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The Universe in Verse: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads “Planetarium,” Adrienne Rich’s Tribute to Women in Astronomy

“I am bombarded yet I stand.”

The Universe in Verse: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads “Planetarium,” Adrienne Rich’s Tribute to Women in Astronomy

Caroline Herschel, the first professional woman astronomer, was a remarkable woman who lived a long and pathbreaking life. Her parents deemed her too ugly to marry and envisioned for her a life as a servant — she became the Cinderella of the household, tending to the domestic needs of her parents and her eleven siblings. But Herschel, though incredibly humble, had a tenacity of spirit that kept her quiet passion for the life of the mind burning. She went on to pave the way for women in science, becoming the first woman admitted into the Royal Astronomical Society — the era’s most prestigious scientific institution — alongside the Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville (for whom the word “scientist” was coined).

Exactly 120 years after Herschel’s death, the great poet and feminist Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929–March 27, 2012) — a woman who espoused the political power of poetry and believed that “poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility” — commemorated Herschel’s far-reaching legacy of unlocking a universe of possibility for women in a beautiful 1968 poem titled “Planetarium,” found in Rich’s indispensable Collected Poems: 1950–2012 (public library).

At The Universe in Verse — my celebration of science through poetry, which also gave us Neil Gaiman’s new feminist poem about the dawn of science — astrophysicist and author Janna Levin brought Rich’s masterpiece to life in an enchanting reading:

PLANETARIUM

Thinking of Caroline Herschel (1750–1848)
astronomer, sister of William; and others.

A woman in the shape of a monster
a monster in the shape of a woman
the skies are full of them

a woman    ‘in the snow
among the Clocks and instruments
or measuring the ground with poles’

in her 98 years to discover
8 comets

she whom the moon ruled
like us
levitating into the night sky
riding the polished lenses

Galaxies of women, there
doing penance for impetuousness
ribs chilled
in those spaces    of the mind

An eye,

    ‘virile, precise and absolutely certain’
    from the mad webs of Uranusborg

                                            encountering the NOVA

every impulse of light exploding

from the core
as life flies out of us

    Tycho whispering at last
    ‘Let me not seem to have lived in vain’

What we see, we see
and seeing is changing

the light that shrivels a mountain
and leaves a man alive

Heartbeat of the pulsar
heart sweating through my body

The radio impulse
pouring in from Taurus

    I am bombarded yet    I stand

I have been standing all my life in the
direct path of a battery of signals
the most accurately transmitted most
untranslatable language in the universe
I am a galactic cloud so deep    so invo-
luted that a light wave could take 15
years to travel through me    And has
taken    I am an instrument in the shape
of a woman trying to translate pulsations
into images    for the relief of the body
and the reconstruction of the mind.

A curious footnote I shared at the show: When I first encountered this poem years ago, I was struck by its searing beauty, but also puzzled by why, out of all possible cosmic phenomena, Rich chose to make a particular mention of pulsars. It wasn’t until I devoured Levin’s gorgeous book Black Hole Blues that I came to suspect why: The first pulsar, which revolutionized our understanding of the universe, was discovered in 1967 — less than a year before Rich wrote the poem — by a 23-year-old astronomer named Jocelyn Bell, who was subsequently excluded from the Nobel Prize for the discovery she herself had made.

This being an Adrienne Rich poem, I’ve always taken its dedication — to Caroline Herschel “and others” — to mean “and other unsung and undersung women in astronomy.” After reading Levin’s book, I’ve come to suspect that Rich’s deliberate mention of pulsars — a completely nascent discovery at the time, and not at all common cosmic vocabulary — was a deliberate feminist bow to Jocelyn Bell (who, incidentally, went on to be an enormous champion of the common ground between poetry and science herself.)

For other beautiful readings of beloved poets’ work, hear Cynthia Nixon reading Emily Dickinson, Amanda Palmer reading Wisława Szymborska, Sylvia Boorstein reading Pablo Neruda, Jon Kabat-Zinn reading Derek Walcott, Orson Welles reading Walt Whitman, and Amanda Palmer reading E.E. Cummings, then revisit Janna Levin on the century-long quest to capture the sound of spacetime, how mathematician Kurt Gödel shaped the modern mind, why scientists do what they do, and her magnificent Moth story about the improbable paths that lead us back to ourselves.

BP

Poems of Space: Pioneering Astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell Reads “Halley’s Comet” by Stanley Kunitz

An ode to the transcendent meeting point of outer space and inner space.

Poems of Space: Pioneering Astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell Reads “Halley’s Comet” by Stanley Kunitz

“We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry,” the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote in her diary in 1871 as she was paving the way for women in science. Nearly a century and a half later, another pathbreaking astrophysicist — Jocelyn Bell Burnell, whose revolutionary discovery of pulsars in 1967 forever changed our understanding of the universe — gave literal form to Mitchell’s lyrical sentiment: In 2008, Bell Burnell set out to explore the fertile intersection of poetry and science — something I, too, ardently espouse and am putting to practice with The Universe in Verse — by editing the marvelous anthology Dark Matter: Poems of Space (public library).

Three centuries after William Wordsworth’s proclamation that “Poetry … is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science,” Bell Burnell collects 113 gorgeous poems inspired by astronomy. Among them are works by beloved poets like Adrienne Rich, Walt Whitman, John Keats, Sylvia Plath, Thom Gunn, Anne Sexton, Robert Frost, W.H. Auden, Diane Ackerman, Paul Muldoon, and Seamus Heaney, as well as several original commissions for the volume by celebrated contemporary poets like James Fenton and Robert Pinsky.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Bell Burnell — one of a handful of rare people, alongside Jane Goodall, to hold the dual title Dame Doctor — writes in the preface:

Space has many meanings for me, but like other astronomers, I rarely use it to refer to the cosmos we study. As the daughter of an architect, space suggests for me the area defined by a building, or between buildings, or the layout of a town. As one of the generation of women who helped to change women’s role … I know about giving someone space (i.e. freedom) to achieve. Then there’s the emptiness, the space at the table, which also has connotations of opportunity.

[…]

Although I don’t use the word space to describe the Universe, it has for me suggestions of expanse and emptiness, and a blankness that gives scope for something.

And then there’s inner space, as hard to understand as outer space, and more intimate… As a Quaker, used to silent worship, the cultivation of one’s inner space … is important to me, and poetry helps here… The exploration of inner space, the articulation of emotions, the development of intuition and self-knowledge can be difficult. Just as the universe needs dark matter, we need “weight” to ground us, to hold together our experiences as we explore.

Bell Burnell recounts that despite a good education, she came to appreciate poetry late in life — after she delivered a lecture on the size and scale of the universe, in which she showed a digram of how long it takes light to travel various distances, a friend gave her a copy of Elizabeth Jennings’s poem “Delay”:

The radiance of the star that leans on me
Was shining years ago. The light that now
Glitters up there my eyes may never see,
And so the time lag teases me with how

Love that loves now may not reach me until
Its first desire is spent. The star’s impulse
Must wait for eyes to claim it beautiful
And love arrived may find us somewhere else.

And so Bell Burnell’s love of poetry arrived, with a delay but with undimmed radiance. She came to appreciate poetry for its healing properties, as something that offers solace at times of tragedy of tumult (as I too can attest after Verses for Hope), and to see astronomy-inspired poetry as something that “may woo those who are suspicious of science or scientists, and demonstrate that astronomy is part of our cultural heritage.”

In this excerpt from her 2006 University of Bath lecture on poetry and astronomy, she reads one of her favorite poems from the volume — “Halley’s Comet” by former Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz (July 29, 1905–May 14, 2006):

HALLEY’S COMET

Miss Murphy in first grade
wrote its name in chalk
across the board and told us
it was roaring down the stormtracks
of the Milky Way at frightful speed
and if it wandered off its course
and smashed into the earth
there’d be no school tomorrow.
A red-bearded preacher from the hills
with a wild look in his eyes
stood in the public square
at the playground’s edge
proclaiming he was sent by God
to save every one of us,
even the little children.
“Repent, ye sinners!” he shouted,
waving his hand-lettered sign.
At supper I felt sad to think
that it was probably
the last meal I’d share
with my mother and my sisters;
but I felt excited too
and scarcely touched my plate.
So mother scolded me
and sent me early to my room.
The whole family’s asleep
except for me. They never heard me steal
into the stairwell hall and climb
the ladder to the fresh night air.

Look for me, Father, on the roof
of the red brick building
at the foot of Green Street —
that’s where we live, you know, on the top floor.
I’m the boy in the white flannel gown
sprawled on this coarse gravel bed
searching the starry sky,
waiting for the world to end.

Complement this particular portion of rapturously relishable Dark Matter: Poems of Space (whose cover features not another astrophotography image but a painstaking charcoal drawing by the great artist Vija Celmins) with Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan on the science and poetics of comets, then revisit the story of how Bell Burnell was excluded from the Nobel Prize for her own groundbreaking discovery.

For a live celebration of the transcendent intersection of science and poetry, join me for The Universe in Verse — an evening of poems about great scientists and scientific discoveries, read by beloved artists, writers, and musicians.

For other splendid readings of great poets’ work, savor Cynthia Nixon reading Emily Dickinson, Amanda Palmer reading Wisława Szymborska, Sylvia Boorstein reading Pablo Neruda, Jon Kabat-Zinn reading Derek Walcott, Orson Welles reading Walt Whitman, Cheryl Strayed reading Adrienne Rich, and Amanda Palmer reading E.E. Cummings.

BP

Cynthia Nixon Reads Emily Dickinson’s “While I Was Fearing It, It Came”

“The trying on the utmost, / The morning it is new, / Is terribler than wearing it / A whole existence through.”

For more than a century and a half, Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886) has endured as one of the most beloved and influential poets in the English language. And yet of her 1,800 known poems, only a dozen were published in her lifetime, most anonymously. Like Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the early posthumous publications of her work were met with some unfavorable reviews and general indifference. It wasn’t until the mid-1950s that her poetry began to be recognized for its unadorned poignancy and its uncommon elegance of thought and image. Dickinson’s poetic genius rose in the public imagination in proportion with the allure of her eccentric, enigmatic persona — a poet perhaps as eccentric as Marianne Moore, one who lived her latter years in seclusion, was possessed by an intense romantic friendship, and dressed in white.

Some 130 years after Dickinson’s death, her reclusive life of creative insurgency was given new vitality in Terence Davies’s feature film A Quiet Passion, starring the transcendent Cynthia Nixon as the poet. In 2015, Hurricane Films, who had produced the feature, set out to deepen the cinematic celebration of Dickinson with a crowdfunded documentary about the beloved poet, narrated by Nixon.

I was among the many, though evidently not enough, backers supporting the project, which failed to meet its Kickstarter goal of $50,000 and was thus never funded. It broke my heart to see that while a potato salad — a potato salad — had no trouble raising more than $50,000 on Kickstarter, a documentary about one of the greatest writers who ever lived couldn’t translate into something tangible the fierce and grateful love that so many of us feel for Dickinson. (Why do we so easily forget that while appreciation is what makes artists thrive, it alone is insufficient in helping them survive? That artists are creatures of flesh and blood who can’t feed on the spiritual pixie dust of inspiration and praise? That making art is at bottom making — a material act that requires material means?)

In this beautiful recording — a bittersweet memento from the ill-fated Kickstarter campaign — Nixon brings to life Dickinson’s poem “While I was fearing it, it came,” found in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (free ebook | public library).

Please enjoy:

While I was fearing it, it came,
   But came with less of fear,
Because that fearing it so long
   Had almost made it dear.
There is a fitting a dismay,
   A fitting a despair.
’T is harder knowing it is due,
   Than knowing it is here.
The trying on the utmost,
   The morning it is new,
Is terribler than wearing it
   A whole existence through.

Complement with Dickinson’s poetry set to music by Israeli singer-songwriter Efrat Ben Zur and these wonderful hand-lettered illustrations of her verses by artist David Clemesha, then revisit other beautiful readings of beloved poets’ work: Amanda Palmer reading Wisława Szymborska, Sylvia Boorstein reading Pablo Neruda, Jon Kabat-Zinn reading Derek Walcott, Orson Welles reading Walt Whitman, and Amanda Palmer reading E.E. Cummings.

BP

Orson Welles Reads Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”

“All goes onward and outward … and nothing collapses, and to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.”

My recent immersion in James Gleick’s exquisite inquiry into how our fascination with time travel mediates our anxiety about mortality reawakened in my conscience a few lines from Walt Whitman’s 1855 masterpiece Leaves of Grass (public library | public domain). Written when he was only thirty-six and then self-published, it survived a dispiriting initial reception and, thanks to a soul-saving letter of encouragement from Emerson, went on to touch generations. In the century and a half since, it has catalyzed fanciful artistic interpretations and continues to inspire with its largehearted wisdom on living a vibrant and rewarding life.

In 1953, the BBC set out to record an hour of selections from the Whitman classic and approached a somewhat unusual reader: legendary filmmaker, actor, and broadcaster Orson Welles (May 6, 1915–October 10, 1985), thirty-eight at the time and already one of the most recognizable cinematic voices in the world. The recordings were later released on an LP — a Moore’s ghost that has perished into technological obscurity and rendered the readings absent from the common record, now scarcely available as the hard-to-find Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself from Leaves of Grass Read by Orson Welles.

Here is a rare surviving recording of one of Welles’s readings, which gives Whitman’s radiant words a strange and satisfying weight of a different order.

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full
    hands;
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it
    is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful
    green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we
    may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child. . . .the produced babe
    of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow
    zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the
same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people and from women, and
    from offspring taken soon out of their mother’s laps,
And here you are the mother’s laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old
    mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths
    for nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men
    and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring
    taken soon out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
What do you think has become of the women and
    children?

They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait
    at the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.

All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and
    luckier.

Complement the timelessly rewarding Leaves of Grass, the preface of which alone is a masterpiece of the highest caliber, with Whitman on the power of music, healthcare and the human spirit, and the pillars of democracy.

For more electrifying readings of literary classics, hear Amanda Palmer reading Wisława Szymborska, Sylvia Boorstein reading Pablo Neruda, Jon Kabat-Zinn reading Derek Walcott, and Bill T. Jones reading four beloved poets.

BP

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