“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”
“In a Cummings poem,” Susan Cheever wrote in her spectacular biography of E. E. Cummings, “the reader must often pick his way toward comprehension, which comes, when it does, in a burst of delight and recognition.” Such a burst is what rewards the reader, whatever his or her age, in Enormous Smallness: A Story of E. E. Cummings (public library) — an uncommonly delightful picture-book celebration of Cummings’s life by Brooklyn-based poet Matthew Burgess, illustrated by Kris Di Giacomo (the artist behind the wonderful alphabet book Take Away the A).
To reimagine the beloved poet’s life in a tango of word and image is quite befitting — unbeknownst to many, Cummings had a passion for drawing and once described himself as “an author of pictures, a draughtsman of words.”
The project comes from Brooklyn-based indie powerhouse Enchanted Lion Books — publisher of some of the most daring and tender children’s books of our time — and was first envisioned by ELB founder Claudia Zoe Bedrick, who approached Burgess about writing a children’s biography of Cummings. Miraculously, Burgess had visited Cummings’s home at 4 Patchin Place in New York City three years earlier, after a serendipitous encounter with the current resident — an experience that had planted a seed of quietly germinating obsession with the legendary poet’s life.
And so the collaboration stretched between them, as Cummings might say, like “a pleasant song” — Burgess and Bedrick worked side by side for four years to bring this wonder of a book to life.
The story begins with Cummings, already known as “E. E.” and living in his New York City home where he spent the last forty years of his life, typing away as the love of his life, the fashion model and photographer Marion Moorehouse, summons him to tea-time with an elephant-shaped bell.
From there, Burgess takes the reader on an affectionate biographical detective story, tracing how Edward Estlin became E. E., what brought him to Manhattan from his native Cambridge, and how elephants (and trees, and birds) became his lifelong creative companions in the circus of his imagination.
Young Estlin’s first poem “poured out of his mouth when he was only three.”
With the loving support of the unsung champions with whom the history of creative culture is strewn — the mother who began recording his spontaneous recitations in a little book titled “Estlin’s Original Poems”; the father who stomped on his hands and knees, play-pretending into existence the mighty elephant that was little Estlin’s creative muse; the teacher who encouraged him to pursue his love of words; the uncle who gave him a book on how to write poetry — he eventually made it to Harvard.
There, he came upon the words of his favorite poet, John Keats — “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of the Imagination” — which awakened young Estlin’s creative courage. After graduation, he began experimenting with poetry and moved to New York City, falling in love with its “irresistibly stupendous newness.”
But then World War I struck and Estlin went to France, volunteering as an ambulance-driver. While working in the French countryside, he was mistaken for a spy and sent to prison for several months.
When the war ended, he wrote a book about his experience, titled The Enormous Room. Estlin was reborn as E. E.
The following year, he published his first book of poems, Tulips & Chimneys.
Using a style all his own,
e. e. put lowercase letters where capitals normally go,
and his playful punctuation grabbed readers’ attention.
His poems were alive with experimentation
And because of his love for lowercase letters,
his name began to appear with two little e’s (& a little c, too).
But his expansive experimentation was too much for the small-minded literary pantheon:
Some people criticized him for painting with words.
Other said his poems were
Some said they were
no good at all.
And yet Cummings, who viewed society’s criteria for what it means to be a successful artist with mischievous wryness, was undeterred. A century before Neil Gaiman’s memorable advice that the artist’s only appropriate response to criticism is to make good art, Cummings embodied this ethos. Burgess captures this spirit with quiet elegance, weaving one of Cummings’s poems into the story:
But no matter what the world was giving or taking,
E. E. went right on dreaming and making.
For inside, he knew his poems were new and true.
love is a place
love is a place
& through this place of
(with brightness of peace)
yes is a world
& in this world of
His poems were his way
of saying YES.
YES to the heart
and the roundness of the moon,
to birds, elephants, trees,
and everything he loved.
YES to spring, too
which always brought him back
to childhood, when the first
sign of his favorite season
was the whistling arrival
of the balloon man.
The book’s epigraph is a celebration of this unflinching yes-saying: “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”
With that courage he catapulted himself into the open arms of those who also hungered for beauty and meaning, and became one of the world’s most beloved poets — a capital-A Artist of his own lowercase making.
Complement the immeasurably wonderful Enormous Smallness with a very differently delightful grownup biography of Cummings and his own little-known children’s book, then revisit the picture-book biographies of other creative icons: Frida Kahlo, Henri Matisse, Pablo Neruda, and Henri Rousseau.
Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books; photographs my own