Discovering the Poetry of Ursula K. Le Guin

Following on from our popular previous event commemorating the 50th anniversary of Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea in November 2018, BookTalk volunteer Christie Collins delved into the vast poetic oeuvre Le Guin left behind.

When Copper Canyon Press (CCP), a major non-profit publisher of poetry in Port Townsend, Washington, opened a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the publication of the final collection of poems by famed writer Ursula K. Le Guin, they did so with the explicit goal of helping to preserve the legacy of Le Guin, not only as an American writer and icon of science fiction but also her legacy as a prolific, if largely unknown, poet.

Across her lifetime, Le Guin published some thirteen collections of poetry, including both chapbooks and full-length collections; however, many Le Guin fans had never read her poems or even knew she wrote poetry. Even so, on their campaign page, CCP quoted Le Guin who said “I just knew from extremely early on—it sounds ridiculous, but five or six—that writing was something I was going to do, always… It started as poetry.” This seems to suggest that poetry was, in fact, an essential, foundational form of writing for Le Guin, not a mere side-gig to her best-selling fiction.

As a contributor to the Kickstarter, what I found to be the most moving element was that CCP secured the rights to republish Le Guin’s first collection of poems, Wild Angels, as well, and offered both books to contributors who pledged $75 dollars or more. Even for those who didn’t participate in the Kickstarter, reading Le Guin’s first and final collections of poems in tandem offers the reader a chance to discover Le Guin writing about her own life from both the beginning and the end of her tenure as a poet, from both middle age to just a few weeks before she died.

In her first book of poems, Wild Angels, the reader finds a collection filled with mostly short, imagistic poems. Published when Le Guin was in her late 40s, this collection has the sense of having been written by a mature, confident writer but one who is still very much in the prime of her life. In one of the longer poems, titled “Coming of Age,” the poet-speaker says “Having become at last a grown-up / I walk boldly down from the hills” (8). Similarly, in the poem “Winter-Rose,” the poet-speaker says of herself: “I am the stem on my own rose / and the root of the rowan tree” (42). Additionally, fans of her prose would likely appreciate that several of the poems in this collection point to her process of creating the many singular worlds of her science fiction. For example, in the poem “Ars Lunga,” she muses “I sit here perpetually inventing new people / as if the population boom were not enough / and not enough terror and problems / God knows!” (29). Also, the poem “Snow” includes a reference to Le Guin’s bestselling Earthsea series: “I am living in the Isle of the Wise / and there is nothing wrong. / The wind drives along / the blessing of the skies” (40). As this collection of poems was published between the third and fourth books of the Earthsea series, a reader can assume that these poems find the writer, at times, musing on her prose within her verse.

Her final collection of poems is titled So Far So Good: Final Poems 2014-2018. On the acknowledgements page, Le Guin’s daughter, Caroline Le Guin, explains the significance of this final collection: “Ursula sent off her revised manuscript for So Far So Good for copyediting on January 15, 2018. She died January 22. This book, then, is the last collection of her poetry she would edit; it is her farewell.” Delicate yet raw and powerful, Le Guin’s final book of poems indeed does read like a farewell, as she peers into the afterlife with grace and wonder. In one poem titled “Ancestry,” Le Guin peers backwards into her lineage: “I am such a long way from my ancestors now / in my extreme old age that I feel more one of them / than their descendant” (85). In the poem “The Old Novelist’s Lament,” she confesses “I miss the many that I was / my lovers, my adventurers, / the women I went with the Pole” (75). Within these pages, there’s a definite sense of appreciation for a full life well lived. However, there’s also a sense that she’s resolved to move on, as well, into the next life. In the poem, “Looking Back,” she says “I look back, not forward, into death. / Forgiving rains dissolve me, and I come / still disobedient, still happy, home” (42). Whereas Wild Angels shows Le Guin as the strong stem of her own rose, her final collection shows that stem, bending, ever strong, ever gracefully, to the end of her season on this earth.

I recommend reading these books together: Wild Angels followed by So Far So Good. The poems in these books offer a rare glimpse into the personal, interior life of Le Guin. We came to know and be astonished by her imagination and her knack for inventing worlds and asking tough anthropological and sociological questions. Her poems offer a new perspective on Le Guin – a flesh and blood woman who ponders, dreams, reminiscences, and stares bravely into the next great world she’ll explore.

To read other blog posts in connection with this event, see below: