Monday, 26 April 2021

Harry Guest

News has reached us of the death of Harry Guest (1932-2021), an enigmatic and advanced Welsh poet. There is a good selection of Guest's work (about 45 pages) in Penguin Modern Poets 16 (1970). PMP 16 is still an important book, dealing with three poets who never really got on camera and whose work remains unevaluated (the other two being Jack Beeching and Matthew Mead).
I see that he did a thesis on Mallarmé. This would have been (mainly) in Jan-June 1955, when he was a student in Paris. If we imagine what someone who was a fan of Mallarmé in 1954 could have attained by 1976, we have something unusually exciting. Actually, that is not a bad description of what Guest was like in the 1970s. I see that his first book was sub-titled ‘poems 1957-67’. His clarity of focus, a typical feature of 50s poets, is highly effective in depicting a free and multiple range of images. The 1962 autobiographical poem ‘Private View’ says it all in 400 lines:

The white bird trapped in its misshapen cage
Of spine and ribs sings and the king’s mask
Conceals some sort of answer.
You have to force to some extent the medium
Especially nowadays.

The river flows past the piano and,
Hanging from the stars that burned above Florence,
The illuminated hooves of a black stallion
Play Mozart for an ear six years have drowned.

He is already there. He made a debut in 1968, Arrangements, (although in fact that includes two earlier pamphlets starting in 1962). Arrangements is conservative compared to other debuts of the same period. It is related to Lee Harwood, but Guest never wholeheartedly accepted the innovations of the 60s. Even in the eight lines quoted, we see a torrent of arresting images whose psychological meanings are hard to identify. The hooves playing Mozart are, unambiguously, surrealist; but the imagery from modern art is not committed, the voice of the poet describes all these symbols but does not posses them – it moves on past them. I said “autobiographical” but the poem really shows the poet strolling through an art exhibition and wondering how to describe his reactions. The “white bird” is another work of art, not a real bird.
The 2002 collected, Puzzling Harvest, has 520 pages of text, defying a brief summary. Calling your collected a harvest is just a cliché. Calling a large book puzzling is almost calculated to alienate people. Wouldn't it stop being puzzling after the first 200 pages? I suggest we can rotate these words slightly. For harvest we can put flowers. For puzzling we can put ambivalent. (The preface contains the phrase “bewildered thanksgiving”, a mutation of the title.) I wrote “He sits well as someone who defines the border, by being equally acceptable as part of the mainstream and part of Mottram’s dissident band.“ This was in pursuit of classificatory success – I was piqued by Guest’s appearance in the list of 36 poets accepted in Mottram's famous troupe. (You understand that classification is a compulsion, once you have made large-scale generalisations the ways of being wrong are so many that you keep returning to them.) Eric was surely right to include Guest, who also fits in with the mainstream, and for this reason marks where the border runs. The similarity between the phrase “puzzling harvest” and “defining the border” is compelling – Guest would be between two worlds no matter where we set the boundary. We have to think about ambivalence itself to capture who he is.

Much of his best poetry is collected in Lost and Found: poems 1976-82; with the groups ‘Elegies’ and ‘Metamorphoses’ especially recommended.

Airs of summer wind their way through the empty chamber
for the skulls have gone to stare behind glass at a crude
map on the museum wall. Perhaps the bones
were removed piecemeal when the mound fell in. The sun is low
and slopes of tough grass fleeced with hazel
repeat the fragrance of the day. High stone slabs
freed from burial by five thousand years of rain
stand in the light and frost. You do not like these journeys.
(from 'Fifth Elegy')

Reading ‘Elegies’ was a breakthrough moment for me (in the 2003 anthology A State of Independence). A 1970 statement says “Lyrical analysis of personal relationships, bisexual love, landscapes, etc. Certain amount of intellectual demand; European rather than transatlantic; syllabics or stress-length lines; high premium on musicality. I admire Klee, the early Godard, Debussy's piano music.” (I guess “early Godard” means “before he acquired a Maoist girlfriend”).

He didn’t believe in an undiscovered continent floating just off the known waters, and so retained balance – he has no thesis. Living in Japan encouraged, I guess, his belief in beauty.  From 1966, he spent six years teaching in Japan and so wrote poetry, then, influenced by Japanese culture, evidently delicate and without the “strong” sense of self which Western culture appreciates. He got really involved with Japanese poetry, working with Japanese poets to produce the translations in the book ‘Post-war Japanese verse’ for Penguin.
He quotes at the head of an early poem (‘Dusts’) “In Zen parlance, sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and thought ‘defile the pure mind’. The world which we perceive like this is ‘the realm of the dust’.” Is this really the philosophy he is developing? The poetry is consistent with ambiguity, detachment, the idea of transience as the motive for recording sensations or even ideas. So “arrangements” sounds like the most neutral and tedious imaginable title for a book, but arrangements of stones, plants, etc. are highly admired in a Japanese context. He keeps alluding to Lee Harwood, and perhaps he likes a similar incompleteness. So a poem titled ‘Apologia pro Vita Sua’ reveals nothing at all. The distinction between this and the political poets, in the majority in the Seventies, who saw (social) consciousness as an illusion behind which lurked the future world of a better society, is stylistic: Guest does not ever disrupt the surface of his own language, does not disturb anyone else’s, because he thinks the “hidden” world is equally illusory. His poetry is beautiful in the way that a garden or a painting is, because he is so detached: the dissipation of an imaginary depth allows the surface to develop an integral energy. The bond to Harwood may be bisexuality, and this could also be the “puzzle” – a pattern which is two things at once. The aesthetic which Guest and Harwood share, to some extent, is genuinely different, and they see different colours and so different patterns.
Was Guest changed by six years in Japan? This is not proven; I have the impression that Mallarmé had absorbed Japanese ideas, in the first craze for things from Japan, and Guest was fascinated by Mallarmé. The idea of writing poems to inscribe on fans is mallarmean, and either represents Oriental influence or else something French but so dedicated to evanescent and decorative things that it would seem utterly exotic in Britain, in 1975. After all, Guest chose to go to Japan in 1965 – he probably felt an affinity for that culture.

A trait that stands out is the wish to accumulate numerous images without adding the 'personal meaning' which would finish them off and erase them again. It is hard to characterise the moods, but also the ambiguity and density of information are autonomous features and effort to get through them is misplaced. The sequence 'Metamorphoses' is a significant example of this. It is not useful to analyse these images because their diversity is part of the point. Certainly he is not using conventional programmes – the elaborate verse patterning does not resolve down to a point we had to write an essay about in the sixth form.
There is a good celebration of Guest, published for his 80th birthday (and called High on the Downs). It includes an exhaustive analysis (by Tony Lopez) of the “O-Bon” poem included in Lucie-Smith’s Penguin Poetry since 1945. The analysis takes about 8 times as many words as the poem does. I must have read this poem but as my memory is blank I don’t think anything about it got through. Lopez’s analysis talks about Japanese ghost stories – giving us, immediately, a link to ‘Elegies’ which are really about ghosts. The reference to a festival where ghosts appear gives a key to the idea of transience – it is calendrical, in this poem, time itself shedding its shape and turning endlessly into something new. All arrangements of experience in words are like flower arrangements, formalising what is transient and about to turn to dust. The calendar ceremony itself gives the images of the day, and personality is less important than role. People are like ghosts, recurring on certain days of the year to carry out preset sequences of feelings.
You can’t be a teacher at a place like Lancing (where Guest was in the early Sixties) without being sophisticated. The job involves intuiting what is going to impress examiners, and tricking adolescents into getting interested in something outside themselves. It is for insiders. This goes against the generalisation that using a vanity publisher like Outposts, as Guest did for his two first pamphlets, was the act of outsiders who didn't realise that it was a path to nowhere. Outposts had more cultural front than other firms funded by the authors, and did get reviews occasionally. But if you look at lists of their publications (57 in the single year of 1974-5, at pp. 23-4 of Poet’s Yearbook) you see a crowd of people you have never heard of. But Guest possibly didn't want the hassle of finding a normal publisher; and did want to have something to show his friends.
The poetry world in 1962 was low temperature. I am not sure about the implications. Were there other brilliant poets like Guest among several hundred names published by Outposts in the sixties and seventies?
I am content to speak of Guest as mallarmean. That is – his poetry is never obscure, it unfolds what Mallarmé habitually compacts. But he is describing sensations which are unfamiliar – distinctions which the common vocabulary does not register. It is credible that the sceptical atmosphere of the 1950s actually made his style – the reiterated demand for lucidity and for concrete details was a pressure which he adapted to. The poems always seem clear until you try to paraphrase them. The poems seem to have been edited by an interior decorator – that sounds mocking, but really they have a great beauty of surface, everything which does not fit the patterns has been eliminated, the patterns are subtle and bewitching. They are like films directed by a set designer, always. ‘Private View’ is a poem about modern art which we can compare to Mottram – Eric was always saying “this is modern art, it is ours, and we have won!”. Guest is never saying that, he says in ‘Private View’ something more like “ah yes, modern art, it is something we can spend an evening with, how can we more precisely define the sensations which fill us as we pass by it, are these sensations too uncertain for the language we have”.

In that 1970 statement, Guest cited bisexuality as one of the things he wrote about. He did not cite it as a basis for his style – but that is what we have to think about. I doubt there is such a thing as a bisexual personality. Bisexuality may be the product of a primal rejection of polarisation and roles (as part of the “dust”). Sexual feelings are surely close to the poetic affinity which links Guest, Evans, and Harwood, but perhaps we can push them into the discreet cover of the long grass and focus instead on subtlety, ambivalence, commitment to transient sensations. Or we could talk about a cluster of masculine personality traits which don't actually help poetry very much and which people might be happy to jettison – whether biology favoured this endeavour or not. So we could think of rules like “the goal of art is to reproduce as many copies of your personality as possible” or “any sensation is better if driven to the absolute maximum of volume and sustain”, or even “the more resources I can use up the less resources anyone else will have access to so I can cut off their growth”. Part of this would be “ambiguous feelings and nuances weaken the impulse and so need to be purged”. If you have a sensation, do you build it up to its maximum intensity? Guest’s response is more “how can I tone this sensation so that it harmonises with other sensations in a whole where nothing clashes and the line of sense flows smoothly?” All this swagger, evidently, tends to limit the space available to the other person, the other half of a relationship – so it might be that self-aggrandizement is part of immaturity. Having an aversion to a distinctive and “proprietary” style might be part of this maturity – and if repeating a pattern which encodes your personality makes your art very monotonous, then giving up that project might let you produce poetry which is very subtle and which can be varied in a more fundamental way. I am just floating these ideas in case they are helpful. Another point is that doubting the merits of self-aggrandizement makes you question the process by which the outside world becomes transformed as you turn it into art – this process becomes less convincing. Of course, this is the element which allows the real identity of sensations – things like flowers, water, ceramics – to enter the art with such haunting, undiminished, faithfulness – they are not being “possessed” and so their appearance is intact. The detail allows transience to be visible – a side-effect of giving up ownership, which freezes phenomena because it does not want to admit an end to its own power. I am pointing to a very primitive model of seizure, acquisition, devouring, metabolism, crushing, as a process in male art, or macho art. We may want to think of a weak ego, Buddhism, or simply sophistication, as the context in which a more aesthetic, less aggressive, manner of approaching art might prevail. But also… I don’t know anything credible about Buddhism or Japan, nor can I define bisexuality except as something chatoyant which shifts every time you look at it. To return to 1962... perhaps Guest was happy to publish with Outposts because he just didn’t have a deep commitment to fame, hearing his own signal at loud volume, being top poet. Perhaps having those appetites turn to stillness was a path towards hearing other messages more clearly and more consistently.
In the 20th century, European artists were faced with the absence of the Christian and moralising stories which had been so satisfactory and repeated so endlessly over the previous eighteen centuries. There was no return, and in the unnerving silence which this exposed it was possible to react convulsively, unreflectively. Perhaps dedicating art to the self was a basic error, clutching at the object which was closest to hand and which could be heard clearly even when a confusion at the symbolic realm was making more complicated entities hard to see or resolve.
I am inclined to dwell on two long poems from the late Sixties, ‘Myths’ and ‘Allegories’. One, ‘Myths’ (p.86 of the Collected) includes a criticism of street demonstrations and probably of the student protest movement in general. It resembles two other poems, by Thwaite and Peter Abbs, of similar date. This was a polarising moment. Guest presents the belief of a teacher, that the Left upsurge of the young around 1968 to 1972 (it didn’t stop but that was a peak) was a gateway into the loss of all learning and a new Dark Ages. This sounds ludicrous, but that is the implication of this passage about the refuge of learning to remote areas:

illiterate, foul-
mouthed, the hordes shamble, wielding
ripped books, brandishing

(echoing, the crash of
celadon, ormolu,
lacquer frames
the end of history, making for a
final hermitage where one
alone on the peninsula
illuminates last pages

(short saga in their wake
of sackings, torture)

Eyes empty of love
hands hating creation

The future-bringers

It is hard to accept that the students were so lost to civilising processes that they could no longer walk properly. Do we have evidence on how well the dons walked? The idea must be that Ireland preserved learning in the Dark Ages, a thesis with limited historical validity, and is remarkably close to what Peter Abbs says in his much darker and more right-wing poem of the same time. I am wondering if this story is from Spengler. Guest only wrote this one poem about a supposed attack on scholarship, and he minimised its impact by titling it “Myths”, so that you have to make an effort to connect it to British universities in 1968 (he was still in Japan in 1972). (To get technical, a Kalashnikov is not an SMG but an assault rifle, although confusingly its Russian name, avtomat, actually means ”sub-machine-gun”). (People in hermitages were not illuminating manuscripts, the materials for vellum MSS were expensive and this activity belonged in monasteries, which had numerous monks and some wealth. Anchorites are a different story.) The reference to the sub-machine-gun is one of very few moments which attaches this passage to 1968 rather than to the Dark Ages. The meeting of manuscripts and dissolute warriors could be taking place in Vietnam, or Red China, but the mention of “ormolu” locates it in Europe – ormolu was big in the 18th and 19th centuries. (Technically, the Chinese did have bronze gilt, but objects covered in it are not called “ormolu”, although it would not be literally wrong if they were.) The celadon (porcelain) and ”lacquer” sound oriental, but could be luxury imports. In line with Guest’s beliefs about transience, the passage about the enemies of culture is only one of five sections of the poem, each summed up by a half-life containing the word “bringer”. The poem itself treats this theme as transient, as it sweeps through five scenes, succeeding each other as phases or perhaps turning calendrically, in five states of being, like seasons. Political poetry implies polarisation – again, Guest is not with any polarisation. The succession of temporary states of being is what he writes about. If you abandon polarisation, the political poetry we are familiar with crumbles to dust. As follows, he is distancing his point of view from the standard anti-student poem of the time, in a way which relativises and diminishes that set reaction pattern. Another section of ‘Myths’ runs:

headed, thighed with
plumage, gold
manacles about the arm

greaves stained by red earth
at a half-run,
fleeing, aiming

Light of
sacrifice behind them
Stench of
coiled smoke leaning on a sky

altars reeking

rivulets of blood, feathers
vertebrae, smashed by the adzes
on to rough stone

The past-bringers

This is another phase of European history, we suppose. The detailing of warrior adornment is a typically guestian focus on decorative details, reducing something kinetic and violent to an array of surfaces. We may think of samurai-aesthetes, art collectors. The burnt offering sits well with an Iron Age setting, the reason for sacrifice and burning things might be the death of a warrior in the usual activity of warriors. The lords wear plume decorations, as many warriors have done until quite recently – aigrettes, perhaps. This motif echoes the feathers of fowl employed in the sacrifice.

A summary of the poem is hard to attain, because of its structure in five sections, which add up to a myth cycle but are utterly separate in their tenor and possibly in the millennium they draw details from.

Part of ‘Allegories’ somehow echoes the passage about warriors in (bronze?) armour in ‘Myths’:

Your carved element, spray of its plume
frozen prophetically in gold;
defence; scabbard; emblazoned shield
hoarding sunlight; doffed uniform
neutrally now the colour of
certain azaleas to cast
aside, you, Adam-naked, flex,
loyal conflict done, the struggle still
to come.

This poem describes sex in terms of epic warfare. The sex apparently involves two men, which is why the metaphor of duel presents itself. It is the assertion of life against mortality.
Clearly this is a personal myth and part of a wave of personal myths which were emerging, around 1970, as a logical solution to writing poetry after theology had died and when “domestic anecdote” had been artistically discredited. Guest is not projecting his ego in the myth – this is a rationale for writing myth, but may be a misunderstanding of what art and myth are for, if individualism and ownership are just local heresies of the West. It is also possible to define desires as dust hovering in the void, of no greater weight than the data of the senses, forever distracted by transience. Guest is not interested in repeating a myth, so it does not reflect a permanent structure, such as we suppose Personality to be. The next poem, “Allegories”, is clearly related to “Myths”, they form a whole; yet it does not overlap with the poem we have been discussing. Rather, both reflect a fundamentally unstable basis – something which has no essence because it is Void. Its body is made of dust. Pause to reflect – if artistic production reflects a personality, and this is a repeating pattern, does art have to repeat, stubbornly and predictably? If we find art failing to repeat, is it reflecting something quite different from a personality?

I am just going to quote a section from a poem called “Form”, from his first book.

The pattern's disappeared, the rift
is sewn and, in the dark, the formal
escapes; enchantment having set
an abstract puzzle, all the chance
of flesh discovers will be ash.

(The poem is offset from the left margin in what might be a fan or scallop form, which I can't reproduce here.) The word puzzle may be a keyword, since it also gives us the title of the collected. The ambivalence of this stanza is, so to speak, stated without ambivalence - “the pattern's disappeared”. A great deal of Guest’s concept is stated in five lines. But I am also quoting this because of an apparent misprint – the syntax of the fifth line does not work out. I tried to emend the last line, but actually it’s correct, the issue being an unusual use of the word "chance". So a paraphrase would be "all that the risk-based and accidentally allocated nature of flesh discovers will be devoid of substance". There is a hint that the knowledge involved has been carnal knowledge, and that it is the division of the sexes which is the product of chance, at cellular level. Sexual difference is then also the content of what we found out. The "ash" points back to a fire, probably the lightning which appears earlier in the poem - illumination leading to ash.

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