas but in things," this group believed no ideas ever, no images, just language.

Guest's illustrious career includes the winning of several prestigious awards: the Longwood Award, the Robert Frost Medal for Lifetime Achievement, and the San Francisco State Award for Poetry. She also benefited from a grant, offered by the National Endowment for the Arts.

About Barbara Guest's poetry, Matthew Cooperman writes, "we can never quite fall into her worlds as the words get in the way." Quite a testimonial for one whose words were the only focus.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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