POETS Day! Ursula K. Le Guin

Photo by Marian Wood Kolisch, Oregon State University, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

[This entry is cross posted at ordinary-times.com]

Happy POETS Day everybody. Another week is almost in the rearview and here comes a weekend peaking its devious head full o’possibilities over the horizon. What will you do this go round? Go for a sail? Hit the beach? Skydive? Watch an Impractical Jokers marathon?

You’re probably going to watch an Impractical Jokers marathon.

Weekends used to be more fun. Remember when you were a kid and the bell rang. You couldn’t get home, strip off your precious school clothes, throw on some Swiss cheese jeans, and hit the road on a bicycle or skateboard soon enough. You had the neighborhood gang to meet and do scampish things with. Now you watch the clock and tap stuff with your fingers when the boss isn’t looking. Stop it. You’re not a kid anymore. You’re a grown up with agency and the legal right to buy fireworks assuming you don’t live in Massachusetts or certain counties in Nevada, Wyoming, and Hawaii. Quit waiting for the prescribed departure time and do something proscribed. Carpe volutpat vestibulum. Piss Off Early, Tomorrow’s Saturday. Dissemble, obfuscate, fudge the truth, and gleefully trespass the norms and delicate pieties that preserve our hopefully durable civilization. Nearly all means are justified by the urge to prematurely escape the bonds of employment just get out of there as soon as plausible. It’s your weekend. Do with it as you will, but in homage to the mighty acronym may I suggest setting aside a moment for a little verse? It’s a particularly good way to pass time waiting on friends who may not run as roughshod over the delicate pieties and were not as successful as you were in engineering an early exit.


I had no idea Ursula K. Le Guin wrote poetry. I knew all about the fantasy and science fiction books and all the Hugos and Nebulas but her verse was totally unknown to me. I was in the poetry section at my local library trying to find the ill-advised The Dolphin by Robert Lowell where he included bits of private letters from his ex-wife in the poems and I saw Le Guin’s name on a spine. At first, I thought somebody made a mistake and one of her novels was mis-shelved but before I pulled it to give to the librarian I saw the 811 Dewey number. Sure. Why not. Lowell can wait.

It turns out that Le Guin put out “more than a dozen volumes of poetry” per Wikipedia. I read So Far So Good (2018,) a collection she turned into her publisher seven days before her death. The last section of the book, “In the Ninth Decade” is a collection of fourteen reflections or comments on aging and contemplating passing. The writing throughout is evocative but a small, though noticeable, fraction is indented prose. She’s marvelously good at prose, but I would have liked to have a sense that each entry was a poem rather than a short thought or captured moment that didn’t fit into a larger written piece so was repurposed. My guess would be that she’s Ursula K. Le Guin and wouldn’t have cared what I think, but here we are. I won’t focus on that fraction.

The imagery in several poems includes water, often water that must or seemingly can’t be crossed. The whole section “So Far” is dedicated to the idea of traversing open water. She writes “The metaphor (not the subject) of these twelve poems is Lt. William Bligh’s navigation of an open boat four thousand miles from Tonga past the Australian coast to Timor in Maritime Southeast Asia.” The poems capture impotence as Bligh looks wearily on his circumstance and accepts that at times he must go where he is taken.

VII. The Course Kept
Ursula K. Le Guin (1929 – 2018)

We go as we go
because the wind blows so
in this region of the seas
in this season of the year.
We lack the means
to turn our sail, to back and fill,

to catch or spill the breeze
choosing the way we will,
taking the tack we please,
as once we did, or thought we did.
We go as we are sent
and do as we are bid,


The same woman wrote The Earthsea Cycle and a book on writing titled Steering the Craft. I asked my wife, who’s a bit of an authority on science fiction and fantasy, if she knew of any ties Le Guin had with water. Did she grow up on the coast? Did she sail? Did she travel by sea extensively. My wife didn’t know, but she poked around and found this from an interview Le Guin did with the science fiction writer Alison Halderman:

ALISON HALDERMAN: You do invent wonderful landscapes. The Earthsea trilogy creates such a vivid picture of the sea — have you done a lot of sailing?

URSULA LE GUIN: All that sailing is complete fakery. It’s amazing what you can fake. I’ve never sailed anything in my life except a nine-foot catboat, and that was in the Berkeley basin in about three feet of water. And we managed to sink it. The sail got wet and it went down while we sang “Nearer My God to Thee.” We had to wade to shore, and go back to the place we’d rented it and tell them. They couldn’t believe it. “You did what?” You know, it’s interesting, they always tell people to write about what they know about. But you don’t have to know about things, you just have to be able to imagine them really well.

She fakes it well. “Desert Crossing” is one of the final fourteen poems in So Far So Good. In it, water is scarce and harder to reach as she ages.

The Desert Crossing
Ursula K. Le Guin (1929 – 2018)

A wrinkled, spotted, pallid hide
stretched and sagging on a shack of bones
was her house now, her shaky tent
set up each day a little farther on
into the plain of thorns and dunes.
An awkward load to carry, so the way
was always farther between the springs of water.
The great silence lay behind each dune
like a lion with a woman’s head. She sang
in a voice like wind in sand, a long
answer to the question that it did not ask.

I wasn’t so fond of the first line of the next one, but I really liked the rest, particularly the nod to Gerard Manley Hopkins. No water here, but still good.

Ursula K. Le Guin (1929 – 2018)


Her feathery raiment and the July sun
made her a glory as she flew,
a blaze of gold and white
dappled with dun against the blue.
Instant as a meteor she claimed the sky,
jinked, veered, towered to soar
above the hill, and disappeared,
crying her piercing, hissing cry.


Mice in the dry roots of the grasses
on the sunlit hill
crouched when that shadow passed.
Small birds down by the creek
were still,
hearing the dragon speak.

Weird side note: I can’t read the name Le Guin without mentally mispronouncing it. I went to school with a girl whose last name was Guin but pronounced “Gu-you-win” as opposed to the author’s “Gwen” pronunciation. There are also two towns here in Alabama that are both pronounced “Gu-you-win.” Amazingly Guin and Gu-Win share a boundary. I liked to think that a town council meeting got heated and those on the losing side of whatever issue sparked the animosity got in a huff and said “Fine! We’ll just start our own Guin!” and stomped over the city limits and started drafting papers of incorporation and electing officials based on the candidate’s ability to shake a fist angrily eastward. Less interestingly, the space between Guin and Winfield decided to incorporate and named their new town after a movie theater which took its name from the first syllables of the cities it was snuggled between. Gu-Win. I like the angry secessionist pioneer theory better. I guess no one objected to having two bordering municipalities share the same name. I should mention that Marion County was dry at the time all this happened which means everyone involved was likely sober and still, it happened.

3 thoughts on “POETS Day! Ursula K. Le Guin

  1. You misspelled Ursula in the title. Sorry for the nit-pick, I’m a bad speller too. I was a fan of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series (at least the first 3) when I was much younger. Interesting side story. Perhaps I’ve been mis-pronouncing Le Guin all this time.


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