Anatomy of a Stamp: Sylvia Plath

Today we celebrate writer Sylvia Plath’s 80th birthday. Plath (1932–1963) was honored along with nine other poets on the Twentieth-Century Poets stamp sheet, which was issued earlier this year.

In depicting Plath on the stamp, art director Derry Noyes considered a couple of different options. Early in the stamp development process, Noyes worked with an artist Maira Kalman to create a colorful and lively portrait based on a picture of the artist that the U.S. Postal Service borrowed from the Special Collections library at Smith College, Plath’s alma mater. The art featured the artist’s own handwritten lines from one of Plath’s best-known poems, “Daddy”:

You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe

Design direction sometimes changes, however, and USPS ultimately opted to use a black-and-white photograph of Plath, as well as each of her contemporaries featured on the stamps, instead of having the poet’s portrait illustrated. USPS again chose the resources of a rich archival collection, this time working with archivists at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in Tucson. There they found a picture of Plath by the talented photographer Rollie McKenna.

Twentieth-Century Poets Digital Color Postmark Keepsake

Plath’s life events and her poems are famously intertwined. Readers admire her unvarnished examination of life’s complexities, contradictions, and daily challenges, and the ways in which she expressed her own highs and lows in a raw and direct style. In the photograph, Plath sits on a sofa or chair and regards the camera’s presence obliquely, perhaps lost in thought and contemplating new verse.

McKenna’s picture of Plath was taken in 1959. Four years later, less than six months after her thirty-first birthday, Plath ended her life. McKenna’s photograph, among the many others that captured Plath’s intelligence and youthful beauty, is—like Plath’s small but potent body of writing—a touchstone for her legions of devotees.

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.”

Digital Color Postmark (click to order)

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

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