If I asked you to read a poem titled “Black Astronomy,” what would you think it was about?
Recently I encountered a poem so titled. Published in 1930, the poem was new to me. So was the poet, John Minnich Wilson. I admit, coaxed on by present-day social and political tensions, I assumed the poem would focus on race. And why not? I’m game for poetry that simultaneously tackles racial and scientific themes. But Wilson’s “Black Astronomy” delves into a topic other than race.
I recommend “Black Astronomy” as a gritty rendering of the literal underworld. The poem is short, accessible, and to the point. You can read a free digital copy on the Poetry Foundation’s website:
“Black Astronomy” pulses with cadence, delivered via the taunting words You, I, A, and Come, but most powerfully with You. The poet Wilson worked as a coal miner, even coming to be known as the Mining Poet. Certainly, the poem’s subject material brought him pain and darkness at times. But it also brought him revelation covered in star stuff.
Like scientists Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, Wilson invites the reader to a place of intimacy with the cosmos: “Come with me into the core / of yesterday…” Though it might be more accurate to say the poem’s gruff tone taunts astronomers. The cultural gap between elite academics and working class coal miners seems overt, even if specific motivations for it are left unspoken by the poet. Still, this makes for a dynamic and readable poem.
Questions for Comment
- I used the word “gruff” to describe the tone of “Black Astronomy.” How would you characterize the poem?
- What images in Wilson’s verse struck you the strongest? Why?
Indiana State University Library has an electronic copy of Wilson’s poem “Emancipation.” Similarly themed to “Black Astronomy,” it blends astronomical imagery with strong religiosity.
If you’d like to explore another science-themed poem, read my previous post: