An evening of poems celebrating science, read by beloved artists, writers, scientists, and musicians.
By Maria Popova
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 — read their own work. Gracing the evening was an original poem by Neil Gaiman, composed for the occasion, and a special musical surprise.
The full recording, released as we announce the 2019 Universe in Verse, is below. As usual, prefacing each poem is my introduction of the reader and some connective tissue contextualizing the poem choice. The poem playlist follows, with links to the individual reading and full text of each poem, where available — please enjoy:
- “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)