Like it is: Ursula K. Le Guin’s Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poetry

Interrupting Infinity Exclusive Commentary. © 2012 by David St.-Lascaux

Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poetry

Le_Guin_ElegyOK. HERE’S A CONFESSION: Until today, I’d never read anything by Ursula K. Le Guin, and am not a die-hard science fiction fan, soft, hard or otherwise. Further, given the majority-pleasing media megatrend in our delightful, ochlocratic society of the pursuit and production of entertainment and escape as dominant activities and priorities of the proverbial masses, fantasy literature is, to me, a symptom of The Problem – as it was to John Ruskin, Dwight Macdonald, Bernard Rosenberg and several other theorists. Of course I recognize that serious social sci-fi, including Thomas More’s Utopia, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, Nevil Shute’s On the Beach and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Kurt Vonnegut’s, Philip K. Dick’s and (I read) Le Guin’s, are rather more than a cut above, but have you reflected recently on what’s going on? Everyone – and not just the cohort inhabiting the descending slope of the elite’s cherished Bell Curve, it seems, is hellbent on escape: formulaic romance readers asymmetrically pair billionaire alpha males with ingénues, bazillion best-selling children’s books are thematically defined by violent fantasy – teeming with talking warrior rats, wanded pugilistic wizards and vampire soul-stealing teens; pachinko addictive video games and mobile apps are stocked with time-murdering swill; and blockbuster films, as always, serve up a single script of mayhem and prosthetic superheroes – Newton Minow’s “vast wasteland” in uncontested saturation. (Thank g*d for ratings-ruling reality TV, where we can wallow in the tawdry sleeve-tatt-slathered gutter of lo-to-no-production-cost lowlife – i.e., self-identifiably mainstream mirroring – America.) Add to this body-tethered rope-a-dope i-Receivers (“It’s all about I”), an insatiable demand for the novel, nanosecond-long attention spans, awareness of infinite supply, apathetic indiscrimination, and no time for anything let alone thinking, and you’ve got the social engineering altruist’s ultimate nightmare, or – forgive – society today.

Le Guin, however, doesn’t just write fiction. She has been publishing singular poetry for over fifty years. Incompletely read as I am, I have read more than a soupçon of this literary genre, if not specifically hers. So qualified, I can confidently state that the first-time reading of Finding My Elegy / New and Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), an anthology-premiere of Le Guin’s poetry, old and new is – like the life-altering experience had by a Le Guin character encountering a member of another world – an impressive revelation. The contents of this excellent, provocative collection confirm (as she herself will be, no doubt, relieved to learn) that Le Guin’s calling extends to poetry, whatever her speculative prosaic accomplishments.

Elegy is divided into two major sections, “Wild Fortune / Selected Poems, 1960-2005,” and “Life Sciences / New Poems 2006-2011,” the former, with seventy poems, subdivided by previously-published title, e.g., Wild Angels, and the latter, with seventy-seven, by metaphysical topic, such as “Socioesthetics.” Le Guin acolytes will be familiar with the poems in the first section, concerned with the natural beauty of Oregon and California, including Mount St. Helens, Cannon Beach and the Cascades, e.g., “The Pacific Slope” (with all of which I do have onsite, reverential knowledge), and social contemplations with an XX-chromosomal slant, including her delightful, playful “Tui.”

Worrying that her onslaught is too dour, one is reminded that a sentient being might easily be suboptimistic in this abject age, given that we seemed so close to achieving a kinder world not very long ago.

In “Cleverism: Poetry’s Current Default,” an essay in poet George Wallace’s PoetryBay Online, I decried the current trend among celebrated poets to abdicate social responsibility. This isn’t a problem for Le Guin. In poem after hammering poem, she goes after humanity’s internal enemies and foibles: oceanic polluters, bling worshippers, warmongers, private property rationalizers. For example, “Life Sciences” begins with “Distance,” in which:

If we refuse the notion of away,
could we relearn the truth of far?
We deny distance, busy filling it
with what we throw out of the car,
paving the house of Shiva with our shit,
scumming Poseidon’s silver hair with tar,

In this mixed-cultural-metaphor mash-up and other laments, she parallels Kimiko Hahn’s environmental wail in “The Fever,” and most poetically resembles feminist-pacifist poet éminences grises Marilyn Hacker and Marie Ponsot, as well as a few males, including Allen Ginsberg, W.S. Merwin, Philip Levine and Steve Dalachinsky. Worrying that her onslaught is too dour, one is reminded that a sentient being might easily be suboptimistic in this abject age, given that we seemed so close to achieving a kinder world not very long ago. We see again: It isn’t, yet anyway – if ever, meant to be. As fellow octogenarian Galway Kinnell, another activist poet, recently – pessimistically – predicted, “The human race will continue to go on in some form….”

As a Myers-Briggs Personality Type, Le Guin might chart INFP – Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling and Perceiving – a bit misanthropic, interpretive, empathetic and anti-Manichean. So it’s natural that her umwelt sympathies attach to non-human nature. Elegy incorporates numerous bittersweet odes to natural phenomena, including homilies to Swainson’s Thrush, Alaska’s receding Mendenhall Glacier, the Oasis of Mara at Joshua Tree National Park, the Columbia River, herons, guinea pigs, heifers and cats – a veritable geophysical menagerie. The key, be reminded, is mostly minor. Here, from the cleverly counterintuitive and visually rendered “Mendenhall Glacier”:

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.

The focus on fauna and flora, and accentuation of the negative are a shame, because the human race has produced, in addition to critics and despots, many constructive and creative beings dedicated to improving and serving society. For example, artist-activist Chris Jordan’s lacelike mandala, E Pluribus Unum (2010), lists “one million organizations around the world that are devoted to peace, environmental stewardship, social justice, and the preservation of diverse and indigenous culture,” listed at Paul Hawken’s WiserEarth website. Actually, I lie: Le Guin’s cited mythological and human paradigms include a weeping girl with that heifer in her lap, Kali, J.S. Bach, Franz Schubert, Victor Hugo, Federico García Lorca, Black Elk and the Native American Elders at the dammed Celilo Falls (10,000 years of culture purposely flooded to oblivion in 1957). In the brutal “The Elders at the Falls,” she writes:

they stood and listened to the messenger,
the voice that tells the story.
The voice they listened to
that had spoken all their lives

(Apparently G*d also intended that an Exceptional Some of us exercise dominion over Others.)

With stuff like this, Le Guin isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, a bit like Five Easy Pieces’s hitchhiking lesbians ranting about filth, except you know she’s right. Unlike Dorothea Tanning, the late surrealist painter-poet, whose final chaplet, Coming to That (Graywolf Press, 2011), is genetically ethereal, Le Guin, in Elegy, is topically hard-edged. What Tanning and Le Guin have in common is visuality: both use language that begs to be accompanied by images (one wishes both had done) and, in Le Guin’s case, music. It’s regrettable that the economics of publishing (and existence) make such collaborations rare. Native American artists would make simpatico complements with their clayworks spun on “heaven’s potter’s wheel.” And Le Guin should certainly continue to set her poetry to music, as she did with Elinor Armer in Uses of Music in Uttermost Parts (Koch International Classics, 1996): it’s perfect for the human voice; this time, perhaps, with the spectral genius Kaija Saariaho, or the nature-celebrant John Luther Adams.

In the Current Era of free verse, Le Guin uniquely employs rhyming couplets, and, sometimes, overly flowery (“to shape the cup, the carven bird”), pretentious (“Developmental Ontology”), or sciolistic (“Insatiable Tlaloc has had his fill at last”) language, as do so many sincere poets overbred to contrived complexity and to exclusively impress their well-read peers. But these are the exception: mostly, Le Guin uses plain, musical words. In “An Old Yurok Basket,” she splendidly weaves her own:

This was made by a most skillful maker;
the ease of the pattern’s recurrence is noble,
so is the curve of the whole, and the colors,
the soft yellow-brown and the warm brown

It grew into being. Its stillness remembers
the tug of the living reed-root in the current.
The humor of pliable, sensitive
fingers is here in the weave of the fernstems,
the even, uneven rhythm of lifework.

In this and other brighter moments, Le Guin recalls the last work of another great poet, the late Wisława Szymborska, whose cosmic images in her final Here (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010; my review here), in the titular poem “Here,” include “a spin on the planets’ carousel for free… a ride on the intergalactic blizzard” – right up Le Guin’s prosodic alley, and her transcendentally poetic one. Although the word “elegy” appears late – in the poem “Finding My Elegy,” Elegy’s true elegy is found in the Agnes Martin minimalist, Zuni-paletted, “Home on the Range” cowboy balladeering “For My Traveling Companion” (you, the reader), in which:

we’re still traveling under desert skies
out where the mind can find its proper size
enlarge, stretch wide, be still or freely run
like the cloud-shadows on the blue and dun
plains and far mountains under desert skies.

Here, Le Guin has yet to reconcile the confounding Taoist yin-yang paradox of collective, nurturing Eastern selflessness and dominating, rapacious Western individualism. Has anyone? Le Guin’s wordpicturesongs are beautiful and her conviction sincere. If only there was less poetry competing for your attention, and that you had the time to read her.

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