Barbara Guest was born on September 6, 1920 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 (Wesleyan University Press, 2002); Symbiosis (Kelsey St. Press, 2000), illustrated by visual artist Laurie Reid; Defensive Rapture (Sun & Moon Press, 1993); Fair Realism (Sun & Moon Press, 1989); Musicality (Kelsey St. Press, 1988); Quilts (Vehicle, 1980); and Biography (Burning Deck, 1980); and Seeking Air (Black Sparrow Press, 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.
Guest lived in Berkeley, California and died on February 15, 2006.