The Universe in Verse: Complete Show
An evening of poetry celebrating great scientists and scientific discoveries, read by beloved artists, writers, and musicians.
By Maria Popova
On April 24, 2017, I joined forces with the Academy of American Poets and astrophysicist Janna Levin to host The Universe in Verse at Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works — an evening of poetry celebrating great scientists and scientific discoveries, and a protest against the silencing of science and the defunding of the arts, with all proceeds benefiting the Academy of American Poets and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
To our astonishment and delight, this seemingly esoteric idea drew an ardent audience of 850 — our maximum capacity — who lined up around the block to hear readings by Amanda Palmer, Rosanne Cash, Janna Levin, Elizabeth Alexander, Diane Ackerman, Billy Hayes, Sarah Jones, Tracy K. Smith, Jad Abumrad of Radiolab, Sam Beam of Iron & Wine, Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York, and myself.
We celebrated pillars of science like Marie Curie, Euclid, Caroline Herschel, Oliver Sacks, the Harvard Computers, neutrinos, and the number pi, and read treasures like Adrienne Rich’s ode to women in astronomy, Campbell McGrath’s tribute to Jane Goodall, and the magnificent feminist poem about science Neil Gaiman wrote especially for the occasion.
This magical evening, which ended in a standing ovation, was an immensely heartening project of collective goodwill — the show took me innumerable hours to put together and every single person involved, from the triple-Grammy-winning musician to the Pulitzer-winning poet to the camera crew, donated their time and talent so that we could lift hundreds of spirits and raise thousands of dollars for the perseverance of art and science.
Prefacing each poem is my introduction of the reader, some curious facts about the scientist or discovery celebrated in the poem, and the reader’s brief reflection on her or his relationship to science and poetry. The poem playlist is below, with links to the individual poems where available — please enjoy:
- “Planetarium” by Adrienne Rich from Collected Poems: 1950–2012 (public library), read by Janna Levin
- “My God, It’s Full of Stars” by Tracy K. Smith from Life on Mars (public library), read by the poet herself
- “Power” by Adrienne Rich from The Dream of a Common Language (public library), read by Rosanne Cash
- “The Venus Hottentot” by Elizabeth Alexander from Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990–2010 (public library), read by the poet herself
- “Cosmic Gall” by John Updike from Telephone Poles and Other Poems (public library) read by Brandon Stanton
- “We Are Listening” by Diane Ackerman from Jaguar of Sweet Laughter: New and Selected Poems (public library), read by the poet herself
- “On the Fifth Day” by Jane Hirshfield, read by Emily Levine
- “For Oliver’s Birthday, 1997” by Steven Jay Gould, published in On the Move by Oliver Sacks, read by Billy Hayes
- “Euclid Alone Has Looked” by Edna St. Vincent Millay from The Selected Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay (public library), read by Sam Beam
- “Jane Goodall (1961)” by Campbell McGrath from XX: Poems for the Twentieth Century (public library), performed by Sarah Jones
- “The Habits of Light” by Anna Leahy from Aperture (public library), read by Ann Hamilton
- “Address: The Archaeans, One Cell Creatures” by Pattiann Rogers from Wayfare (public library), read by Jad Abumrad
- “Pi” by Wisława Szymborska from Map: Collected and Last Poems (public library), read by Maria Popova
- “The Mushroom Hunters” by Neil Gaiman, read by Amanda Palmer
If you enjoyed this labor of love, please consider joining in the goodwill by supporting the Academy of American Poets and the Natural Resources Defense Council, as well as Pioneer Works who, like me, rely on patronage to continue doing what they do.
Published May 29, 2017