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Reflecting on the Work of Rebecca Elson

By Jay Paine

As someone interested in both poetry and the cosmos, I find myself returning often to the work of the late astronomer-poet Rebecca Elson, particularly her collection A Responsibility to Awe, which includes some of her poems, journal entries, and an essay. Many of these pieces focus on high-stakes subjects like death, as Elson found herself grappling with terminal cancer, an experience that influenced much of her work. Although Elson’s experience with cancer alone would have provided the gravitas needed in any poem, I am enamored by Elson’s use of astronomy and cosmology to illustrate why we humans should care about how we came into being, why we should appreciate the physical world surrounding us, and what we can do to accept our own and the universe’s finite existence. Thus, in this post, I want to share my reflections on Elson’s work, especially what she has taught me about the universe, poetry, and life.

I have learned much about writing poetry from Elson, as both the content of her poems and the formal execution of them is compelling. To see how Elson accomplishes such a feat, I have examined her poem “Girl with a Balloon.” In the poem, Elson begins by sharing the simple fact that the Big Bang created the majority of our universe’s helium, and this fact leads her to marry the concepts of the simplicity of the early universe to the simplicity of early childhood by describing a girl holding the string of a helium filled balloon, “a little bit of pure Big Bang, / Bobbing at the end of her string.” On the content level, Elson balances simple images with universal human desires (i.e., a longing for a simpler time) by imbuing a childhood image with nostalgia and the weight of the universe. The poem, totaling nine lines, also makes its point with brevity, and the alliteration in “Big Bang, / Bobbing,” the poem’s final lines, sounds quite lovely when spoken aloud. It is as if each syllable bobs like the helium filled balloon. What a way to end a poem! In my future poems, I hope to embody the brevity and strong images that Elson so masterfully incorporates into her work.

Not only has Elson taught me a great deal about the formal elements of poetry, but through her journals she also provides me with guidance on how to live as a writer. As any serious writer knows, journaling is an important part of producing compelling writing because it provides a space to generate new ideas. Elson most definitely understood this process, but Elson didn’t frequently jot down her thoughts in a prosaic form. Instead, Elson preferred to journal in poetic verse. I found this method of verse-journaling fascinating. It’s as if all her thoughts and ideas were poetry before they were poetry, and in some places, readers can see the evolution of some of her poems. Intrigued by Elson’s journaling and revision processes, I attempted journaling in verse. The process led me to some interesting places, and the act of journaling in verse produced a feeling of transcendence. Although I do not frequently journal in verse, I do return to Elson’s methods whenever I am stuck generating ideas for poetry. Something about forcing myself to maintain a poetic form from the poem’s inception to its revision just proves useful.

Overall, Elson has been one of my biggest influences as I continue to hone my poetic craft. The combination of Elson’s love for astronomy, cosmology, and poetry parallel my own interests, and I have often heard that if you find yourself particularly intrigued by a poet, it is likely the case that you want to write in a similar vein. Although I am by no means an astronomer or cosmologist, I have always had a love for the night sky and the natural world, and Elson’s poetry helps me see these parts of the universe a little clearer. If you are interested in outer space and poetry, I recommend spending some time with Elson’s work. Not only will you be enamored by Elson’s compelling subjects and striking imagery, but you might also learn a thing or two about crafting a good poem.

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