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Barbara Guest


On September 6, 1920, Barbara Guest was born in Wilmington, North Carolina. She attended the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of California, Berkeley, from which she graduated in 1943.

Early in her career, she was known predominantly as a writer of the New York School, a group of poets that included John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara, and James Schuyler. The New York School represented a rejection of the dominant school of confessional poetry and was deeply influenced by the action painters of the 1950s and 1960s, particularly Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Larry Rivers.

Throughout the 1950s, Guest worked as a writer for Art News magazine, and she has continued to write articles and reviews for many art magazines. The tension between the lyrical (or musical) and the graphic (or material) is a defining feature of her work, and her poetry often utilizes space as a way to draw attention to language.

Guest has published numerous collections of poetry, among them The Red Gaze (Wesleyan University Press, 2005); Miniatures and Other Poems (2002), Symbiosis (1999), Defensive Rapture (1994), Fair Realism (1989), Musicality (1988), The Nude (1986), Quilts (1980), and Biography (1980). She is also the author of several plays and a novel, Seeking Air (1978).

Her honors include the Robert Frost Medal for Distinguished Lifetime Achievement from the Poetry Society of America, the Longwood Award, a San Francisco State award for poetry, the Lawrence Lipton Award for Literature, the Columbia Book Award, and a grant from The National Endowment for the Arts.

She lived in Berkeley, California. Guest died on February 15, 2006.

A Selected Bibliography


The Blue Stairs (1968)
Moscow Mansions (1973)
Biography (1980)
The Nude (1986)
Musicality (1988)
Fair Realism (1989)
Defensive Rapture (1994)
Symbiosis (1999)
Miniatures and Other Poems (2002)
The Red Gaze (2005)


Seeking Air (1978)
The Confetti Trees (1999)
Rocks on a Platter: Notes on Literature (1999)


The Ladies Choice (1953)
The Office (1963)
Port (1965)

Barbara Guest

By This Poet


The Blue Stairs

There is no fear 
in taking the first step 
or the second 
or the third

                having a position
                between several Popes

In fact the top 
can be reached 
without disaster


The code 
consists in noticing 
the particular shade 
of the staircase

                occasionally giving way
                to the emotions

It has been chosen

To graduate 
the dimensions 
ease them into sight

                republic of space

Radiant deepness 
a thumb 
passed over it

                as one who executes robbers

Waving the gnats 
and the small giants 

How to surprise 
a community 
by excellence

somehow it occurred

                living a public life

The original design 
was completed 
no one complained

In a few years
it was forgotten


It was framed 
like any other work of art 
not too ignobly

                kicking the ladder away

Now I shall tell you
why it is beautiful

Design: extraordinary 
color: cobalt blue

                secret platforms

Heels twist it
into shape

It has a fantastic area 
made for a tread 
that will ascend

Being humble 
i.e. productive

Its purpose
is to take you upward

On an elevator 
of human fingerprints 
of the most delicate 

Being practical
and knowing its denominator

To push
one foot ahead of the other

Being a composite
which sneers at marble

                all orthodox movements

It has discovered 
in the creak of a footstep 
the humility of sound

Spatially selective 
using this counterfeit 
of height

To substantiate
a method of progress

Reading stairs 
as interpolation 
in the problem of gradualness

                with a heavy and pure logic

The master builder
acknowledges this

As do the artists 
in their dormer rooms

                eternal banishment

Who are usually grateful 
to anyone who prevents them 
from taking a false step

And having reached the summit 
would like to stay there 
even if the stairs are withdrawn

The Past

The form of the poem subsided, it enters another poem.

A witness was found for the markings inscribed upside-down.

It might have been a celebration, so strong the presence

of the poem. The sky sinks slowly inside the past.


Once more riding down to Venice on borrowed horses,

the air free of misdemeanor, at rest in the inns of our fathers.

Once again whiteness like the white chandelier.

Echoes of other poems...


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