Stamping Poets

USPS putting its stamp on U.S. poets

December 07, 2011|By John Timpane, Inquirer Staff Writer

  • Arts and letters: Ten "Forever" stamps featuring 20th-century poets are to be dedicated next year. The list "does a very good job of mixing a range of styles and voices," a local poet says.
Arts and letters: Ten “Forever” stamps featuring 20th-century poets are…

It’s quite a bunch. And it tells us much about the United States of America – and its poets.

In 2012, the U.S. Postal Service will bring out a series of “Forever” stamps dedicated to U.S. poets of the 20th century. Tentatively, they’re to be dedicated March 3 at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Chicago, says Roy Betts of the Postal Service.

Poets have been on our stamps before, as standout Americans, among them Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and Bryn Mawr grad Marianne Moore. But the new lineup keeps to that most poetic of centuries, the 20th. The selections speak “to the importance of poetry in American life,” says poet E.D. Hirsch. “The U.S.P.S. is making a key statement here. . . that poetry is a necessary part of our culture.”

The lineup: Elizabeth Bishop, Joseph Brodsky, Gwendolyn Brooks, E.E. Cummings, Robert Hayden, Denise Levertov, Sylvia Plath, Theodore Roethke, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams. All are deceased, Brooks most recently (2000).

The list “does a very good job of mixing a range of styles and voices,” says Kim Bridgford, poet and director of the Poetry Center of West Chester University. These 10 are four women, six men, two African Americans (Brooks and Hayden), one poet who could be considered Latino by virtue of his Puerto Rican mother (Williams), and two naturalized immigrants (Brodsky and Levertov).

Greg Djanikian, poet and director of the creative-writing program at the University of Pennsylvania, says these last two “might be a tip of the hat to the great immigrant influx in the U.S. in the last two centuries (which includes my family, by the way).”

Geographically, it has no poets west of the Mississippi, with Brooks (Illinois) and Hayden (Michigan) its westernmost members. There are local connections, with Stevens, born in Reading, and Williams, a graduate of the Penn Med School. For a time, Roethke taught at Lafayette College in Easton.

It’s an album of diverse lives. There’s an insurance executive (Stevens), homemakers, academics, a family doctor (Williams), and a World War I ambulance driver (Cummings). There’s a lesbian (Bishop), a suicide (Plath), and a couple of alcoholics. There are lifetime happy marriages (Brooks, Hayden), messy divorces (Plath), and alternative arrangements (Bishop, Cummings). This bunch piled up many honors, including a Nobel (Brodsky).

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