THE UNIVERSE IN VERSE 2020 (APRIL 25, WORLDWIDE)
Since 2017, The Universe in Verse has been celebrating the natural world — the science, the splendor, the mystery of it — through poetry, that lovely backdoor to consciousness, bypassing our habitual barricades of thought and feeling to reveal reality afresh. And now here we are — “survivors of immeasurable events,” in the words of the astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson, “small, wet miracles without instruction, only the imperative of change” — suddenly scattered six feet apart across a changed world, blinking with disorientation, disbelief, and no small measure of heartache. All around us, nature stands as a selective laboratory log of only the successes in the series of experiments we call evolution — every creature alive today, from the blooming magnolias to the pathogen-carrying bat, is alive because its progenitors have survived myriad cataclysms, adapted to myriad unforeseen challenges, learned to live in unimagined worlds.
The 2020 Universe in Verse is an adaptation, an experiment, a Promethean campfire for the collective imagination.
Originally, this year’s edition was migrating to a majestic outdoor amphitheater in the redwoods of California, exploring the question What Is Life. Four days later, I was to host another event across the landmass — a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and Rachel Carson’s legacy — on the steps of the New York Public Library, where the inaugural Earth Day took place in 1970. Both were colossal labors of love many months in the making, with many remarkable humans involved. Both were cancelled out of necessary regard for the resilience of life as we face its fragility together — a world of hostages to a submicroscopic assailant, a world of refugees from ordinary life, struggling for safety, sanity, and survival of body and soul.
Adapting to this extra-ordinary shared circumstance, The Universe in Verse is taking a virtual leap to serve what it has always aspired to serve — a broadening of perspective: cosmic, creaturely, temporal, scientific, humanistic — all the more vital as we find the aperture of our attention and anxiety so contracted by the acute suffering of this shared present. I have once again joined forces with my friends at Pioneer Works, the birthplace of The Universe in Verse — that improbable brick-and-mortar spaceship of possibility, where we have been quietly building New York City’s first-ever public observatory to offer precisely such a portal to cosmic and creaturely perspective, a place devoted to education and enchantment, democratizing the science and the poetics of the universe, and making, in Walt Whitman’s words, “all spheres, grown, ungrown, small, large, suns, moons, planets” available to “all souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different.”
The 2020 Universe in Verse is broadcasting from Pioneer Works at 4:30PM EST on Saturday, April 25.
Expect readings of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich, Pablo Neruda, June Jordan, Mary Oliver, Audre Lorde, Wendell Berry, Hafiz, Rachel Carson, James Baldwin, and other titans of poetic perspective, performed by a largehearted cast of scientists and artists, astronauts and poets, Nobel laureates and Grammy winners: Physicists Janna Levin, Kip Thorne, and Brian Greene, musicians Rosanne Cash, Patti Smith, Amanda Palmer, Zoë Keating, Morley, and Cécile McLorin Salvant, poets Jane Hirshfield, Ross Gay, Marie Howe, and Natalie Diaz, astronomers Natalie Batalha and Jill Tarter, authors Rebecca Solnit, Elizabeth Gilbert, Masha Gessen, Roxane Gay, Robert Macfarlane, and Neil Gaiman, astronaut Leland Melvin, playwright and activist Eve Ensler, actor Natascha McElhone, entrepreneur Tim Ferriss, artists Debbie Millman, Dustin Yellin, and Lia Halloran, cartoonist Alison Bechdel, radio-enchanters Krista Tippett and Jad Abumrad, and composer Paola Prestini with the Young People’s Chorus. As always, there are some thrilling surprises in wait.
Every golden human thread weaving this global lifeline is donating their time and talent (and oh how much time this has taken!), diverting from their own work and livelihood, to offer this generous gift to the world. We’ve made this just because it feels important that it exist, that it serve some measure of consolation by calibration of perspective, perhaps even some joy. The Universe in Verse is ordinarily a ticketed charitable event, with all proceeds benefiting a chosen ecological or scientific-humanistic nonprofit each year. We offer this year’s livestream freely, but making the show exist and beaming it to you had significant costs, paid out of (shallow, personal, non-profit) pocket. If you are so moved and able, please support this colossal labor with a donation to Pioneer Works, whose doors are now physically closed to the public but whose hearts remain open to the world as they pirouette to find new ways of serving art, science, and perspective. Your donation is tax-deductible and appreciation-additive. There would be no Universe in Verse without Pioneer Works.
NOTE: For various artistic, legal, and technical reasons, the livestream will not be available in its entirety for later viewing — just as a physical gathering only exists for as long as we are gathered — but individual readings will be released incrementally on Brain Pickings. (Sign up for the newsletter to ensure you don’t miss them.) As the biology of life is challenging us to bend limitation into possibility as never before, may this meta-limitation also serve as an invitation — to be fully present, together across the space that divides us, for a beautiful and unrepeatable experience that animates a shared moment in time, all the more precious for being unrepeatable. “As if what exists, exists so that it can be lost and become precious,” in the words of the poet Lisel Mueller.
RECORDINGS OF PAST EVENTS
CELEBRATING “A VELOCITY OF BEING” (December 15, 2018)
After eight years of labor, I was thrilled to birth A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, published in collaboration with my good friend Claudia Bedrick of Enchanted Lion Books — a collection of original illustrated letters to children about why we read and how books shape our character by 121 of the most interesting people in our world, including contributions by Jane Goodall, Yo-Yo Ma, Ursula K. Le Guin, Mary Oliver, Neil Gaiman, Amanda Palmer, Jacqueline Woodson, Rebecca Solnit, Elizabeth Gilbert, Anne Lamott, Shonda Rhimes, a 98-year-old Holocaust survivor, Italy’s first woman in space, and other remarkable humans living inspired and inspiring lives. (More about the book here, including a peek at the art by some of the most beloved children’s books illustrators of our time.)
On December 15, 2018, several of the contributors joined me to read their letters (and play some music) alongside art from the book in a special evening at The New York Public Library — our only live event for the book, at the most fitting venue for this many-peopled endeavor of goodwill, for we are donating 100% of proceeds from the book to our local public library system in New York.
Readings by Adam Gopnik, Janna Levin, Jad Abumrad, Amanda Stern, Alexander Chee, Sarah Kay, Paola Antonelli, Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie, Mohammed Fairouz, William Powers, Naomi Wolf, Paul Holdengräber, Sophie Blackall (reading Neil Gaiman’s letter), and Helen Fagin, and music by Dawn Landes and Morley, who also read their letters from the book.
THE UNIVERSE IN VERSE (APRIL 28, 2018)
In the spring of 2018, after the improbable success of the inaugural show in 2017, I once again joined forces with Pioneer Works and The Academy of American Poets to host The Universe in Verse — an evening of science-inspired poems read by artists, writers, scientists, and musicians, part protest and part celebration, with all proceeds benefiting the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“The real wealth of the Nation,” marine biologist and author Rachel Carson wrote in her courageous 1953 protest letter, “lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife… Their administration is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics.” Carson’s legacy inspired the creation of Earth Day and the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency, whose hard-won environmental regulations are now being undone in the hands of a heedless administration. Carson was a scientist who thought and wrote like a poet. As she catalyzed the modern environmental movement with her epoch-making 1962 book Silent Spring, she was emboldened by a line from a 1914 poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox:
To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men.
Dedicated to Rachel Carson’s legacy, the 2018 show was a sort of prelude to Figuring. More than a thousand people packed in to celebrate the Earth — from the oceans and trees and volcanos to bees and kale and the armadillo — with poems by Maya Angelou, Adrienne Rich, Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Lucille Clifton, Elizabeth Bishop, Denise Levertov, Walt Whitman, and more, read by musicians Amanda Palmer, Zoe Keating, and Sean Ono Lennon, astrophysicists Janna Levin and Natalie Batalha, authors A.M. Homes and James Gleick, poet Terrance Hayes, artist Maira Kalman, bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer, and actors, writers, and directors America Ferrera and John Cameron Mitchell. Three of the great poets of our time — Jane Hirshfield, Marie Howe, and Diane Ackerman — will read their own work. Gracing the evening was an original poem by Neil Gaiman, composed for the occasion, and a special musical surprise.
Find the complete show and the full poem playlist below:
- “A Brave and Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou, read by Janna Levin
- “Sojourns in the Parallel World” by Denise Levertov, read by America Ferrera
- “The World Below the Brine” by Walt Whitman, read by John Cameron Mitchell
- “Renascence” by Edna St. Vincent Millay, read by Natalie Batalha
- “The Fish in the Stone” by Rita Dove, read by Zöe Keating
- “At the Fishhouses” by Elizabeth Bishop, read by James Gleick
- “cutting greens” by Lucille Clifton, read by Terrance Hayes
- “Singularity (for Stephen Hawking)” by Marie Howe, read by the poet herself
- “The Explorers” by Adrienne Rich, read by A.M. Homes
- “Optimism” by Jane Hirshfield, read by Jane Hirshfield and animated by Kelli Anderson
- “Cosymbionts” by Vicki Graham, read by Robin Wall Kimmerer
- “[bee]” by Emily Dickinson, read by Maira Kalman
- “The Consolation of Apricots” by Diane Ackerman, read by the poet herself
- “The Devil Teaches Thermodynamics” by Roald Hoffmann, read by Sean Ono Lennon
- “After Silence (for Rachel Carson)” by Neil Gaiman, read by Amanda Palmer
- FINALE: “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell, arranged by Amanda Palmer and performed by The Decomposers: Amanda Palmer (vocals), Zöe Keating (cello), Sean Ono Lennon (guitar and vocals), and John Cameron Mitchell (vocals)
THE UNIVERSE IN VERSE (APRIL 24, 2017)
“When power corrupts, poetry cleanses,” John F. Kennedy famously wrote. Half a century later, with art, science, and the humanities under assault from the government, this intersection of science and poetry, truth and beauty, is an uncommon kind of protest and a singularly fertile frontier of resistance.
On April 24, 2017, I joined forces with the Academy of American Poets and astrophysicist Janna Levin to host The Universe in Verse at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn — an evening of poetry celebrating great scientists and scientific discoveries, with all proceeds benefiting the Academy of American Poets and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
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, and Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York.
Poems about: Marie Curie, Isaac Newton, Caroline Herschel, Oliver Sacks, Jane Goodall, Euclid, black holes, the Hubble Space Telescope, the number pi, and more.
Poems by: Adrienne Rich, Wisława Szymborska, Elizabeth Alexander, Tracy K. Smith, Campbell McGrath, Diane Ackerman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and John Updike.
Find the complete show and the full poem playlist below:
- “Planetarium” by Adrienne Rich, read by Janna Levin
- “My God, It’s Full of Stars” by Tracy K. Smith, read by the poet herself
- “Power” by Adrienne Rich, read by Rosanne Cash
- “The Venus Hottentot” by Elizabeth Alexander, read by the poet herself
- “Cosmic Gall” by John Updike from, read by Brandon Stanton
- “We Are Listening” by Diane Ackerman, 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, read by Billy Hayes
- “Euclid Alone Has Looked” by Edna St. Vincent Millay, read by Sam Beam
- “Jane Goodall (1961)” by Campbell McGrath, performed by Sarah Jones
- “The Habits of Light” by Anna Leahy, read by Ann Hamilton
- “Address: The Archaeans, One Cell Creatures” by Pattiann Rogers, read by Jad Abumrad
- “Pi” by Wisława Szymborska, read by Maria Popova
- “The Mushroom Hunters” by Neil Gaiman, read by Amanda Palmer