Auden on Apollo 11
Late in the evening on July 20th, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were poised to become the first humans to set foot on the moon. (Michael Collins remained alone in lunar orbit until they returned.)
I remember watching that moon walk from a Best Western Motel on the highway outside of pre-chic Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The set was a portable, black and white model with rabbit ears antenna. Our mother was taking my sister and I on a summer road trip to Yellowstone. Barely seven years old and fifty pounds, I was a tousled mess of mosquito bites, scabby knees and peeling sunburn in beat up P.F. Flier sneakers, yet at that moment, I knew I was also a witness to history.
I stared at the grainy picture thinking the moon surely looked better in color. But the Life Magazine photos that came out later, showed the same flat, desolate grey.
Oddly, we three never said much about that broadcast, but British/American poet W.H. Auden captured some unarticulated thoughts about the event in his 1969 poem. Subtle, as opposed to laugh-outloud funny, this piece contains the same thread of fresh perspective and incisive, raw truth that lies at the core of every good joke. Enjoy!
It’s natural the Boys should whoop it up for
so huge a phallic triumph, an adventure
it would not have occurred to women
to think worth while, made possible only
because we like huddling in gangs and knowing
the exact time: yes, our sex may in fairness
hurrah the deed, although the motives
that primed it were somewhat less than menschlich.
A grand gesture. But what does it period?
What does it osse? We were always adroiter
with objects than lives, and more facile
at courage than kindness: from the moment
the first flint was flaked this landing was merely
a matter of time. But our selves, like Adam’s,
still don’t fit us exactly, modern
only in this—our lack of decorum.
Homer’s heroes were certainly no braver
than our Trio, but more fortunate: Hector
was excused the insult of having
his valor covered by television.
Worth going to see? I can well believe it.
Worth seeing? Mneh! I once rode through a desert
and was not charmed: give me a watered
lively garden, remote from blatherers
about the New, the von Brauns and their ilk, where
on August mornings I can count the morning
glories where to die has a meaning,
and no engine can shift my perspective.
Unsmudged, thank God, my Moon still queens the Heavens
as She ebbs and fulls, a Presence to glop at,
Her Old Man, made of grit not protein,
still visits my Austrian several
with His old detachment, and the old warnings
still have power to scare me: Hubris comes to
an ugly finish, Irreverence
is a greater oaf than Superstition.
Our apparatniks will continue making
the usual squalid mess called History:
all we can pray for is that artists,
chefs and saints may still appear to blithe it.