Essay

Always Beginning

Ursula K. Le Guin’s poetry reveals a writer humbled by the craft.
Black and white image of the poet and novelist Ursula K. Le Guin.

It’s fitting that the recently released So Far So Good (2018), one of the last books that Ursula K. Le Guin finished before her death in January, is a collection of poetry. Although best-known for her canonical science fiction and fantasy novels—A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), The Dispossessed (1974), Always Coming Home (1985)—the through line of Le Guin’s career is how she attends to language, even in her prose, with the sensibility of a poet. Consider this paragraph from her novel The Farthest Shore (1972):

[T]his is. And thou art. There is no safety, and there is no end. The word must be heard in silence; there must be darkness to see the stars. The dance is always danced above the hollow place, above the terrible abyss.

Although Le Guin was a vocal defender of science fiction and fantasy who argued that those genres had as valid a claim to literature as the best realist or mimetic fiction, she also saw her writing in broader terms. “Where I can get prickly and combative is if I’m just called a sci-fi writer,” Le Guin said. “I’m not. I’m a novelist and poet. Don’t shove me into your damn pigeonhole, where I don’t fit, because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions.”

One of those directions was poetry, which Le Guin started writing at age five or six. In the final decade before her death, when she had stopped writing novels, her engagement with poetry endured. During her half-century as a professional writer, Le Guin published 12 poetry collections, collaborated twice with the photographer Roger Dorband on books of image-verse, and once with the Argentinian poet Diana Bellessi in a bilingual collection of mutual translation. She wrote the introduction to Rilke’s Poems from The Book of Hours for New Directions, translated Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, and perhaps most notably, provided one of the most substantive English language translations of Chilean poet and Nobel laureate Gabriela Mistral.

In 2015, Le Guin revised and rereleased Steering the Craft, a guide to writing that had first been published nearly two decades earlier. I reached out to her, intrigued by the idea of talking about aspects of her career that were outside of the spotlight, and beyond the novels on which most other interviewers focused. This soon led to a second interview about her poetry, and then to a third about her essays and literary criticism. When I’m asked what it was like to collaborate with Le Guin, I often reply that she didn’t suffer fools. She was funny, thoughtful, attentive, and endlessly curious, but she also had a formidable and matter-of-fact confidence. Thus, I was surprised that when Le Guin wrote the introduction to our book of conversations, she confessed to being nervous in anticipation of our dialogue about poetry: “As a novelist I can talk and do talk shamelessly about fiction, but am shy and amateurish speaking as a poet,” she wrote. She went on to note that from her vantage as an outsider, poets seem clannish, talking about poetry with other poets in “a kind of Poetspeak that goes with the territory.” I was touched by this confession. I didn’t sense Le Guin’s nervousness during our discussions, and yet my curiosity was piqued by her admission of vulnerability and humility.

Michael Wiegers, the executive editor of Copper Canyon Press, edited So Far So Good, and he did notice Le Guin’s vulnerability—and generosity—when it came to poetry. She revealed to him that in the past 40 years, she had never been edited as a poet. I wondered whether this lack of editorial engagement explained why she found it presumptuous to call herself a poet.

As tidy as the explanation seemed, it didn’t satisfy me. Le Guin faced nearly a decade of rejection before breaking through as a novelist and storyteller, and when I asked how she handled this, she told me, “I was committed to being a writer, to my writing, and I had a self-confidence or arrogance that carried me through. ‘I am going to do it, and I’m going to do it my way.’” I suspected that something more than lack of status or editorial attention underlied her modesty as a poet. Perhaps Wiegers suspected the same; during our discussion of Le Guin’s poetry, he spontaneously recited these lines from Rilke: “If the angel deigns to come, it will be because you have convinced him, not by tears, but by your humble resolve to be always beginning: to be a beginner!”

With the notable exception of her novel Always Coming Home, in which she created the language, music, and poetry of the fictional Kesh people, Le Guin’s verse is not the imagined literature of alternate worlds—at least not in the science fiction and fantasy sense of ‘alternate.’ Her poems are rooted in contemplation of this world. While Le Guin didn’t write haikus, I sensed a kinship between that form and much of her poetry, as in her short, self-described elegy “Felled”:

Sterile gravel, stepping stones
where the great willow grew.
Only to me in empty air
a tree I must walk through.

I read to Le Guin from Robert HassThe Essential Haiku(1994), in which he writes about the qualities, beyond the formal ones, that define this type of poem: attention to time and space, grounding in a particular season, plain language marked by accurate, original images drawn from common life, and perhaps most importantly when regarding Le Guin’s work, a sense of humankind’s place in the world’s cyclical nature. Le Guin said writing haikus in English didn’t work for her, since she thought rhythmically rather than syllabically. She preferred as her equivalent to the haiku “a very old English form, with mostly iambic or trochaic rhythm and often with rhyme”—the quatrain. “Solstice” is an example:

On the longest night of all the year
            in the forests up the hill,
            the little owl spoke soft and clear
            to bid the night be longer still.

Nonetheless, Le Guin felt comfortable having her work described, in sensibility and in orientation, the way Hass describes the haiku form. She had a lifelong engagement with Buddhism and Taoism, and given the haiku’s connection to Buddhism—to Zen Buddhism in particular—I think of shoshin, the cultivation of “the beginner’s mind,” of the openness and eagerness of a beginner even when working at an advanced level, as one source of Le Guin’s humility near the end of a lifetime of writing poems. Perhaps a certain decentering of self was a prerequisite to writing poems such as hers.

But what does it mean to decenter the self when all poems, self-centered or otherwise, come from a self? Le Guin’s poems are less an enactment of human desires than poems arising from a desire to listen, to foster fellow feeling with the human and non-human other. One can look to her translation of the Tao Te Ching—a lifelong endeavor she began in her twenties and finished in her seventies—for clues. As Lao Tzu says in the first chapter-poem, which Le Guin entitles “Taoing”:

         So the unwanting soul
sees what’s hidden,
and the ever-wanting soul
sees only what it wants.

Or one can look to Chuang Tse, from whom Le Guin borrowed the phrase “lathe of heaven” as the title of her celebrated 1971 novel: “To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven.”

Although Le Guin felt she didn’t belong to the poetry world, I nevertheless wonder where her poetry fits. Wiegers points to the work of Ruth Stone as a comparison. Stone, who died in 2011, was a rural poet whose vocabulary and imagery were often inspired by the natural sciences, and she found recognition (a finalist for the Pulitzer, a National Book Award winner) quite late in life. Wiegers notes the ways in which Stone’s work engages memory and mortality, how she “philosophically cast out into the void,” the humor and approachability in her poems, and how they are “so naturally voiced that you didn’t always notice that they were rhyming, that they were received or created forms.” Le Guin wrote widely in both free verse and received forms, as well as in created ones, which she called “free form”: poems written in “a discernible pattern—involving a regularity, repetition of stanzas, line lengths, metric beat, end-rhymes, inner rhymes, whatever—that is unique to a certain poem,” as she writes in her collection Late in the Day: Poems 2010–2014 (2015). “Contemplation at McCoy Creek,” from that collection, offers an example of her freeform style. The last stanza reads:

To join in continuity, the mind
           follows the water, shadows the birds,
observes the unmoved rock, the subtle flight.
          Slowly, in silence, without words,
the altar of the place and hour is raised.
Self is lost, a sacrifice to praise,
and praise itself sinks into quietness.

Despite her formal playfulness, Le Guin’s poems aren’t considered experimental or avant-garde. She wasn’t interested in what was or was not en vogue—formally, stylistically, or otherwise—in contemporary poetry. She found more freedom in the constraints of metrically rhyming verse than in free verse. And there is a way in which Le Guin’s poetry feels, if not out of time, then as if it arises from a longer span of time. I first noticed this elongated perspective, this drawing from a longer timeline of influence, when discussing the craft of writing fiction with her. She cautioned against getting swept up in whatever was in fashion given how many fashions she had seen come and go in publishing, as well as how the commodification of books shapes many of these fashions. She wanted to consider the benefits of unfashionable modes (e.g., the omniscient point of view in fiction) and the revival of grammatical usages from English’s past (such as the singular “they”) to move language toward a more just future. She was as likely to reference Dickens or Tolkien or Woolf as the work of contemporaries such as Margaret Atwood or José Saramago.

Le Guin’s poetry similarly engages a broader sense of the form’s history. A lover of Rilke and Mistral, Le Guin also extolled the work of A. E. Housman (“the absolute master of the quatrain,” she said) and the enduring influence of poets she discovered as a young child, including Coleridge and Thomas Babington Macaulay. (“My brother and I can still recite [Lays of Ancient Rome] sixty years later,” she wrote in 1998.) And while Le Guin admits Algernon Charles Swinburne “was a sad, silly man most of whose work verges on, or is, pure tosh,” she credits him for taking her “past story, past meaning, into the pure music of the word.” And it is this “music of the word,” the rhythm beneath meaning, that Le Guin responds to in both her poetry and her prose. Consider the sequence of verbs—rise, fall, sink, mount, come—and the cadence they create in “Come to Dust”:

Rise up in the smoke of palo santo.
Fall to the earth in the falling rain.
Sink in, sink down to the farthest roots.
Mount slowly in the rising sap
to the branches, the crown, the leaf-tips.
Come down to earth as leaves in autumn
to lie in the patient rot of winter.

Prior to reading So Far So Good, I was skeptical when Wiegers suggested that what makes the book unique among Le Guin’s poetry is that she stares down her own mortality in these poems. Given that Le Guin published regularly in her seventies and eighties, books of poetry and prose with titles such as Finding My Elegy (2012), Late in the Day (2015), Words are My Matter (2016), and No Time to Spare (2017), mortality had long been on her mind and in her art. And yet, I do sense something different about these poems. There is a deep sense of place, of being placed both upon the earth and within the year’s passing, and a return to familiar and beloved places, namely McCoy Creek in remote Harney County, Oregon, a region with far more wildlife than humans, where Le Guin’s ancestors once briefly contemplated settling before heading on to California. (The county inspired the landscape in Le Guin’s 1970 novel The Tombs of Atuan.) These poems exhibit Le Guin’s unadorned language and her characteristic engagement with nature and the place of humans within it, but the human–nature calculus here has shifted. Unlike her previous books, which looked at the harmony or disharmony between the human and the non-human other, here Le Guin is, as Wiegers suggests, staring down her mortality in a more urgent and immediate way. She engages with her imminent departure not as a tragedy but as a natural gesture every human inevitably makes. Consider these lines from “Second Hill”:

Where on this wild hill alone
a child watched the evening star,
let these bits of ash and bone
rejoin the earth they always were

In a review of Le Guin’s collection Going Out with Peacocks (1994), a critic for Booklist suggests that Peacocks can be divided into poems about nature from which political concerns aren’t absent, and poems that are political from which nature isn’t absent. I proposed this to Le Guin as a description of her poetry at large and she, with some hesitation around the word “political,” accepted the description, adding, “How can you write about nature now without—well, I guess we have to call it politics—but without what we have done to our world getting into the poem?” Along the same line, I suspect she would’ve agreed that portraying humans using non-resource-draining “technologies”—a pestle, a kitchen knife—in harmony with nature’s checks and balances is likewise a political depiction now.

So Far So Good does include brief nods to the political. Le Guin writes of the blackout curtains in her childhood home during the first days of World War II, the disobedience of Lot’s wife, and the disappearance of bats from the night sky. The collection is populated with an abundance of nature’s creatures, a deep engagement with nature’s rhythms, and yet even the voice that opens the book in “Little Grandmother,” the voice of a chickadee, tells us that “things have gone amiss.”

If much of Le Guin’s previous poetry involved a decentering of self, of ego, of the human in the world at large, and sought to capture Lao Tzu’s wu wei, of doing by not-doing, a human way of being, of fellow feeling within the natural world, So Far So Good goes beyond these questions of harmony or disharmony. In this regard, the book is less about the practice of self-decentering and more about the dissolution of self, the “self unselving,” as Le Guin puts it, when there is no more life to live. This is perhaps most evident in the chapter entitled “So Far,” a sequence of 12 poems inspired by Lt. William Bligh’s four-thousand-mile journey from Tonga to Timor in an overloaded open boat once mutiny had removed him from command. The first poem in this sequence, “Planning,” begins:

I set out on the everyday
with a watchful heart,
sunset
my only harbor.

I’ve lost my ship,
the command I led
and all her cargo.
I have this instead.

Bligh, of course, is the victim of the famed Mutiny on the Bounty, a maritime coup in 1789 in which Bligh and 18 loyalists were ousted from the HMS Bounty. But Le Guin cautions us at the beginning of this sequence that Bligh is not the subject of these poems but rather the metaphor of them. These poems are not about a captain’s life once removed from his command of that life, but rather about the “night journey” (to borrow the title of another section of So Far So Good) that everyone takes when life is over.

And yet, for Le Guin, the relinquishment of one’s life, the unselving of self, is not a solitary or lonely affair. Every creature in this book—mice, cats, cattle, chickadees, owls, earthworms, fireflies, spiders, and goldfish—participates in the return to the elements, the ash, bone, rain, rock, mist, earth, and sky of these poems. They share this unselving with us. “Words for the Dead,” a double prayer for both the soul and the body of a mouse killed by her cat, concludes:

Inside the body
of the great earth
in unbounded being
be still

The fellow travelers crossing the threshold of life and death with her in “Travelers” are an earthworm and a firefly:

I think of the journey
we will take together
in the oarless boat
across the shoreless river.

And in “To the Rain,” the rain teaches our troubled souls “to fall, to be fellow, to feel to the root, / to sink in, to heal, to sweeten the sea.” There are elegies and farewells here, for California, for her mother, for her body that can no longer do what she asks of it, but So Far So Good is also an act of communion, union, and return, one in which every creature participates.

Poetry shares something with science fiction and fantasy that much literary fiction tends to reject: a willingness, even an eagerness, to inhabit the non-human other. From Francis Ponge’s poetry of objects to the animal poems of Lucille Clifton, from Tolkien’s ancient tree-like Ents to China Miéville’s double-mouthed Ariekans who cannot lie, point of view is not reserved for human beings in these genres. In fact, the way Merlyn educates the future king, Arthur, in T.H. White’s Sword in the Stone (1938), a book Le Guin considered marvelous and important, is by turning him into various creatures and objects. It is this fellow feeling, this seeing from the perspective of otherness, that one grows from. So Far So Good tells us that regardless of whether we learn that lesson during our lives, we will enact it in our deaths. Like every other creature, our bodies will return to the elements, and our souls will return to the mystery. Le Guin’s emotions run the gamut in this collection—from nostalgia to fear to humor—but one feels most of all her desire to welcome, to embrace, to participate in the cycle of life and death, as in these lines from “Come to Dust:

Come down to earth as leaves in autumn
to lie in the patient rot of winter.
Rise again in spring’s green fountains.
Drift in sunlight with the sacred pollen
to fall in blessing.
                                      All earth’s dust
has been life, held soul, is holy.

One piece of feedback that Wiegers gave Le Guin was that she uses the word “soul” too frequently in the collection. Le Guin took his suggestion, and when she returned the manuscript to him she quipped, with her trademark humor, that she was returning it with a little less soul. In a sense, this is true. This collection is about the return of the soul, the surrender of both one’s body and the intangibility that animates it back to the world.

Throughout her life Le Guin spoke out against erasure—against environmental destruction, the absence of people of color as protagonists, the erasure of women’s legacies from the canon. Le Guin herself will be remembered as a grandmaster of the imagination and of storytelling. Yet when she imagines her legacy in the poem “Leaves,” she imagines a quieter one, embodied through otherness as “the shadow / of a leaf of the acacia tree / felled seventy years ago / moving on the page the child reads.” Her vulnerability and humility here are not those of a novice. Her poems attest to this. Perhaps they are the necessary ingredients for the enactment of the beginner’s mind. And we are all beginners when it comes to our final moments, the living out of our deaths. We should remember this final poetic act by Le Guin, an enacting of how to un-be after a lifelong engagement with being, as the final act of a master beginner.

Originally Published: October 22nd, 2018

David Naimon hosts the radio broadcast and podcast Between the Covers and is coauthor of Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing (Tin House Books, 2018). His writing has been published in Tin House, AGNI, Boulevard, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere, was reprinted in the 2019 Pushcart Prize anthology and the...