The Friday Poem ‘Voyage to the Moon’ by Archibald MacLeish

On July 20, 1969 NASA landed two U.S. astronauts on the surface of the moon. The following day, under the headline “Men Land On Moon” there were two bylines on the front page of The New York Times: science reporter, John Noble Wilford and poet, Archibald MacLeish.

Reporter Stephen Farrell recently covered their ‘story behind the story’ in ‘You Might Call It A Moonstruck Career’.

“In July 1969, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration won that Cold War contest by landing the Apollo 11 astronauts Neil A. Armstrong and Col. Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. on the lunar surface, while Michael Collins remained in orbit above. Marking that achievement, Mr. Wilford’s name was at the top of the front page of the Times edition of July 21, 1969 beneath the banner headline: “Men Walk on Moon.” You could buy a copy for 10 cents.

The front page’s only other byline was that of Archibald MacLeish, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner who contributed an accompanying poem, “Voyage to the Moon.”

Twenty years after the landing, former NY Times Editor, A.M. Rosenthal recounted his decision to include poetry on page one.

“We decided what the front page of The Times would need when the men landed was a poem.

What the poet wrote would count most, but we also wanted to say to our readers, look, this paper does not know how to express how it feels this day and perhaps you don’t either, so here is a fellow, a poet, who will try for all of us.

We called one poet who just did not think much of moons or us, and then decided to reach higher for somebody with more zest in his soul – for Archibald MacLeish, winner of three Pulitzer Prizes. He turned in his poem on time and entitled it ”Voyage to the Moon.”

0720_big

In commemoration of the moon landing, and a time when those who worked as poets were celebrated and gave voice to “one of the biggest stories of the century”, today’s Friday Poem –

VOYAGE TO THE MOON

Presence among us,
wanderer in the skies,

dazzle of silver in our leaves and on our
waters silver,

O

silver evasion in our farthest thought–
“the visiting moon” . . . “the glimpses of the moon” . . .

and we have touched you!

From the first of time,
before the first of time, before the
first men tasted time, we thought of you.
You were a wonder to us, unattainable,
a longing past the reach of longing,
a light beyond our light, our lives–perhaps
a meaning to us…

Now

our hands have touched you in your depth of night.

Three days and three nights we journeyed,
steered by farthest stars, climbed outward,
crossed the invisible tide-rip where the floating dust
falls one way or the other in the void between,
followed that other down, encountered
cold, faced death–unfathomable emptiness . . .

Then, the fourth day evening, we descended,
made fast, set foot at dawn upon your beaches,
sifted between our fingers your cold sand.

We stand here in the dusk, the cold, the silence . . .

and here, as at the first of time, we lift our heads.
Over us, more beautiful than the moon, a
moon, a wonder to us, unattainable,
a longing past the reach of longing,
a light beyond our light, our lives–perhaps
a meaning to us . . .

O, a meaning!

over us on these silent beaches the bright earth,

presence among us.

Archibald MacLeish for The New York Times, July 21, 1969

Photo credits: NASA plaque “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”, The New York Times

6 thoughts on “The Friday Poem ‘Voyage to the Moon’ by Archibald MacLeish

  1. Typo: It’s “followed that other dOwn” (emphasis mine), not “followed that other dAwn.” Not wishing to nitpick; I love this poem, and appreciate finding it here.

      1. On July 21, 1994 (the 25th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s historic small step/giant leap) the NPR program “All Things Considered” ran an interview with Archibald MacLeish, during which he read the ending of the poem – everything from “Three days and three nights we journeyed,” on. It was the first time I had ever heard it, and I fell in love with it. Fortunately I had recorded the episode, so I was able to transcribe the poem fragment from the tape (and unfortunately, I have now lost that tape though I still have my transcription). Then I went out and bought a book of MacLeish’s poetry in order to get the rest of the poem.

        Unfortunately, what I found in the book was different from what the tape said; apparently MacLeish had further “polished” his poem before publishing it in a book, and I liked the original better. Over the last few years I’ve been searching for the complete original version of this wonderful poem, and yours is the first site where I’ve found it.

        Along the way I went to NPR’s website, attempting to find a recording of that interview, without success. It was too old; it’s been archived to the Library of Congress. An inquiry there provided the information that if I wish to listen to it I can make an appointment, but that the Library can’t just put it out online for everyone to listen to (and bloggers to link to) without specific permission from the original copyright holder, NPR. I requested that NPR give this permission to the Library of Congress and they ignored me; it’s possible that no one was certain who actually had the right to give that permission.

        However, we’re coming up on another anniversary. July 21, 2019 will be the 50th anniversary of the first steps on the moon, and of the first publication of “Voyage to the Moon.” I’m keeping my fingers crossed that NPR and “All Things Considered” will celebrate the anniversary by rerunning that wonderful interview, and if they do it should become readily accessible on the internet as almost all of their modern programs automatically do (with the exception of some concerts and such).

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