R.I.P. – Ursula Le Guin (1929-2018) – The Poet, the Monster and The House of Poetry


Acclaimed American author Ursula Le Guin (1929- January 22nd, 2018)

For the New House

May this house be full of kitchen smells
and shadows and toys and nests of mice
and roars of rage and waterfalls of tears
and deep sexual silences and sounds
of mysterious origins never explained
and troves and keepsakes and a lot of junk
and a flowing like a warm wind only slower
blowing the leaves of trees and books and the fish-years
of a child’s life silvery flickering
quick, quick in the slow incessant gust
that billows out the curtains a moment
all those years from now, ago.
May the sills and doorframes
be a blessing blest at every passing.
May the windows know clearly
the branch and the flower of the apple tree.
And may you be in this house
as the music is in the instrument.

Ursula K. Le Guin from Wild Oats and Fireweed, Harper & Row, 1988

When I heard the news tonight that acclaimed American poet, novelist and essayist and feminist, Ursula Le Guin, had died yesterday I felt my world had jerked out of place. Le Quin is best known for her so-called fantasy novels (Wizard of Earth Sea Series one of my favorites) that used fantastical places and events as a lens to look deeper into our humanity and inhumanity. Yes, Le Guin was a great storyteller but the best kind, bolstered by a deep and abiding understanding of human nature. And a belief in what great literature can tell us about ourselves.

My first instinct when I heard about her death was to go looking for an article I had read years ago that quoted Le Guin from her essay The Child and the Shadow. What is said about the shadow and its impact on poetry. On poets. I have excerpted a piece from that article below.

What that article and essay show in spades is how well Le Guin understood the complexity of human psychological makeup. And it’s the Han Christen Anderson story of the decent man and his shadow that she draws on to reflect on that complexity. In the Anderson story a man tries to separate from his shadow but in the end is held captive by it and destroyed by it. At a time in our history when we see this being played out in news stories on an almost daily basis this wisdom is helpful.

Here’s le Guin:

The man is all that is civilized—learned, kindly, idealistic, decent. The shadow is all that gets suppressed in the process of becoming a decent, civilized adult. The shadow is the man’s thwarted selfishness, his unadmitted desires, the swearwords he never spoke, the murders he didn’t commit. The shadow is the dark side of his soul, the unadmitted, the inadmissible.

And what Anderson is saying is that this monster is an integral part of the man and cannot be denied—not if the man wants to enter the House of Poetry.

For fellow poets reading this, this grabbed my attention big time. She goes on:

Reduced to the language of daylight, Anderson’s story says that a man who will not confront and accept his shadow is a lost soul. It also says something specifically about itself, about art. It says that if you want to enter the House of Poetry, you have to enter it in the flesh, the solid, imperfect, unwieldy body, which has corns and colds and greeds and passions, the body that casts a shadow. It says that if the artist tries to ignore evil, he will never enter into the House of Light.

To not bring our shadow as companion into our poetry, is the death of our poetry. A harsh reminder.

Here now the excerpt from that article by Miriam Meinders from Geez magazine in 2007 which enlarges the concept of the shadow:

In her essay, “The Child and the Shadow,” Ursula K. Le Guin uses the language of fantasy, myth and fairy tale to discuss the archetype of the shadow. The shadow is a shared aspect of our collective unconscious. Yes, it is the dark side of the soul. “It is all we don’t want to, can’t, admit into our conscious self, all the qualities and tendencies within us which have been repressed, denied or not used.” But it’s not just a depot for everything undesirable. It’s also the guide.

I do not quite know what Le Guin means when she writes that the shadow is “the guide of the journey of self-knowledge” but she has only to start talking about Frodo, Gollum and the journey to destroy the Ring of Power for me to get it. Frodo is the good hobbit and Gollum his shadow. The Ring is destroyed only not by Frodo defeating Gollum, but by them traveling together.

So what does this mean for my wish to take more care? Time has rubbed away some of my prickliness about goodness. I can accept goodness as shorthand for trying to live free. Not free of my shadow, though. The only way to be free of it would be to be a formless and two-dimensional body that casts no shadow, that has no purchase in the world. But perhaps, as Jung said, dealing with my shadow rather than projecting it outward onto others is something real I can do for the world, my part of the burden to shoulder. And perhaps, as Le Guin would have it, my shadow is not just a necessary evil, but a necessary companion.

Our shadow that necessary and difficult companion. My gratitude to Le Guin and her books that so illuminate that struggle. How we are called, not to run away from our shadow but to face it. Our job, especially if we are to enter the House of Poetry.