Out of This World

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Lyric Poetry and Space Exploration from Einstein to the Present.
by Margaret Greaves
Oxford University Press, 2023. 240pp. $85.

Only one science can boast that a classical muse inspires its practitioners: astronomy, overseen by Urania, whose sisters inspire comic and tragic dramatists and lyric and epic poets. In ancient times, the religious wonder of watching the stars and planets and witnessing the workings of the universe placed astronomy on a par with poetry, dance, music, and history, all endeavors meriting assistance from the gods. In her intelligent and absorbing book, Lyric Poetry and Space Exploration from Einstein to the Present, Margaret Greaves reunites the exploration of space, by both astronauts and mere Earthlings, with the concerns and achievements of lyric poetry in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. She shows that while the lyric’s “I-thou” relationship between poets’ personae and astronomical bodies, chiefly the moon and the Earth, can provide an entrée into the sublime, just as often that relationship brims with tension and even cynicism. Greaves details how during the American-Soviet space race, astronomical themes, especially in American poetry, reflected the politics and imperial aspirations of the two postwar superpowers. She then proceeds to discuss the use of astronomy and space exploration by queer poets and poets of color, whose works often find in the heavens emblems of alienation. Along the way, she gives incisive readings of poems by such writers as Archibald MacLeish, James Dickey, Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Bishop, James Merrill, Agha Shahid Ali, Seamus Heaney, and especially Tracy K. Smith, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning Life on Mars expands the book’s orbit far beyond the local, intimate Earth-moon relationship to galaxies light years away.

The communion of poetry and science goes back centuries. Donne’s elegiac Anniversaries, for example, grieve young Elizabeth Drury by detailing a planet Earth wracked with pain, causing a series of unnatural disasters. Greaves marks the Romantic period as “the moment in which poetry was ostensibly transformed into lyric poetry through a divorce from the sciences.” Yet this is not altogether true. While Wordsworth mourned, “We murder to dissect” in “The Tables Turned,” he simultaneously claimed, in the 1800 Preface, “If the labours of Men of science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, . . the Poet will sleep then no more than at present; he will be ready to follow the steps of the Man of science, . . carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of science itself.” Greaves quotes Keats’s “Do not all charms fly / At the mere touch of cold philosophy?” as typifying the science/poetry schism, but she also notes that the New York Times accompanied the Apollo 8 astronauts’ photo of the Earth with Keats’s astronomical simile for discovering Chapman’s translations of Homer: “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken.” These extraordinary lines suggest the emotional impact the Romantics intuited in scientific discovery: the planet “swims” because the watcher’s eyes have filled with tears. And when the speaker of Keats’s great Shakespearean sonnet has “fears that I may cease to be,” he situates himself “on the shore / Of the wide world,” a poet solitary on the entire Earth, like Milton’s Satan exploring that newly created planet. The back-and-forth feelings of the Romantic poets document the tensions arising between science and poetry, tensions that Greaves discusses regarding the space race.

Two photographs dominate the early sections of Greaves’s book, both taken by NASA astronauts: Earthrise, which shows the blue, living Earth emerging from darkness over the pale, fruitless moon (Greaves explains how rotating the original image, showing the Earth at the moon’s side, made our world appear to “rise” over the barren moonscape), and Blue Marble, a shot of our entire brilliant planet hanging in the dark. The images, she argues, turned the Earth into a “lyric object”—at one enthusiastic point she even calls it a “lyric poem”—that inspired poets to indulge in what she calls “planetary apostrophe.” In former centuries, she notes, poets like Sidney often apostrophized the moon—“With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the skies”—but these astronautical photographs of the complete Earth helped shift the practice of planetary apostrophe to address our own world. When Archibald MacLeish wrote his commissioned poem, “Voyage to the Moon,” he isolated the “awe-invoking apostrophic ‘O,’” as Greaves calls it, on a single line to express wonder but also to suggest concretely the shape of our satellite. Greaves points out, however, that the poem concerns the Earth more than the moon: “dazzle of silver in our leaves and on our / waters silver, // O // silver evasion in our farthest thought.” Dead and dull, the moon returned us to Earth, perhaps the way the “cold pastoral” of Keats’s marble figures on the urn returns his speaker to thoughts of the living, breathing, sensuous world.

The New York Times headline the day after Neil Armstrong made his “one giant leap for all mankind” read, “Men Walk on Moon. Astronauts Land on Plain; Collect Rocks, Plant Flag,” and Greaves considers this report “underwhelming,” resonating “with the public’s sense that NASA’s Apollo missions had taken the human species not to a wondrous heavenly body but rather to a dead rock.” I beg to differ. I was a young teenager at summer camp in 1969, watching on a 12-inch, black-and-white television with dozens of my mates, thrilled when Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first leapt off the lunar module ladder onto extraterrestrial soil. Greaves omits that the Times main head was entirely in caps—MEN WALK ON MOON—and that it was the largest headline the paper had ever run, larger than that for the Kennedy assassination. It was so big, in fact, that the Times didn’t own type large enough, and so had to photograph the words in a smaller font and blow them up to fit the colossal news. The paper also resisted making the event an American triumph. The triumph, rather, belonged to members—individuals (“MEN,” not “MAN”)—of our species, male, admittedly (this was 1969), but humans nonetheless. This fidelity to fact extended even to “Plant Flag”—the headline didn’t say which flag, allowing us to imagine we were claiming the moon for all humanity, for all the earth—as in fact, imaginatively, we were. Greaves certainly is correct that “this imagined global collective came out of the extension of the American military-industrial complex into extraterrestrial space in an attempt to control the world,” but that isn’t the way it felt at the time. To us privileged American kids, at least, it had all the awe to merit that “apostrophic ‘O.’”

The “O” appears three times in “Alphabets,” one of Seamus Heaney’s poems, as Greaves puts it, “about coming of age as an Irish poet,” one that also “recycles the trope of the American astronaut as a figure of optimism, the harbinger of a new, resurrected, and united Earth,” but one as well in which “Heaney reinvents Earth as a lyric poem.” Greaves considers two of the occurrences of “O” in the poem: first, the globe in the speaker’s childhood classroom, which “tilts like a coloured O” and stands as a synecdoche for the final occurrence, “The risen, aqueous, singular, lucent O” the astronaut sees from his capsule, “all he has sprung from, /. . ./ Like a magnified and buoyant ovum.” Greaves, however, omits the poem’s second “O”: “The globe has spun. He stands in a wooden O. / He alludes to Shakespeare.” The poem in fact is alluding to Shakespeare, specifically the Globe Theatre, whose first production, Henry V, depicted the English conquest of France, thus chiming perfectly with Greaves’s critique of American imperial conquest. Shakespeare’s Chorus not only called the playhouse a “wooden O” but christened it with the play’s opening word: the “O” of “O for a muse of fire.” Heaney’s Shakespearean allusion unites all the “O’s” of “Alphabets,” for Shakespeare’s Globe, like Heaney’s classroom globe, acted as a synecdoche for the world, a model of all times and places on the planet where Shakespeare might imagine dramatic action, and thus a synecdoche for all human activity.

Perhaps the most exciting sections of Greaves’s book are those she devotes to Agha Shahid Ali and Tracy K. Smith, two poets whose work she examines in depth. She focuses particularly on Ali’s ghazals as examples of the “I-thou” relationship of lyric poetry, and her expertise in explaining the features and subtleties of the form shows how it negotiates between immediacy and infinity. (At one point, the ghazal over-enchants her, when she describes a section of his sequence “From Amherst to Kashmir” as discussing “the violence in Kashmir in fractured stanzas that formally and thematically recall the ghazal.” That section is actually in terza rima, one of the two major forms Ali uses in the sequence, the other being sapphics.) Her discussion of the “unattainable Belovèd of the ghazal,” “always grammatically a male in Urdu and often described in ambiguously gendered terms,” provides an excellent theoretical basis for exploring the homoerotic element in Ali’s poetry. Her evidence and explication are less persuasive in her discussion of the homoerotic in Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, in which she claims the alienated Earth, during the homophobic Cold War era, becomes “an extraterrestrial object, an otherworld—and for Bishop an implicitly queer one.”

Greaves’s extended discussion of Smith’s Life on Mars is a triumph of close reading and theoretical contextualizing. She introduces the term “lyric opacity” “for a kind of poem for which we do not have a critical idiom: one whose language is accessible and inviting, even ‘transparent,’ but whose subjectivity is slippery and unfathomable as the poem navigates the politicized, racialized, and gendered expectations of the lyric ‘I.’” In a way, we are back on the ground of Keats’s negative capability, the willingness to accept “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Earlier in her book, Greaves quotes Auden’s definition of poetry as “the clear expression of mixed feelings,” and that idea applies here, too. “A lyric voice that refuses to fade into, align with, or elucidate a collective historical or sociopolitical issue—a voice, in other words, that insists on its singularity through upholding its right to privacy or incomprehensibility—is what I refer to here as opaque lyric subjectivity,” Greaves writes, in a discussion extremely useful for examining the apparent obscurity of much contemporary lyric poetry. And Smith’s major metaphor in her poem “Life on Mars,” dark matter, seems a perfect example—literally as well as figuratively—of such opacity. Greaves shows how Smith turns the scientific reality of dark matter into a metaphor to explore the moral darkness with which we treat one another and abuse our planet. The poem also explores the concept of entropy, how things fall apart: “Watching the cream disperse into their coffee // Like the A-bomb.” Smith examines entropy on personal, political, and cosmic levels simultaneously, bringing all together through the daring simile of “the A-bomb” for the suspension of the cream, which trivializes neither because both operate scientifically by an identical process.

Greaves discusses how twentieth-century critical methods attempted to fuse poetry and science. The New Criticism, she explains, grew out of the prescriptions of Pound and Eliot for applying scientific method to poetry, Eliot with his “impersonal” theory of poetry (which in some ways harmonized with Keats’s negative capability and his idea that “the poet has no personality”) and Pound with his praise of our “age of science and of abundance.” Both poets go considerably further, Eliot comparing the poet’s mind to the catalyst in a chemical reaction, Pound insisting that literary study demands “the method of contemporary biologists,” that is, comparing one text to another like laboratory slides. However self-serving it seemed, this demand that we look at poems directly was revolutionary, correcting decades of literary teaching that consisted of lectures about the poet’s biography, with no close textual study (after all, went the assumption, students who could read could readily understand the poetry). But Greaves points out that such “objective” takes on poetry coalesced into an understanding of the lyric “I” as normatively white, male, and privileged. As a result, she draws on several modes of literary theory in discussing the queer poetics of Rich, Bishop, Merrill, and Ali, and the racial poetics of Robert Hayden, Rita Dove, Natasha Tretheway, and especially Smith.

Greaves quotes Eliot’s idea, in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” that “It is in this depersonalization that art may be said to approach the condition of science,” a sentence recalling Walter Pater’s emphatically italicized aesthetic axiom, “All art constantly aspires to the condition of music.” For decades, all disciplines have aspired to the condition of a science, yet a key problem at the heart of the New Critical scientific method entails our responses to poetry, which consist of aesthetic judgments. We introduce evidence to prove those judgments, but selecting and exhibiting evidence in any examination of the arts is an entirely subjective practice. Unlike in science, as English philosopher Frank Sibley pointed out back in 1959, no amount of evidence or analysis will actually prove what a critic says about a poem, painting, play, or performance, because no reader is logically required to accept those conclusions as truth. Writing about poetry, about all the arts, then, becomes a matter of persuasion rather than demonstration.

Nor does this problem of disguised subjectivity inhere only in New Critical methods, but also in literary theory. The rise and dominance of theory over the past half-century partly furthers the illusion that literary study is a science, but like evidence in literary study, literary theories, despite the name, are not theories in a scientific way: they are not based on all the available facts, but rather upon subjective decisions about what is important in the study of literature, whether it be race, gender, or how a normative reader (whoever that might be—Stanley Fish, for one, decided that reader must be a university-educated member of an “interpretive community”) responds to a text. At the same time as it aims to examine literature with something like scientific rigor, literary theory acknowledges that reading is a subjective activity and that the significance of a literary text derives from what a reader wants to find in it, opening the practitioner to charges of question-begging.

Greaves, however, excels in demystifying literary theory, as in her translation of Amy J. Elias and Christian Moraru’s use of “planetarity”—“a multicentric and pluralizing, ‘actually existing’ worldly structure of relatedness critically keyed to non-totalist, non-homogenizing, and anti-hegemonic operations typically and polemically subtended by an eco-logic”—into plain American that cats and dogs can read, along the way showing how they define the concept in a way that privileges America-centered perspectives while claiming to escape them.

The ancient world saw astronomy as an art, worthy of sharing the peak of Helicon or Parnassus with poetry and the others. We moderns and postmoderns, having turned literary study into a science, want our poetry, at least our public poetry, to follow the astronauts to the stars. The only way we as a nation seem to consider poetry significant is when we burden it with purpose, the patriotic demands of a presidential inauguration or a moon landing. Greaves’s book shows how lyric poetry has a more important mission. Even when it talks about things not of this world, or looks back at our living planet from the cold, dead moon, it tells us who we are.