Journeying to Space on Words


What can poetry teach us about science? I have been thinking about this question from a dozen different angles over the past five years, as fellow writer Christopher Cokinos and I have worked together on a project that brings together poems focused on spaceflight. Beyond Earth’s Edge: The Poetry of Spaceflight, published by the University of Arizona Press just last week, features eighty-nine poems that consider what it means for humans to dream of the stars, to look out across the universe, and to even go out there ourselves.

If you were around the Poetry Center in fall 2016, you might remember an exhibit of space poetry called simply “The Poetry of Spaceflight.” It featured a sampling of poems alongside paintings by space artist Robert McCall, stunning photographs of Mars taken by the HiRISE camera, and a cardboard cutout of Spock lurking behind one of the display cases. That original selection of poems was the seed of what became Beyond Earth's Edge. Poets have a lot to say about space, I learned in the course of this project—more than I could even have guessed.

In Beyond Earth’s Edge, you’ll find poets speaking with the voices of robotic spacecraft and a moon of Saturn. You’ll find poems that remember the racially charged moment of the Apollo 11 moon landings and that elegize the last human to set foot on the surface of the moon. There are imagined scenes of human life on the surface of Mars and affirmations that life will continue even when our solar system ceases to exist. The poets in this collection know that our struggles here on Earth don’t just disappear when we leave our planet’s surface, and they ask big questions about how space might give us new perspectives on what really matters. These pages showcase poets’ doubts and enthusiasms, celebrations and questionings of our human strivings to know and to explore the universe around us.

Poetry, together with science, can teach us to linger, to look and to look again, to ask and to listen, and to turn wonder into living words. Near the end of the book, Chris eloquently writes:

“Astronauts repeatedly have said that we should send poets to space. Here, they have so traveled, but perhaps it’s time to take the call literally. At the cusp of what promises to be a newly invigorated era in spaceflight and exploration, one in which, perhaps ironically, wealthy elites may democratize access to low Earth orbit and other destinations—perhaps it is in this century that poets will write the first geosynchronous sonnets, the first villanelles from the tops of the Moon’s Montes Apenninus. 
We first went to space on words. Words are going there, too.”

We may not yet be able to fulfill that call to take words into space, but through the imaginative, generative work of poetry, we can participate in making meaning about our home among the stars.

Listen to an interview about Beyond Earth’s Edge on Planetary Radio, featuring readings of poems from the anthology by Bill Nye, astronauts Leland Melvin and Nicole Stott, planetary scientists Alan Stern and Linda Spilker, and more.


Some ideas for writing your own poems inspired by spaceflight:

  1. Carolyn Oliver’s poem “Enceladus Considers Cassini” allows this moon of Saturn to speak directly to the Cassini spacecraft, daring it to attempt to fully know the moon’s secrets. Write a poem of your own in the voice of a moon, planet, asteroid, star, black hole, etc. Really dig into the idea of personality—what’s that celestial body like?
  2. Tracy K. Smith and Adrienne Rich both write about the vast distance of the universe as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope, which sees so incredibly far that it essentially looks back in time. Spend some time with the Hubble eXtreme Deep Field photograph. Is that distance terrifying or a relief? What does it tell you about life on Earth? What does it tell you about something you did last week?
  3. Lo Kwa Mei-en imagines an adversarial dialog between a future colonist and his doctor in “Pastoral for Colonial Candidacy,” which takes a reverse abecedarian form: In an abecedarian poem, every line starts with a successive letter of the alphabet (line 1 starts with word beginning with a A, line 2 starts with a word beginning with B, and so on), while a reverse abecedarian starts with Z, then Y, and so on. Write a reverse abecedarian about a future space scenario. Then write an abecedarian thinking about what we knew about space four hundred years ago. Do some research.