“They should have sent a poet,” gasps Jodie Foster’s character in the film based on Carl Sagan’s novel Contact as anotheremerges before her eyes outside the spaceship window, redeeming with the wonder of the possibility of her lifelong dream of finding intelligent life beyond our solar system.
Sagan, who wrote the novel in 1985 and returned his stardust to the universe months before the film’s premiere in 1997, modeled Foster’s character — a scientist persisting in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence against the tidal force of resistance from the limited imagination of mainstream science — on the heroic longtime director of the: astronomer Jill Tarter.
In the spring of 2020, as our one and the only world was celebrating the fiftieth anniversary ofwhile coming unworlded by a deadly pandemic, Dr. Tarter joined the human chorus serenading our cosmic belonging in — my annual charitable celebration of science and the natural world through poetry — to read a poem that could have been composed by her or for her or about her: “The Ball” by the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska (July 2, 1923–February 1, 2012), who received her Nobel Prize with a stunning reflection on and whose poignant lesser-known prose has explored .
by Wisława Szymborska
As long as nothing can be known for sure (no signals have been picked up yet), As long as the Earth is still unlike The nearer and more distant planets, As long as there’s neither hide nor hair Of other grasses graced by other winds Or other treetops bearing different crowns, Other animals as well-grounded as our own, As long as theto speak in syllables As long as there’s no word Of better or worse Mozarts, platos, Edisons out there,
as long as our inhuman crimes are still committed only between humans, as long as our kindness is still incomparable, peerless even in its imperfection, as long our heads packed with illusions still pass for the only authorities so packed, as long as the roofs of our mouths aloneto high heavens —
let’s act like exceptional guests of honor at the district fireman’s ball, dance to the beat of the local oompah band, and pretend that it’s the ball to end all balls. I can’t speak for others — this misery and happiness is enough for me: just this sleepy backwater where even the stars haveto burn while winking at us unintentionally.
“The Ball,” translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, appears in Szymborska’s indispensable( ), giving us her and her lovely For more about Dr. Tarter, her inspiring story, and her poetic philosophy that “it takes a cosmos to make us human,” savor her with Krista Tippett. (Krista was also a part of The Universe in Verse in 2020 with a lovely reading of and reflection on Wendell Berry’s and in 2019 with Howard Nemerov’s .)
For more lush lyrical interleavings of our hunger for elemental truth and our search for human meaning, delve into the Universe in Verse, spanning several years and dozens of diversely inspiring humans reading perspective-broadening poems, including astronomer Natalie Batalha reading and reflecting on Dylan Thomas’s , musician Meshell Ndegeocello performing , physicist Brian Greene , U.S. Tracy K. Smith reading her , astronaut Leland Melvin reading Pablo Neruda’s , and Patti Smith reading Emily Dickinson’s .