Barbara Guest:  Sophisticated Lady.

We all would like to make that film—if we could—that is humanity’s shared dream. But the fine print in the distribution rights always trips us up.  Or our lead actor lands in a scandal just as our film is released, or some critic who just doesn’t get it at all rips our film to shreds, laughing all the way.  And we were going to make the whole world cry. We were going to move the world.

If we look at the the film industry v. the poem industry: which one of them has produced more shared dreams at less cost?  Movies v. poetry—which is the most efficient, and the most effective, at immersing the most people in dream?

Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening” was produced at almost no cost: a paper and pencil, a few hours of writing and revision.  Is there a movie critic alive skilled enough to turn the public against that glorious little poem?  No.

Now think of how many excellent movies have been made that are utterly forgotten. And now how many millions of average films have been made, and been forgotten, or not forgotten, but which cost thousands of times more, in terms of money and machinations and time than Frost’s little poem. Think now of the average film, the horrible little film we watch when bored, and forget right afterwards. Or the great movies, the ones considered great—every great movie has had numerous detractors.  You can’t find one film that is universally loved like Frost’s little poem.  Any film can, and has, been ripped by a well-placed critic.

Not so “Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening.”

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

This one poem triumphs over all that is the entirety of the multi-trillion dollar history of world cinema.

Forget the black-tie dinners, the Oscar ceremonies on TV, the celebrity, the press, all of that which, like past Super Bowl winners, 99.9% of us utterly forget.

Forget—oh, and what haven’t we forgotten?

“Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas, anymore,” “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!,” “Play it again, Sam,” “I’ll be back!”  Snippets, like little poems, briefer than Frost’s poem itself, are what remain in the popular mind after the trillions spent down the years on film production.

Frost 1, Film Industry 0.

This is why every neglected poet gets up in the morning and thinks, “I’m a poet and I don’t care what they think.”

The beauty of it is, you really don’t have to care what anyone else thinks, because the dream you had last night—you didn’t just watch it, you were in it—the one you remembered just as you woke up, and as it fled down the mouse-hole of your mind, as you frantically tried to replay it in your inner private cinema room, and even as it faded forever, you went, “fucking hell that was fucking great?”

Yet, that one.  The best movie is our dream. Not Arnold.  Not Ingrid Bergman. Not Hitchcock.  Our dream.  A triumph over all cinema the way “Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening” triumphs over all cinema.

Now write your dream, poet.

Gillian Conoley has.  Her poem, “Beckon” has made it to the American Poetry Review Sweet Sixteen. Her next opponent, Barbara Guest, was interviewed by our Marla Muse recently—Guest is making the rounds, the Sweet Sixteen has a celebrity all its own these days—and Guest’s poem, “Motion Pictures: 4” was described as dream-like. Guest’s poem describes the making of a motion picture in such a manner that we’re not sure how real the film, or the description of the film, is.  To an audience watching a film, whatever is in “the film” is real and whatever is outside the film does not exist; but to filmmakers, whatever is outside the film and is thought about in such a way that it goes into the film is reality, and this is a significant shift in thinking, which Guest takes advantage of in her poem.

The danger here, though, is Guest’s poem becomes a thought-process, rather than a work of art, but since works of art as actual works of art is such an old-fashioned concept, Guest has little to lose.  “Stopping By Woods on A Snowy Evening” works like a little film.

Frost’s poem is not a poem about making a film—which all modern, self-conscious poems tend to be—it is a film.

Guest’s poem is definitely the ‘film about making a film,’ or ‘poem about making a poem’ variety.

Guest’s  poem is full of actualized events and remarks and observations, but it’s pretty obvious what she is doing: reveling in the thought-processes of creation and how bits of real life, a cough, faint sounds, contribute to that creation, whether that creation is movie, poem, collage, or dream, in the context of whatever post-modern term you wish to add.  Please feel free.

Near the end of Guest’s poem, which features a back and forth between two film directors, Nagao and Wilhelm, we get:

Nagao said there didn’t have to be explanations it slowed the movie and he agreed this one was too slow. It was old-fashioned to explain why gangsters upset the fish cart.
“Like Utamaro,” said Wilhelm who believed in a capsule of real life. He thought of a new title, Dream of Real Life.

But Conoley’s poem is not as self-consciously post-modern as Guest’s.  Conoley is, like Frost in “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening,” showing us a film, not a ‘film on how a film is made.’

We could probably divide poems into movie and documentary categories.  Guest, and post-modern poets such as Ashbery, make documentaries; the old-fashioned ‘create an illusion, create a story’ is eschewed for “how awfully cute it is to create illusions! I might create one for you, but I’ll probably laugh while doing it!”  Documentaries can be far more serious than ‘regular movies,’ but what modern and post-modern poetry (and art) seem to have done is perfect the strangely funny, highly self-conscious, documentary.  Is it nervous laughter due to the horrors of the 20th century?  Or is it purely an aesthetic choice?  It’s hard to say.

Anyway, Conoley is old-fashioned and serious, like Frost, even as she partakes of modern and post-modern obscurity:


Dead cold spots in the air,
others bright and richly colored as opera,

my old dress is worn out,
torn up, dumped,

another thing the mad made.
Saddles laid out to dry,

vowels left up in the air as if something is better
left unsaid as if I could have.

And truth is music’s mute half,
a sentence broken into,

the half tone of a husband
waiting alone in a car,

so that only the sun warrants a red mane.
A figure passes quickly

in the ever-unquiet breath
of you, you, you and sometimes me.

The future made, an absolute night
troubled by how we will live up

to the day’s sequence of images in full sail,
as wind folds other things,

and ink branches and conceives.
Last night was floral,

a satin comforter fell
into violence, old

strangely beautiful voices
in the thin thread of my dreams

in the thin thread of my speech.
I was embarrassed because I wanted lines in the face

and the laughter that spills over
to bring me luck’s child.

I had a dream like seconal, sleepy rule of birth,
odor of seduction. I had only prayer, prayer

and science. On a street young girls gathered,
loud with nothing to say, as in an attempt to explain a local fire.

–Gillian Conoley

How can private dreams be expressed in words of universal meaning?  Even in unusual combinations, words keep their universal meanings—so where does the private get expressed?  Is it possible to express the particular in words?

After reading this poem several times, I think it’s about a cheating husband, or a break-up of a marriage, with the final image of “loud” girls with “nothing to say” about a “local fire” (private sexuality) contrasting with the “luck’s child” that didn’t happen because of the failed relationship; the “passing figure” might be the ‘other woman’ who is perhaps a redhead–or the husband is a redhead.  The “half tone of a husband/waiting alone in a car” hints at all sorts of issues.  By the way, the poem is full of lovely and subtle sound equations like ‘half tone’ and ‘husband.’

Of course, I could be completely wrong: it might not be about a failed relationship at all.

Frost’s poem is as clear as a bell, and yet more misty and dream-like than millions of forgettable poems which strive to be dream-like by being obscure.  Are poems like Frost more memorable because people are stupid, because memory is stupid?

Is reading poems about what we ‘get’ or ‘don’t get?’   How much should Keats’ ‘negative capability’ rescue the reading of obscure poems?   How much of ‘not getting’ a poem is the reader’s fault?

So it’s Conoley’s dream against Guest’s documentary.   The Guest is more sophisticated, more cinema-hip, more post-modern, and just as dream-like, if not more, than Conoley’s poem.  “Motion Pictures: 4” shares with Frost’s poem a certain clarity which Conoley’s blurred dream-vision lacks.  But I feel that Conoley’s work is finally more sincere—if that word has any aesthetic meaning at all, does it?

What makes a poem stick in the mind?

What makes a poem win?

What did I just watch?

Did I see Conoley win, 76-75?



  1. Nooch said,

    May 9, 2011 at 4:05 pm

    “Documentaries can be far more serious than ‘regular movies,’ but what modern and post-modern poetry (and art) seem to have done is perfect the strangely funny, highly self-conscious, documentary.”

    “…the strangely funny, highly self-conscious, documentary”:
    Chief among them, beg your pardons,
    Would hafta be the Maysles
    Brothers’ film Grey Gardens.

    Or Capturing the Friedmans,
    Which made a lot of money—
    Or Idi Amin Dada, (which,
    I suppose, was not that funny).

    • thomasbrady said,

      May 9, 2011 at 9:11 pm

      Did I use an extra comma?
      May I blame it on my mama?
      My category ‘doc’
      Fits in—or do you mock?
      But riff, Nooch, even tease—
      It pleases more than documentaries.

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