A centuries-old, timeless meditation on chance, suffering, and the improbable glory of life.
By Maria Popova
All artists know that the deeply personal is the only real gateway to the universal; that we are only free to see to the farthest horizons after we have closely examined our most intimate landscapes. Some swing these doors of perception with virtuosity orders of magnitude greater than others, as did William Blake (November 28, 1757–August 12, 1827). “It is the mark of a genius like Blake,” Alfred Kazin wrote, “that what is purest and most consistent in his thought burns away his own suffering and fanaticism, while his art speaks to what is most deeply human in us.”
Is it any wonder that the man who saw the universe in a grain of sand should see the improbable beauty and tragedy of human existence in the ephemeral life of a fly?
A decade earlier, another trailblazing artist contemplated the shock and splendor of new parenthood in her own art. In February of 1961, shortly after giving birth to her daughter, Frieda, Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963) penned one of her most unusual poems. “Morning Song,” later included in the posthumously published 1965 classic Ariel (public library), is both paean and requiem for new motherhood — the love, the strangeness, the surreal and magnetic disorientation of it.
In this beautiful performance from The Academy of American Poets’ annual Poetry & the Creative Mind celebration, Meryl Streep brings Plath’s masterpiece to life with uncommon sensitivity to the innumerable nuances it holds:
Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.
Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.
I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.
All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.
One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square
Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.
Should you find yourself in New York City, The Academy of American Poets’ Poetry & the Creative Mind — which also gave us Regina Spektor’s enchanting reading of “The Everyday Enchantment of Music” by Mark Strand — takes place every April at Lincoln Center and is consistently magnificent, featuring readings of beloved poems by inspiring cultural figures who love them, ranging from artists to astrophysicists.
A charitable celebration of science and nature through poetry. Highlights from the show can be seen here.
April 23, 2019
The Universe in Verse — the annual celebration of science through poetry I host at Pioneer Works — returns with a very special edition: This year’s show, benefiting Pioneer Works’ endeavor to build New York’s first-ever public observatory, celebrates the 100th anniversary of Sir Arthur Eddington’s historic eclipse expedition to Africa, which confirmed relativity and catapulted Einstein into celebrity. “Dear Mother, joyous news today,” Einstein wrote upon receiving word of the results, which revolutionized our understanding of the universe and shaped the course of modern physics. The scientific triumph was also a heartening, humane moment—just after the close of World War I, a pacifist English Quaker, who had refused to be drafted in the war at the risk of being jailed for treason, and a German Jew united humanity under the same sky, under the deepest truths of the universe. An invitation to perspective in the largest sense.
Join us for an evening of poems and stories about eclipses, relativity, spacetime, and Einstein’s legacy, featuring readings by musicians David Byrne, Regina Spektor, Amanda Palmer, Emily Wells, and Josh Groban, astrophysicists Janna Levin and Natalie Batalha, poets Elizabeth Alexander and Marilyn Nelson, actor Natascha McElhone, theoretical cosmologist and jazz saxophonist Stephon Alexander, comedian Chuck Nice, choreographer Bill T. Jones, and On Being host Krista Tippett, with some thrilling surprises in wait.
“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:
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)
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.
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:
“Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” Walt Whitman wrote a century before we split the atom and fragmented humanity into maddening divisiveness. Two hundred years after his birth, he continues to enchant and console with his symphonic verses — an eternal harmonizer of the cosmic and the earthly, equalizer of man and woman and beast. When Leaves of Grass first stunned the world, the great naturalist John Burroughs exulted that Whitman’s improbable self-published masterpiece is “the outgrowth of science and modern ideas, just as truly as Dante is the outgrowth of mediæval ideas and superstitions.” Whitman cherished the universe in its every detail, from the slenderest blade of grass to the vastest galaxy. “To soothe and spiritualize, and, as far as may be, solve the mysteries of death and genius, consider them under the stars at midnight,” he wrote in his daybook as the golden age of American astronomy unfolded around him.
On October 26, I team up with Pioneer Works to present The Astronomy of Walt Whitman — a special pop-up edition of The Universe in Verse on Governors Island in New York, celebrating Whitman’s bicentennial and the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory at Pioneer Works across the East River, which the poet himself traversed daily aboard the ferries he cherished as “great living poems.”
In Our Lady Star of the Sea — a deconsecrated white chapel transformed into a stunning sanctuary for contemplation by artist Shantell Martin — we will celebrate science through Whitman’s poetry with performances by astrophysicist Janna Levin, poets Diane Ackerman and Sarah Kay, Humans of New York creator Brandon Stanton, author Nicole Krauss, musicians Morley and Meshell Ndegeocello, designer Neri Oxman, and the artist herself, who will share a special behind-the-scenes glimpse of her creative process in bringing this uncommon chamber of loveliness to life. Punctuating the readings will be live music and some thrilling surprises.
Before and after the ceremony, join us at the nearby Pioneer Works house (Governors Island Nolan Park 8B) to “soothe and spiritualize” with telescopic solar viewing, screenings of past Universe in Verse performances, free daguerreotype portraits, and limited-edition Universe in Verse patches by artist Andrea Lauer.
Donations most welcome — everyone involved in this labor-of-love celebration of art, science, and community is donating their time and talent, and all donations go toward Pioneer Works’ observatory-building endeavor.
WHEN: October 26, 2PM–3:30PM (Doors: 1:45PM) WHERE: The May Room on Governors Island (map) Governors Island is accessible via ferry only — there is one service operating from Manhattan and Brooklyn, and another operating from Manhattan.
IMPORTANT: Entrance to this free event is first-come-first-served — the chapel is an intimate space that holds less than one tenth of the regular Universe in Verse, so be prepared to arrive early as we anticipate many more atoms than the physical space can accommodate. If you journey to the island but don’t make it into the chapel before it reaches capacity, it won’t be a wasted adventure — we’ll have ample astronomical and poetic illuminations at the Pioneer Works house. Because the chapel is a technology-free sanctuary without electricity or wifi, we are unable to offer the usual livestream for this performance. A remote glimpse may be available, depending on cellular connectivity on the island that day, at this Periscope link at showtime.
EXTRA CREDIT: Governors Island is having an island-wide Halloween celebration that weekend. Come clad in an astronomy- or Whitman-themed costume to receive a special reward at the Pioneer Works house.
By popular demand, here is a music equivalent to complement those favorite books of 2012 — a highly subjective and hopelessly non-exhaustive selection of the 10 or so albums on heaviest rotation this year, many of which you might recognize from past Literary Jukebox installments.