Le Guin’s Poetry Urges Us Towards Awareness

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Many know Ursula K. Le Guin through her hefty body of science fiction and fantasy work, perhaps The Lathe of Heaven or the well-loved Earthsea series. Others might be familiar with her books on writing, like the beautifully titled Steering the Craft: A Twenty-first Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, published in 2015. Still others devote themselves to her poetry, and its gently lilting verse. For those unfamiliar with the latter part of her repertoire, Le Guin’s newest collection, Late in the Day, provides a lovely introduction.

This nearly pocket-sized book of poetry begins and ends with two essays, the first of which I read twice in a row, hoping to soak it entirely into my brain. “Deep in Admiration” is one of the most poignant odes to nature and poetry I have ever encountered. At just three pages long, it is an intimate glimpse into the poet’s relationship with nature, or at least an exploration of the depths of the bond between humans and their environment. Because it was originally presented as a speech at a 2014 conference, the tone of this selection remains conversational and welcoming. In the essay, Le Guin makes a deal with the reader, specifically aiming to increase our empathy toward the natural world:

“One way to stop seeing trees, or river, or hills, only as ‘natural resources,’ is to class them as fellow beings—as kinfolk. I guess I’m trying to subjectify the universe, because look where objectifying it has gotten us. To subjectify is not necessarily to co-opt, colonize, exploit. Rather it may involve a great reach outward of the mind and imagination.”

One way to stop seeing trees, or river, or hills, only as ‘natural resources,’ is to class them as fellow beings—as kinfolk. I guess I’m trying to subjectify the universe, because look where objectifying it has gotten us. To subjectify is not necessarily to co-opt, colonize, exploit. Rather it may involve a great reach outward of the mind and imagination. —Ursula K. Le Guin

It is an argument for appreciation and awareness, and she encourages the embrace of both poetry and science as a sufficient means toward this end. “Science,” she says, “describes accurately from outside, poetry describes accurately from inside. Science explicates, poetry implicates.”

Indeed, the poetry in this collection is a deeply personal account of the writer’s surroundings, from the small—a treasured wooden spoon or a worn clay pot—to larger, more ancient elements of the universe. In several of her poems—“Orders,” for example—she addresses the Greek gods. The poem is comprised of one long, sweeping account of the siege on Troy, but the final three lines pose a question to the gods involved. It is a question that, no doubt, many scholars have asked over the years:

in that moment if you’d known
all as we who read Homer know it
what would you have done differently?

This question, like many of the poems in the collection, addresses the impact and interconnectedness of all corners of the universe. Whether the objects of her poems loom large over history or rest quietly in a kitchen drawer, they are all sacred in some way to Le Guin, and this collection is an ode to this relationship.

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Tess Wilson works in Civic Information Services at Main, and occasionally assists Teen Mentors during programming at the Labs. She is a collector of anything from big dictionaries to small rocks, and her latest acquisition was an MFA in Creative Writing of Poetry from Chatham University.