Ursula K. Le Guin: Collected Poems
“these are a storyteller’s poems.”
The Library of America has added another Ursula K. Le Guin volume to the shelf—the collected poetry of an author more known for her speculative fiction and fantasy novels.
As a storyteller, Le Guin suits the genre, intermixing legends and mythology, the natural world, popular culture, and more. From Kathmandu to Colonel Sanders, and from Marilyn Monroe to the Tao Te Ching, Le Guin’s poetry veers fantastically through time and space. This is easily and delightfully observable in the complete volume of her work, the sixth among the bounteous Library of America offerings on Le Guin. The collection contains 68 previously uncollected poems (two published posthumously) as well as selected prose, and a chronology of Le Guin’s life and literary career.
Le Guin, born Ursula Kroeber in Berkeley, California, in 1929, spent many childhood summers among house guests of her highly educated parents, including notorious native and white storytellers Juan Dolores, and J. Robert Oppenheimer. Such influences must have impressed upon young Ursula, who at age 11 received her first rejection letter for a short story submitted to a science fiction magazine.
As a youth, Le Guin was an avid reader. Many of her earliest impressions from literature appear throughout her poems including the Taoist writings of the Chinese writer Lao-Tzu. As an undergraduate at Radcliffe College in 1951 she attempted to publish her stories and poems. While on a Fulbright Fellowship to study in France, she met and then married her husband, Charles Alfred Le Guin. They traveled, studied, taught, and lived.
It was years before Le Guin published, receiving rejections from Scribner, Knopf, and Houghton Mifflin. Her first published work was a poem in the 1959 Fall issue of the journal, Prairie Poet: “Folksong from the Montayna Province.” A decade later, Le Guin’s published novels began to achieve success. It was not until 1975 that her first poetry collection, Wild Angels, was published.
The Library of America offers so much for Le Guin fans and to those who are new to her work. Between her first and final book of poetry (the manuscript for So Far So Good was delivered to Le Guin’s editor just a week before her death in 2018) Le Guin’s consciousness bares the expected: magic and dragons, kingdoms, mortals, and gods—but also offers present and embodied expression, delving into the human condition; aging, marriage, and womanhood.
Her writing contains familiar people and places, and often includes the issues of our time, from the Vietnam and Iraq wars to the AIDS crisis and protests at Standing Rock. Her attention is to the oceans, mountains, trees, and the fate of salmon. Also, Le Guin addresses social issues such as race and civil unrest, the border wall, violence against women and Black people, and the climate crisis. She exposes the fragility of it all. Yet, as dark as Le Guin’s poems can be, there is always a flicker of light, a signal of hope for the future.
The book’s introduction by the honored and award-winning editor and author, Harold Bloom, was written shortly before his own death. He said, “Reading her I almost learn how it is to be a tree.” Bloom comfortably discusses Le Guin’s instincts, and her “complex amalgam of anarchism, feminism and god making.”
Le Guin’s poetry calls for a close study. It helps to know your Homer and Virgil, The Iliad and Aeneid, as well as a bit of Dante, Rilke, Plato, and Lorca, Buddhism’s Eightfold Path, Greek and Roman mythology, along with many other academic subjects. Or else a reader may allow the poems to serve as a gateway for further exploration in any direction.
For example, the collection includes her rendition of Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, which over decades Le Guin completed through intensive study of more than eight translations including Carus’ Lao-Tze’s Tou-Te-King published in 1898. In her notes, Le Guin assesses the poet describing him as both tough and tender-minded, but never “squashy-minded.” Perhaps she saw something of Lao-Tzu in herself, if not, her readers certainly may.
Bloom describes Le Guin in her own words as a “maze maker or ‘shaper of darkness / into ways and hollows.’” Whether you come intentionally for Le Guin, or you come for poetry’s sake, every spirit, fog, and stone, every dance, worm, and cat—these are a storyteller’s poems.