Ten distinct voices; thousands of published works; and a long list of honors including multiple Pulitzers, National Book Awards, Poet Laureate appointments, and even a Nobel Prize — the Twentieth-Century Poets issuance represents a tour de force of literary masters.
“These stamps are a big deal in both philatelic and literary terms,” says Dana Gioia, member of the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee. “This is the largest single literary issue in American postal history.”
The 2012 release is uniquely significant to Gioia. As an internationally acclaimed and award-winning poet, he not only is an expert in the stamp topic, but also personally knew two of the honorees. Nearly 40 years ago at Harvard University, Gioia studied under Elizabeth Bishop, and more recently, he served on a board with Gwendolyn Brooks.
The Postal Service assembled the list of stamp subjects with input from researchers and consultants such as respected poets Charles Simic and David Young. Using excellence as their main criterion, they selected an illustrious group of ten writers. And while these men and women are all distinguished in the same field, they represent a wide range of backgrounds — from a political exile to an Ivy-League-educated doctor. (Read the biographies of all ten poets.)
Together, art director Derry Noyes and designer Margaret Bauer explored how best to portray such a diverse group of respected poets. Photographs seemed the most straightforward and accurate artistic approach, especially considering the large number of approvals required with ten subjects. Once she secured images, Noyes experimented with the stamp framework.
“How do you portray different people similarly so that the entire issuance gels,” she recalls, “but so that each stamp has its own distinct nature?” For her answer, Noyes thought it only appropriate to turn to a literary source. She remembered encountering store displays in which a publisher would release a collection of classic books with a uniform cover design that tied the series together, while still presenting each one with its own individual details.
Wanting to mimic this aesthetic, Noyes applied a color tint to each photograph, adding a subtle scheme that would unite the stamps while still adding visual interest. Noyes and Bauer also tried variations of enlarging the name of the poet so it would pop off the stamp and grab individual attention. Eventually, they chose to display the last name large and in color, adding even more of a unique touch to each design. To further pay tribute to the subjects’ achievements, Noyes added a famous quotation from each author's poetry on the back liner of the stamps.
The result is a cohesive, templated design that holds the group together, while allowing each accomplished poet his or her own space and recognition.
“The United States has always been proud of its poets and understands the important role language plays in a free society,” Gioia says. “It is important for me, as a member of CSAC, that U.S. postage honors the extraordinary creativity of our nation.”