Honoring World #Poetry Day, March 21st, with a review of Ursula K. Le Guin’s latest collection

World Poetry Day is March 21st, 2016: Celebrate Poetry Globally

To honor this day and #Women’s History Month, both, I’m reviewing and discussing some of the poems from one of my favorite poets and authors, fellow #feminist/#Buddhist Ursula K. Le Guin. Her latest collection, Late in the Day: Poems 2010-2014, is a delight.

late in the day real
Late in the Day: Poems 2010-2014, by Ursula K. Le Guin
http://www.ursulakleguin.com/Index-LateInTheDay.html

Ursula K. Le Guin is my favorite writer. No contest. In fact, I wrote a review of another poetry collection early this year, which I enjoyed enormously: https://sallyember.com/2016/01/19/homage-to-and-review-of-ursula-k-le-guins-finding-my-elegy-new-and-selected-poems/ Some of the explanations of my connection to Le Guin are repeated from that post, below.

I have enjoyed, admired, appreciated, envied and learned from her novels, novellas, short stories, essays, and poetry for over forty years. She is about my mom’s age (in her early 80s, now) and still going strong. She is my idol, my mentor, and my role model. I also found out, after reading a recent collection, that she and I share not only a love of writing, speculative fiction, feminism, social justice, pacifism and environmentalism, but also, Buddhism and meditation. Frabjous day!

Poetry is meant to be read aloud. I enjoy reading poetry aloud as if I am the poet, wondering as I hear each word, line, idea, image, stanza, what the poet was imagining and how this exact turn of phrase came to capture it. Knowing how long many poets take to conjure the precise manner in which to describe and evoke every part of their intention, I want to savor it.

I do NOT read in that artificial, almost-questioning (upturned inflection on the end of lines), drawling almost-monotone that many poetry readers make the horrible mistake of using.

No.

I read poetry aloud as if each poem is its own story, because this unique version of that story is interesting, new, and not mine. I use the line breaks and punctuation as suggestions to help me go with the poet’s flow. I smile, I laugh, I pause, I taste the words on my tongue.

Try it. You’ll like it!

In her introduction, Le Guin discusses the interdependent relationships among seemingly inanimate objects (whose apparent lack of sentience she and others challenge), places, humans, animals, life events and circumstances with eloquence and grace. As in all of her public writing and speeches, she has a way of turning things around with her verbal kaleidoscope to inspire us to see things from new perspectives with each turn. Her unique points of view become more accessible as one continues to read and ponder her body of work, which I’ve been doing for over forty years (she’s been writing for over 60).

This collection is divided into eight sections: Relations, Contemplations, Messengers, Four Lines, Works, Times, The Old Music and Envoi, but I couldn’t explain them or why some poems are in one but not another section. I was very impressed, though, with her poems about things, especially kitchen objects. Amazing.

Enough of all that explanatory stuff. You can get that elsewhere and any time. Let’s enjoy some of her poems!

I marked pages of this book with pieces of scrap paper so I’d remember which stanzas, poems, titles, lines caught my heart. Here are some, in no particular order. I sometimes annotate or explain. Find your own parts to love and for your own reasons.

Le Guin has many poems rooted (pun intended) in nature, and those in this collection follow that trend. She is also the child of two anthropologists and somewhat of a social and physical scientist herself. I love this opinion she expressed poetically and eloquently, from the introduction to this volume (excerpted from a speech she gave in May, 2014, at a conference that occurred at the University of California/Santa Cruz, “Anthropocene: Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet”), in which she explained her view of the relationship between poetry and science and why we need both:

Science describes accurately from outside, poetry describes accurately from inside. Science explicates, poetry implicates. Both celebrate what they describe. We need the languages of both science and poetry to save us from merely stockpiling endless “information” that fails to inform our ignorance or our irresponsibility.

By replacing unfounded, willful opinion, science can increase moral sensitivity; by demonstrating and performing aesthetic order or beauty, poetry can move minds to the sense of fellowship that prevents careless usage and exploitation of our fellow beings, waste and cruelty. (p. ix)

One of my favorites from this collection, Constellating, situates relationships between people as if between stars:

Constellating
Mind draws the lines between the stars
that let the Eagle and the Swan
fly vast and bright and far
above the dark before the dawn.

Between two solitary minds
as far as Deneb from Altair,
love flings the unimaginable line
that marries fire to fire.

How beautifully she depicts that intangible bond humans create to connect us which is like nothing else, yet she finds the commonality in constellations.

In The Games, Le Guin manages to indicate our views on aging and reflecting on past accomplishments in a perfect metaphor:

The Games
The crowds that cheered me when I took the Gold,
who were they then? Where are they now?
It’s queer to think about. Do they know how
you look at the hurdles, long before you’re old,
and wonder how you ever ran that race?
I’m not sorry, now all’s said and done,
to lie here by myself with nowhere to run,
in quiet, in this immense dark place.

Definition, or, Seeing the Horse is the type of poem about poetry that I usually eschew. But, one stanza from it is so perfect I have to share it, here, because it perfectly captures the limitations of poetry:

Definition, or, Seeing the Horse
from iii. Judith’s Fear of Naming
To define’s not to confine,
words can’t reach so far.
Even the poet’s line can only hold
a moment of the uncontainable.
The horse runs free.

Le Guin has written many essays, books and articles about the art and craft of writing, but never have I read or heard her convey what she feels about being a writer so well as in this poem, My Job. She lyricizes about writing’s being something she first learned as a child (“I started out as a prentice”) and is still learning. My favorite of her sentiments are these:

from My Job
Sometimes the pay is terrible.
Sometimes it’s only fairy gold.
Then again sometimes the wages
are beyond imagination and desire.
I am glad to have worked for this company.

Two poems, side-by-side in this book (which cannot be an accident), show her wonderful deployment of language and imagery: Sea Hallowe’en and Between. In all of her poems, she demonstrates her mastery of many different poetic forms: rhyming and non-rhyming, exploding into free verse and staying within those more formally ruled for meter, line length, repetition and other constraints. She calls herself a “caperer,” in her essay about her poetic choices and learning to write in various forms in her Afterword, meaning, one who moves among all forms and free verse as she wishes. She also writes here about how a form can “give” her a poem. Fascinating stuff. Love to read about her process.

From Between, I especially admire this final couplet:

A winter wind just whispers where
two winter trees stand tense and bare.

And, from Sea Hallowe’en, who can’t love this whimsical phrasing that ends each of the stanzas?

west to the tide rising,
cold, cold and wild.

a ghost on a north wind blowing
wild, wild and cold.

At best, I am a mediocre poet, despite having been published and won poetry prizes at a younger age, having written songs that were performed, and including my poetry in my science-fiction books as if written by its protagonist, Clara (http://www.sallyember.com/Spanners for more information). I make no claims to being an actual poet if Ursula K. Le Guin is an example. I yield and bow to her and many others for entertaining, informing, inspiring and enlivening us with their use of words and images.

She writes and speaks often about the rewards of writing and art and the politics and capitalism that haunt the industry. This poetry collection is ended with a speech she gave on these topics. The final lines are very moving:

I’ve had a long career as a writer, and a good one, in good company. Here at the end of it, I don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want and should demand our fair share of the proceeds, but the name of our beautiful reward isn’t profit. its name is freedom.

Yes.

Ursula K Le Guin photo
image from her website, photo ©by Marian Wood Kolisch

Thank you, Ursula, for sharing your deep and soulful moments with us all. May your contributions to our literary and emotional landscapes always be known as blessings while you still live and after you die, and may all beings benefit.

Find these poems, this and all her other work here: http://www.ursulakleguin.com


For more information about poetic forms and World Poetry Day:

Poetry adds moments of beauty to our everyday lives, connects our emotions in unique ways, and helps people everywhere express themselves in amazing ways. Poetry of all kinds is definitely something to celebrate, so join us in looking around the world for inspiration. In honor of World Poetry Day, we (The New Rivers Press) wanted to share with you some unique global poetry styles.

Ghazal: an ancient form of poetry dating back to 700 CE in the Arab lands, and later Persia. It is fairly intricate, but contains anywhere from 5 to 15 independent couplets that create a beautiful whole, all with lines of the same length, meter, or syllable count. It is an extremely well-known form in Iran, where the 14th-century Persian writer, Hafez, published his famous ghazal collection, the Divan of Hafez. For examples of ghazals and more detailed information, visit http://poets.org or The Ghazal Page.

Haiku: arguably one of the most well-known types of international poetry forms, this form comes from ancient Japan. It consists of three short lines with five, seven, and five syllables each. The subject of a haiku was originally restricted to nature and the seasons, but that later was opened up to many different subject matters. Some of the most famous Japanese haiku writers include Basho (the “saint of haiku” in Japan), Buson, and Issa. For more in-depth history of the haiku, check out Poetry through the Ages or Encyclopedia Brittanica.

Doha: another ancient form of poetry common in India. It is a 24-syllable couplet, typically in Hindi. The lines are split unevenly, with the first line having 13 syllables and the second having 11 syllables. It was made more famous by such poets as Kabir and Nanak at the end of the 15th century and beginning of the 16th century, as well as Goswami Tulsidas, whose work, Ramcharitmanas, is still famous among Hindus across northern India. To find out more about this and many other poetry forms, explore the book A Poet’s Glossary, by Edward Hirsch.
from The New Rivers Press‘ newsletter, Riverine, Volume 3, Issue 7, http://www.newriverspress.com/

Also, the Poetry Foundation has a great website and mobile phone app that can put almost any poem and poet right into your hands any time: http://www.poetryfoundation.org They also put out Poetry Magazine and a poetry podcast.

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Johnson’s Shut-Ins: Jumping In with Fear, Enjoying the Ride

Johnsons Shut Ins title
(unknown person in this photo)

Johnson’s Shut-Ins: Jumping In with Fear, Enjoying the Ride

Some of my clearest memories, among my fondest and most thrilling times, are of the several visits I made while a teen and young adult to this amazing state park in central Missouri. I attended and then worked at several summer camps which made this wonderful location part of our overnight trip schedule, so I was privileged to go there again and again in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when the water was clean, the river was running high and the place was mostly undiscovered.

What is it? What makes it so special? From a scientific/geologic/historic standpoint, there are these facts:

The story of Johnson’s Shut-Ins starts over a billion years ago when the igneous rocks, pink granites and blue-gray rhyolites, were formed from volcanic activity.

Igneous rock is one formed from molten rock, magma, and other volcanic materials (e.g., ash deposits).
Granite rock (a type of igneous rock) is formed from magma that cooled below the earth’s surface and then was exposed later.
Rhyolite rock (another kind of igneous rock) is formed from magma and volcanic ash and debris flows that spewed out onto the earth’s surface and then cooled.

Above the park the East Fork of the Black River flows through a broader valley formed in dolomite bedrock. Then the river hits the more resistant igneous rock and the valley becomes narrow and steep-sided or “shut in.” Along the banks of the stream, look for the Ozark witch hazel which blooms in late winter and early spring.

http://mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/places-go/natural-areas/johnsons-shut-ins

There are the natural beauty and sensory pleasures of the cool but not freezing water, the rushing but not crushing rapids, the clean and clear water, the variety of smells, sights and adventures to be experienced which you’d have to go there to know. But, here are some photos and a few stories to help you believe you were there with me.

For the Walkers
For the less adventurous, those who’d rather sunbathe than swim, the large rocks offer plenty of opportunities to lie around and enjoy others’ splashing and yelling without moving much. My friends and I would divide into groups: walkers, floaters, swimmers and jumpers. The walkers usually stopped out and sunbathed a lot and didn’t go as far down the river as the others. Many of them barely got wet. Personally, I didn’t see the point of being a walker, but some people just didn’t want to get wet.

Johnsons Shut Ins 6

For the Floaters
Floaters enjoyed the water but weren’t great with longer swims and had no interest in climbing and jumping in from higher and higher plateaus. They would use the rapids to shoot down little ladders into shallow pools, climb back up and do that or another section many times and stay in the central “shut-ins” area for hours, whopping, hollering, splashing and laughing. I’d join the floaters for a while, but I felt the need to move on to more exciting parts very soon.

Johnsons Shut Ins 9

The walkers and floaters could see parts of where the swimmers and jumpers were going, but not all. Mostly, these first two groups were less willing to go deep, go high, go far. Walkers and floaters still had a blast and probably had no care for or interest in what they were “missing” because what they were doing was incredibly fun and went on for many and varied sections of the shut-ins.

Johnsons Shut Ins 8

For the Swimmers
Some of us swimmers and jumpers would re-visit the shut-ins sections to hang out with our walker and floater friends, eat our lunches, warm up, talk, shoot down the rapids for a while, then swim further on again. We’d do this back-and-forth for hours.

Johnsons Shut Ins 7

If you can imagine the sounds of the rushing water, the shouts and laughter of the kids and teens, the sweet smells of the trees, water, flowers and plants, the beauty of the rocks and formations and the rush of excitement we’d feel, you have some of the sensory pleasures swimmers and floaters especially enjoyed.

Johnsons Shut Ins 3

We swimmers, though, just had to keep going. Beyond the shut-ins sections were three ever-larger and deeper pools, kind of like small lakes, culminating in the pool with the three jumping platforms. The feeling of being pushed and pulled around by the rapids in the shut-ins for hours was with us until we got to the third pool. By then, the calm, clear water of the first two pools had changed our vibrations and soothed our nerves.

For the Jumpers

Jumpers are swimmers who can conquer, or jump in with fear. Jumpers had to be strong, enduring swimmers who could tread water, go deep and surface, climb and jump in repeatedly (or at least once) without flagging because there were no lifeguards and no easy way to get rescued if a swimmer or jumper got exhausted.

Johnsons Shut Ins 5

Some swimmers came through all three pools just for the love of swimming and some came to watch the jumpers. Maybe they were revving up to jump, but many swimmers never did. Or, some jumped, but only from the lowest platform rock (about 6 feet above the water). There was an intermediate platform rock, which we estimated to be about 20 feet above the water, which many jumpers used but most never went higher.

Then, there was the highest jump, from a rock area that was about 40 feet above the water. It was also set kind of far back, so jumpers not only had to be brave enough to climb up (clambering up a narrow trail without steps which was very slippery and had no handholds), foolish enough to jump off from 40 feet high, but also, we had to be skillful enough to jump OUT in order to clear the jutting rocks beneath this platform area so that we would get to the water and not break a body part hitting the rocks first. There was a small area to take a few steps (but not run) before jumping, or jumpers could just propel our bodies forward and out as we jumped: that’s what most did.

NOTES: The first photo, below, which shows a human-made diving board, was not the way it was when I was there. There was no diving board. We had to jump out to avoid those rocks and had no help from an extending board.

Johnsons Shut Ins 1

I remember climbing up to the highest jumping area for the first time at the age of fourteen, thrilled and frightened in equal measure. When I got to the top, I was so scared I could only sit and watch as several other jumpershurled themselves off the cliff. I let kid after kid go ahead of me, not daring to take a turn.

I felt that I couldn’t do it. I was panting, sweating, shaking from fear. I looked at the climbing trail and knew I couldn’t climb back down, either. It was incredibly treacherous with sliding pebbles, shifting dirt and narrow rock formations that made it barely possible to go up and impossible to reverse direction. There would be no going down except by jumping.

Each jumper hooted and hollered, making it seem so fun, I just ached to do it. But I was immobilized by my terror, hunched down behind the jumping area, for about thirty minutes. Luckily, no one paid me any attention and I could be in my own world, contemplating my fate.

I was up there so long my swimming suit felt dry. Finally, there was no one else up there for a minute. I felt the urge come over me to DO IT. I stood up, my legs shaking. I crept to the edge of the cliff and looked down, checking the exact location of the jutting rocks that I’d only seen from below before. They jutted out REALLY FAR.

This photo shows the perspective of that highest jumping area as I remember it.

Johnsons Shut Ins 10

I was only 5′ tall. How would I propel myself out beyond them? I imagined breaking my arm or leg, hitting the rocks if I misjudged my jump.

No way. I could do this.

A big whoosh of internal courage rushed into me. Grabbing onto it before it could disappear, I took a few steps back, then raced forward and hurled myself OUT, bicycling my legs as I’d seen others do to get more distance beyond the rocks below me.

It seemed to take forever to reach the water. I had time to think about how long it was taking. But, no one had told me and I hadn’t bothered to notice that I needed to keep my arms and legs close to my body. I hit the water with a smack, my legs slightly open and my arms out to my sides. IT HURT LIKE HELL! My inner thighs were on fire and my inner arms felt as if I’d hit walls with them.

I sunk down further in the water than I wanted to, then frantically kicked to get back to the surface, blowing out water and gasping for breath when I broke clear, hurting all over.

I felt exhilarated! I HAD DONE IT! My friends and a few strangers around me cheered and hollered at me. As my head cleared and the aching subsided, I looked around, smiled, and held up one arm high above my head, fist clenched. YES!

Now that I knew I could do it and had learned that I needed to keep my body more like a pencil after I bicycled out, I was eager to do it again. So, I did.

Several times that day, several times the next day, I clambered up and immediately jumped from that highest point. I learned to love the fall, letting time stretch out. Knowing the entry wouldn’t hurt, that I could get my breath and come up just fine, made it that much more enjoyable.

For several years after that, on each visit, into my early twenties, I made my first jump with tremendous fear and enjoyed the rest. It was one of my favorite things EVER to do.

At each summer’s visit, for my first jump I had to climb up and then let several jumpers go first as I got myself psyched up to jump again. I never stopped being afraid of that height. I just kept cimbing up and jumping anyway, feeling the fear while enjoying the ride.

What Lies Beyond
The Black River goes on from the third pool, but we couldn’t swim or hike any further safely. Some of it looks like this, from above, which seems as if it would be a fun ride down the rapids, like the shut-ins that came before, except there was no way to get back by climbing back up or around and up, the way we did in the actual shut-ins sections.

Johnsons Shut Ins 2

If you ever want to go
First of all, make sure the Black River is running well: not too high (from flooding) and not too low (from drought). Second, plan to camp out in the park and stay a few days. You’ll love it that much. Bring your own everything; there’s nothing much nearby in the way of restaurants, stores, etc.

The MO State Parks page states:
“This natural area is within Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park. The 2-mile Shut-Ins trail provides access to the natural area. Inquire at the park office about the hiking trail.
“To reach the park office: from the intersection of MO Highway 21 and MO Highway N north of Pilot Knob (Iron County) go west nearly 13 miles to the park entrance on the left (south). Follow the signs to the park office.
“Swimming is allowed in the shut-ins at your own risk.”
http://mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/places-go/natural-areas/johnsons-shut-ins