E. E. Cummings versus e. e. cummings: A Stamp Mystery Solved

How many of you expected to see poet E. E. Cummings’s name in lowercase (“e. e. cummings”) on his recently issued postage stamp? We’d wager a good number of you. After all, most of us are used to seeing his name in lowercase in all those great poetry collections. So why does his stamp look like this?

Well, we did a little research. It turns out that an editor preparing a French translation of Cummings’s poetry asked him directly about the appearance of his name in 1951:

are you E.E.Cummings, ee cummings, or what?(so far as the title page is concerned)wd u like title page all in lowercase?”

Cummings’s reply?

E.E.Cummings, unless your printer prefers E. E. Cummings/ titlepage up to you;but may it not be tricksy svp[.]

Aha! Cummings—who did not sign his name all in lowercase letters—regarded the use of his name in lowercase as a publisher’s gimmick. (You can read more about this here and here.) And, we’ve been told that when USPS asked members of his family about how the poet should be represented on the stamp, they favored “E. E. Cummings.” Mystery solved!

Do you have a stamp mystery you’d like us to solve? Send your question to uspsstamps [at] gmail [dot] com, and we’ll get right on it!

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.

First Day Covers (click to order)

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.

Twentieth-Century Poets Notecard Set (click to order)

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