Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Twentieth Century Poets (Forever)

It never occurred to me to peruse the USPS's fine selection of stamps online until a friend alerted me (today) to the existence of poet stamps. I'm not much for the fetishization of specific poets, much less the category "Poets." Is there anything worse than "Poets"? But I do love spotting poetry in the wild, and this particular sheet of USPS 45c/Forever stamps offers us a glorious instance—a mini-anthology—a history (forever).

The poets pictured are Elizabeth Bishop, Joseph Brodsky, Gwendolyn Brooks, E. E. Cummings, Robert Hayden, Denise Levertov, Sylvia Plath, Theodore Roethke, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams—"ten great poets," as the website copy observes—a rather hodgepodge group, but not a bad one by any means. The USPS wishes you to know that this group "includ[es] several who served as United States Poet Laureate," and that, between them, these poets have been awarded "numerous Pulitzer Prizes, National Book Awards, and honorary degrees."

Most remarkably, "[t]he sheet's verso includes an excerpt from one poem by each of the poets featured on the sheet," making this sheet of ten stamps into a tiny anthology of twentieth-century U.S. poetry. What is the principle of selection at work here? It seems somewhat arbitrary, but not way out in left field, either. The apportioning of prizes to the represented poets is undoubtedly one factor, one indicator of notability. The poets are clustered at midcentury, with none particularly recent, and none preceding modernism. They are moderately, but not aggressively, "accessible" poets; another way of saying this is that they are moderately, but not aggressively, "difficult" poets. (Of course Williams was sometimes very aggressive with his difficulty, but that has all been redwheelbarrowed away.)

I wonder what the quoted selections of poetry are. Maybe I'll order the stamps and find out—maybe I'll order the anthology and read it. It costs about as much as a small press poetry book.

"The Twentieth-Century Poets stamps are being issued as Forever stamps in self-adhesive sheets of 20 (2 of each design). Forever stamps are always equal in value to the current First-Class Mail one-ounce rate."


jillian6475 said...

Worse than "Poets": "Poetesses"?

Natalia said...

I would concede that.

Ben Schmidt said...

I remember from Joe Posnanski guessing about baseball stamps last summer that there are quite a few rules about who can't be on stamps that force some generational choices--Robert Frost and Marianne Moore have been on stamps too recently, for example.

Also, Ayn Rand was on a stamp in the literary arts series.

Natalia said...

Thanks, Ben; that does explain a thing or two. (And really, bound anthologies are also restrained by equally arbitrary factors, usually involving copyright.)

I feel like my life would have been better without knowledge of that last bit, though....

Garrapata Red said...

MIA: Ginsberg, Snyder, Ferlinghetti, Patchen...I guess they had no impact on 20th century poetry, did they? And, please, no Robinson Jeffers?? Honoring poets should obviously never be the responsibility of a government committee.