Anatomy of a Stamp: Gwendolyn Brooks

Have you ever wondered about the process involved in choosing just the right picture for a stamp? The story about the selection of the Gwendolyn Brooks picture featured on the Twentieth-Century Poets sheet reveals some of the mystery and magic involved in making stamps.

Twentieth-Century Poets Notecard Set (click image to order)

Art Director Derry Noyes reviewed several photographs before selecting a picture of a youthful Ms. Brooks. A version of Noyes’s original picture selection can be seen on the Poetry Foundation’s Gwendolyn Brooks biography page.

Consultation with the poet’s daughter Nora Brooks Blakely shifted the picture selection from that of a youthful portrait to a more mature depiction of the poet. Ms. Blakely sent pictures from her personal collection for the U.S. Postal Service to consider.

During the selection process, Ms. Blakely also recommended that USPS be in touch with Jon Randolph, a Chicago photographer, who had photographed Ms. Brooks many times. Randolph also pulled together a selection from his archive and forwarded the pictures for review. Ultimately, Noyes selected a charming photograph of Ms. Brooks, hands on her hips, posing before bookshelves in her home library.

Love it!

Noyes saw one obstacle to using the photograph, however: The wall of books, she felt, distracted the eye from focusing on Ms. Brooks’s wonderful animated expression. And none of the other stamp portraits featured complex backgrounds. Mr. Randolph gave USPS permission to alter his photograph by removing the background wall of books.

The picture of Ms. Brooks then fit seamlessly alongside those of the other nine poets presented on the sheet.

The Twentieth-Century Poets stamps are available for sale as a pane of 20 stamps or block of ten stamps. Ten stamps—one of each poet—are also included with .

Gone With the Wind & the Books That Shaped America

Margaret Mitchell’s epic Civil War-era novel Gone With the Wind was published on this day in 1936. The only one of her works to be published in her lifetime, the book was an instant success, earning Mitchell critical recognition and remaining a national bestseller for two years.

Much to our delight, Gone With the Wind is also included in a new exhibition that opened on June 25 at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The exhibition is called “Books That Shaped America,” and it aims to

spark a national conversation on books written by Americans that have influenced our lives . . . Some of the titles on display have been the source of great controversy, even derision, in U.S. history. Nevertheless, they shaped Americans’ views of the world and the world’s views of America.

Here’s what the Library of Congress has to say about Gone With the Wind:

The most popular romance novel of all time was the basis for the most popular movie of all time (in today’s dollars). Margaret Mitchell’s book, set in the South during the Civil War, won both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, and it remains popular, despite charges that its author had a blind eye regarding the horrors of slavery.

Looking more closely at the exhibition’s list of books, we are very pleased to see many whose authors have appeared on U.S. postage stamps, including three (!) authors from the 2012 stamp program: poets Gwendolyn Brooks and William Carlos Williams, and Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs. From the exhibition website:

  • Gwendolyn Brooks, A Street in Bronzeville (1945)

“A Street in Bronzeville” was Brooks’s first book of poetry. It details, in stark terms, the oppression of blacks in a Chicago neighborhood. Critics hailed the book, and in 1950 Brooks became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. She was also appointed as U.S. Poet Laureate by the Librarian of Congress in 1985.

  • William Carlos Williams, Spring and All (1923)

A practicing physician for more than 40 years, William Carlos Williams became an experimenter, innovator and revolutionary figure in American poetry. In reaction against the rigid, rhyming format of 19th-century poets, Williams, his friend Ezra Pound and other early-20th-century poets formed the core of what became known as the “Imagist” movement. Their poetry focused on verbal pictures and moments of revealed truth, rather than a structure of consecutive events or thoughts and was expressed in free verse rather than rhyme.

  • Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan of the Apes (1914)

“Tarzan of the Apes” is the first in a series of books about the popular man who was raised by and lived among the apes. With its universal themes of honesty, heroism and bravery, the series has never lost popularity. Countless Tarzan adaptations have been filmed for television and the silver screen, including an animated version currently in production.

Mark Twain, whose stamp was issued in 2011, is also included in the exhibition. “Books That Shaped America” will be on view through September 29. The Gwendolyn Brooks and William Carlos Williams stamps were issued in April 2012 as part of the Twentieth-Century Poets stamps pane and are still available. The Edgar Rice Burroughs stamps will be issued on August 17, 2012, in Tarzana, California.

Anyone want to start a stamp subjects book club?!

Gone with the Wind TM, its characters and elements are trademarks of Turner Entertainment Company and the Stephens Mitchell Trusts.

Tarzan™ Owned by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. and Used by Permission.

Gwendolyn Brooks: Master at Weaving Lyric Tales of Urban Life

Gwendolyn Brooks is best remembered for distinctive, lyrical portraits of everyday urban life. Her poems combine traditional forms—such as the sonnet and ballad—with experimental free verse, jazz and blues poetry, and colloquial language. A committed voice against sexual and racial oppression, Brooks, who determinedly described herself as Black, was the first Black American to win the Pulitzer Prize.

Brooks was born on June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kansas, and grew up in Chicago, Illinois. A shy and reticent girl, she poured her emotions and experiences into poetry, which she began writing before age ten. In 1930, she published her first poem, and she continued to publish throughout her teens and into her twenties. By the mid-1940s, Brooks’s poetry had begun to win awards and critical recognition.

Brooks found much of the inspiration for her first collection, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), in the sights and sounds of her own neighborhood. “We wonder. But not well! not for a minute! / Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now, / We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it,” she writes in “kitchenette building.” Once characteristic of Chicago’s South Side, kitchenettes were small apartments housing several families who shared one bathroom. In these cramped, crowded spaces, dreams and ambitions had to compete with “onion fumes” and “yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall.” Yet among the poverty and struggle of daily living, beauty and love persisted. “It was quite a time for loving. It was midnight. It was May,” writes Brooks in “the old-marrieds.” “But in the crowding darkness not a word did they say.”

Brooks was especially attuned to the circumscribed, sometimes luminous lives of Black women. For her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Annie Allen (1949), Brooks focused on just one woman and followed her life from birth to adulthood. At the heart of the collection is “The Anniad,” an elaborate and lengthy piece about Annie’s marriage and disillusionment as dreams give way to reality. Even as “the culprit magics fade,” however, Annie finds pleasure in the world around her: “Hugging old and Sunday sun / Kissing in her kitchenette / The minuets of memory.”

From the beginning of her career, Brooks demonstrated a controlled mastery of traditional poetic structures such as the sonnet, ballad, and epic, yet she never felt constrained by them. Arguably her most famous poem, “We Real Cool” elevates the short lyric to a new level of conciseness while also infusing the verse with a contemporary swinging rhythm:

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

Brooks frequently experimented with rhyme and meter, playing with both conventional and unconventional forms, and even invented a new hybrid form, the “sonnet-ballad.”

Perhaps best known for her poems about the intimate experiences and emotions of individuals, Brooks also addressed national and international issues. “Gay Chaps at the Bar,” a sequence of 12 sonnets, was based on letters Brooks received from Black soldiers serving in World War II. “The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock” considers the struggle to desegregate the nation’s public schools.

Published in 1968, In the Mecca was nominated for the National Book Award. The collection included the monumental “In the Mecca,” in which the faded grandeur of the decaying Mecca building mirrors the condition of many Blacks at the time.

Notecard Set (click to order)

In addition to numerous honorary degrees, Brooks received a lifetime achievement award from the National Endowment for the Arts. She served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (the position later renamed Poet Laureate) from 1985 to 1986 and as Poet Laureate of Illinois from 1968 until her death. In addition to poetry, she published two unconventional autobiographies, Report from Part One (1972) and Report from Part Two (1996). The semi-autobiographical Maud Martha, her only novel, was published in 1953.

Gwendolyn Brooks 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!

National Book Month: Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems

As an adolescent, I idolized poet Sylvia Plath. While my friends talked endlessly about their favorite bands and actors they wanted hanging over their beds, I spent hours poring over Plath’s poetry and journals, desperately trying to know everything I could about this mysterious woman.

Although Plath published just one collection of poetry and one novel in her lifetime, her complex body of work showcases her ability to conquer such weighty themes as marriage and motherhood, gender and power, death and resurrection, and the search for the self. Her posthumously published Collected Poems (1981) received the Pulitzer Prize in 1982. The collection includes poems written from 1956 until her suicide in 1963.

Plath’s most famous poem, “Daddy” (1962), delves into the painful subject of her father’s death when she was a child. Written in the singsong style of a nursery rhyme, the emotional verse evokes the feelings of sorrow and anger she felt at not having the opportunity to know her father before he died. This anger quickly changes direction, focusing on her husband, whose betrayal is connected, in Plath’s mind, to that of her father’s. By the end of the poem, the narrator has shed the burden of grief for both of these painful relationships.

As a teenager I wanted to be a poet, and Plath’s highly autobiographical style appealed to me. The way in which Plath reveals honest details of her life and innermost thoughts seemed so extraordinary. Though I no longer hold a romanticized image of becoming a poet, I do still love Sylvia Plath’s writing. With simplicity of language and self-reflection, she gives a voice not only to her own experiences, but those of many women. She is, in my mind, truly one of the greatest American poets of the 20th century.

Upon learning about the Twentieth-Century Poets stamps issuance later this year—and that the set of ten esteemed bards includes Sylvia Plath—my excitement for the 2012 stamp program spiked. Along with Plath, the commemorative pane will pay tribute to Elizabeth Bishop, Joseph Brodsky, Gwendolyn Brooks, E. E. Cummings, Robert Hayden, Denise Levertov, Theodore Roethke, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams. Designed by art director Derry Noyes, the Twentieth-Century Poets stamps will be issued in April.

“Sylvia Plath”, n.d.
Photograph by Rollie McKenna
@ Rosalie Thorne McKenna Foundation
Courtesy Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona Foundation