A Sublime Sort of Exercise: Levity and the Poetry of Barbara Guest

Barbara Guest was once an underrated New York School poet but persisted and became a well-known entity within the school. Arielle Greenberg wrote an article charting the trajectory of her career and relishes in Guest’s sense of levity in her poetry. Greenberg argues, “her use of wit over those two decades parallels a change in her aesthetic: from work influenced by poetic tradition to a more liberated voice” (111). Greenberg describes a liberated voice as a feminist strategy which goes against the dominate order of the poetic culture. Language is power and this power can be male dominated. So according to Greenberg, ideologically, a woman writing poetry is itself a resistant act working against structural oppression (112).

Guest’s use of wit in poetry resonates with other “contemporary avant-garde women writers who use the subversive power of wit to locate themselves within a female community” (112). Her work has garnered the attention of Regina Barreca, who states, “Women’s humor is about our reclamation of certain forms of control over our own lives. Humor allows us to gain perspective by ridiculing the implicit insanities of a patriarchal culture” (Untamed 12). Women who can use humor smartly show readers their intelligence and confidence in their writing.

Greenberg characterizes Guest’s humor as levity to indicate an irony that doesn’t counteract her femininity. It allows a person to be confident about making fun of themselves while maintaining their dignity. She claims this levity is Guest’s sense of womanhood and it shows through her use of language over the course of her career.

Greenberg charts Guest’s career trajectory from 1960 through 1980 using poetry from Poems (1962), The Blue Stairs (1968), The Countess from Minneapolis (1976). The first poem Greenberg uses to describe this sense of womanhood or growth is “All Grey-haired My Sisters”. This poem addresses a group of mythic women who have roles of sisters, relatives, adventuresses, mermaids, and girls. These terms reflect the community these women identify with. Guest writes about the hardships they endured and posits a first of her gendered jokes using the words nymphic and porcupine. Guest’s poem reads, “He said: ‘In nymphic barque’ / She replied: ‘A porcupine’. / And later / ‘Reason selects our otherness’” (16). In these lines, the man describes the woman as a sweet and innocent creature, the nymph. The woman then fires back and replies with a pointed animal. Greenberg’s poetic example shows how Guest uses levity in her writing to contradict a sweet creature pictured in the eyes of man to a dangerous one in the eyes of a woman.

Greenberg also reflects on the poems “The First of May,” “Turkey Villas,” and “The Return of the Muses” which reflect liberation and whimsical writing to support her claim. “The First of May” shows Guest writing about the speaker’s plea for liberty. Greenberg states, “Her desire is manifested in a desire for sexual pleasure and rebellion: ‘I would like to steal…,’ ‘I would like to go to a hotel/with you’” (114). These lines represent a want to rebel against lawfulness, and the hotel would allow the speaker to fulfill some desires in private. Greenberg describes the poem “Turkey Villas” as whimsical and intimate, which is in the book The Blue Stairs. In the poem, the speaker uses a self-effacing tone saying “enough of this dizziness/let us apply the oars” (115). The speaker is poking fun at herself for being so personal by calling herself dizzy. These poems represent Guest well to support Greenberg’s argument that she possesses great wit and humor. Her use of levity promotes feminism in poetry.

Greenberg gives me a great glimpse of Guest’s career and her examples fully support her claim. She argues Guest uses levity to express liberation for women in poetry, and I can agree with that. We know Guest for her innovative approach to poetry, which was influenced by abstract expressionism and grew along with the feminist movement.

I did not know patriarchy also exists in the poetic culture. The view of women and what womanhood meant to men has evolved over the last century, but those initial ideas of a woman’s worth and a woman’s work just revolved around the household. A woman’s experience was not appreciated. Therefore, these views would translate over to many aspects of life and careers. Guest being a part of that movement is great, as she could communicate and relate to women in very relatable positions such as hers.

I would say a weakness in Greenberg’s article is the lack of other poets who would agree on how she interprets Guest’s poetry. If others felt the same way or spoke about her influence in the women’s movement in poetry, it would be prudent to her argument. Greenberg mentions Regina Barreca but highlighting one or two others would have stressed her point.





Greenberg, Arielle. “A Sublime Sort of Exercise: Levity and the Poetry of Barbara Guest.” Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 30, no. 1, Feb. 2001, pp. 111–21. EBSCOhost, https://doi.org/10.1080/00497878.2001.9979363.

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