David and Art - Poets on the Moon
Back in the days of the Apollo program, one prominent writer thought NASA should send a poet along.
A couple of weeks ago I was listening to an old interview with an American writer and novelist named Norman Mailer. You don’t hear his name too much these days but at his prime back from the 1950s through the ’70s, he was one of the most renowned writers in American culture. And often one of the most controversial. In 1969 and 1970, he wrote about the first landing on the moon by Apollo 11 for Life magazine. In the interview I heard he was talking about a book that came out of these articles. As he talked about the Apollo program, and the magnitude of the undertaking, and what it said about American culture, he made the comment that NASA should have sent a poet along with the astronauts to the moon.
The point he sought to make was twofold. For one, he noted that poets are going to have a different and more vivid way of expressing, framing, and relating any event than will scientists and technicians. Landing on the moon is something that humans have marveled about, wondered about, and imagined for millennia. For such an enterprise, capturing the emotional human resonance of it, and relating it to those who don’t have the technical aptitude to grasp the complicated minutiae was, Mailer believed, of critical importance. How else ought we to understand the true magnitude of this? Science and technology can address the How with obvious aplomb, but they’re silent when it comes to questions like why? And, So what? Scientists don’t express the human condition in the face of wonderment in the same way as does a poet.
Another point to be made here is that artists are people. Artists, every bit as much as politicians, scientists, teachers, tow truck drivers and astronauts are citizens too with an equal stake in major public endeavors like the New Deal, the Cold War, Vietnam, or the Space Program. Just like everyone else, they have something at stake and their own perspective on the events of the day.
Artists like painters and poets and fiction writers have always humanized and contextualized the bigger events and trends in history. It’s not for nothing that since 1960 we’ve had a poet read something at presidential inaugurations.
Over the course of American history there’s been F. Scott Fitzgerald and Langston Hughes in the 1920s; Ben Shahn and John Steinbeck in the 1930s; Jackson Pollock and Lorraine Hansberry in the 1950s; Tom Wolfe and Jean Michel Basquiat in the 1980s
Scientists can get us to the moon or Mars or the deepest ocean trench. Scientists can build a weapon that could destroy humanity, or a vaccine to save it. But it takes art to tell us what it all really means.