The Sensuous Verse of Wallace Stevens

The poems of Wallace Stevens present a luxurious banquet of language and meaning. Their sensuous music and intellectual richness make reading a distinctive experience. Several works by Stevens, such as “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and “The Snow Man,” are widely taught in schools. Some of his many books are Harmonium (1923), Ideas of Order (1936), The Man with the Blue Guitar (1937), and Parts of a World (1942).

Stevens was born on October 2, 1879, in Reading, Pennsylvania, where his father, an attorney, and his mother, a former teacher, cultivated a literary household. He spent summers at his grandfather’s house in the Pennsylvania countryside, sparking a lifelong appreciation for the American landscape. A talented writer and orator, Stevens published poems in his high school journal. During a three-year course of study at Harvard University, he was particularly influenced by one of his teachers, philosopher George Santayana.

Subsequently, Stevens briefly worked as a journalist. After earning a law degree at New York University, he began a long and very successful career in the insurance business. “It gives a man character as a poet to have this daily contact with a job,” he said. He lived within walking distance of his office in Hartford, Connecticut, and often got ideas for poems on walks. Nevertheless, he maintained a strict separation between the worlds of business and art—to the point where some of his associates were surprised to learn that he was a noted poet.

An elegant and playful writer, Stevens can also be enigmatic. He addresses subjects that can seem abstract and philosophical; draws on references from the arts and literature; and makes sudden shifts in rhetorical tone. Some of his poems are highly comic, while others are somber and spare. They richly reward patient reading. In one of his works, “Man Carrying Thing,” Stevens wrote, “The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully.”

Many of Stevens’s poems explore the relationship between consciousness and reality. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” collects 13 separate short poems like “chapters” in a brief essay on the relation between the perceiver and the perceived. In “A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts,” Stevens writes of a rabbit at nightfall, liberated from daytime threats now that “the light is a rabbit-light,” and “The whole of the wideness of night is for you, / A self that touches all edges, // You become a self that fills the four corners of night.” In the words of one critic, “The imagination is the true hero of a Stevens poem.”

Accepting an honorary degree from Bard College in 1951, Stevens referred to poetry as “a way through reality.” In “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” and other works, he explored how the imagination can harness grief and despair. “Death is the mother of beauty,” he wrote in an early poem, “Sunday Morning.” Impermanence gives experience and things their meaning and value.

Stevens wrote about how uncooperative reality can be, intruding on our generalizations about it. His poems respond to the world of experience without needing to claim or categorize it. They counterpose the human need for order and meaning with the shifting, unknowable nature of the world. They are also a kind of philosophical investigation into the nature of language itself.

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In the introduction to his book of essays, The Necessary Angel (1951), Stevens described poetry as a “force capable of bringing about fluctuations in reality in words free from mysticism.” He regarded poetry (and the arts in general) as a compensation for lost religious belief. “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” is a long poem spelling out his theory of poetry (and of life) in three sections, headed “It Must Be Abstract,” “It Must Change,” and “It Must Give Pleasure.” A late poem, “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” contains the line “We say God and the imagination are one…”

Esteemed as one of America’s greatest and most influential poets during his lifetime—he was awarded many prizes and honorary degrees—Stevens died on August 2, 1955. Since then, admiration for his work has increased.

Wallace Stevens is one of ten poets featured on the Twentieth-Century Poets pane. The stamps will be issued on April 21 in Los Angeles, California, but you can preorder them today!

The Playful, Unconventional Poetry of E. E. Cummings

E. E. Cummings expertly manipulated the rules of grammar, punctuation, rhyme, and meter to create poems that resembled modernist paintings more than traditional verse. His works about love and relationships, nature, and the importance of the individual transformed notions of what a poem can do and delighted readers of all ages. Criticized by some readers for his unconventional and highly experimental style, Cummings eventually became one of the most enduringly popular poets of the 20th century.

Cummings was born on October 14, 1894, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Encouraged by his mother, he wrote poems, stories, and essays throughout his childhood. Eight Harvard Poets, a collection published in 1917,included eight poems written by Cummings while he was a student at Harvard University. His first book, The Enormous Room (1922), was a memoir in the form of a novel. Now considered a classic, this work describes his four-month internment in a French prison during World War I on unfounded suspicions of treason.

Published in 1923, Cummings’s first collection of poetry, Tulips and Chimneys, comprised 66 poems, including what may be his most famous, “in Just-.” Drawing on images from Cummings’s own idyllic childhood, the poem imagines children at play in springtime, “when the word is puddle-wonderful” and “bettyandisbel come dancing // from hop-scotch and jump-rope” at the whistle of the “old balloonman.” Critics praised the collection for its fresh, vivid energy, but the poet’s unconventional style puzzled some of them.

Not satisfied merely to describe a moment or sentiment, Cummings aimed to reproduce experiences directly on the page. He deleted or added spaces between words and lines in order to guide the tempo of a poem. He frequently combined words or created unexpected new ones and used capitalization for emphasis. Punctuation added complexity and nuance. Appearing in Cummings’s 1931 collection W (1931), “n(o)w” mimics the rumble, electrical hiss, and sudden crash of a thunderstorm, when the sky “iS Slapped:with;liGhtninG / !.” A whimsical piece about a grasshopper from No Thanks (1935), “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r,” has letters playfully jumping in and out of order, obscuring and enhancing the poem’s meaning at the same time.

Cummings loved to paint, and his experience as a painter led him to create paintings with words, poems that cannot be truly understood until seen laid out on the page. For the simple four-word poem “l(a,” for example, he embedded the parenthetical phrase “a leaf falls” within the single word “loneliness.” The poem’s thin, vertical arrangement on the page evokes the graceful cadence of a leaf falling from a tree, while its sparse language communicates ideas of fragility and death, universality and rebirth.

Despite Cummings’s affinity for avant-garde styles, much of his work is traditional. Many of his poems are sonnets, and he even adopted the well-worn pattern of nursery rhymes, particularly in 1 X 1 (1944), a collection that received the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America.

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Nevertheless, Cummings strongly resisted conformity, a theme that threads its way through much of his poetry. “So far as I am concerned,” he once wrote, “poetry and every other art was, is, and forever will be strictly and distinctly a question of individuality.” For “anyone lived in a pretty how town,” Cummings created the quintessential individual, “anyone,” who is loved by “noone.” Disliked by the judgmental “someones” and “everyones” around them, anyone and noone embrace life, content with what they have: “when by now and tree by leaf / she laughed his joy she cried his grief / bird by snow and stir by still / anyone’s any was all to her.”

During the 1950s, Cummings read his poetry publicly in museums, theaters, and educational institutions. He loved performing, and the effort not only increased his audience but also introduced poetry to new legions of fans.

In addition to several award-winning poetry collections, Cummings also published plays, fairy tales, and nonfiction. In late 1950, he received the Fellowship of the Academy of American Poets, one of the nation’s most prestigious poetry awards, and in 1958 he received the Bollingen Prize in Poetry from Yale University.

Cummings died on September 3, 1962, in North Conway, New Hampshire.

E. E. Cummings is one of ten poets featured on the Twentieth-Century Poets pane. The stamps will be issued on April 21 in Los Angeles, California, but you can preorder them today!

“E. E. Cummings”, 1935
Photograph by Edward Weston
Collection Center for Creative Photography
Arizona Board of Regents

Denise Levertov & Revolutionary Poetry

The award-winning author of more than 20 collections of poetry, Denise Levertov wrote mystical, meditative poems about nature, spirituality, love, and loss, as well as antiwar poems. She believed in the revolutionary nature of her art and used poetry to promote change. Weaving together public and private, active and contemplative, Levertov perfected an organic form of poetry that explored the political and social world through the intimate experiences and perceptions of the individual.

Levertov was born on October 24, 1923, in Ilford, England. Her parents schooled her at home, where literature and poetry were a constant presence. In 1940, she published her first poem, “Listening to the Distant Guns,” which hints at war in Europe. Her first collection, The Double Image (1946), included poems she wrote while serving as a civilian nurse in London during World War II.

Despite the setting in which she created them, Levertov addressed the issue of war sparingly and indirectly in her early poems. “Who can be happy while the wind recounts / its long sagas of sorrow?” she asks in “Christmas 1944.” “Though we are safe / in a flickering circle of winter festival / we dare not laugh.” More common were poems like “Midnight Quatrain,” about love and separation, self-awareness, and the power of imagination: “Listening to rain around the corner / we sense a dream’s reality, / and know, before the match goes out, / ephemeral eternity.”

For her early work, Levertov employed traditional poetic structures peppered with experiments in rhyme and meter. By the late 1950s, however, she had relocated to the U.S., a move that, she explained, “necessitated the finding of new rhythms in which to write.” Arguing that every poem had a unique identity, she began to let content dictate form. She used line breaks, punctuation, and sound patterns to hasten or slow the pace of a poem and to reveal nuance and meaning that transcend the words on the page. “A long beauty, what is that?” she asks in “Love Song.” The repetition of words and sounds in the lines that follow reveal the answer: “A song / that can be sung over and over, / long notes or long bones. // Love is a landscape the long mountains / define but don’t / shut off from the / unseeable distance.”

Although Levertov’s early poetry often demonstrated her strong social conscience, her poetry and social-political activism truly merged in the 1960s into what she called a “poetry of engagement.” Harrowing pieces like “Life at War” decried the Vietnam War while also offering hope for peace: “We are the humans, men who can make; / whose language imagines mercy, / lovingkindness; . . .” She also wrote of her travels in Vietnam in “In Thai Binh (Peace) Province,” which moves from the violence of “scattered / lemon-yellow cocoons at the bombed silk-factory” to images of a peaceful future. Other poems considered Nazi Germany, the U.S.S.R., and contemporary American life.

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Levertov drew her poetry from her own experiences, and she encouraged her readers to open themselves up fully to the world, to find answers to universal questions by looking inward. “I like to find / what’s not found / at once, but lies // within something of another nature, / in repose, distinct,” she explains in “Pleasures.” In her poems, public and private form a single universe in which fairy tales and myths mingle with the objects and events of everyday life.

Late in her career, Levertov delved deeply into her own spirituality. The long, six-part poem “Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus” makes clear not only the force of her doubt but also the strength of her will to believe: “O deep, remote unknown, / O deep unknown, / Have mercy upon us.”

The recipient of numerous honors and awards, Levertov edited anthologies and published several essay collections and translations as well as a memoir, Tesserae (1995). She taught at colleges and universities throughout the U.S. and served as poetry editor for The Nation and Mother Jones.

Levertov died in Seattle on December 20, 1997. She had been a U.S. citizen since 1955.

Denise Levertov is one of ten poets featured on the Twentieth-Century Poets pane. The stamps will be issued on April 21 in Los Angeles, California, but you can preorder them today!

“Denise Levertov”, 1953
Photograph by Rollie McKenna
@ Rosalie Thorne McKenna Foundation
Courtesy Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona Foundation

Joseph Brodsky, from Soviet Exile to U.S. Poet Laureate

Joseph Brodsky, an exile from the Soviet Union, was the first foreign-born poet to be appointed Poet Laureate of the U.S. (1991–92). His meditative, lyrical elegies, often fused with classical themes, explored personal issues of loss and loneliness as well as such universal ideas as death and the meaning of life. Praised for writing in both Russian and English, Brodsky published several poetry collections in his lifetime as well as three collections of essays. In 1987, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature for “all-embracing authorship, imbued with clarity of thought and poetic intensity.”

Brodsky was born on May 24, 1940, in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Russia. After leaving school at age 15, he worked at a variety of jobs, primarily as an unskilled laborer. He also read voraciously and eventually taught himself Polish and English through poetry. By 1960, his own poems were circulating widely in the underground press.

Although Brodsky was not a dissident, he attracted the attention of Soviet officials. In 1964, he was arrested and formally charged with “social parasitism” because of his sporadic employment. Sentenced to five years labor on a farm in the north, Brodsky was released in 1965 after serving 18 months. He continued to write poetry after his return to Leningrad, but despite his growing reputation as a gifted and committed poet, he was ultimately forced to leave the Soviet Union in 1972.

In the years between his arrest and exile, Brodsky wrote one of the most important poems of his early career. Comprising 14 cantos and nearly 1,400 lines, the epic “Gorbunov and Gorchakov” records the dialogue between two patients in a psychiatric hospital, interspersed with the patients’ philosophical monologues and interrogations from their doctors. “I feel my very self’s at stake / when I don’t have an interlocutor,” muses Gorchakov, alone one night. “It is in words alone that I partake / of life.” Writing the poem proved therapeutic for Brodsky, who had stayed in a similar institution for a short period during his 1964 trial.

Brodsky settled in the U.S. in 1972 and had become a U.S. citizen by the end of the decade. He had a self-proclaimed “love affair with the English language” and translated many of his poems himself. He wrote numerous essays in English, and in the late 1980s, he even began composing poems in English. Yet the pull of his homeland—and native tongue—remained strong. As he states in “A Part of Speech”: “What gets left of a man amounts / to a part. To his spoken part. To a part of speech.”

A thread of displacement, loneliness, and loss runs through many of Brodsky’s poems. “I don’t know where I am or what this place / can be,” he writes in “Odysseus to Telemachus,” which draws on Homer’s Odyssey. “To a wanderer the faces of all islands / resemble one another.” In “Lullaby of Cape Cod,” he writes of moving between empires and navigating unfamiliar landscapes, while in “Lithuanian Nocturne” he asks, “Muse, may I set / out homeward?”

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Brodsky never did return to Russia, but he embraced the country he came to call home—and the U.S. embraced him in return. In addition to teaching at universities in Michigan, New York, and Massachusetts, he published poems and essays in the New York Times, Vogue, and other places. He received a grant from the MacArthur Foundation in 1981 and the 1986 National Book Critics Circle Award for Less Than One, a collection of essays about Russian and American poetry.

As Poet Laureate of the U.S., Brodsky sought to make poetry more accessible to Americans. “This assumption that the blue-collar crowd is not supposed to read it,” he stated soon after his appointment, “or a farmer in his overalls is not to read poetry, seems to be dangerous, if not tragic.”

Stricken with a heart condition that made him frail at a young age, Brodsky had a heightened sense of his own mortality, and images of time and death persist in his poems. “Lately I often sleep / during the daytime,” he writes in “Nature Morte.” “My / death, it would seem, is now / trying and testing me.” Brodsky died in New York City on January 28, 1996.

Joseph Brodsky is one of ten poets featured on the Twentieth-Century Poets pane. The stamps will be issued on April 21 in Los Angeles, California, but you can preorder them today!

Elizabeth Bishop’s Perfect Poetic Gems

Elizabeth Bishop has been called a “writer’s writer’s writer,” suggesting the admiration other poets feel for her work. Her total output was small, but she polished her poems to gleaming perfection. In works such as “Filling Station,” “The Moose,” and “First Death in Nova Scotia,” she displayed the precise observation, intellectual strength, and understated humor that continue to win admirers.

Bishop was born February 8, 1911, in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her father died when she was an infant, and her mother, who eventually took her to live with maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia, suffered a series of breakdowns before being permanently hospitalized.

Despite these disturbances, childhood offered her satisfaction and interest. She loved learning the alphabet. Years afterward, she remembered: “It was wonderful to see that the letters each had different expressions, and that the same letter had different expressions at different times. Sometimes the two capitals of my name looked miserable, slumped down and sulky, but at others they turned fat and cheerful, almost with roses in their cheeks.”

In 1917, Bishop’s paternal grandparents brought her back to Worcester, a wrenching experience. “I felt as if I were being kidnapped, even if I wasn’t,” she later wrote. She lived with relatives, in Massachusetts and Nova Scotia, over the next several years, and entered Vassar College in 1930. A librarian there introduced her to the poet Marianne Moore, who encouraged her interest in writing and selected some of her work for publication in an anthology, giving an early boost to her career.

After graduating from Vassar in 1934, Bishop began an extended period of restless travel, staying in New York, Key West, and other places before settling in Brazil, where she lived for the greater part of two decades. She returned to the United States in the late 1960s, finally moving to Boston, where she taught at Harvard University.

In Bishop’s work, opposites are fused. Reticence and control—passionate feeling and also coolness—mark her writing. Her poems walk the line between public and private, the marvelous and the ordinary, and other contradictions. This heightened awareness or “double vision” came to her in childhood, as recounted in her well-known poem “In the Waiting Room,” in which she remembers sitting in a dentist’s office as a girl of six: “But I felt: you are an I, / you are an Elizabeth, / you are one of them.

Bishop is celebrated for her powers of description and precise observation. There is something of the careful mapmaker’s exactness in her poems, reflected in the titles of several of her books, such as North & South (1946), Questions of Travel (1965), and Geography III (1976). Her poetry is aware of economic inequality and the edgy relationship between rich and poor. “Pink Dog” touches on the brutality of society in regard to outcasts. Scenes of hungry people during the Depression inspired her to write “A Miracle for Breakfast.”

Her autobiographical prose poem “In the Village,” widely considered a classic, presents life in the maritime village of her childhood as enchanting if not fully understood. Poignantly portraying the tension of living with an unbalanced person (her mother), it begins: “A scream, the echo of a scream, hangs over that Nova Scotian village. No one hears it; it hangs there forever….”

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In the words of one critic, her poems “accommodate the smallest details and the largest issues.” Bishop’s poems seem open to almost any subject, including even a dirty filling station, and consistently defy expectation. “First Death in Nova Scotia” finds surprising humor in a child’s struggle to make sense of the death of a younger cousin. In “The Armadillo,” a festive fire balloon splatters against a cliff “like an egg of fire” and sends animals in the vicinity into a panic; with great subtlety, Bishop calls aerial bombing to mind, and “The Armadillo” turns out to be an anti-war classic, comparing human beings to the frightened animal with “a weak mailed fist / clenched ignorant against the sky.”

Elizabeth Bishop died suddenly of a cerebral aneurysm at her home in Boston on October 6, 1979. She received many awards and honors during her lifetime, and interest in her work continues to grow.

Bishop is one of ten poets featured on the Twentieth-Century Poets pane. The stamps will be issued on April 21 in Los Angeles, California, but you can preorder them today!