Thursday, January 25, 2018

Remembering Ursula Le Guin, Visionary Fiction Writer & Nicanor Parra, Anti-Poet

Photograph by Dana Gluckstein / MPTV Images
via New Yorker
Let me start my note about Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018) by pointing out that I always write her name as "Ursula LeGuin," closing that Breton gap between "Le" and "Guin." As it turns out, that was the original spelling of her husband Charles' name, but when they married in France, when both were in graduate school, a clerk urged Mr. Le Guin to use the linguistically correct form. This is neither here nor there, really, except that Ursula Le Guin was very attentive to naming, and more specifically, to language and its power, using and probing it to explore alternatives to the oppressive structures that defined our real world in her visionary fiction career, which spanned half a century, and which left a deep and lasting mark on literature.

Bibliomane and bibliophile though I am, I first learned about Le Guin's work when I saw the first film version--now hard to find--of her 1971 novel The Lathe of Heaven on PBS, when I was a high schooler in 1980, and recall being transfixed by it. The novel, a dystopia set in 2002 Portland, Oregon, turns on the powers of the protagonist, Charles Orr, who can willfully dream new realities, past or present, into being. A psychologist, William Haber, figures out a way to manipulate Orr, for nefarious purposes, but one of the most enlightening aspects of Le Guin's novel is how she explores the potentially devastating consequences of what may, without extensive consideration and extrapolation into the future, seem to be positive or even neutral changes to our reality. To give one example, when Haber utilizes his machine to have Orr eliminate racism, the result is that all people end up turning the same, dull color of light "gray," which addresses the issue of color prejudice but also eliminates a major component of human difference, beauty and identity. (Of course one could also argue with the idea that racism hinges solely on skin color and does not also entail physiognomy and other distinguishing traits, let alone structural and system components, but in the sense that "color prejudice, "as the classicist George Snowden famous put it, lies at the heart of the European project of racial categorization and scientific racism, Le Guin made a justifiable choice.)

The Lathe of Heaven is a powerful example of how her work was less interested in technology, and more engaged with profound philosophical, sociological, anthropological, and, like much realist fiction, psychological questions. I think it once saw it called "soft science fiction," though there is nothing lesser about how she and others explored alternate ways of imagining our world, or alternative and parallel ones they had created from their imaginations. The Lathe of Heaven was a standalone work, though, and not part of her well known Earthsea and Hainish cycle series, for which she is best known. The five Earthsea books, commencing with A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), depict an archipelagic world in which magic plays a key role, and whose characters tend, as I learned with surprise upon reading A Wizard, brown-skinned. The Hainish novels, exemplified by The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), tackle social, political and cultural questions head on; in this novel, a visitor from one planet ventures to another, where he encounters a very different cultural context, including ambisexual characters, which unsettles his initial attempts to understand and connect with them. Social, political and cultural questions run throughout all her work, but Le Guin highlights them in these novel such that it would be hard to walk away from them not somewhat transformed by the questions she raises and allows the texts, and her readers, to mull over. If there were ever a set of works ripe for serialization on TV, and a more opportune time than our current moment of social and political crisis, I could hardly name them. So perhaps some director and production companies will take a hint, negotiate with heirs, and, once greenlighted, start filming.

In addition to her speculative fictional novels for adults, Le Guin also published collections of short stories, one of which, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," I have taught a number of times over the years. Her work also includes works for children, and works of nonfiction, including essays and a guide for better writing, Steering the Craft (1998), which I am proud to admit is sitting on work table right now. (I'd fished it out in preparation for rereading, as my sabbatical got underway.) She remained a powerful feminist, anti-racist, progressive voice till the very end, delivering a knockout speech at the 2014 National Book Awards, where she overtly critiqued capitalism and the hyper-commercialization of books.  She concluded her brief, powerful oration with the following words:

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.

Though Le Guin is no longer among the writing, the conceptual power, assured craft and vivid world-making of Le Guin's art, in the fullest senses of that term, should ensure readers return to it. I know I plan to, beginning with the Earthsea books. May she rest in peace.


Regular J's Theater readers know that I am a fan of Nicanor Parra's (1914-2018), and have featured his work and posts about him several times over the years. Back in 2012, I posted his anti-poem "Young Poets," and one year prior, I wrote about his receipt, tardy though it was, of the Cervantes Prize, one of the highest honors for a Spanish-language writer. The very idea of the anti-poem, which is to say, a literary work that in many ways eschews what are thought to be the fundamentals of poetry while nevertheless employing poetry's unique resources, especially drawn from everyday speech and the vernacular, have long fascinated me, as has Parra's wittiness and humor, and his willingness to incorporate non-lyric elements in poetry, including images, drawings and charts.

I also have regularly lamented that he was not awarded the Nobel Prize (see the first link above), a prospect extremely unlikely at this point, now that he has passed at the age of 103, but then any number of major authors have been and will be passed over, including John Ashbery, who died late last year, and Ursula Le Guin, who I plan to memorialize below. Neither inventiveness nor longevity was enough to move Parra onto the laureate plane, but not winning the Nobel Prize is not the end of the world (and winning it, as a certain musician did a few years ago, is no guarantee of great poetry), and Parra will remain a vital poet for anyone who is interested in poems--or anti-poems--that make the most out of the simplest means.

Here are a few Parra poems I posted on Twitter that I wanted to share here. Note the first, partiularly cheeky if you ask me. (The first two poems are from, Antipoems: How to Look Better & Feel Great, antitranslation by Liz Werner (@NewDirections, 2004), and the second from After Dinner Declarations, translated & w/ an intro by Dave Oliphant (Host Publications, 2009). Consider drafting an anti-poem, and enjoy.

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