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

The Imagery and Lyricism of Theodore Roethke’s Poetry

Theodore Roethke created intimate, introspective poems distinguished by lyricism and a sensual use of imagery. Best known for his poems about the natural world, Roethke was profoundly influenced by the events of his childhood and mined his past for the themes and subjects of his writing. He mastered a variety of poetic styles, from formal rhymes to experimental free verse, and received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1954 for his collection The Waking (1953).

Roethke was born on May 25, 1908, in Saginaw, Michigan, where he spent time as a child exploring the large greenhouse owned by his father and uncle. In 1929, he received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan, and he took graduate courses there and at Harvard University before embarking on a teaching career at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania in 1931. During this period, his poems began to appear in the New RepublicSaturday Review, and other publications. He received a master’s degree from the University of Michigan in 1936.

The tight, carefully constructed poems of Roethke’s first collection, Open House (1941), included short metaphysical works about nature and the self. Written in conventional poetic forms, they include “The Light Comes Brighter,” in which Roethke describes the coming of spring, when “buckled ice begins to shift” and “the cold roots stir below.” In the title poem he writes more personally: “My truths are all foreknown, / This anguish self-revealed, / I’m naked to the bone, / With nakedness my shield.”

Roethke found his greatest and most joyful inspiration in the landscape of his childhood. Published in 1948, his second collection, The Lost Son and Other Poems, included the landmark “greenhouse poems.” Written in a looser, more experimental form than his earlier work, the series drew on Roethke’s recollections of the plants and insects, smells, and organic sensations of the family-owned greenhouse in Michigan where he spent his youth. “I can hear underground, that sucking and sobbing,” he writes in “Cuttings (later),” “In my veins, in my bones I feel it . . .” The poems range from tender meditations on orchids and carnations to rich descriptions of even the most mundane activities, such as pulling weeds and transferring plants from one location to another.

His relationship with his father, who died when Roethke was 15, also loomed large in the poet’s imagination. “He does not put on airs / Who lived above a potting shed for years,” he recalls in “Otto.” “I think of him, and I think of his men, / As close to him as any kith or kin.” Similar recollections surface in “The Premonition” and “My Papa’s Waltz.”

Throughout his career, Roethke changed styles frequently, moving dramatically from terse, formal rhymes to highly original free verse—and back again. For his third collection, Praise to the End! (1951), he re-imagined the world through the eyes and voice of a child. In the lengthy title poem, he adopted the comforting rhythm and nonsense sounds of a nursery rhyme: “Mips and ma the mooly moo, / The likes of him is biting who, / A cow’s a care and who’s a coo?— / What footie does is final.”

A passionate teacher praised for moving and exciting his students, Roethke taught poetry at colleges and universities across the U.S., including Pennsylvania State College, Bennington College, and the University of Washington. He also suffered from bouts of mental illness and a recurring feeling of discomfort in his own skin, but he was unafraid to confront his innermost thoughts and emotions in his work. “What’s madness but nobility of soul / At odds with circumstance?” he asks in “In A Dark Time.” “My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly, / Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?” In 1953, he married Beatrice O’Connell, formerly a student at Bennington College.

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In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, Roethke’s many honors include the Bollingen Award, two Guggenheim Fellowships, and a Fulbright lectureship. He received the National Book Award in 1959 for Words for the Wind: The Collected Verse (1958). “I Am!” Says the Lamb, a book of poems for children, was published in 1961.

Roethke died on August 1, 1963, on Bainbridge Island, Washington. Published posthumously,The Far Field (1964), a collection of poems, including love poems, received the National Book Award in 1965.

Theodore Roethke 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!

Sylvia Plath’s Confessional Poetry Still Holds Weight

Infusing her poetry with personal experience, Sylvia Plath probed the relentless conflict between inner self and outward appearance. Her complex body of work includes deftly imagined poems about marriage and motherhood, gender and power, death and resurrection, and the search for the self. Although she published just one collection of poetry and one novel in her lifetime, several collections of her work were published after her death and solidified her position as one of the leading American poets of the 20th century. Her Collected Poems (1981) received the Pulitzer Prize in 1982.

Sylvia Plath was born in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, on October 27, 1932. A high-achieving and driven student, she began publishing poems and short stories at a young age. By the time she graduated from Smith College in 1955, her work had appeared in Seventeen magazine,The Christian Science MonitorThe Boston Globe, and Mademoiselle, among other periodicals. She received a Fulbright scholarship and studied at Cambridge University in England from the fall of 1955 through the spring of 1957. She then returned to Smith to teach but left in 1958 to focus on her own writing.

Plath’s first collection of poetry, The Colossus, was published in the U.K. in 1960 and in the U.S. in 1962. The themes of rebirth and the search for a new identity figure prominently in many of the poems, including the seven-part “Poem for a Birthday,” in which the narrator waits to be made anew: “This is the city where men are mended. / I lie on a great anvil. / . . . There is nothing to do. / I shall be good as new.” For the landmark title poem, Plath drew on the devastating death of her father when she was eight years old. “I shall never get you put together entirely, / Pieced, glued, and properly jointed,” she writes, imagining the narrator “like an ant in mourning” crawling over the monumental ruins of a collapsed statue.

Because many of her poems echo the events of her life, Plath has often been labeled a “confessional” poet. Autobiographical and direct, confessional poems reveal the honest details of the poet’s life and innermost emotions. Plath revisited the painful subject of her father’s death in several poems, including her most famous, “Daddy.” By the end of the poem, which she wrote in the singsong style of a nursery rhyme, the narrator has angrily shed the heavy burden of grief, both for her father and for the husband who betrayed her.

In using her own life as inspiration, Plath gave voice to the daily experiences of all women. “Pursuit” speaks of a woman’s desire for a man, for example, while in “Lady Lazarus,” the narrator breaks free of social constraints to emerge as a fully realized self. Especially moving are her poems about motherhood. “Such pure leaps and spirals— / Surely they travel // The world forever,” she muses in “The Night Dances,” in which comets and snowflakes lovingly reflect the random movements of a curious baby. In “Morning Song,” strong, distinctive images of a watch and a museum mark the birth of a baby: “Love set you going like a fat gold watch. / . . . Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue. / . . . And now you try / Your handful of notes; / The clear vowels rise like balloons.”

Plath also created vibrant poems about nature and the sweet, enjoyable moments of everyday life. “Blackberrying,” for example, recalls her life in rural England, where there was “nothing, nothing but blackberries, / Blackberries on either side, though on the right mainly, / A blackberry alley, going down in hooks and a sea / Somewhere at the end of it, heaving.”

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On February 11, 1963, Plath committed suicide in her London home. She had suffered bouts of depression since college and had attempted suicide ten years earlier, an event she recounted in The Bell Jar (1963), a semi-autobiographical novel. Of the collections published posthumously, Ariel (1965) is the best known and features 40 poems written in a short, fevered burst of creativity in 1962.

Sylvia Plath 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!

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