I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve read Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1968 children’s novel A wizard of Earthsea. A children’s novel, yes, and I first read it as a child. I’ve also read it on watch in the engine room of a guided missile cruiser; stretched out in a sleeping bag on the floor of a just-got-divorced-and-don’t-yet-have-furniture apartment; most recently, deep into my 50s and huddled under a blanket taking refuge from the Colorado deep-winter cold. The children’s novel takes a position on the relationship between language and meaning that has been debated back and forth since Socrates–no wonder I became a linguist.
Before her death in 2018, Le Guin finished a book of poetry: So far so good. (Reminds me of the French joke about the guy falling out a window, with the punchline jusqu’ici, tout va bien–probably not an accident.) Here’s a little gem from it, titled Company:
A paw, a questing nose half waken me,
and I let him get under the covers.
He curls up and purrs himself asleep.
Cats are less troublesome than lovers.Ursula K. Le Guin, “Company”
- Le Guin, writing this at the age of 88, was still thinking about what it’s like to have a man in your bed.
- It’s always worth the trouble to read a poem aloud–I didn’t even realize that covers/lovers rhymes until I did so.
- Poeticality comes in part from unexpected word combinations. But, “unexpected” is very context-dependent–you wouldn’t be shocked if I used the word alliteration in a post about poetry, but it would probably surprise you if it appeared in an essay about that time I climbed the wall of a ravine to get to a Port-A-Potty. (It didn’t end well.)
- Things could be otherwise. Take the last sentence of the poem–Cats are less troublesome than lovers–and put it at the beginning. The result makes every bit as much narrative sense as Le Guin’s version–maybe even more so. But, as a poem, it would kinda suck.
- Why, if that last sentence gives you a better narrative at the beginning of the poem, does it give you a better poem when it occurs at the end? I think it’s related to an unexpected word combination. Specifically: when you’ve got a poem that’s mostly monosyllables and so far has had no word over two syllables long, troublesome packs quite a punch. Define the context in in terms of word length, and troublesome stands out quite a bit from a bunch of mono- and bisyllables.
- It bears repeating: Le Guin, writing this at the age of 88, was still thinking about what it’s like to have a man in your bed. I wish I’d known her.
Picture source: By Oregon State University – Ursula Le Guin, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=89862997