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Enormous Smallness: The Sweet Illustrated Story of E. E. Cummings and His Creative Bravery

“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.

Burgess writes:

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 surprise!

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
too strange
too small.
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
love move
(with brightness of peace)
all places

yes is a world
& in this world of
yes live
(skillfully curled)
all worlds.

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

BP

Our Smallness and the Cosmic Scale: How Big the Universe Is Relative to Us, Animated

A humbling celestial reflection on what enlarges the minuteness of human life with meaning against the vast backdrop of the universe.

At the end of the nineteenth century, well before women could vote, a team of female astronomers at the Harvard College Observatory known as the Harvard Computers made calculations and discoveries that became the basis for Edwin Hubble’s eponymous law demonstrating that the universe is expanding — one of the most revolutionary scientific breakthroughs in human history.

But this begot the inevitable questions of what the universe is expanding into, how big it really is, and whether it is infinite or finite.

More than half a century after Hubble formulated his law, NASA named an enormous, ambitious telescope after him and launched it into space to probe these mysteries of the cosmos. What the Hubble Space Telescope found, and how it illuminates the size of the universe relative to us, is what Alex Hofeldt explores in this wonderful animation from TED-Ed and animator Tom Matuszewski:

Complement with these five visualizations to grasp the scale of the cosmos, Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg on the unity of the universe, and physicist Sean Carroll on what gives our lives meaning against our seeming smallness, then revisit other terrific TED-Ed animated inquiries into how you know you exist, what makes you you, how melancholy enhances creativity, why some people are left-handed, what depression actually feels like, and why playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity.

BP

The Courage to Be Yourself: E.E. Cummings on Art, Life, and Being Unafraid to Feel

“To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight.”

“No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” wrote the thirty-year-old Nietzsche. “The true and durable path into and through experience,” Nobel-winning poet Seamus Heaney counseled the young more than a century later in his magnificent commencement address, “involves being true … to your own solitude, true to your own secret knowledge.”

Every generation believes that it must battle unprecedented pressures of conformity; that it must fight harder than any previous generation to protect that secret knowledge from which our integrity of selfhood springs. Some of this belief stems from the habitual conceit of a culture blinded by its own presentism bias, ignorant of the past’s contextual analogues. But much of it in the century and a half since Nietzsche, and especially in the years since Heaney, is an accurate reflection of the conditions we have created and continually reinforce in our present informational ecosystem — a Pavlovian system of constant feedback, in which the easiest and commonest opinions are most readily rewarded, and dissenting voices are most readily punished by the unthinking mob.

E.E. Cummings by Edward Weston (Photograph courtesy of the Center for Creative Photography)
E.E. Cummings by Edward Weston (Photograph courtesy of the Center for Creative Photography)

Few people in the two centuries since Emerson issued his exhortation to “trust thyself” have countered this culturally condoned blunting of individuality more courageously and consistently than E.E. Cummings (October 14, 1894–September 3, 1962) — an artist who never cowered from being his unconventional self because, in the words of his most incisive and competent biographer, he “despised fear, and his life was lived in defiance of all who ruled by it.”

A fortnight after the poet’s fifty-ninth birthday, a small Michigan newspaper published a short, enormous piece by Cummings under the title “A Poet’s Advice to Students,” radiating expansive wisdom on art, life, and the courage of being yourself. It went on to inspire Buckminster Fuller and was later included in E.E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised (public library) — that wonderful out-of-print collection which the poet himself described as “a cluster of epigrams, forty-nine essays on various subjects, a poem dispraising dogmata, and several selections from unfinished plays,” and which gave us Cummings on what it really means to be an artist.

Illustration from Enormous Smallness by Matthew Burgess, an illustrated tribute to E.E. Cummings

Addressing those who aspire to be poets — no doubt in that broadest Baldwinian sense of wakeful artists in any medium and courageous seers of human truth — Cummings echoes the poet Laura Riding’s exquisite letters to an eight-year-old girl about being oneself and writes:

A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feelings through words.

This may sound easy. It isn’t.

A lot of people think or believe or know they feel — but that’s thinking or believing or knowing; not feeling. And poetry is feeling — not knowing or believing or thinking.

Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself.

To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.

Page from Enormous Smallness by Matthew Burgess

Cummings should know — just four years earlier, he had fought that hardest battle himself: When he was awarded the prestigious Academy of American Poets annual fellowship — the MacArthur of poetry — Cummings had to withstand harsh criticism from traditionalists who besieged him with hate for the bravery of breaking with tradition and being nobody-but-himself in his art. With an eye to that unassailable creative integrity buoyed by relentless work ethic, he adds:

As for expressing nobody-but-yourself in words, that means working just a little harder than anybody who isn’t a poet can possibly imagine. Why? Because nothing is quite as easy as using words like somebody else. We all of us do exactly this nearly all of the time — and whenever we do it, we’re not poets.

If, at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you’ve written one line of one poem, you’ll be very lucky indeed.

And so my advice to all young people who wish to become poets is: do something easy, like learning how to blow up the world — unless you’re not only willing, but glad, to feel and work and fight till you die.

Does that sound dismal? It isn’t.

It’s the most wonderful life on earth.

Or so I feel.

Complement the thoroughly invigorating E.E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised with a lovely illustrated celebration of Cummings’s creative bravery, then revisit Pulitzer-winning poet Robert Penn Warren on what it really means to find yourself and Janis Joplin on the courage of being what you find.

BP

Wallace Stevens on Reality, Creativity, and Our Greatest Self-Protection from the Pressure of the News

“[The artist’s] function is to make his imagination … become the light in the minds of others. His role, in short, is to help people to live their lives.”

Wallace Stevens on Reality, Creativity, and Our Greatest Self-Protection from the Pressure of the News

“A society must assume that it is stable,” James Baldwin wrote in his timeless treatise on the creative process, “but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven.” And yet, paradoxically, in the very act of exposing the abiding instability of existence, art moors us to a sense of the eternal and becalms our momentary tumults against the raging ocean that has always washed, and will always wash, the shoreline of the human spirit. The poet Robert Penn Warren captured this beautifully in his meditation on the vital role of art in a thriving democracy, in which he asserted that art “is the process by which, in imagining itself and the relation of individuals to one another and to it, a society comes to understand itself, and by understanding, discover its possibilities of growth.”

A generation earlier, Wallace Stevens (October 2, 1879–August 2, 1955), another Pulitzer-winning poet, examined a complementary aspect of the relationship between culture and creativity in his astonishingly timely 1951 book The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination (public library | free ebook), originally delivered as a lecture at Princeton in 1942 and titled after a line from one of Stevens’s most beloved poems: “I am the necessary angel of earth, / Since, in my sight, you see the earth again, / Cleared of its stiff and stubborn, man-locked set…”

Wallace Stevens

Stevens controverts the notion that the imagination is a counterpoint to reality and instead insists that the two are in essential interplay:

The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real… There are degrees of the imagination, as, for example, degrees of vitality and, therefore, of intensity. It is an implication that there are degrees of reality.

He points to nobility as a defining characteristic of the imagination — the means by which the creative spirit protects its interior integrity from what he calls “the pressure of reality,” a pressure of immense and almost unbearable intensity today. In a passage of astounding prescience, Stevens writes in the midst of WWII and more than half a century before the present tyranny of the 24/7 news cycle:

By the pressure of reality, I mean the pressure of an external event or events on the consciousness to the exclusion of any power of contemplation.

[…]

For more than ten years now, there has been an extraordinary pressure of news — let us say, news incomparably more pretentious than any description of it, news, at first, of the collapse of our system, or, call it, of life; then of news of a new world, but of a new world so uncertain that one did not know anything whatever of its nature, and does not know now, and could not tell whether it was to be all-English, all-German, all-Russian, all-Japanese, or all-American, and cannot tell now; and finally news of a war, which was a renewal of what, if it was not the greatest war, became such by this continuation. And for more than ten years, the consciousness of the world has concentrated on events which have made the ordinary movement of life seem to be the movement of people in the intervals of a storm. The disclosures of the impermanence of the past suggested, and suggest, an impermanence of the future. Little of what we have believed has been true… It is a question of pressure, and pressure is incalculable and eludes the historian. The Napoleonic era is regarded as having had little or no effect on the poets and the novelists who lived in it. But Coleridge and Wordsworth and Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen did not have to put up with Napoleon and Marx and Europe, Asia and Africa all at one time. It seems possible to say that they knew of the events of their day much as we know of the bombings in the interior of China and not at all as we know of the bombings of London, or, rather, as we should know of the bombings of Toronto or Montreal.

Photograph by Maria Popova

With an eye to the disorientation of the transitional era in which he is writing — an era perhaps as transitional and disorienting as our own — Stevens examines the familiar helplessness of witnessing reality crumble:

Rightly or wrongly, we feel that the fate of a society is involved in the orderly disorders of the present time. We are confronting, therefore, a set of events, not only beyond our power to tranquillize them in the mind, beyond our power to reduce them and metamorphose them, but events that stir the emotions to violence, that engage us in what is direct and immediate and real, and events that involve the concepts and sanctions that are the order of our lives and may involve our very lives; and these events are occurring persistently with increasing omen, in what may be called our presence. These are the things that I had in mind when I spoke of the pressure of reality, a pressure great enough and prolonged enough to bring about the end of one era in the history of the imagination and, if so, then great enough to bring about the beginning of another.

The imagination, Stevens argues, is our mightiest survival mechanism in such tumultuous times — those endowed with a great magnitude of it are better able to withstand these crushing pressures of reality:

It is one of the peculiarities of the imagination that it is always at the end of an era. What happens is that it is always attaching itself to a new reality, and adhering to it. It is not that there is a new imagination but that there is a new reality. The pressure of reality may, of course, be less than the general pressure that I have described. It exists for individuals according to the circumstances of their lives or according to the characteristics of their minds. To sum it up, the pressure of reality is, I think, the determining factor in the artistic character of an era and, as well, the determining factor in the artistic character of an individual. The resistance to this pressure or its evasion in the case of individuals of extraordinary imagination cancels the pressure so far as those individuals are concerned.

Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo from Enormous Smallness by Matthew Burgess, a picture-book biography of E.E. Cummings and his creative bravery

From this vantage point of the imagination as an antidote to the pressure of reality, he considers the essential existential task of the creative person:

[The artist] must be able to abstract himself and also to abstract reality, which he does by placing it in his imagination… It imperative for him to make a choice, to come to a decision regarding the imagination and reality; and he will find that it is not a choice of one over the other and not a decision that divides them, but something subtler, a recognition that here, too, as between these poles, the universal interdependence exists, and hence his choice and his decision must be that they are equal and inseparable.

A century and a half after John Keats contemplated the three levels of reality, Stevens offers his own taxonomy of reality’s three stages across modern history:

First … there is the reality that is taken for granted, that is latent and, on the whole, ignored. It is the comfortable American state of life of the [eighteen] eighties, the nineties and the first ten years of the [twentieth] century. Next, there is the reality that has ceased to be indifferent, the years when the Victorians had been disposed of and intellectual minorities and social minorities began to take their place and to convert our state of life to something that might not be final. This much more vital reality made the life that had preceded it look like a volume of Ackermann’s colored plates or one of Töpfer’s books of sketches in Switzerland… Reality then became violent and so remains. This much ought to be said to make it a little clearer that in speaking of the pressure of reality, I am thinking of life in a state of violence, not physically violent, as yet, for us in America, but physically violent for millions of our friends and for still more millions of our enemies and spiritually violent, it may be said, for everyone alive.

While Stevens focuses on poetry, he uses the word “poet” much like James Baldwin did, to connote all artists. But he counters Baldwin’s notion of the artist as “a sort of emotional or spiritual historian” with his own vision of the artist as a sort of emotional or spiritual futurist. Stevens writes:

A possible poet must be a poet capable of resisting or evading the pressure of the reality of this last degree, with the knowledge that the degree of today may become a deadlier degree tomorrow.

And yet, he argues, the artist must not create out of a mere sense of social duty — any political dimension of art should be a consequence but not a cause:

Reality is life and life is society and the imagination and reality; that is to say, the imagination and society are inseparable… Yes: the all-commanding subject-matter of poetry is life, the never-ceasing source. But it is not a social obligation. One does not love and go back to one’s ancient mother as a social obligation. One goes back out of a suasion not to be denied. Unquestionably if a social movement moved one deeply enough, its moving poems would follow. No politician can command the imagination, directing it to do this or that.

Shortly after William Faulkner proclaimed in his spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech that “the poet’s, the writer’s, duty is… to help man endure by lifting his heart,” Stevens considers the ultimate function of the artist:

Certainly it is not to lead people out of the confusion in which they find themselves. Nor is it, I think, to comfort them while they follow their readers to and fro. I think that [the artist’s] function is to make his imagination theirs and that he fulfills himself only as he sees his imagination become the light in the minds of others. His role, in short, is to help people to live their lives.

Photograph by Maria Popova

But alongside this necessary fidelity to reality is also the supreme function of the artist’s imagination — the ability to transcend what is and to envision a different, better version of what could be. (Ursula K. Le Guin would speak to this splendidly in her essay on how our imaginative storytelling enlarges our scope of the possible.) Once again speaking to poetry with insight that applies equally to all creative endeavors, Stevens offers:

The poetic process is psychologically an escapist process… Since what makes the poet the potent figure that he is, or was, or ought to be, is that he creates the world to which we turn incessantly and without knowing it and that he gives to life the supreme fictions without which we are unable to conceive of it.

He returns to the notion of nobility as the central animating force of the imagination. In another passage of acute and almost tragic pertinence to our own time, in which the destructively cynical is routinely replacing the ennobling, Stevens writes:

I cannot be sure that the decline, not to say the disappearance of nobility is anything more than a maladjustment between the imagination and reality… It is not only that the imagination adheres to reality, but, also, that reality adheres to the imagination and that the interdependence is essential.

[…]

The imagination gives to everything that it touches a peculiarity, and it seems to me that the peculiarity of the imagination is nobility, of which there are many degrees. This inherent nobility is the natural source of another, which our extremely headstrong generation regards as false and decadent. I mean that nobility which is our spiritual height and depth… But there it is. The fact that it is there is what makes it possible to invite to the reading and writing of poetry men of intelligence and desire for life.

Stevens concludes with a luminous lens on the supreme duty of creative work, be it poetry or any other form of art:

For the sensitive poet, conscious of negations, nothing is more difficult than the affirmations of nobility and yet there is nothing that he requires of himself more persistently, since in them and in their kind, alone, are to be found those sanctions that are the reasons for his being and for that occasional ecstasy, or ecstatic freedom of the mind, which is his special privilege.

[…]

As a wave is a force and not the water of which it is composed, which is never the same, so nobility is a force and not the manifestations of which it is composed, which are never the same… It is not an artifice that the mind has added to human nature. The mind has added nothing to human nature. It is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality. It seems, in the last analysis, to have something to do with our self-preservation; and that, no doubt, is why the expression of it, the sound of its words, helps us to live our lives.

The Necessary Angel is a beautiful read in its entirety. Complement it with this mobilizing modern manifesto for making art in difficult times and poet Elizabeth Alexander on what sets great artists apart, then revisit Baldwin’s timeless meditation on the artist’s responsibility to society.

BP

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