B. 1932 D. 2021
Poems full of light and colour, sensuality and serenity. -- Joan Bakewell
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About Harry Guest
Harry Guest was born in Wales in 1932. After four years at Malvern College, he read Modern Languages at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, before attending the Sorbonne, where he wrote a thesis on Stephane Mallarme. He spent much of his life working as a teacher in England, with a period of 6 years spent as an English lecturer in Japan. Over the course of 50 years he published many books of fiction, non-fiction, and extensive translations of German, French and Japanese writers, while maintaining a prodigious output of poetry. The long poem “A Private View” appeared in 1962, followed by his first collection, A Different Darkness, in 1964. Subsequent publications include A Puzzling Harvest: Collected Poems 1955-2000 and Some Times, published in 2010 by Anvil. He was the recipient of an honorary LittD from Plymouth University in 1998 in recognition of his work, and was an Honorary Research Fellow at Exeter University. In 2001 he was elected to the Yr Academi Gymreig / The Welsh Academy. Prior to his death, he lived in Exeter with his wife, the historical novelist Lynn Guest.
Guest’s poetry is a remarkable example of how examples from French and American literature can be successfully integrated into a unique, idiosyncratically English style. His is a poetry which roams, questions and illuminates, and is characterised by close attention to sensory phenomena, a propensity for language play, and the welcoming of the strange and the illogical into the world of the poem. He is at his very best in poems like the exquisite “The Fifth Elegy”, which moves dream-like across a series of vividly realised landscapes, the progressions between which are lent momentum by the pulsing and lucid argument which emerges unexpectedly throughout. The questions Guest asks are the kind of inscrutable conundrums which are not simply rhetorical, but send the reader on an imaginative journey simply in attempting to come to terms with them:
Who though can put a face on words or claim
to interpret the sundial? All we can say for certain is
there was a house, a tomb, a copse, and beyond
the land sloped to the river-mouth. This journey
will take its place among the many ways
of identifying movement.
Guest’s early study of Mallarme perhaps lies behind such finely formulated, self-reflexive meditations, but they also recall the transparent imagery and syntactical agility of John Ashbery at his best. His work was, however, more securely anchored in the material world than either of these poets’. Guest was capable of writing lyrics of extraordinary poise, clarity and range which can, for example, transport us from details of the poet’s daily life to speculations on military engagements elsewhere the world, as in his beautiful and unsettling poem “Flying Through Rain”. It begins with the image of “a lone seagull / grey against grey / ceiling of low / cloud”, in which Guest’s deceptively simple syntax allows an abstract registration of colour (“grey against grey”) to develop into a figurative description; several lines later, the poem concludes with a shocking deviation from the quotidian scene it opens with:
flaps sharpened wings
plodders like me
who’ve left home this
branding the mind
re air-strikes on
Such unexpected changes of direction and shifts in tone and perspective are characteristic of a poetry which is exemplary in its exploratory sensibility. As this recording makes clear, Guest’s work is among the most diverse bodies of work produced in recent decades in Britain.
Harry Guest's recording was made at Attic Attack Studios in Bristol, England in May 2014. The producer was Richard Carrington.