Hard Words

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Hard Words, and Other Poems [Amazon, Abebooks] by Ursula K Le Guin

LeGuin Hard Words

The poems of Hard Words are grouped into five sections. The first of them, “Wordhoard,” is principally poems about writing poetry, which is a genre I’m not so drawn to; still she has a couple there that are pretty excellent. I have in mind particularly “The Mind is Still” and “More Useful Truths.” This first section also includes the title poem of the volume. 

The second section “The Dancing at Tillai” is named after the last of its poems, and gravitates around themes drawn from East Indian myths and cults. A couple of these, “Carmagnole of the Thirtieth of June” and “A Semi-Centenary Celebration” put me in mind of some of Ishmael Reed’s incantatory Hoodoo verse.

The pivotal group “Line Drawings” include a lot of dedications of individual poems, and all the poems of this section seem to be rooted in Le Guin’s personal history, to the extent that their sense sometimes seems a little opaque to this reader. But some of them, construed as observation of a natural scene or event, seem almost too bare.

“Walking in Cornwall” is a set of three poems about archaeological excursions in the English landscape. These are some of the longer poems of the book, and taken together they read like a set of dreamy journal entries from the author’s travels. 

The last section “Simple Hill” uses brevity, singsong patterns, and borderline paradoxes to set up a sense of wonder and profundity. All of its poems are short, except for the triptych “The Well of Baln,” which still shares the mood of the others, although fleshing it out from contemplative nursery rhyme to fairy tale.

All told, there is a lot of variety here. The poetry is not avant-gardist; it uses natural images, rhyme and meter, and other very conventional elements. But the use of these conventions here gives evidence of an active and original mind that delights in language–while knowing of its dangers.