The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The Universe in Verse

An annual charitable celebration of the wonder of reality through stories of science winged with poetry, born in 2017 as part celebration of life and part protest against the assault on science, nature, and reality — that is, on life — in the era of “alternative facts” and vanishing environmental protections. Highlights from the previous seasons can be seen here.

ANIMATED INTERLUDE SEASON (2021-2022)

The Universe in Verse was born in 2017 as part celebration of the wonder of life and the splendor of reality, and part protest against the assault on science and nature — that is, on life and reality — in the era of “alternative facts” and vanishing environmental protections. An act of resistance and an act of persistence. Fierce insistence on the felicitous expression of nature in human nature, with our capacity for music and mathematics, for art and hope.

Spring after spring, it remained a live gathering and a labor of love. Then, in the gatherless disorientation of the pandemic, I joined forces with my friends at On Being to reimagine the spirit of The Universe in Verse in a different incarnation — a season of perspective-broadening, mind-deepening, heart-leavening stories about science and our search for truth, enlivened by animated poems with original music: emblems of our longing for meaning.

Carrying the animations are stories about relativity and the evolution of flowers, about entropy and space telescopes, about dark matter and the octopus consciousness, illustrated with poems new and old, by Emily Dickinson and Richard Feynman, by W.H. Auden and Tracy K. Smith, by Marilyn Nelson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, brought to life by a human constellation strewn across spacetime and difference: twenty-nine largehearted artists, musicians, writers, scientists, and other weavers of wonder, who have poured their time and talent into this improbable labor of love. The total distance between them exceeds the circumference of the globe. Half a century stretches between the youngest and the eldest.

Among them are Yo-Yo Ma, Joan As Police Woman, David Byrne, Sophie Blackall, Amanda Palmer, Janna Levin, Ohara Hale, Maira Kalman, Debbie Millman, Toshi Reagon, Daniel Bruson, Zoë Keating, Garth Stevenson, Sy Montgomery, Jherek Bischoff, Edwina White, James Dunlap, Marissa Davis, Tom McRae, Topu Lyo, Gautam Srikishan, Lottie Kingslake, Kelli Anderson, Liang-Hsin Huang, and Patti Smith.

Released over the course of the season, each of the nine chapters begins with a science story and ends with an animated poem chosen to illuminate the scientific fact with the sidewise gleam of feeling. Two of the poems (including the one in the opening chapter) are set to song, and seven are soulful readings scored with original music by a different composer. Each miniature totality is brought to life by a different performer and shimmers with visual magic by a different artist. Each is a portable cosmos of gladness at the chance-miracle of aliveness: all of us, suspended here in this sliver of spacetime, with our stories and our poems and each other.

The complete series appears below:



CHAPTER 1 | BLOOM — the evolution of life and the birth of ecology (with Joan As Police Woman singing Emily Dickinson)



CHAPTER 2 | MY GOD, IT’S FULL OF STARS — Henrietta Leavitt, Edwin Hubble, and our human hunger to know the universe (with Tracy K. Smith reading Tracy K. Smith)



CHAPTER 3 | ACHIEVING PERSPECTIVE — trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell and the poetry of the cosmic perspective (with David Byrne reading Pattiann Rogers)



CHAPTER 4 | LET THERE ALWAYS BE LIGHT — dark matter, astronomer Vera Rubin, and the mystery of our mortal stardust (with Patti Smith reading Rebecca Elson)



CHAPTER 5 | SINGULARITY — an ode to our primeval bond with nature and each other (with Toshi Reagon singing Marissa Davis)



CHAPTER 6 | DIRGE WITHOUT MUSIC — Emmy Noether, symmetry, and the conservation of energy (with Amanda Palmer and Edna St. Vincent Millay)



CHAPTER 7 | THE MORE LOVING ONE — the science of entropy and the art of alternative endings (with Janna Levin and W.H. Auden)



CHAPTER 8 | OCTOPUS EMPIRE — nonhuman consciousness and the wonder of octopus intelligence (with Sy Montgomery and Marilyn Nelson)



CHAPTER 9 | THE WONDER OF LIFE — an ode to the “atoms with consciousness” and “matter with curiosity” that we are (with Yo-Yo Ma and Richard Feynman)

SEASON 5: APRIL 16, 2022 (SANTA CRUZ, CA)

To be human is to live suspended between the scale of gluons and the scale of galaxies, yearning to fathom our place in the universe. That we exist at all — on this uncommon rocky world, just the right distance from its common star, adrift in a galaxy amid hundreds of billions of galaxies, each sparkling with hundreds of billions of stars, each orbited by numberless possible worlds — is already miracle enough. A bright gift of chance amid the cold dark sublime of pure spacetime. A triumphal something against the staggering cosmic odds of nothingness.

Stationed here on this one and only home planet, we have opposed our thumbs to build microscopes and telescopes, pressing our curiosity against the eyepiece, bending our complex consciousness around what we see, longing to peer a little more deeply into the mystery of life with the mystery of us.

For the fifth annual Universe in Verse, I joined forces with my astronomer friend and threetime alumna Natalie Batalha (who led NASA’s Kepler and its triumphant discovery of more than 4,000 potential cradles for life beyond Earth, and now heads an inspired astrobiology initiative as her work on the search for life continues at UC Santa Cruz) to explore this longing through a kaleidoscope of vantage points.

In a majestic outdoor amphitheater built into a former quarry in the redwoods, we gathered to celebrate the marvel and mystery of life, from the creaturely to the cosmic, with stories from the history of science and our search for truth, illustrated with poems spanning centuries of human thought and feeling — poems about entropy and evolution, about trees and mushrooms, about consciousness and dark matter, about the birth of flowers and the death of stars — composed by a constellation of extraordinary humans, from Emily Dickinson to Gwendolyn Brooks, and performed by a constellation of extraordinary humans: writers Rebecca Solnit and Roxane Gay, musicians Zoë Keating and Joan As Police Woman, artist and Design Matters creator Debbie Millman, artist and DrawTogether creator Wendy MacNaughton, poet Diane Ackerman, cosmologist and jazz saxophonist Stephon Alexander, cognitive scientist, writer, and Dog Cognition Lab director Alexandra Horowitz, physicist and writer Alan Lightman, and On Being creator Krista Tippett (my largehearted collaborator in the Universe in Verse animated interlude season below, who long ago kindled my friendship with Natalie). All proceeds from the show were split halfway between a new scholarship at UCSC, honoring the life and legacy of astronomer and search-for-life pioneer Frank Drake, and The Nature Conservancy, whose tireless work stewards and protects the broadest community of life across our own irreplaceable world.

SEASON 4: 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.

Find highlights from the live show here.

MINIATURE EDITION: OCTOBER 26, 2019 (GOVERNORS ISLAND, NY)

“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.

SEASON 3: APRIL 23, 2019 (BROOKLYN, NY)

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:

  1. “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman and poem #1397 by Emily Dickinson, read by Janna Levin
  2. “Education” by Elizabeth Alexander, read by the poet herself
  3. “Hubble Photographs: After Sappho” by Adrienne Rich, read by Amanda Palmer
  4. “Theories of Everything” by Rebecca Elson, read by Regina Spektor
  5. “A Solar Eclipse” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, read by Natascha McElhone
  6. Musical interlude: Amanda Palmer
  7. “As If to Demonstrate an Eclipse” by Billy Collins, read by Chuck Nice
  8. “Achieving Perspective” by Pattiann Rogers, read by David Byrne
  9. “The Shampoo” by Elizabeth Bishop, read by me
  10. Musical interlude: Regina Spektor
  11. “Research” by Cecilia Payne, read by Natalie Batalha
  12. “Faster Than Light” by Marilyn Nelson, read by the poet herself
  13. “Explaining Relativity” by Rebecca Elson, read by Stephon Alexander
  14. “Poem to My Child, If Ever You Shall Be” by Ross Gay, read by Bill T. Jones
  15. “After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics” by W.H. Auden, read by Josh Groban
  16. “Figures of Thought” by Howard Nemerov, read by Krista Tippett
  17. “In Transit” by Neil Gaiman, read by Neil Gaiman
  18. “Einstein’s Daughter” by Jennifer Clement, read by Emily Wells
  19. Musical finale: Emily Wells
SEASON 2: APRIL 28, 2018 (BROOKLYN, NY)

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.

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, Zoë 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:

  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 Zoë 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), Zoë Keating (cello), Sean Ono Lennon (guitar and vocals), and John Cameron Mitchell (vocals)
SEASON 1: April 24, 2017 (BROOKLYN, NY)

“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:

  1. “Planetarium” by Adrienne Rich, read by Janna Levin
  2. “My God, It’s Full of Stars” by Tracy K. Smith, read by the poet herself
  3. “Power” by Adrienne Rich, read by Rosanne Cash
  4. “The Venus Hottentot” by Elizabeth Alexander, read by the poet herself
  5. “Cosmic Gall” by John Updike from, read by Brandon Stanton
  6. “We Are Listening” by Diane Ackerman, read by the poet herself
  7. “On the Fifth Day” by Jane Hirshfield, read by Emily Levine
  8. “For Oliver’s Birthday, 1997” by Steven Jay Gould, read by Billy Hayes
  9. “Euclid Alone Has Looked” by Edna St. Vincent Millay, read by Sam Beam
  10. “Jane Goodall (1961)” by Campbell McGrath, performed by Sarah Jones
  11. “The Habits of Light” by Anna Leahy, read by Ann Hamilton
  12. “Address: The Archaeans, One Cell Creatures” by Pattiann Rogers, read by Jad Abumrad
  13. “Pi” by Wisława Szymborska, read by Maria Popova
  14. “The Mushroom Hunters” by Neil Gaiman, read by Amanda Palmer
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