February 5, 2018

“Yet I return / to the winterland”: Remembering Ursula Le Guin through her poetry


While it’s hard to encapsulate anyone’s life in a single obituary, someone as productive and important as Ursula K. Le Guin makes it near impossible. What she has left us is mystifying and beautiful, complex and creative. Writing that questions the nature of existence and our ability to overcome indifference and evil. Soaring prose that reaches into our hearts. To read Le Guin is to be forever changed, to walk into a dream. She writes in The Lathe of Heaven, “You don’t speak of dreams as unreal. They exist. They leave a mark behind them.”

Yesterday, I came home to find that my roommate had purchased a poster that featured Le Guin’s face above some text: “The artist deals in what cannot be said in words. The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words. The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.” This comes from the introduction to the 1976 edition of her beloved novel The Left Hand of Darkness. It wasn’t on the poster, but here’s what comes next:

Words can be used thus paradoxically because they have, along with a semiotic usage, a symbolic or metaphoric usage. (They also have a sound — a fact the linguistic positivists take no interest in. A sentence or paragraph is like a chord or harmonic sequence in music: its meaning may be more clearly understood by the attentive ear, even though it is read in silence, than by the attentive intellect).

While best known for her novels, Le Guin was originally a poet and short story writer. After receiving her master’s degree from Columbia in Romance Languages, she took a Fulbright fellowship in France. It was there that she met her husband and embarked on writing what would become her first collection of poetry, Wild Angels, which she wouldn’t publish until almost two decades later.

Much like her prose, which she whipped out with consistency, the poetry came steadily and expectedly. The six collections she published explore themes similar to those in her novels, informed by her interest in the traditions of Buddhism and Taoism, and especially by the Dao De Jing, which she translated in 1998.

Le Guin uses the banal to question perceptions of the infinite. In the poem “This Stone,” for instance, we’re confronted with the fact that the only permanent phenomena are those that guide the impermanent ones to their end.

He went looking for a road
that doesn’t lead to death.
He went looking for that road
and found it.
It was a stone road.

Readers of Le Guin are also familiar with her wordplay, how she’d twist the familiar meaning of a word by defining it against itself or using it for multiple, non-complimentary purposes. That “the novelist says in words what cannot be said in words” might be a paradox, but it is also an invitation, an exhortation examine the impact of words beyond their literal meaning. It’s hard not to greet each such statement with a wry smile. At times it seems Le Guin appreciates the joke as well, as in “A Palindrome I Do Not Want To Write”:

The mournful palindromedary,
symmetrical and arbitrary,
cannot desert the desert, cannot roam,
plods back and forth but never reaches home.
Mental boustrophedon is scary.
I do not want to write a palindrome.

Le Guin also write romantic poetry. As a scholar of Romance languages, she knew the work of many South American writers, and herself translated a collection by the Chilean Nobel Prize winner Gabriela Mistral. The Pacific Northwest, where she lived for so long, seems the setting for much of her work, like “Learning the Name,” from 2006:

The wood thrush, it is! Now I know
who sings that clear arpeggio,
three far notes weaving
into the evening
among leaves
and shadow;

In the early 2010s, Le Guin announced that she was not going to write any more fiction, but she continued to write poetry. Forthcoming next year from Copper Canyon Press is her collection So Far So Good2014–2018. It will be interesting to see the work she’d done since Late in the Day, her most recent collection. I’d like to remember her with these words from her “Lament for Rheged”:

Yet I return
to the winterland
having chosen
the heavy art,
the bond of thing,
of stone, of earth.
I am bound to stand
under the frozen
thorn, by the cold
hearth, and sing.

Peter Clark is a former Melville House sales manager.