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In the silence between my words, hear the praise of Tao. — Randolph Stow (‘From the Testament of Tourmaline’, 2012, 148)
The way you can go
isn’t the real way.
The name you can name
isn’t the real name. — Lao Zi (Lao-Tzu and Le Guin 1997, chap. 1)
Perhaps the dark itself is the source of meaning. — Judith Wright (‘Patterns’, 1994, 426)
Poetry is, among other things, an attempt to express the inexpressible. As the celebrated American writer Ursula K. Le Guin puts it:
Poetry is the human language that can try to say what a tree or a rock or a river is . . . poetry can move minds to the sense of fellowship that prevents careless usage and exploitation of our fellow beings, waste and cruelty. (2016, viii–ix)
As technoscience has colonised the world, poets have felt increasingly compelled to respond to its destructive potential by trying to evoke reverence for the interconnectedness of the natural systems within which humanity is embedded. At the same time, Western science and philosophy have begun to understand this interconnectedness. The twentieth century saw the development of relativity theory, quantum mechanics, chaos theory, ecology, and psychology, in tandem with phenomenology, existentialism and postmodernism. Many scientists and philosophers have realised that the universe must, after all, be seen in terms of systems, relationships, flows and cycles, and that the boundaries between categories, such as wave and particle, observer and observed, ape and human, male and female, subject and object, are drawn primarily in our minds. (Holub 2001, 49–52; Capra and Luisi 2014)
A group of Chinese philosophers grasped this twenty-four centuries ago. The best-known of their books is the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching or Tao Teh Ching), attributed to Lao Zi (Lao Tzu or Lao Tse). This book is one of the primary sources of Daoist philosophy, which I will henceforth call Daoism. (Daoism has another aspect: a religious tradition, which has temples, priests and venerated spiritual beings.) The Chinese word romanised as ‘Dao’ or ‘Tao’ literally means ‘way’, and in Daoist metaphysics it stands for the way the cosmos works: the unspeakable unity of all things; the way all things arise from nothing (as modern physics has demonstrated); and the universal principle and process of flow, change, cycle and relationship.
‘Dao’ also connotes a harmonious way to live that requires wu wei: working in sync with the universal flow that shapes our nature and that of our social, Earthly and heavenly surroundings, rather than struggling against it. “Yielding is Tao’s practice,” says Lao Zi (Lao-Tzu, Addiss, and Lombardo 1993, chap. 40). Daoism values silence, listening, humility, mindful presence, and the shedding of ego and attachment: not only going quietly in the world, but emptying the mind in meditation in order to become aware of “what is and / what is beyond it”, as Le Guin puts it in her poem “English” (2012, 87). Daoism encourages identification with systems beyond ourselves: social structures, the biosphere, the Earth, the Milky Way, and indeed the entire universe, are also considered to be one’s body. Lao Zi says: “He who values the world in the same way as he values his body / Can be entrusted with the world” (Lao Zi and Wang Keping 1998, chap. 13).
Through the principle of yin and yang, Daoism emphasises polarity, rather than opposition. Literally, yin and yang are the dark and light sides of a mountain, which gradually change places as the sun moves. A cosmic, ecological or social system cycles between extremes, and if we stand back and look at the whole we can see that what seemed to be opposites are merely two ends of a continuum. Darkness, light, and change are inevitable and necessary. As a thinking person, I find that cultivating a Daoist mindset offers a way to make peace with being human in a world that seems at least as fragile and turbulent as Chinese civilisation during the Warring States Period when Daoism arose.
For poets and readers, Daoist thought also offers interesting possibilities for exploring and expressing the mysterious relationships of the universe and its inhabitants. It has been a major influence on the work of Le Guin, who is known primarily for her novels but is also a notable poet. It has also informed the work of the Australian writers Randolph Stow and Judith Wright.
Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin (1929–) has published eight books of poetry (Le Guin 2017). The most recent are Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems, 1960–2010 and Late in the Day: Poems 2010–2014. (2012; 2016)
Le Guin has been guided by Daoism since childhood. She inherited her father’s much-loved copy of the Dao De Jing, and in 1997 published her own gender-neutral modern American version, on which she had worked for many years in collaboration with J. P. Seaton, a professor of Chinese (Lao-Tzu and Le Guin 1997). In a 2003 interview, she says, “All of my writing has been deeply influenced by the Tao Te Ching” (Peterson 2004, p.192). And, indeed, there are so many poems I could discuss here that my copy of Finding My Elegy has grown a comb of tape flags.
Daoism is explicit in a very early poem, “Tao Song”, a simple rhyming invocation asking nature — “slow fish”, “green weed” and “bright Sun” — to reveal “the way” (2012, 10); but elsewhere, subtle plant, animal and land imagery suggest a Daoist conception of being. One of Le Guin’s central themes is flow, change, return and renewal. Images of moving water, especially rivers, recur again and again in her poems. In “Up the Columbia”, the speaker’s “mind” finds itself “returning” to “the edges and backwaters of the river” where “a frog crouches humble, immobile” in
. . . that low world
of sand and mud and slow imperceptible currents,
of small changes and no change and endless renewal
This poem also suggests the Daoist idea that humility and patience are more effective than showiness and force. The frog stays low and still among the “rushes” to save itself from birds flying above, who exhibit a rather ridiculous, although equally natural, arrogance: “over his perfect reflection the heron / beats the quiet air”; “redwings claim their dominion over the cattails”. (2012, 144)
Forceful striving and wu wei are more explicitly contrasted in “The Marrow”. The speaker tries with various tools to “pry” “a word” from “inside a stone” until it is “dropping blood”, but nothing happens until she stops trying and throws it aside: “and as I turned away it cried / the word aloud within my ear”. (2012, 13)
People listen to stones in Le Guin’s poems, which express a reverence for a natural world that, while vastly greater than humanity, does not exclude us. Trees are planted and houses are built:
A square wood room with a square screened window
that looks out on the oaks, the barn, the hills of summer:
there I first said, why worship anything but this? (“Uncaged”, 2012, 185)
“Morning Service” describes a “sunny” morning in which
The sounds are the sea
that only breaks its silence
meeting other elements,
and a hummingbird saying tek!
tek! as it attacks the fuchsias.
After this a stanza break calls for a moment’s silence. The next breath acknowledges the quiet presence of many other entities:
Nothing else says anything.
I am trying to be still.
This is the church I go to
to hear the hymns and prayers
and see the light. (2012, 67)
Le Guin’s “church” is the natural world at every scale: the tiny bird, the garden, and the earth-spanning ocean sing “hymns”, and the sun in space offers “light”.
The physical here is also a metaphor for the intangible. “Trying to be still” suggests meditation, the practice of gently disciplining the mind into quietness. I sit in meditation myself, and for me this poem evokes perfectly the stillness of mind in which the world’s sounds seem amplified yet peaceful, separate from oneself yet part of one’s greater awareness. As Lao Zi puts it:
Can you keep the deep water still and clear,
so it reflects without blurring? (Lao-Tzu and Le Guin 1997, chap. 10)
Still, silent awareness is a constant presence in Le Guin’s poems. This poem — and others, particularly “Contemplation at McCoy Creek” (2016, 17), “A Blue Moon: June 30” (2012, 69) and “Some Mornings” (2012, 178) — suggest that, for Le Guin, outdoor meditation can provide the entire being, from physical to spiritual, with illumination, music, and perhaps, in the moment or afterwards, a poem.
The great Australian novelist Randolph Stow (1935–2010) was also a poet. His body of poems is relatively small, but “weighs more than most oeuvres many times its size”, as John Kinsella puts it in the introduction to his definitive edition of Stow’s poetry, The Land’s Meaning. (Stow 2012, 9)
Stow learned about Daoism through a school friend of Asian origin, and he “very much took to it”, as he says in a 1998 letter quoted by biographer Suzanne Falkiner (2016, 736). He goes on to say:
It made, and still makes, much more sense to me to worship a principle, or process (the Tao) than a personification . . . I am a communicating member of the C of E, but my interpretation is metaphorical and not literal. For instance, the Incarnation for me is about the point where Being emerges from Nothingness . . . (Falkiner 2016, 715–16)
Daoism is explicitly referenced in two of Stow’s poems. “The Ruins of the City of Hay” (2012, 100), a poem lamenting a lost utopian innocence, mentions Lao Zi and paraphrases part of Chapter 80 of the Dao De Jing. “From The Testament of Tourmaline”, subtitled “Variations on Themes of the TAO TEH CHING”, contemplates and interprets 12 of the Dao De Jing’s 81 chapters (Stow 2012, 143–48). The title refers to Stow’s novel Tourmaline; as A. D. Hope points out (1974), the poem hints that an understanding of Daoism is useful in interpreting Stow’s writing. Since Fay Zwicky (1994) and others have discussed this poem, I will not analyse it here. However, it is important as a modern Daoist text, and as background when looking at Stow’s other poetry.
The central themes of Stow’s poetry are spiritual longing and spiritual journey. His poems express a sometimes violent yearning to merge with an other, to dissolve into the cyclic flow of the natural world, and to be true to one’s own nature: to be able to cry, to love, to belong, to speak, and to be silent. Pilgrimage in search of this goal is represented by struggles through difficult terrain: dense jungle, stormy (or, worse, becalmed) seas, and, frequently and strikingly, the arid Australian landscapes and sharply white beaches of Stow’s youth.
In “The Embarkation” the speaker is getting onto a “dead ship” that seems so weighed down with life that it is unlikely to get anywhere. “Weeds drip / down from the fretted chain” and “The masts are full of nests”. Others have failed:
Sunflowers stab to the sky
through salt-white ribs of boats
beached on the sand.
But there seems to be no alternative, because life on shore is unsustainable. “The quay / crumbles” and jungle encroaches:
My house is a ruined cell
embattled; crowned and bound
with bougainvillea, torn
by flowering branch and thorn
. . .
Salvation may be obtained only through the death of the ego, if not the body:
The weak must dare to drown,
and harvest as they can
the salt, enormous field. (2012, 93–94)
Weakness and drowning here are not necessarily negative: they embody the Daoist ideal of wu wei, reflected in “From The Testament of Tourmaline”:
Do not resist; for Tao is a flooded river
and your arms are frail. (Stow 2012, 147)
Both water and dryness are recurring motifs in Stow’s poems, as they are in Le Guin’s. In “Jimmy Woodsers”, the title of which refers to drinking alcohol alone, the speaker remembers a place in time where his “eyes” were “dry pools”, and where a childhood pool was “drained” so that the “little cousins” could grow up to be “tall men, and safe, in the waterless country.” These men may be safe behind eyes that cannot cry, but that was, and is, not good enough for the speaker, who has been trying, through memory, to return to this country in order to rescue himself from it:
. . .
I set out again for the clay-pans of my eyes,
crying, “My friend. You must drove your sheep elsewhere.
My dams are dry. You must leave this waterless country.” (2012, 111–12)
In “Ishmael” the speaker has found an “oasis” among the “red earth”, “gibber and dune”, but is leaving it (or them — the “discovered homeland” has “eyes”) forever. Instead of despairing, in this wiser poem he prays to be rid of his longing, but not his caring, calling upon
desert and sky to take me, wind to shape me,
strip me likewise of softness, strip me of love,
leaving a calm regard, a remembering care. (2012, 163)
This recalls Chapter 1 of the Dao De Jing, which recommends being “Empty of desire” in order to “perceive mystery” (Lao-Tzu, Addiss, and Lombardo 1993).
Part of this mystery is a sense of communion with the natural world. “Ishmael”, like many of Stow’s poems, notably “A Fancy for his Death” (2012, 86) and “The Land’s Meaning” (2012, 96), articulates a yearning love of the land, particularly the enormous, unforgiving Australian emptinesses in which “A crow cries: and the world unrolls like a blanket” (“Landscapes”, Stow 2012, 113). As Stow explains in “From The Testament of Tourmaline”:
In the love of the land, I worship the manifest Tao.
But then he acknowledges that even this yearning must be left behind in order to find the true Way:
To move from love into lovelessness is wisdom.
The land’s roots lie in emptiness. There is Tao. (2012, 143)
In the middle of nowhere, at last, one can be oneself.
Judith Wright (1915–2000) was one of Australia’s most celebrated poets, as well as an activist for environmental conservation and Aboriginal rights. She published thirteen volumes of poetry, including two books of collected poems. The later of these, Collected Poems 1942–1985, is the definitive edition of her poetry. (1994)
As her many critics have noted, Wright’s work is influenced by wide philosophical and literary reading. Her numerous published letters include one mentioning a liking for Daoism and another rejecting the idea of personal gods (2006, 369, 317). Fiona Capp, writing about her study of Wright which involved meeting both Wright and her daughter, mentions learning of Wright’s interest in both Buddhism and Daoism, and of her meditation practice (2010, 14–15). As far as I know, however, no-one has looked at Wright’s poetry from a Daoist perspective.
Once again my book has a crest of tape-flags. Daoism is one of many threads subtly woven into Wright’s poetry, much of which explores metaphysical themes: spiritual journey, mystical experiences, the relationship between language and reality, and the nature of time, being and death. However, its driving force is reverence for the natural world, especially the Australian landscape where Wright was born and lived.
This landscape is described and celebrated in poems that are furious about humanity’s destructive effects while accepting them as inevitable. In “Jet Flight over Derby” (a town on the Western Australian coast) the speaker, looking down from a plane, experiences an arguably Daoist intuition that the country is her body:
Crossing this ravelled shore
fern-patterns of the tides
frayed like my branching nerves;
the last strung islands frayed.
And what is I? I said.
Rose-red a thousand miles
my country passed beneath.
Curved symmetry of dunes
echo my ribs and hands.
I am those worn red lands.
Stepped contours print my palms,
time’s sandstorms wear me down,
wind labours in my breast
. . . (1994, 280)
But this has terrible personal implications, as we see later in the poem:
And therefore, when land dies?
opened by whips of greed
these plains lie torn and scarred.
Then I erode; my blood
reddens the stream in flood. (1994, 281)
Acceptance of the darkness that comes with light, death with life — yin with yang — is explicit in Wright’s late poems, such as “Rockpool”, which opens with an acknowledgement of dying contemporaries, then focuses on a community of crabs:
I watch the claws in the rockpool, the scuttle, the crouch —
green humps, the biggest barnacled, eaten by seaworms.
The rockpool represents existence, the friends “barnacled” by illness:
We’ve brought on our own cancers, one with the world.
I hang on the rockpool’s edge, its wild embroideries . . .
The speaker must “hang” on the “edge”, not only of survival, but of emotional involvement, cultivating non-attachment in order to witness the cycle of death and life:
the stretching of toothed claws to food, the breeding
on the ocean’s edge. “Accept it? Gad, madam, you had better.” (1994, 419)
This acceptance is more subtly expressed in a much earlier poem, “Halfway”. A tadpole with both legs and tail is suspended in ice, midway between water and air, between childhood and adulthood. For me this suggests the position of humanity: somewhere between beast and angel, with technology outstripping maturity. The tadpole says:
I saw great lights in the place where I would be,
but rose too soon . . .
It seems to be looking up at the speaker as if to
. . . ask
my vague divinity, looming in stooped surprise
for death or rescue. But neither was my task.
The situation is hopeless. Yet there is something Wright can do. She concludes with a crystalline couplet that suspends the tadpole, and the truth it represents, in the reader’s memory:
Waking halfway from a dream one winter night
I remembered him as a poem I had to write. (1994, 290–91)
“Night” is not there merely to make it rhyme. This poem illustrates the sense of non-attached witnessing that arises most naturally in darkness, quietness and emptiness. The void is a recurring motif in Wright’s poems. In “The Cup”, “Una”, whose name alludes to solitude, wants “silence” to render her as empty as “the blue cup hung over the sink” so that “something” can “come in” (1994, 148). This echoes the Dao De Jing, which says:
clay makes a pot.
Where the pot’s not
is where it’s useful. (Lao-Tzu and Le Guin 1997, chap. 11)
Silence is central to Wright’s poem “The Unnecessary Angel”, a response to Wallace Stevens. It questions the value of “Art” at the seeming end of a journey which has brought humanity, and the speaker’s spirit, to a “barren shore”. Like Lao Zi, it acknowledges that language cannot express the mystery of being:
Do not take for truth
any word we said.
Let the song be bare
that was richly dressed.
Sing with one reserve:
Silence might be best. (1994, 291–92)
Judith Wright, Randolph Stow and Ursula K. Le Guin have written some of the great spiritual poetry of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Although not indigenous to their homelands, by writing from a sense of the sacred informed significantly by Daoism, each of them has successfully evoked humanity’s enfoldment in the land, the cosmos, and the cycle of life and death. These poets wrote ecopoetry long before it had that name. Their poems, which dance at various points along the yin-yang tightrope between form and freedom, are both erudite and lyrical. Their meaning lies in what they do not — cannot — explicitly express. They are the kind of poems I love to read and aspire to write.
Capp, Fiona. 2010. My Blood’s Country. Crows Nest, New South Wales, Australia: Allen & Unwin.
Capra, Fritjof, and Pier Luigi Luisi. 2014. The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Falkiner, Suzanne. 2016. Mick: A Life of Randolph Stow. Crawley, Western Australia: UWA Publishing.
Holub, Miroslav. 2001. “Poetry and Science.” In The Measured Word: On Poetry and Science, edited by Kurt Brown, 47–68. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.
Hope, A.D. 1974. “Randolph Stow and the Way of Heaven.” Hemisphere 18 (6): 33–35.
Lao Zi, and Wang Keping. 1998. The Classic of the Dao: A New Investigation. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.
Lao-Tzu, Stephen Addiss, and Stanley Lombardo. 1993. Tao Te Ching. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.
Lao-Tzu, and Ursula K. Le Guin. 1997. Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching. Boston: Shambhala Publications.
Le Guin, Ursula K. 2012. Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems 1960-2010. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
———. 2016. Late in the Day: Poems 2010-2014. Oakland, CA: PM Press.
———. 2017. “Ursula K. Le Guin.” Official website. http://ursulakleguin.com.
Peterson, Brenda. 2004. “The feminine and the Tao: an interview with Ursula K. Le Guin.” In Face to Face: Women Writers on Faith, Mysticism, and Awakening, edited by Linda Hogan and Brenda Peterson, 1st ed, p. 189-199. New York: North Point Press.
Stow, Randolph. 2012. The Land’s Meaning: New Selected Poems. Edited by John Kinsella. Fremantle, Western Australia: Fremantle Press.
Wright, Judith. 1994. Collected Poems: 1942-1985. Pymble, New South Wales, Australia: Angus & Robertson.
———. 2006. With Love & Fury: Selected Letters of Judith Wright. Edited by Patricia Clarke and Meredith McKinney. Canberra: National Library of Australia.
Zwicky, Fay. 1994. “Vast spaces, quiet voices: Chinese connections in Australian poetry.” Australian Book Review, no. 164 (September): 34–42.
 References to the Dao De Jing are given as chapter numbers to permit comparison between translations.
Jackson was born in Cumbria, England, and lives in Fremantle, Western Australia. Her journal and anthology publications include the Australian Poetry Journal, the Fremantle Press Anthology of Western Australian Poetry and The High Window. Jackson has published two books, a chapbook, seven zines and a CD. She won the 2014 Ethel Webb Bundell Poetry Prize. She is the founding editor of online poetry journal Uneven Floor. This essay is based on her PhD research at Edith Cowan University. http://thepoetjackson.com
Acknowledgement: This research is supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.
1 thought on “Jackson on Daoism and the poetry of Randolph Stow, Judith Wright and Ursula K. Le Guin”
Thanks for publishing this lovely essay. I’m coming to it as a longtime reader of Ursula Le Guin, and an admirer of the Dao De Jing. I was happy to be introduced to two new (to me) poets, and appreciated your thorough analysis. This paper is very very good, though of course you knew that already! 🙂 A pleasure to read.
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