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It's Okay to Love the Moon
In defense of common images in literature
These poets and their moon! It’s a longstanding joke on the internet, a sort of eye roll meme, ending in a shrug, because we all know poets will just keep on writing about the moon, anyway.
But the fact the moon was old news would have been laughable to the classical Chinese poets, particularly during the Tang Dynasty. Read ten Tang poems at random and I’ll bet you seven mention the moon. And they’re some of the most beautiful poems ever written, full of longing and a wish for connection and an appreciation for the natural things of this world. As Wong May writes in her (truly, incredibly, indescribably) excellent extended essay at the end of In the Same Light: 200 Poems for Our Century from the Migrants & Exiles of the Tang Dynasty,
Banish the moon, Tang poetry would be a very dark place indeed. A great deal has been said about Chinese classical poetry being mired in the “wind/flowers/snow/moon” school - stock images they certainly were - but the workshop of the poets happened to be the killing fields of China’s tumultuous Middle Ages. The moon was not banal in the Tang dynasty. In poetry it was primarily the exile’s moon.
And it’s true not just in Chinese poetry but in all poetry, and not just in poetry, but in fiction, film, television, plays, songs: a speaker or narrator or character can connect with someone, sometimes a single someone, or sometimes all of humanity, just by looking up at the moon. For most of human history, we had no idea what it really was or what went on up there. All we knew was that it was mystery, and it was changeable, and yet comforting, something everyone in the world had in common - unlike even the stars, depending on where you are on earth. So of course it would come to play an outsize role in works of the imagination. Sometimes it’s an avatar, sometimes it’s a symbol, sometimes it’s a plot device. Sometimes it’s an ode, sometimes a curse. And perhaps we keep writing about the moon because in a way it’s the original poem, and resists interpretation; Mary Ruefle in her absolutely delightful “Poetry and the Moon” essay:
…stars were the first text, the first instance of gabbiness; connecting the stars, making a pattern out of them, was the first story, sacred to storytellers. But the moon was the first poem, in the lyric sense, an entity complete in itself, recognizable at a glance, one that played upon the emotions so strongly that the context of time and place hardly seemed to matter.
But I don’t think that just because we’ve walked on the moon, we should be embarrassed to keep writing about it. It’s a big fucking moon! It’s our only, lonely one! Look at the film Moonstruck, a movie as big-hearted and unembarrassed as any I’ve seen: the moon is, yes, a symbol for romance, for magic, but it also looms large as a symbol of madness. Love is madness, love will drive you mad, and the two are inextrictably intertwined in the film. As Olympia Dukakis’s Rose says, “When you love 'em, they drive you crazy cause they know they can.” The film is as preposterous and dreamy as the moon itself. Why would we stop writing about the moon if it inspires a script like John Patrick Shanley’s?
I think we should never feel embarrassed to write about any natural object deemed cliche in poetry or in literature, be it flowers, or the sun, or the stars, or magnolia trees. These are subjects that are so big, we cannot help but write them over and over - not because we are bereft of ideas, but because they are essential to our understanding of ourselves and our place in the world. They’re a kind of deep language, harder to use well but utterly universal when we succeed in the saying. When we are looking at the stars, or the sun, or the flowers, we are really looking at ourselves; we are asking, publicly - bravely, I think - do you feel this in your body, too? Do you find it as wonderfully ridiculous to exist on this earth as I do? Take Danielle Dutton’s gorgeous ending to her story “My Wonderful Description of Flowers,”
In her film “The Beaches of Agnès,” almost at the start, Agnès Varda says to the camera that if we opened up people’s bodies we would find landscapes inside.If you opened my body, she says, you would find beaches in me. Having crossed the field with its rolls of hay, then passed through a tangle of woods, I’ve come to some other place, where the grass looks like a sea. The wind moves through the grasses, and I move through them, too. At first the grasses come up to my knees, and then after a minute they rise as high as my head. Other things surround me, too: star-shaped flowers in yellow and white, plastic netting, purple thistle, milkweed gone to seed. If you opened up my body, I think, this is what you’d find, exactly the place where I’m standing. There’s a cross-rhythm from the crickets, plus the hum of distant traffic, plus the sound of drying grasses moving in the wind. My body’s obscured by the waving of plants. This is the prairie at night. All you can see is darkness now and millions of flowers like stars.
Crickets, beaches, woods, flowers, stars, grasses - there are so many elements in this incredible paragraph that could be considered danger signs for writers. (I had a creative writing professor in college who forbid students from writing about the stars in stories. Imagine forever cutting off the lid of the world in your writing!) Yet they’re all woven together, a literary flower crown, a map for a narrator looking for herself. The fact that Dutton starts this paragraph with Agnès Varda is a perfect touch, too; Varda herself was never bothered by the commonality of subjects or images. She worked by intuition, on evoking feelings, caring only about the right image and what it evoked. “You go to the right thing, to the right place, to the right image, with your own feelings,” she said.
And I think that’s the truth about creating art - there is no such thing as cliche, there is no thing as “too done;” there is only the right image, the right thing, the right place for the story you are trying to tell. I don’t even subscribe to the advice that you can only write about the moon if you’re saying something new! Sure, say it new if you can pull it off, like Mina Loy’s fantastically unhinged “Lunar Baedaeker,” as she writes “A silver Lucifer/ serves / cocaine in cornucopia.” But also say something old if it serves the work you’re making! Who hasn’t gotten melancholy drunk with the moon for company, like Li Bai in “Drinking Alone under the Moon: “No one I care for / is about / I lift my gaze / & my goblet / to the moon.”
There are a lot of things in this world that are a little wondrous, but only a small number that truly generate Big Wonder. Of course we should keep writing about them, and if we get them wrong sometimes, well, it’s no better or worse than writing a bad poem about potato chips, or about picking kids up from school. Cliche can come from anywhere, not just the big subjects - and cliche when it’s small is just sad. Why not try harder, you think? Who wants to be cliche about garbage day? But everybody deserves the right to be cliche about the moon. If you succeed, you’ll have written something that makes people swoon in recognition. If you fail, well, at worst you’ll join the billions of people throughout the ages who got to spend time just thinking about the moon.