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

‘In the Planetarium’ a poem by James Doyle

In the past couple of days we marked two events in the history of U.S. space exploration: man’s first walk on the moon and the end of the space shuttle program.

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist John Noble Wilford recalled his coverage of the moon landing for the New York Times from NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

“July 20,1969 — a date that lives in my memory as the great divide, the B.C. to A.D., in my journalism career. It was the day of the first walk on the moon by humans, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, and I covered the event for The Times from mission control in Houston.

I began my front-page article with a sentence as simple as it was astonishing:

Men have landed and walked on the moon.

Two Americans, astronauts of Apollo 11, steered their fragile four-legged lunar module safely and smoothly to the historic landing yesterday at 4:17:40 P.M., Eastern daylight time.

Neil A. Armstrong, the 38-year-old civilian commander, radioed to earth and the mission control room here:

“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

On July 21, 2011 the space shuttle Atlantis landed on runway 15 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida ending the 135th mission and 30 years of the U.S. Space Shuttle program. Today visitors can tour an exhibit at the site in Florida “displayed as only spacewalking astronauts have seen her before — rotated 43.21 degrees with payload doors open and its Canadarm (robotic arm) extended, as it has just undocked from the International Space Station.” 

Astronauts still travel into space. As I write this, the 60th woman to fly in space, Kate Rubins, orbits among the stars above us.

I wonder if this Friday’s poem was written for her by a friend who accompanied her on a school field trip to the Planetarium.

In the Planetarium

I read the palms of the other
kids on the field trip to see
which ones would grow up

to be astronauts. The lifeline
on Betty Lou’s beautiful hand
ended the day after tomorrow,

so I told her how the rest
of our lives is vastly over-rated,
even in neighboring galaxies.

When she asked me how I knew
so much, I said I watched
War of the Worlds six times

and, if she went with me to
the double-feature tomorrow,
I’d finish explaining the universe.

I smiled winningly. The Halley’s Comet
lecture by our teacher whooshed in
my one ear and out the other.

James Doyle   ‘The Long View Just Keeps Treading Water’, Accents Publishing, 2012

(Photo Scott Kelly #YearInSpace “Looking out to the Milky Way”)