Affirmation in Solitude: Ursula K. Le Guin on the Poetry of Penguins


“If there is poetry in my book about the sea,” Rachel Carson reflected in her superb National Book Award acceptance speech, “it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.” Carson saw the sea as a microcosm of all life, and indeed, there is native poetry in the wonder of reality that we access whenever we step beyond our habitual frames of reference and simply pay attention to what is other than ourselves. Her hero Henry Beston undrestood this when he observed that non-human animals move through the world “finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear” — the voices of poets in the deepest and widest sense of poetry as an instrument of living with wonder.

Ursula K. Le Guin

That is what Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) explores in her short story The Author of the Acacia Seeds: And Other Extracts from the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics, included in her 1982 collection The Compass Rose (public library) — the story of a group of scientists studying non-human languages, one of whom sets out “to approach the sea literature of the penguin with understanding.”

That Le Guin was writing before we had decoded the sonic hieroglyphics of dolphins or discerned the dance-language of bees only attests to her extraordinary foresight and penetrating wisdom into the more-than-human world.

The King Penguin by Thomas Waterman Wood, 1871. (Available as a print.)

Le Guin — who was a poet and believed that “science describes accurately from outside, poetry describes accurately from inside [and] both celebrate what they describe” — writes of the kinetic poetics of penguins:

The beauty of that poetry is as unearthly as anything we shall ever find on earth… Imagine it: the ice, the scouring snow, the darkness, the ceaseless whine and scream of the wind. In that black desolation a little band of poets crouches. They are starving; they will not eat for weeks. On the feet of each one, under the warm belly feathers, rests one large egg, thus preserved from the mortal touch of the ice. The poets cannot hear each other; they cannot see each other. They can only feel the other’s warmth. That is their poetry, that is their art. Like all kinetic literatures, it is silent; unlike other kinetic literatures, it is all but immobile, ineffably subtle. The ruffling of a feather; the shifting of a wing; the touch, the faint, warm touch of the one beside you. In unutterable, miserable, black solitude, the affirmation. In absence, presence. In death, life.

Complement with a neuroscientist on the pengin’s antidote to abandonment, then revisit Le Guin on storytelling and the power of language, suffering and getting to the other side of pain, and the magic of real human conversation.


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