Favorite Links of the Past Week (or Two)

In the past two weeks, the Internet has been buzzing with stamp news. Here are some of our favorites!

The of stamps in the Flags of Our Nation series was released August 16, and last week the stamps were also unveiled at the Wyoming State Museum. The Wyoming Tribune-Eagle was there to cover the local event.

The legacy of venerable Mexican-American dancer and choreographer José Limón lives on through the , which has a lively and fun Facebook page. (Check out the company’s profile picture!) Limón is one of four dancers honored on the Innovative Choreographers stamps.

We were simply delighted by this heartwarming story of a different kind of love letter—those shared between a daughter at sleep-away camp and her mother—on a Huffington Post parenting blog.

Smithsonian Magazine profiled Stamp Collector in Chief, President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

NorthJersey.com shared a video of a special dedication of the Larry Doby stamp at the Patterson, New Jersey, Post Office, while Yankees On Demand posted a video of the dedication of the Joe DiMaggio stamp. DiMaggio and Doby are two of the four athletes featured on the Major League Baseball All-Stars stamps sheet.

The National Postal Museum‘s online exhibition Victory Mail provides insight for students on life before email and texting.

Have some favorite stamp- and letter-related stories? Share them with us in the comments.

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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

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.

Digital Color Postmark Keepsake (click to order)

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

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….”

Digital Color Postmarks (click to order)

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!

O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” & the Sacrifices We Make for Love

The short stories of O. Henry (1862–1910) are beloved for their irony and skillful unfolding of plot; often, they end with a surprise twist. This prolific author wrote nearly 300 tales, most in the final eight years of his life. One of his most popular, “The Gift of the Magi,” was published on this day in 1906. It tells of a struggling young married couple, Jim and Della, on Christmas Eve. Della has one treasure, her luxuriously long hair, which she has cut off and sold to buy Jim a chain for his prize possession, an heirloom watch—which he, in turn, has sold to buy her a fine set of combs. O. Henry’s sense of irony is on full display in this poignant tale, suggesting that human goals are likely to be frustrated no matter how good our intentions. (Was he right?)

By the time of his death, O. Henry was internationally admired and the most widely read storyteller in America. Later this year, the U.S. Postal Service will commemorate the 150th anniversary of his birth with the 28th stamp in the Literary Arts series.