The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The Universe in Verse Book

Seven years after the improbable idea of cross-pollinating poetry and science came abloom on a Brooklyn stage in a former warehouse built in Whitman’s lifetime, after it traveled to the redwoods of Santa Cruz and the sunlit skies of Austin, The Universe in Verse has become a book — fifteen portals to wonder, each comprising an essay about some enchanting facet of science (entropy and dark matter, symmetry and the singularity, octopus intelligence and the evolution of flowers), paired with a poem that shines a sidewise gleam on these concepts (Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, Maya Angelou and Sylvia Plath, Tracy K. Smith and Marie Howe).

It was a joy to write, and a joy to collaborate with two of the most thoughtful and talented people I know: The print book features original art by Ofra Amit (who painted my favorite piece in A Velocity of Being), and the audiobook features my favorite voice in the universe — the magnificent Lili Taylor.

For a sense of the spirit of it, here is my introduction as it appears in the book:

We live our human lives in the lacuna between truth and meaning, between objective reality and subjective sensemaking laced with feeling. All of our longings, all of our despairs, all of our reckonings with the perplexity of existence are aimed at one or the other. In the aiming is what we call creativity, how we contact beauty — the beauty of a theorem, the beauty of a sonnet.

The Universe in Verse was born in 2017 as a festival of wonder: stories from the history of science — the history of our search for truth and our yearning to know nature — told live onstage alongside readings of illustrative poems — those emblems of our search for meaning and our yearning to know ourselves. Year after year, thousands of people gathered to listen, think, and feel together — a congregation of creatures concerned with the relationship between truth and beauty, between love and mortality, between the finite and the infinite.

Poetry may seem an improbable portal into the fundamental nature of reality — into dark matter and the singularity, evolution and entropy, Hubble’s law and pi — but it has a lovely way of sneaking ideas into our consciousness through the back door of feeling, bypassing our ordinary ways of seeing and relating to the world, our biases and preconceptions, and swinging open another gateway of receptivity. Through it, other scales of time, space, and significance — scales that are the raw material of science — can enter more fully and more faithfully into our worldview, depositing us back into our ordinary lives broadened and magnified so that we can return to our daily tasks and our existential longings with renewed resilience and a passion for possibility.

Poetry and science — individually, but especially together — are instruments for knowing the world more intimately and loving it more deeply. We need science to help us meet reality on its own terms, and we need poetry to help us broaden and deepen the terms on which we meet ourselves and each other. At the crossing point of the two we may find a way of clarifying our experience and of sanctifying it; a way of harmonizing the objective reality of a universe insentient to our hopes and fears with the subjective reality of what it feels like to be alive, to tremble with grief, to be glad. Both are occupied with helping us discover something we did not know before — something about who we are and what this is. Their shared benediction is a wakefulness to reality aglow with wonder.

The Universe in Verse: 15 Portals to Wonder through Science & Poetry comes out October 1 and is now available for pre-order. Signed copies are available exclusively at McNally Jackson. A portion of my author’s proceeds goes toward a new Universe in Verse fund at The Academy of American Poets, supporting poets who draw from the matter of science material for beauty.



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