Poets approaching their winter years have two choices. Like Walt Whitman, they can cast their eye to how scholars remember them after they die. Try reading later editions of Leaves of Grass, and note how opaque his work has become compared to earlier editions. Or they can keep the living audience in view, trusting that knowing readers will keep good writing alive. Ursula LeGuin has done the latter, and I love her for it.
Best known for her award-winning science fiction and fantasy, LeGuin has also kept many irons in the fire: she’s also an esteemed translator, critic, and essayist. Her poetry also proves a remarkable reward, offering glimpses into one of our time’s greatest minds. And considering the range of time covered in this collection, from 1960 to 2012, we get to see her evolution over the course of a productive, unconventional career.
The first half of this collection selects highlights from LeGuin’s prior collections. The table of contents cites thirteen collections, a remarkable number number for someone not known as a poet. Many respected poets have not been so prolific, perhaps because she writes full-time, and does not teach. Perhaps more important, because she writes for a paying audience and not for the tenure committee, her poetry is remarkably lucid:
So still so sunny and so Sunday
what’s done needs to be quiet:
a white butterfly
by the red fuses of the fuchsias.
Some of LeGuin’s earliest poetry utilizes the same fantastic imagery that informs her famed speculative fiction. Minstrels and maenads, nymphs and sun gods. But she does not linger on these tropes, and largely writes them out remarkably early. LeGuin writes poetry separately from her fiction. However, in some important ways, her writing spheres do overlap, particularly in her refusal to stand still and act predictably.
I particularly like her willingness to craft formal verse, which academic poetry decries, without resting on her forms. I can say, as I said about Aaron Poochigian, that LeGuin takes conventional forms and makes them her own. She writes sonnets, quatrains, and terza rima, but in ways that serve her, not in ways that conform. Some of her forms are surprising, like villanelles with four-syllable lines, or innovative ad hoc forms:
The mind is still. The gallant books of lies
are never quite enough.
Ideas are a whirl of mazy flies
over the pigs’ trough.
Words are my matter. I have chipped one stone
for thirty years and still it is not done,
that image of the thing I cannot see.
I cannot finish it or set it free,
transformed to energy.
(“The Mind Is Still”)
The second half of this collection pulls together previously uncollected poems, most of them quite short, like snapshots of a moment in the mind’s eye. She continues experimenting with tradition, taking the familiar and pushing its parameters to make it new, at once somehow comforting and unsettling. Italian octavos and ghazals and rare Indian forms jump out like old friends who have somehow reinvented themselves:
I never thought of a cold dragon
till I saw one dragging its slow body
down the wide wadi it had gouged
out of a mountain, saw the bluish spatter
of icy water from its mouth.
This one uses Anglo-Saxon lacunae, emphasizing the line structure, pushing the rhyme from the line break into the middle in a way that seems accidental before you realize it’s there. She also pushes oblique rhyme about as far as I’ve ever seen anybody do so (“gouged/mountain”), forcing us to reconsider what makes words rhyme, and why we should consider such contrivances desirable.
Some of LeGuin’s new verses address the kind of topics we expect from poets at her age, particularly the difficulties of venerability: fleeting memory, flagging strength, the loss of friends. But she offers far less than we’ve grown accustomed to in a time when poetry increasingly resembles diary entries. The tenor of LeGuin’s new poetry is not one of loss, ending, and death; even in her age, her poetry still bespeaks continuation.
Good artists know the baker does not bake the bread he wants to eat. That’s why, say, Bruce Springsteen remains vital and innovative into his sixties. No one would blame Ursula LeGuin if she collected the musings of a great mind winding down; but no one would have felt much else, either. LeGuin cares enough to keep crafting at the peak of her skill, and that makes this collection great.