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?


Hey, Bill! Don’t look at me like that! Have you finished typing out those Sweet Sixteen invites yet?

“Responsibility” by Lisa Lewis reads like a depressing rant in plain language if one isn’t in the mood to sympathize with its message:

It was no use thinking what had happened or what
was going to happen.

But it did no good to speak,
Or to stop speaking.

She saw she had
The legs of an animal; she saw she had the hands
Of an animal. She looked in the mirror and saw she had
The snout of an animal, two holes to breathe through.

she wasn’t free
To go, but had to remain by the decomposing body.

–from “Responsibility,” first round March Madness winner

This poem by Lisa Lewis had a certain nobility next to the coyness of Ashbery’s APR entry (Lewis upset the famous poet in round one) but against Barbara Guest’s urbane, sophisticated, suggestive, quietly sad “Motion Pictures: 4,” it’s no contest.


Next Round Two play will be in the North, where the favorites to advance are Larkin, Dugan, Nemerov, and Maura Stanton.

Stay tuned.


Barbara Guest and Larry Levis begin the final contests of Round One—which brings us from 64 down to 32 poets in the Scarriet March Madness Tourney, as the no. 8 and no.9 seeds pair off. 

This Guest-Levis match-up completes the first round of East play; Michael Palmer v. Yusef Komunyakaa is the final first round contest in the North, Dubie v. Gerstler in the South, and finally, Carol Muske takes on Bukowski in the West; and then we begin Round Two to get down to the Sweet Sixteen.

Here is Barbara Guest taking the floor:

Motion Pictures: 4

At first he had felt the scrape of a little murmur, his own throat struggling
with speech. Now seated in the car next to this Japanese film director began
the dry hacking sounds. He feared they would continue each day while
projections for The Cough were considered.
 “Allergy,” said Nagao with confidence, “allergy to our film.” On Nagao’s
clear unwrinkled skin were little ribbons of smile.
  At the intersection of the road in Nagasaki where in Japanese films a
short dark woman usually squats, Wilhelm pointed out a break between two
buildings where light creeps through like an oyster. He said he would like
to do a ‘take’ there. “Cliche’,” said Nagao.
   Wilhelm observed Nagao in his “work clothes” of dark blue denim, he
wondered whether their film should be called Dark Blue Denim or The
Oyster. He would like the noise of an oyster to get into the film. Nagao com-
pared the oyster noise to the noise the eye makes when it blinks. “Pachi
pachi in Japanese.”
   Wilhelm suggested the sound wood makes when it creaks for when the
film begins to roll towards the climax of two people lost in the garden. “Pachi
pachi better,” Nagao said, “more subtle.”
   Wilhelm believed the action of the film had slowed and he desired a
more violent crescendo as when the body fell down the cellar stairs he
wanted another body to fall on top of it. “Rain, maybe,” said Nagao.
  Wilhelm was feeling as usual when a film got off the ground that some-
one was chasing him. When he directed those shots up in the sky with two
planes flying parallel to each other he also was in the sky chase. In this film
there were sky petals of flowers growing on the wings of the plane.
  “Liquid soap on the stairs,” suggested Nagao. Liquid soap sold well in
Tokyo and it might be a title for one of the diary sequences. Wilhelm felt
the soap go down his throat. He was ready to suggest that tomorrow he
should return to his home for awhile and the scenarist could work on her
own. She might put a little of her own story into the script, about how she
was hired for the picture. There was probably something going on between
her and Nagao that could go into the picture.
   He thought of his home as a possible sequence and Home started to roll
past with short camera views. Home also needed editing, especially the
scene with his analyst when they discussed his cough that was like another
room in the movie. His cough alone and the door opening with a creak.
   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 gang-
sters upset the fish cart.
   “Like Utamaro,” said Wilhelm who believed in a capsule of real life. He
thought of a new title, Dreams of Real Life.
   “Allegory is dead as little fishes, better Cough, said Nagao, both eyes

–Barbara Guest

MARLA MUSE: What a strange poem. I think I like it.

You think you like it?

MARLA MUSE: Thinking is involved in liking.  Didn’t you know that?

I never thought about that.

MARLA MUSE: I thought you had.

Let’s look at Larry Levis:

1974: My Story In a Late Style of Fire

Whenever I listen to Billie Holiday, I am reminded
That I, too, was once banished from New York City.
Not because of drugs or because I was interesting enough
For any wan, overworked patrolman to worry about—
His expression usually a great, gauzy spiderweb of bewilderment
Over his face—I was banished from New York City by a woman.
Sometimes, after we had stopped laughing, I would look
At her & and see a cold note of sorrow or puzzlement go
Over her face as if someone else were there, behind it,
Not laughing at all. We were, I think, “in love.” No, I’m sure.
If my house burned down tomorrow morning, & if I & my wife
And son stood looking on at the flames, & if, then
Someone stepped out of the crowd of bystanders
And said to me: “Didn’t you once know. . . ?” No. But if
One of the flames, rising up in the scherzo of fire, turned
All the windows blank with light, & if that flame could speak,
And if it said to me: “You loved her, didn’t you?” I’d answer,
Hands in my pockets, “Yes.” And then I’d let fire & misfortune
Overwhelm my life. Sometimes, remembering those days,
I watch a warm, dry wind bothering a whole line of elms
And maples along a street in this neighborhood until
They’re all moving at once, until I feel just like them,
Trembling & in unison. None of this matters now,
But I never felt alone all that year, & if I had sorrows,
I also had laughter, the affliction of angels & children.
Which can set a whole house on fire if you’d let it. And even then
You might still laugh to see all of your belongings set you free
In one long choiring of flames that sang only to you—
Either because no one else could hear them, or because
No one else wanted to. And, mostly, because they know.
They know such music cannot last, & that it would
Tear them apart if they listened. In those days,
I was, in fact, already married, just as I am now,
Although to another woman. And that day I could have stayed
In New York. I had friends there. I could have strayed
Up Lexington Avenue, or down to Third, & caught a faint
Glistening of the sea between the buildings. But all I wanted
Was to hold her all morning, until her body was, again,
A bright field, or until we both reached some thicket
As if at the end of a lane, or at the end of all desire,
And where we could, therefore, be alone again, & make
Some dignity out of loneliness. As, mostly, people cannot do.
Billie Holiday, whose life was shorter & more humiliating
Than my own, would have understood all this, if only
Because even in her late addiction & her bloodstream’s
Hallelujahs, she, too, sang often of some affair, or someone
Gone, & therefore permanent. And sometimes she sang for
Nothing, even then, & it isn’t anyone’s business, if she did.
That morning, when she asked me to leave, wearing only
The apricot tinted, fraying chemise, I wanted to stay.
But I also wanted to go, to lose her suddenly, almost
For no reason, & certainly without any explanation.
I remember looking down at a pair of singular tracks
Made in a light snow the night before, at how they were
Gradually effacing themselves beneath the tires
Of the morning traffic, & thinking that my only other choice
Was fire, ashes, abandonment, solitude. All of which happened
Anyway, & soon after, & by divorce. I know this isn’t much.
But I wanted to explain this life to you, even if
I had to become, over the years, someone else to do it.
You have to think of me what you think of me. I had
To live my life, even its late, florid style. Before
You judge this, think of her. Then think of fire,
Its laughter, the music of splintering beams & glass,
The flames reaching through the second story of a house
Almost as if to—mistakenly—rescue someone who
Left you years ago. It is so American, fire. So like us.
Its desolation. And its eventual, brief triumph. 

–Larry Levis

MARLA MUSE: I do like the Levis poem.  I feel that compared to the Guest, however, Levis is just a little too pleased with himself…Billy Holliday would have understood me, etc

I grant your point, Marla.

MARLA MUSE: Does Barbara Guest win, then?

Barbara Guest edges Larry Levis, 66-63.

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