Dr Nicola Thomas is a teacher and researcher specialising in German and British poetry of the post-war period. She is currently Departmental Lecturer in German at The Queen’s College, University of Oxford.
The Moon has always held a special appeal for lyric poets. Joachim Kalka notes that its varied trajectory through the sky, its shifting hues, changing shape and size mean that, unlike the Sun, it regularly surprises us as we turn the corner of a street or climb the stairs to bed. Where the Sun is rational, emphatic and enlightening, the Moon is ghostly, permissive, and strange. These qualities have come to be understood within and reinforced by a gendered framework, whereby the Moon – in European poetry at least – has been linked to ideas of femininity, in fragments of Sappho (‘whenever all full she shines / upon the earth / silvery’, in Anne Carson’s translation); and, later, in Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, its image of the Moon’s ‘sad steps’ across the sky later picked up by Philip Larkin; and in countless Romantic Moon-odes, themselves spawning endless parodies and imitations. In Chinese and Japanese poetry, the Moon has provided a focus for meditations on the passage of time and divine mystery, linking Tu Fu to his far-distant, beloved wife during the Tang Dynasty, and, a full century later, charting the shifting of the seasons for Matsuo Bashō.
The Moon’s power to be all things to all poets rests on its distant unknowability. But what happens we begin to know – or think we know – about the reality of the lunar surface? This is the question facing by many poets of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, who have sought to navigate a path between soggy cliché on the one hand and the shiny promises of science and technology on the other. The Space Race, and the Apollo 11 Moon landings in particular, tinged European and American poets’ Moon-gazing with a new wistfulness. Some, like W. H. Auden, mourned what they saw as the lost purity of this timeless symbol; others, including the American poet Mary Ellen Solt, seized the opportunity to recreate the Moon-ode to suit this new age, which Edwin Morgan greeted as one of ‘television and sputniks, automation and LPs, electronic music and multi-story-flats’. ‘It has not been possible since the Renaissance to write a convincing sonnet on the Moon’, Solt argued as early as 1964, before she set about doing just that. Nevertheless, her point stands: whether as adventure or threat, lyric poetry since 1969 has surely been forced to register the Space Race in one form or another.
Mary Ellen Solt, ‘Moon Shot Sonnet’ (1967)
On 1st August 1964, the New York Times published close-up photographs of the Moon’s surface taken by the Ranger 7 probe. Overlaid on these images – which offered the first ever close-up view of the lunar surface – were scoping marks for scale. Solt admired their rhythmic placement across the image and reworked the symbols into her early concrete poem ‘Moon Shot Sonnet’. ‘It occurred to me’, she wrote, ‘that since the scientist’s symbols for marking off areas on the Moon’s surface were presented five to a line and the lines could be added up to fourteen, a visual sonnet could be made of them’. Serving as both a parody of an outmoded genre and a manifesto for a new universal visual language, Solt’s outrageous, visionary, wordless text perfectly encapsulates the tension and excitement of its time.
Edwin Morgan, Spacepoem 1: from Laika to Gagarin (1968)
Morgan was one of several post-war poets to respond to the Space Race and lunar landings with excitement and enthusiasm, and – like Solt – he was powerfully interesting a creating a new language and form for lyric poetry appropriate for the expression of the new mood of the era. ‘Translunar Space, March 1972’ is a much-anthologised, wry look at some of the normative assumptions underpinning scientific narratives of progress and universal human endeavour; poems such as ‘From the Domain of Arnheim’ and ‘In Sobeski’s Shield’ experiment with combining lyric poetry and the tropes of narrative science fiction; but elsewhere he turns to Soviet space vocabulary as a means of undermining the aggressive tribalism of Space Race rhetoric. ‘Spacepoem 1: from Laika to Gagarin’, one of a series of ‘spacepoems’ Morgan produced throughout the decade, mixes the technologically-oriented vocabulary of ‘raketa’ and ‘sputnik’ with an increasingly frantically-voiced commitment to Soviet icons (‘vladivostok! […] raketasobakaslava!’), an ostensibly playful attempt to capture the intersection of human and animal forces shaping the deadly race for supremacy in extra-terrestrial space.
W. H. Auden – Moon Landing (1969)
Late Auden at his most cantankerous and reactionary, this delightfully grumpy occasional poem cuts against the prevailing expectation of elation. ‘It’s natural the Boys should whoop it up for / so huge a phallic triumph’, the poem growls, but goes on to respond to the event itself with a patriarchal, possessive feeling of relief: ‘Unsmudged, thank God, my Moon still queens the Heavens’. Auden, like Stanley Kubrick before him, sets the Space Race against the longue durée of human history, charting its inevitability as a consequence of human hubris and irreverence ‘from the moment / the first flint was flaked’. Progress? ‘Mneh!’ Returning to a familiar theme in his late work, the poem concludes that the most one might hope for is the persistence of mysteries in spite of it all:
Our apparatniks will continue making
the usual squalid mess called History:
all we can pray for is that artists,
chefs and saints may still appear to blithe it.
J. H. Prynne – Moon Poem (1969)
Solt’s hunch about the impossibility of the modern Moon sonnet seems to rest on a feeling that poetry about the Moon can no longer be properly lyrical, in the tradition of Anglophone poetry from Wyatt and Sidney to Wordsworth and Shelley. J. H. Prynne proves this wrong in The White Stones (1969), where – among other poems which combine intense, sincere lyricism and a rigorous focus on contemporary science – ‘Moon Poem’ captures the resonances of a language oscillating between the Romantic sublime and the modern mundane, in both senses of the word. The final lines identify the poem as a psalm: ‘for the harp and the shining / stone: the negligence and still passion of night’. The Orphic lyre lurks behind Prynne’s sacred harp, offering a two-fold defence of the lyric. The key theme is expansiveness, extension, reach, and in particular the moral and philosophical consequences of the increased human influence on the universe: ‘The challenge is / not a moral excitement, but the expanse’; ‘We disperse into the ether / as waves’. In this context, our ‘wish’ to conquer space can be felt as both a blessing and, in keeping with an older definition of the term, ‘an imprecation, a malediction’ (OED).
Gil Scott-Heron, Whitey on the Moon (1970)
Sharing Auden’s general disdain for the whole exclusionary endeavour, Gil Scott-Heron sets the self-serving aspirations of a white governing elite against the material social deprivation facing African-Americans in the United States. The titular refrain runs through the performed poem with a grinding relentlessness, allowing reports of the Moon landings to fade into background monotony, while the day-to-day realities of rodent infestation, rent increases and low pay which come to the fore are revealed as both horrific and absurd. The excellent joke in the poem’s closing lines (‘I think I’ll send these doctor bills / airmail special…’) again depends on the absurd disjuncture between ordinary suffering and extraordinary accomplishment, giving the lie to Kennedy’s claim that the resources of space were to be ‘won and used for the progress of all people’. Scott-Heron’s concrete concerns and complex rhythms bring the tradition of Moon poetry back down to earth, to a performed and social context, leaving behind grand images of human transcendence and reminding us that technological progress is never a neutral force for good, but always – for better or for worse – a tool of ideology.
Adrienne Rich, Planetarium (1971)
The ideology underpinning ‘progress’ also shapes Adrienne Rich’s writing; her ‘Planetarium’, dedicated to the astronomer Caroline Herschel, juxtaposes the rational empiricism of scientific modernity with the ancient, unsettling power of the feminine (‘A woman in the shape of a monster / a monster in the shape of a woman’). After a fragmentary start which offers glimpses of Herschel interspersed with words borrowed from other speakers, the poem then adopts the prophetic voice of a collective ‘we’, before the signal at last receives – loud and clear – the singular voice of an astronomer-poet, a woman possessed of the sensitivity and perspicuity of a finely-tuned antenna:
I am an instrument in the shape
of a woman trying to translate pulsations
into images for the relief of the body
and the reconstruction of the mind.
To see clearly and channel the forces of the universe, Rich proposes, is the poet’s gift, requiring an eye/I as ‘virile, precise and absolutely certain’ as any (male) scientist.
Pavel Popovich, ‘Coming, Galaxy!’ (1983)
Pavel Popovich’s colourful life took him from working class origins in Kiev, Ukraine, to membership of the first cohort of USSR cosmonauts, as part of which he became the fourth person in space. Contrary to the West’s fixation on Laika as a symbol of Soviet cruelty and barbarity, the early cosmonauts were thoughtful and erudite: Svetlana Boym notes that veterans of the USSR space program remained true to the Soviet tradition of the ‘lyrical physicist’, publishing poems about their experiences, positive and negative, during the period of glasnost in the 1980s. Popovich himself was a man of diverse talents: essayist, poet, scientist, manager, and (later) UFO hunter. ‘I’m Coming, Galaxy!’ was first published in the popular science journal Tekhnika Molodezhi (Technology for the Youth) in 1983, and poignantly combines extravagant flights of rhetoric addressed to the newly-conquered galaxy with melancholy yearning to return – perhaps in death – to the great river Dneiper and golden grain of his homeland.
Alice Oswald, Excursion to the Planet Mercury (2005)
Although the Moon is a frequent motif in Alice Oswald’s work, ‘Excursion to the Planet Mercury’ is rare among her poems in that, instead of gazing up at the heavens, the poem takes us directly to an extra-terrestrial space. Oswald’s calling-card is the precise, remarkable metaphor, and this poem offers plenty: the planet is ‘a tiny iron island / very close indeed to the sun’, its sky ‘like a blue wrapper flapped and let go / from a car window’. Despite clearly acknowledging the planet’s hostility to life in the usual sense, the poem’s vision of Mercury is nonetheless peopled with ‘boys in dresses’, ‘feather-footed winds’ and other ‘creatures too swift to exist’, such that the extra-terrestrial becomes something playful and liberating. Here, too, the space beyond earth is cast as a ‘mystery / without I without air / without you without sound’, and one which enables the lyric perspective to get outside and beyond itself in an unsettling way, yet culminates in ‘gladness sheer gladness’.
Looking, watching, seeing: Tracy K. Smith’s ambitious long poem, the core of her 2011 collection Life on Mars, takes in classic science fiction films and the Hubble Telescope, pop culture and the cosmic sublime, all underwritten by a fragmentary family narrative unfolding through ‘the Reagan years, / When we lived with our finger on The Button’. In contrast to earlier attempts to gauge the cultural impact of the space race at first hand, Smith’s vision of extra-terrestrial space and human intervention within it is explicitly filtered through earlier generations of astroculture: 2001: A Space Odyssey; The Last Man on Earth; Planet of the Apes. The artifice (and art) of science-fiction is shown to be a means of reflecting on human systems and ways of living – and, in particular, on mortality: a space where the normal rules of time and chronology are suspended, as the poem hopes they were for Dave Bowman in 2001: ‘Is it still his life he moves through, or does / That end at the end of what he can name?’ After the initial excitement of the Space Race has faded, Smith still suggests that the very nature of being might be revealed by our incessant, imaginative looking into the vast unknown.
Pascale Petit, Sky Ladder (2019)
In 2015, the artist Cai Guo-Chiang released a helium weather balloon anchored to earth by a 500-metre long rope ladder. Coated in flammable material, the ladder was then detonated from the ground up, and rung after rung of red-gold flames spluttered upwards towards the heavens, stopping at a point just below the lowest clouds. The artist dedicated this work to his 100-year-old grandmother; and a grandmother figure is also the putative addressee of Pascale Petit’s poem commemorating the occasion. ‘[D]id you / hear the whoosh, / the rat-tat-tat / at the starry door?’ her speaker asks, taking the opportunity to transport her grandmother – already cast as ‘alien’ and ‘exotic’ in her adopted British homeland – to a celestial garden ‘with rich black / soil for your black / roses’, playfully proposing ‘if you’re hungry / have a snack on one / of those quasars’. As well as asking who is entitled to travel to space, Petit also asks how we think we can get there and what assumptions underpin mainstream cosmology, filtered as it is through secular knowledge. Perhaps, the poem suggest, there might be more than one way of getting to heaven.
Dr Nicola Thomas
Dr Nicola Thomas is a teacher and researcher specialising in German and British poetry of the post-war period. She is particularly interested in ideas of science, space and ecology, and how these are explored in poetry. Her current research examines how poetry has represented extra-terrestrial space in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and what the consequences of this are for human understanding of the cosmos. She is currently Departmental Lecturer in German at The Queen’s College, University of Oxford.