The Astronomy of Walt Whitman:
A Universe in Verse Pop-up

“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, Pioneer Works is proud to present The Astronomy of Walt Whitman—a special pop-up edition of The Universe in Verse, curated and hosted by Maria Popova on Governors Island, 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 a deconsecrated white chapel once called Our Lady Star of the Sea and now 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 readings, free daguerreotype portraits, and limited-edition Universe in Verse commemorative patches by artist Andrea Lauer.

We welcome donations—everyone involved is donating their time and talent to this labor-of-love celebration of art, science, and community, and all donations go toward Pioneer Works’ observatory-building endeavor.

This event is free and open to the public. Entrance will be granted on a first-come-first-served basis—the chapel is an intimate space that holds less than one tenth of our usual Universe in Verse capacity, so be prepared to arrive early as we anticipate many more atoms than the physical space can accommodate. Alternative poetry and astronomy activities will be available for overflow visitors.

Access to Governors Island is via ferry only—there is one ferry service operating from Manhattan and Brooklyn, and another operating from Manhattan.

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.

Governors Island is having an island-wide Halloween celebration the weekend of October 26. Come clad in an astronomy- or Whitman-themed costume to receive a special reward at the Pioneer Works house.