from the Preface
I've been introduced to people who said to me, with what looked like a delicious shudder of vanity, "Oh, I'm so afraid you'll put me in your next novel!"
I say, "Don't worry, I never do that," which is true; it would be cruel to say, "Don't worry, I have to compost you first." But that would be the honest answer from any writer who aspires to more than journalism (or revenge). Fiction is an imaginative art. Characters in a novel aren't reproductions, they're inventions. To invent them, novelists draw not just on their acquaintance with one person or another but on their life experience of other people and their own self-knowledge.
I do sometimes realize that I stole a character's ears from Dr. Oppenheimer, or that another snaps her handbag the way a friend of mine does, but I recognize such a trait-theft with dismay, like a melon seed that has survived the compost and comes sprouting among the pansies.
But that's fiction. What about poetry?
It seems to me that the connection of poetry with experience is more immediate and intense that that of prose, yet more oblique and mysterious-altogether more paradoxical. And that our poetry is often less inventive, more literal, than our fiction.
My poems begin in two ways (that I am aware of), which I think of as "catching" and "following." One is a desire to catch, hold, surround, describe the sight, the emotion, the vision, a passionate desire that forces the words into poetry. A longing to take hold, a longing to make sense.
Or the words begin to make a rhythm, or grow out of a rhythm, coming of themselves and following their own logic, and lead the writing hand the writer's mind to follow them-halting or racing, amazed or bewildered-wherever they go. If they make sense, it comes as a gift, a discovery.
"Catching" usually involves description, representation, and may involve or imply story-and portraiture. "Following" works by metaphor and without narrative. In the process of writing and rewriting, of course, the two processes are likely to combine; maybe in origin they are the same.
There are poems of both kinds in the first part of this book, "Circling to Descend."
In the second part, all the poems started with the longing to "catch," to hold or understand. For a few months I was impelled to write about people I had known" not in fiction, nor yet biographically, but in poetry, and therefore in some sense autobiographically. I wanted the poems to represent what these people had been to me. I wanted to reach back to them, to circle back, uniting now with then, here with there, self with other, a round dance. I think many of us dance in our minds as we grow old. Finding these people again, I felt I was catching glimpses of myself through them. That's why I call this gallery of portraits "The Mirror Gallery."
What I wrote was autobiographical but certainly not an autobiography. I couldn't choose the subjects. The memories were as self-willed as the words. I wasn't in charge. I couldn't even follow, but only wait. Only those who wished to come would come, and most of them were the dead. Some of my people wouldn't show me their face, but wore a mask; for these, and those still alive, I used invented names. Some people I hadn't thought of for years came to join this round dance, while those I loved most did not. My father and brothers are scarcely mentioned, my husband and children not at all. The selection from the past is partial, following a way of its own towards a discovery that remains obscure. Getting older we're likely to get used to following paths in the dark.
Excerpted from Sixty Odd by Ursula K. Le Guin. Copyright © 1999 by Ursula K. Le Guin. Excerpted by permission of Shambhala, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.