Essay on Poetic Theory

Invisible Architecture (2000)

by Barbara Guest


Barbara Guest was a central figure in the New York School of poets. Her early career as an art critic prefaced her structural awareness of language throughout her career as a poet. While some critics classify her work as abstract lyric, Guest told Mark Hillringhouse in an interview for the American Poetry Review, “My poems tend more to language than ideas.” Indeed, her poetry often simultaneously inhabits both a musical and a visual field.

A restless explorer of borders and margins, Guest, in her short poetics statement “Invisible Architecture,” engages the productive tension between the “desire of the poet to control” and that “something within poetry that desires the invisible.” In form, Guest’s piece shifts over its course from poetry to prose, which has the effect of both illustrating and enacting the poet’s work. She initially uses gaps and syntactical breaks to show the uncertain process of beginning a composition, and to trace the fragile starts of new work. She begins, “There is an invisible architecture often supporting / the surface of the poem, interrupting the progress of the poem,” and she locates this architecture “in the period before the poem finds an exact form and vocabulary.”

According to Guest, the poem breaks free of this architecture as it grows surer, as one might from a scaffold or a mold. At this point in her piece, Guest shifts from poetry to prose, allowing the uninterrupted breath of her sentences to illustrate the calming and building of thought. She traces the balance sought between a poem’s surface and its unconscious, and between its stability and fluidity, though she notes that there are necessarily undefined elements of the poem’s progress. In conclusion, Guest wonders, “By whom or by what agency is the behavior of the poem suggested, by what invisible architecture, we ask, is the poem developed.”

“Invisible Architecture” was published in Guest’s prose collection Forces of Imagination: Writing on Writing (2002). She died in 2006.

                 There is an invisible architecture often supporting
   the surface of the poem, interrupting the progress of the poem. It reaches
into the poem
in search for an identity with the poem,

its object is to possess the poem for a brief time, even as an apparition appears. An invisible architecture upholds the poem while allowing a moment of relaxation for the unconscious. A  period of emotional suggestion,     
  of lapse,
of reliance on the conscious substitute words pushed toward the bridge of the architecture.     An architecture in the period before the poem finds an exact form and vocabulary—,

   before the visible appearance of the poem on the page and the invisible approach to its composition. Reaching out to develop the poem there are interruptions, some apparently for no reason—something else is happening   the poet has no control—the poem begins to quiver, to hesitate, to become insubstantial   the desire of poetry   to elevate itself, to become stronger. The poem is fragile. It needs to reach through the armed vehicle of the poem,

                                        to loosen the armed hand.

Losing the arrogance of dominion over the poem to an invisible hand, the poet campaigns for a passage over which the poet has control. Yet the unstableness of the poem is important.
                Also the frequent lapses of control of the poem.
The writer only slowly retains power over the poem, physical power, when the poem breaks away from the authority of the invisible architecture.

This invisible authority may be the unconscious that dwells on the lower level, in a substratum beneath the surface of the poem and possesses its own reference. A fluidity only enters the poem when it becomes more openly aware of itself.

By whom or by what agency is the behavior of the poem suggested, by what invisible architecture, we ask, is the poem developed. The Surrealists taught us to wander freely on the page, releasing mechanical birds, if we so desire, to nest in the invisible handwriting of composition. There is always something within poetry that desires the invisible.

The desire of the poet to control. This control was earlier destructive to the interior of the poem, to its infrastructure. There is something deliberate about this practice of control by the conscious. It includes the question that is undefined, the behavior of the poem. By whom or by what agency is this decided, by what invisible architecture is the poem developed?

Originally Published: February 15, 2010

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Audio Article
 Barbara  Guest


Barbara Guest rose to prominence in the late 1950s as a member of an informal group of writers known as the New York school of poets whose membership included Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, and James Schuyler. Their innovative approach to poetry was influenced by modern art, especially surrealism and abstract expressionism. Guest drew on her own background in art (she worked for Art News magazine in the 1950s) to create poetry . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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