The Universe in Verse
A charitable celebration of science and nature through poetry. Highlights from the show can be seen here.
APRIL 25, 2020 (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.”
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 V (formerly 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 broadcast 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.)
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, On Being host Krista Tippett, and the inimitable Neil Gaiman reading an original poem generously composed for the occasion.
Find the complete show and the full poem playlist below:
- “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman and poem #1397 by Emily Dickinson, read by Janna Levin
- “Education” by Elizabeth Alexander, read by the poet herself
- “Hubble Photographs: After Sappho” by Adrienne Rich, read by Amanda Palmer
- “Theories of Everything” by Rebecca Elson, read by Regina Spektor
- “A Solar Eclipse” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, read by Natascha McElhone
- Musical interlude: Amanda Palmer
- “As If to Demonstrate an Eclipse” by Billy Collins, read by Chuck Nice
- “Achieving Perspective” by Pattiann Rogers, read by David Byrne
- “The Shampoo” by Elizabeth Bishop, read by me
- Musical interlude: Regina Spektor
- “Research” by Cecilia Payne, read by Natalie Batalha
- “Faster Than Light” by Marilyn Nelson, read by the poet herself
- “Explaining Relativity” by Rebecca Elson, read by Stephon Alexander
- “Poem to My Child, If Ever You Shall Be” by Ross Gay, read by Bill T. Jones
- “After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics” by W.H. Auden, read by Josh Groban
- “Figures of Thought” by Howard Nemerov, read by Krista Tippett
- “In Transit” by Neil Gaiman, read by Neil Gaiman
- “Einstein’s Daughter” by Jennifer Clement, read by Emily Wells
- Musical finale: Emily Wells
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)
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
October 26, 2019 (MINIATURE EDITION)
“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.