The Universe in Verse
A charitable celebration of science and nature through poetry. Highlights from the show can be seen here.
APRIL 18, 2020
With necessary regard for the resilience of life as we face its fragility together, this performance has been cancelled due to COVID-19. But we are laboring on a digital pop-up counterpart, hoping to offer people around the world something beautiful and assuring to gather around in these uncertain times — a broadening of perspective, scientific, poetic, and humanistic. Keep an eye on this page for further information and a livestream link when it becomes available.
“We, this people on this mote of matter,” Maya Angelou wrote in her stunning poem “A Brave and Startling Truth” that flew to space aboard NASA’s Orion spacecraft — a poem inspired by Carl Sagan, a poem in which she traces our traversal of space, “past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns,” to invite the elemental question: What are we, “this people,” and what is life itself, by measures both human and cosmic?
The fourth annual Universe in Verse — a charitable celebration of science through poetry — explores this very question from a cosmic kaleidoscope of vantage points. I have joined forces with astrophysicist and two–time Universe in Verse alumna Natalie Batalha, who led the search for habitable worlds with NASA’s Kepler mission and its triumphant discovery of 4,000 potential cradles for life beyond Earth, and who has since founded an inspired astrobiology initiative at UC Santa Cruz to explore what it means for us humans to be good interplanetary stewards as our understanding of life evolves and our search for it beyond our home planet continues. In a majestic 3,000-person outdoor amphitheater in the redwoods, we will celebrate the marvel and mystery of life with poems spanning centuries of human thought and feeling, performed by a cast of extraordinary humans: playwright and activist Eve Ensler, Nobel-winning physicist Kip Thorne with artist Lia Halloran (premiering their extraordinary poetic collaboration years in the making), author Rebecca Solnit, artists Debbie Millman and Dustin Yellin, poets Donika Kelly and Marie Howe, radio pioneers Krista Tippett and Jad Abumrad, musicians Zoë Keating and Morley, and writer, producer, Cosmos co-creator and re-creator, and Golden Record creative director Ann Druyan (the love of Carl Sagan’s life). We will be honoring SETI co-founders and search-for-life pioneers Jill Tarter and Frank Drake, who are both joining us with poems. As usual, there will be music, storytelling, telescopic observation, and some thrilling surprises.
Proudly presented in partnership with Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works, cradle of The Universe in Verse, the 2020 show splits all proceeds in half between the endeavor to build New York City’s first-ever public observatory at Pioneer Works and La Noche de las Estrellas — a lovely initiative by Lick Observatory, providing free astronomical observation and science education, in Spanish, to Hispanic youth from the local community, one of the largest migrant farm worker communities in America.
UC Santa Cruz
1156 High St, Santa Cruz, CA 95064
Show: 7:30–10ish PM
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.
After the show, the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York will be hosting telescopic stargazing in the spring-kissed garden outside.
159 Pioneer Street
Brooklyn, NY 11231
Show: 7–9ish PM
Highlights from the show can be viewed here. The full recording will be released in spring 2020.
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. 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.