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The Universe in Verse 2018: Full Show

An evening of poems celebrating science, read by beloved artists, writers, scientists, and musicians.

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.

Astrophysicist Janna Levin reading “A Brave and Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou at The Universe in Verse, April 2018. (Photograph: Annie Minoff.)

“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.

Rachel Carson (Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library)

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:

  1. “A Brave and Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou, read by Janna Levin
  2. “Sojourns in the Parallel World” by Denise Levertov, read by America Ferrera
  3. “The World Below the Brine” by Walt Whitman, read by John Cameron Mitchell
  4. “Renascence” by Edna St. Vincent Millay, read by Natalie Batalha
  5. “The Fish in the Stone” by Rita Dove, read by Zöe Keating
  6. “At the Fishhouses” by Elizabeth Bishop, read by James Gleick
  7. “cutting greens” by Lucille Clifton, read by Terrance Hayes
  8. “Singularity (for Stephen Hawking)” by Marie Howe, read by the poet herself
  9. “The Explorers” by Adrienne Rich, read by A.M. Homes
  10. “Optimism” by Jane Hirshfield, read by Jane Hirshfield and animated by Kelli Anderson
  11. “Cosymbionts” by Vicki Graham, read by Robin Wall Kimmerer
  12. “[bee]” by Emily Dickinson, read by Maira Kalman
  13. “The Consolation of Apricots” by Diane Ackerman, read by the poet herself
  14. “The Devil Teaches Thermodynamics” by Roald Hoffmann, read by Sean Ono Lennon
  15. “After Silence (for Rachel Carson)” by Neil Gaiman, read by Amanda Palmer
  16. 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)
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Astrophysicist and Author Janna Levin Reads “Berryman” by W.S. Merwin: Some of the Finest and Most Soul-Salving Advice on How to Stay Sane as an Artist

Tonic for living with that sacred, terrifying uncertainty with which all creative work enters the world.

Astrophysicist and Author Janna Levin Reads “Berryman” by W.S. Merwin: Some of the Finest and Most Soul-Salving Advice on How to Stay Sane as an Artist

To be an artist is to live suspended above the abyss between recognition and artistic value, never quite knowing whether your art will land on either bank, or straddle both, or be swallowed by the fathomless pit of obscurity. We never know how our work stirs another mind or touches another heart, how it tenons into the mortise of the world. We never know who will discover it in a year or a generation or a century and be salved by it, saved by it. “The worthiest poets have remained uncrowned till death has bleached their foreheads to the bone,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, not fully knowing — or perhaps not knowing at all — that she was revolutionizing the art of her time.

This is the perennial problem of the artist, for the crown bestowed or denied by the fickle tastes of a contemporary public has little bearing on how the work itself will stand the test of time as a vessel for truth and beauty, whether it will move generations or petrify into oblivion. Walt Whitman nearly perished in obscurity when his visionary Leaves of Grass was first met with scorn and indifference. Emily Dickinson, virtually unpublished in her lifetime, never lived to see her work transform a century of thought and feeling. Germaine de Staël captured this elemental pitfall of creative work in her astute observation that “true glory cannot be obtained by a relative celebrity.”

In our own culture, obsessed with celebrity and panicked for instant approval, what begins as creative work too often ends up as flotsam on the stream of ego-gratification — the countless counterfeit crowns that come in the form of retweets and likes and best-seller lists, unmoored from any real measure of artistic value and longevity. How, then, is an artist to live with that sacred, terrifying uncertainty with which all creative work enters the world, and go on making art?

That is what W.S. Merwin (September 30, 1927–March 15, 2019) explores in a stunning poem celebrating his mentor, the poet John Berryman, published in Merwin’s 2005 book Migration: New & Selected Poems (public library). At its heart is the single greatest, most difficult, most beautiful truth about creative work, enfolding a soul-salving piece of advice on how to stay sane as an artist.

John Berryman (Photograph: The Paris Review)

Berryman had co-founded Princeton’s creative writing program and was teaching there when Merwin enrolled as a freshman in 1944. The thirty-year-old professor immediately recognized an uncommon genius in the seventeen-year-old aspiring poet, who would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award — “the real thing,” Berryman’s then-wife would later recall his sentiment. Merwin himself would remember his mentor as “absolutely ruthless” — a quality he cherished. That constructive, edifying ruthlessness, for which Merwin was forever indebted, comes alive with unsentimental tenderness in this poem commemorating his formative teacher, read here by astrophysicist, literary artist, and poetry steward Janna Levin:

BERRYMAN
by W.S. Merwin

I will tell you what he told me
in the years just after the war
as we then called
the second world war

don’t lose your arrogance yet he said
you can do that when you’re older
lose it too soon and you may
merely replace it with vanity

just one time he suggested
changing the usual order
of the same words in a line of verse
why point out a thing twice

he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally

it was in the days before the beard
and the drink but he was deep
in tides of his own through which he sailed
chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop

he was far older than the dates allowed for
much older than I was he was in his thirties
he snapped down his nose with an accent
I think he had affected in England

as for publishing he advised me
to paper my wall with rejection slips
his lips and the bones of his long fingers trembled
with the vehemence of his views about poetry

he said the great presence
that permitted everything and transmuted it
in poetry was passion
passion was genius and he praised movement and invention

I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t

you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write

Nearly three decades after he mentored Merwin, Berryman would encapsulate his advice to young writers:

I would recommend the cultivation of extreme indifference to both praise and blame because praise will lead you to vanity, and blame will lead you to self-pity, and both are bad for writers.

Complement with artist Ann Hamilton’s lovely notion of “making not knowing” and this collection of timeless advice from some of humanity’s greatest writers, then revisit Levin’s gorgeous readings of Ursula K. Le Guin’s hymn to time, Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, Adrienne Rich’s tribute to the world’s first woman astronomer, and W.H. Auden’s elegy for unrequited love.

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Over the Rooftops, Under the Moon: A Lyrical Illustrated Meditation on Loneliness, Otherness, and the Joy of Belonging Found

“You can be far away inside, and far away outside.”

Over the Rooftops, Under the Moon: A Lyrical Illustrated Meditation on Loneliness, Otherness, and the Joy of Belonging Found

“You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people,” Olivia Laing wrote in her lyrical exploration of loneliness and the search for belonging. Our need for belonging is indeed the warp thread of our humanity, and our locus of belonging — determined in part by our choices and in part by the cards chance has dealt us in what we were born as and where — is a pillar of our identity. For those who have migrated far from their homeland, and especially for those of us who have migrated alone, without the built-in social support structure of a community or a family unit, this rupture of belonging can be particularly disorienting and lonesome-making. “You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place,” Maya Angelou told Bill Moyers in their fantastic 1973 conversation about freedom — a freedom the conquest of which can be a whole life’s work.

Poet JonArno Lawson, author of the wondrous Sidewalk Flowers, and artist Nahid Kazemi take up these complex questions with great simplicity and thoughtful sensitivity in Over the Rooftops, Under the Moon (public library) — a spare, uncommonly poetic meditation on belonging and what it means to be oneself as both counterpoint and counterpart to otherness, as a thinking, feeling, wakeful atom of life amid the constellation of other atoms.

We meet a melancholy young bird, lonesome even among the other birds, lonesome while soaring above the cityscape, above houses filled with innumerable lives that feel so impossibly distant and alien.

Lawson writes:

You can be far away inside,
and far away outside.

One day, something subtle but profound shifts in the bird — the gaze of a young girl sparks a quickening of heart, a certain opening to the possibility of belonging, a new curiosity about the nature of life — about what it means to be.

We see the bird’s plumage suddenly explode with color — the radiance of awakening, evocative of poet Jane Kenyon’s piercing line: “What hurt me so terribly all my life until this moment?”

Color arrives,
sometimes when
you least expect it.

The story unfolds with a poet’s precision and economy of words, punctuated by Kazemi’s sprawling, stunning watercolors. What emerges is a gentle invitation to what Bertrand Russell so beautifully termed “a largeness of contemplation.”

The bird moves through seasons of change, floats wordlessly across landscapes of possibility, alighting at last to a vastly different world — more colorful, more alive. In this foreign-looking land, which Kazemi’s palm trees and Middle Eastern architecture contrast with the deciduous crowns and Western cityscapes of the melancholy world, the bird finds a homecoming among other birds — a newfound joy in being “alone and together, over the rooftops and under the moon.”

It is impossible, perhaps even absurd, to attempt conveying the largehearted loveliness of Over the Rooftops, Under the Moon — a nearly wordless book of supreme analog splendor — in sentences and images on a digital screen. Hold it in hand and in heart, then couple it with other poetic and profound treasures from Brooklyn-based independent powerhouse (and my collaborator in A Velocity of Being) Enchanted Lion Books: Cry, Heart, But Never Break, Big Wolf & Little Wolf, The Lion and the Bird, Bertolt, and This Is a Poem That Heals Fish.

For a grownup counterpart, revisit Alfred Kazin on loneliness and the immigrant experience and Amin Maalouf on belonging and how we inhabit our identity.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books

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The Devil Teaches Thermodynamics: Sean Ono Lennon Reads Nobel-Winning Chemist and Poet Roald Hoffmann’s Ode to Entropy

An incantation to “join the imperfect universe at peace with the disorder that orders.”

The Devil Teaches Thermodynamics: Sean Ono Lennon Reads Nobel-Winning Chemist and Poet Roald Hoffmann’s Ode to Entropy

“We must be less than death to be lessened by it — for nothing is irrevocable but ourselves,” Emily Dickinson wrote of what she so stunningly termed “the drift called the infinite.” And yet we are, of course, less than death — we are inherently revocable, for death is the sole inevitability of life. For Dickinson, the irrevocability of human life was to be found in the living — in the truth and beauty we cast ourselves upon, in the loves we love. Amid a culture of extreme piousness, she rejected traditional religion and was only a child when she came to doubt the immortality so resolutely promised by the Calvinist dogma of her elders. Soon, she would write in her love letters to Susan Gilbert: “Sermons on unbelief ever did attract me.” In a poem, she would proclaim that “Faith is Doubt.” A century before Simone de Beauvoir asserted that “faith allows an evasion of those difficulties which the atheist confronts honestly,” Dickinson intuited that religion’s claims of immortality don’t comport with the nature of existence, which inclines always and without exception toward nonexistence — a fact as true on the scale of the individual as it is on the scale of the species and the Solar System and even the universe itself: In another four billion years — just about as long as our planet has so far existed — our sun will live out its final moments in a wild spin before collapsing into a white dwarf, its exhale bending spacetime itself into a well of nothingness that can swallow every atom that ever touched us and every poem we ever made — an entropic spectacle devoid of why.

Art by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.

A century after Dickinson drifted into the infinite, another poet — perhaps more improbable, yet all the more insightful for his particular strain of improbability — suspended this eternal subject between poetic truth and scientific fact. In a poem titled “The Devil Teaches Thermodynamics,” the Nobel-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann — one of those rare working scientists who are also literary artists — addresses the human longing for permanence, and religion’s illusory assurances thereof, in a universe we know to be governed by impermanence and entropy.

Published in Hoffmann’s book Chemistry Imagined: Reflections on Science (public library) — that unusual cross-genre, cross-disciplinary beauty featuring art by Vivian Torrence and a preface by Carl Sagan — the poem came alive at the second annual Universe in Verse in this charming and touching reading by musician and friend-of-science Sean Ono Lennon:

THE DEVIL TEACHES THERMODYNAMICS
by Roald Hoffmann

My second law, your second law, ordains
that local order, structures in space
and time, be crafted in ever-so-losing
contention with proximal disorder in
this neat but getting messier universe.
And we, in the intricate machinery of our
healthy bodies and life-support systems,
in the written and televised word do declare
the majesty of the zoning ordinances
of this Law. But oh so smart, we think
that we are not things, like weeds,
or rust, or plain boulders, and so
invent a reason for an eternal subsidy
of our perfection, or at least perfectibility,
give it the names of God or the immortal
soul. And while we allow the dissipations
that cannot be hid, like death, and — in literary
stances — even the end of love, we make
the others just plain evil: anger, lust,
pride — the whole lot of pimples of the spirit.
Diseases need vectors, so the old call
goes out for me. But the kicker is that the struts
of God’s stave church, those nice seven,
they’re such a tense and compressed support
group that when they get through you’re really
ready to let off some magma. Faith serves up
passing certitude to weak minds, recruits for
the cults, and too much of her is going to play
hell with that other grand invention
of yours, the social contract. Boring
Prudence hangs around with conservatives,
and Love, love you say! Love one, leave
out the others. Love them all, none will love
you. I tell you, friends, love is the greatest
entropy-increasing device invented by God.
Love is my law’s sweet man. And for God
himself, well, his oneness seems too
much for natural man to love, so he comes
up with Northern Irelands and Lebanons…

The argument to be made is not
for your run-of-the-mill degeneracy, my
stereotype. No, I want us to awake,
join the imperfect universe at peace with
the disorder that orders. For the cold
death sets in slowly, and there is time,
so much time, for the stars’ light to scatter
off the eddies of chance, into our minds,
there to build ever more perfect loves,
invisible cities, our own constellations.

For other highlights from The Universe in Verse — the show I host each spring at Pioneer Works, celebrating science and reason through poetry and beauty — savor astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson, poet Marie Howe reading her stirring tribute to Stephen Hawking, science historian James Gleick reading Elizabeth Bishop’s profound poem about the nature of knowledge, U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reading her ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, and Rosanne Cash reading Adrienne Rich’s homage to Marie Curie.

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