The Moonshot Sonnet is a concrete poem composed in 1964 by poet Mary Ellen Solt (1920-2007). The work is a poem created reformatting diagrammatic codes used by NASA to execute the moon landing; (“moonshot” is, in itself, a term that originated during the Apollo 11 space launch to describe the act or procedure of launching a spacecraft to the moon.) Whereas the engineers at NASA placed the codes over photographs of the moon’s surface, Solt appropriated the codes with no direct references to any lunar image but reassembling them into the codified poetic form of the sonnet.
In no article written on Solt’s work, we could find the reference on the original NASA images used by Solt as inspiration. However, given the date of the poem, Solt probably had seen one of the 4300 images coming from Ranger 7, the first USA space probe to successfully transmit close images of the lunar surface back to Earth (Cfr. Nasa Jet Propulsion Laboratory page).
The final work by Solt is a composition in fourteen lines with five accents, appearing on the dust jacket of Solt-edited definitive American anthology Concrete Poetry: A World View (Mary Ellen Solt, ed., Concrete Poetry: A World View (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1970)).
Made by copying the scientists’ symbols on the first photos of the moon in the New York Times: there were exactly fourteen “lines” with five “accents”. We have not been able to address the moon in a sonnet successfully since the Renaissance. Admitting its new scientific content made it possible to do so again. The moon is a different object today. Also the sonnet was a supranational, supralingual form as the concrete poem is. So the poem is both a spoof of old forms and a statement about the necessity for new.
Mary Ellen Solt, note to her 1964 Moonshot Sonnet, printed on the back cover of Solt’s 1968 Concrete Poetry: A World View Anthology. The quote appeared on Emmett Williams (ed.), An Anthology of Concrete Poetry, something else press, New York, NY, 1967.
Through a post by the always inspiring A Series of Rooms, we discovered an article (“Assemblage in contemporary British poetry“) written on this work by Gareth Leaman, of which we’ll feature here some passages:
One of the most important ways in which poetry can exhibit this attempt at expression despite cultural limitations is through pushing to the limit of what the poetic form can express. As such, the act of assemblage is frequently an important compositional tool employed by poets who wish to question poetry’s viability as a means of expression in contemporary culture. We can see this in recent formal experiments with the sonnet, of which Mary Ellen Solt’s ‘Moon Shot Sonnet’ is a prime example. (…) Though ostensibly a sonnet, Solt’s work does not initially seem to resemble the form – or even poetry – in any traditional sense, largely in that it does not have any linguistic content, and instead comprises an appropriation of ‘symbols (“accents”) superimposed by scientists to mark off the lunar surface.’ However, a more nuanced analysis would reveal that the work’s lack of linguistic content is the very means through which it can convey meaning. (…) The symbols of which the work is constructed are thus a form of ‘pseudo-language’: it is not anti-language or a non-language; rather it functions as if it were a language. These symbols convey meaning in the same way that a conventional, semantic poem would (…). In the case of ‘Moon Shot Sonnet’, the pseudo-linguistic symbols Solt appropriates serve to exhibit how the exponential increase of scientific knowledge and technological progress has changed the way in which conventional poetic subjects can be addressed. As the poem’s commentary notes, ‘the moon had relinquished its romantic aura to become a scientific object. The twentieth-century poet cannot address the moon as Sir Philip Sidney did in 1582.’ Thus by the mid-twentieth century Solt’s work is a more pertinent way of addressing the moon, which is now an object of scientific investigation rather than a subject for romantic lyric poetry. There is no ‘truth’ to Sidney’s words in the present: his work is nothing more than a historic artefact and an aesthetic curiosity, which cannot speak to or for the modern condition of life and culture.
Continue reading: Gareth Leaman, “Assemblage in contemporary British poetry“).
Mary Ellen Solt, An appreciation by A.S. Bessa in Ubuweb.
Mary Ellen Solt, (ed.) Concrete Poetry: A World View.
Emmett Williams (ed.), An Anthology of Concrete Poetry, something else press, New York, NY, 1967.
Gareth Leaman, “Assemblage in contemporary British poetry”
Craig Saper, “A Story of Intermedia Performance, Publishing, and Pop Appeal“, in Coldfront Mag.
Fiona Moore, “Innovative sonnets: the Reality Street anthology“, in Displacement.