Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Poet on the Moon by Brian David Mooney

This piece was read at the November USArtists award ceremony.  Honestly, hearing it read aloud was very moving.

The Poet on the Moon
Brian David Mooney

Part 1

There is a story that, shortly after the United States put a man on the moon, a NASA scientist was sorting through the mountain of data brought back by the astronauts and he said to his colleagues, “Someday we’ll put a poet up there and then we’ll find out what it’s really like.”

That is a bold vision, to actually launch a rocket and put a poet on the moon, and it’s a little more than we had planned for tonight... but metaphorically speaking, let’s do it.

Let’s, just for tonight, do the scientist’s bidding: let’s put a poet on the moon. Imagine that you are the poet on the moon—except that you are not necessarily a poet, nor are you on the moon. You are in Philadelphia, making photographs. In Alaska, making carvings. In Boston, making buildings. Mississippi, making quilts. Texas, making music. Chicago, making dances. You are wherever you are, living wherever you live, making whatever you make.

But aside from those minor details, you are a poet on the moon.


It is quiet on the moon: it is always quiet. There is no wind: there is never any wind. You have come to the moon to find out what it is really like. You walk through several inches of fine, white dust, and you think of the word poetry; it is derived from the Greek word poiesis, which means, “to call into being.” This is what an artist does, you think to yourself up there on the moon: an artist calls something into being. Baskets do not weave themselves; paintings do not paint themselves; sculptures do not sculpt themselves. And poems do not write themselves. They are called. Basketmakers call baskets from reeds; painters call images from color and light; sculptors call figures from bone and wood; poets call poems from the moon. They are called and they are made, and in the making is found meaning. No apologies need be offered; no excuses need be given. You look at the blue-green Earth and you understand what the scientist meant: you are not here to collect samples, to gather data, to accumulate facts; you are here to call into being. You are not here to take from the moon. You are here to
make from the moon.

Part 2

“Someday we’ll put a poet up there and then we’ll find out what it’s really like.”

You, the poet on the moon, look again at the swirl of clouds covering Earth. There are no such clouds on the moon: there are never clouds on the moon.

You think again of the word poiesis. You feel a responsibility to that word. You want to call what the rest of us cannot, do not, or will not. You want to ask fearless questions; you intend to take nothing for granted. No apologies. No excuses.

But it is not always easy to call something into being.

Sometimes you call and there is no answer. Sometimes what answers is not what you expect. And so you have practiced, studied, traveled, and apprenticed. You do not, after all, get to be the poet on the moon by writing limericks. You have given yourself permission to take risks, given yourself permission to fail, and failed better and better until you failed less and less. You have studied form, broken with form, and returned to form. You have resisted the gravitational pull of gimmickry. You have sought out mentors and have yourself been sought out. You have taught and been taught. Throughout your life you have made decisions that many people regard as personal or financial sacrifices but that to you simply involved staying true to the capabilities and responsibilities of one who calls into being. You have not sold out; you have not faked it. Not everyone understands the decisions you’ve made—but then, not everyone believes
that men have walked on the moon.

Yet here you are.

As you have grown more capable, you have called into being richer things, deeper things, challenging things. You have called and been called, made and been made, and you offer no apologies for that. Instead, you have accepted the responsibility that comes with capability: if you can call, call. If you can make, make. If you can help, help. If you can be a poet on the moon...

be a poet on the moon.

Part 3

“Someday we’ll put a poet up there and then we’ll find out what it’s really like.”

Now, there are people who, no matter how much they might value poetry, do not want to put a poet on the moon. They say you cannot control a poet on the moon. They say that once you put a poet on the moon, a whole bunch of other poets are going to want to go up there too. They say we can’t afford to put a poet on the moon.

But can we afford not to put a poet on the moon? Let’s not forget that the scientist did not mean that instead of astronauts on the moon there should be poets on the moon; he simply meant that in addition to science, serious art can help us understand who we are, where we are, and what we are doing. He meant that art is essential to our comprehension of the universe; we ask of art that it help us see, that it help us remember, that it help us speak, that it help point the way we have yet to go, that it help warn us from going where we should not. We ask of art that it give us beauty and hope. We ask of art that it constantly push the boundaries of our knowledge because knowledge cannot expand unless it is pushed. We ask of art to have the capacity to enlarge our lives—and it does.

We know these things to be true, we know that art is essential, and yet we often overlook the person who is making the art. But not tonight. We have, tonight, put a poet on the moon.

Sometimes, when you are a poet on the moon, you wonder if anyone sees your work, if anyone hears your work, if anyone is paying attention.

The answer is yes.

We do see you. We do hear you. We are paying attention. And we make no apology for rolling out the red carpet, for the praise and respect we make explicit tonight.

And now it is time to return from the moon.

Together we have journeyed out and have journeyed back. Patrons, donors, benefactors, families, friends: by virtue of your support, you too have made this journey. You too have called into being. You too are poets in spirit if not in practice; you too are poets on the moon. For this—for your kindness, your friendship, your support—we thank you.

You have all given generously of yourselves, and we would ask of you only one thing more for today:

Tonight, when you go outside, look at the moon.

No comments: