“No modern poet, to my knowledge, has such a clear, child-like perception as E.E. Cummings — a way of coming smack against things with unaffected delight and wonder . . . This candor results in breathtakingly clear vision.” (S.I. Hayakawa)
When I first heard a few months ago that a new picture book biography of E. E. Cummings was being published by Enchanted Lion Books, my heart literally skipped a beat. Cummings is, after all, my all-time favorite poet. Then when I learned the book was being illustrated by Kris Di Giacomo, who did Take Away the A (one of my favorite alphabet books), it was all I could do to contain my excitement until the book finally hit shelves earlier this month.
It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.
In Enormous Smallness: A Story of E. E. Cummings, debut picture book author, scholar, educator and poet Matthew Burgess recounts Cummings’s life from his magical childhood in Cambridge, through his days at Harvard, to when he finally settled in Greenwich Village, where he lived for nearly four decades.
Kids will enjoy seeing how Cummings loved playing with words from a very early age, received lots of encouragement along the way, and found the courage to remain true to himself, ultimately becoming one of the most innovative and inventive poets of the 20th century, a true champion of individuality whose lyrical experiments with grammar, syntax, and punctuation continue to baffle and delight.
We first meet Edward Estlin as an adult, looking out the window of his apartment at 4 Patchin Place, New York City. We are invited to peek into his study, where he wrote his poems to the sound of birdsong. Downstairs, photographer and fashion model Marion Morehouse, the love of his life, rings the bell for tea. Can you think of a more auspicious beginning? 🙂
We then flash back to Cambridge to learn about Cummings’s birth and the lively house where he lived “with his mother and father, two grandmas, two aunts, one rambunctious Uncle George, his younger sister Elizabeth, the handyman Sandy Hardy, an Irish maid named Mary, a dog, a cat, a goldfish, and some rabbits.” From his bedroom window, young Estlin gazed out at the cherry and apple trees, watched the birds, and made up his first poem when he was just three:
Oh, my little birdie, Oh
With his little toe, toe, toe!
His doting mother wrote down all his poems in a little book (“Estlin’s Original Poems”), and as he grew up, with his “eyes on tiptoes,” he continued to carefully observe the world around him, drawing what he saw, and indulging his love for the sound and look of words by making poems. He liked the circus and the zoo; elephants were a particular favorite and he enjoyed playing wild games of imagination with his father.
Cummings and his family summered at Joy Farm in New Hampshire, where he was free to swim in the stream, wander the fields and forest, and write and draw in a small cabin. Back in Cambridge, Estlin and his father built a treehouse with a stove(!) where he and his friends could “pop popcorn, toast toast, and stir hot cocoa.”
At age eleven, he received encouragement for his writing from his favorite teacher, who taught him that “anything is possible as long as you are true to yourself.” Uncle George gave Estlin a guide to writing poetry for his fifteenth birthday that taught him about poetic forms and rhymes. In college he was inspired by his professors and friends, and began publishing poems in the Harvard magazines. More and more, he became “determined to live the life he imagined,” anxious to emulate modernists like Cezanne, Gertrude Stein and Stravinsky, who challenged traditional ways of thinking and experimented with artistic expression.
I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of the Imagination.
A whole new world opened up to Cummings when he moved to Greenwich Village after graduation. The city was exciting and he was taken with its “irresistibly stupendous newness.” He further broadened his horizons while volunteering as an ambulance driver in WWI France, falling in love with Paris and its many cultural offerings.
Upon returning to America, he published his first book about his war experiences, The Enormous Room (1922), and a year later, published his first book of poems, Tulips and Chimneys (1923). Although some were critical of his weird punctuation, made-up words, use of lowercase letters, and his breaking the rules of rhythm and rhyme, he remained undaunted, and continued to dream and paint with words just as he pleased for the rest of his life.
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.
The interplay between Burgess’s lyrical, lovingly crafted storytelling with its seamless integration of several Cummings poems and Di Giacomo’s clever and quirky mixed media illustrations truly captures Cummings’s child-like spirit and his love for art that feels alive on the page. I love all the different typefaces and their playful placements in each spread, as well as the muted greens, browns, blues; grays, blacks and magentas evoking Cummings’s love of nature and the big city. The story brims with just the kind of details kids love and can relate to: kite flying, circus fun, playing outdoors on long summer days, tree houses, Krazy Kat comics.
Di Giacomo’s beautifully composed pictures with their interesting details, layers, textures, and elephant and bird motifs draw the reader right into the story — each page turn is a delightful surprise. I especially love the free-floating letters of the alphabet that swirl around Cummings’s desk, rise from the open pages of his first published poetry book, and fly out of his mouth as he delivers his commencement speech. And of course there’s that wonderful picture of young ringmaster Estlin making words jump through a hoop, again showing young readers that words are living entities to be reckoned with, there are different ways of using them, and that the point is to have fun in the process.
And what of the title “Enormous Smallness”? In his Author’s Note, Burgess mentions being inspired by a quote he read from one of Cummings’s Harvard “nonlectures,” where he recalls wandering through the woods near his home in Cambridge:
Here, as a very small child, I first encountered that mystery who is Nature; here my enormous smallness entered Her illimitable being . . .
This observation is brilliantly borne out in this stunning book. One small boy with an enormous imagination and an illimitable passion to follow his dream. A small bird, an enormous elephant. A small treehouse built in an enormous tree. A poet who lived in a house on a very small street inside an enormous city. Cummings excelled at writing small poems packed with enormous meaning; he achieved this by challenging the reader to open his/her heart and think outside the box. In many ways, he remained true to the child within, snug in his “topfloorback” room, “peering out at the world above and the world below,” emulating “the little bird singing outside his window . . . And his song was his poem.”
Not only is Enormous Smallness a good introduction to Cummings for young readers, it’s a book Cummings fans of all ages will enjoy. As both a painter and a poet who used words as visual constructs, Cummings himself would have probably adored this picture book just as much as I do. 🙂
* * *
🐘 MUD-LUCIOUS AND PUDDLE WONDERFUL 🐘
“Time for Tea!”
Marion has just rung the elephant bell again, so we mustn’t keep her waiting any longer. I cannot tell you how much I love imagining her and Mr. Cummings sipping tea together in their Greenwich Village apartment.
To celebrate this wonderful book, which includes “In Just-“, the first Cummings poem I ever read, I made some Mini Mud Puddle Pies. As a card-carrying member of Fossils Anonymous, I opted for yet another shortcut, frozen pie crust. I did pick a healthy, zero trans fat whole wheat crust, rolled it out a bit, then cut 3″ diameter circles with my handy tartlet cutter (I touted the virtues of this non-stick tartlet set when I made fruit tarts for Valentine’s Day last year). If you don’t have a tartlet pan, you can use a mini-muffin pan. After pricking them with a fork, I baked these little pie shells at 325 degrees for about 14 minutes.
I made a standard fudgy filling by melting together semi-sweet chocolate, sweetened condensed milk, and a little vanilla. After the pie shells were thoroughly cooled, I simply filled them with chocolaty mud. 🙂 You can be fancy if you like by sprinkling on toasted coconut or chopped nuts, but I wanted my mud pies plain.
I’ve seen Mud Puddles elsewhere with a peanut butter cookie dough for a shell. They do sound yummy, but I didn’t make them because Len doesn’t like peanut butter cookies. Just as well we went the healthier route with a whole wheat crust. Hope you have a Mud-Lucious Puddle Wonderful tea soon!
Here’s the recipe for the filling. It makes a lot, enough to fill the equivalent of at least two frozen pie crusts. You can use any leftover mud to drizzle over ice cream. 🙂 Of course you can also make your own pie crust from scratch (Mr. Cummings would have probably sung your praises in a poem).
MUD PUDDLES FUDGY FILLING
- 1 bag (12 oz) semi-sweet chocolate chips
- 1 can (14 oz) sweetened condensed milk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
In a microwaveable bowl or double boiler, melt chocolate chips, condensed milk and vanilla until smooth and spoonable.
Fill each mini crust with fudge mixture using 2 spoons, or pipe it in with an icing bag and large decorating tip.
* * *
ENORMOUS SMALLNESS: A Story of E. E. Cummings
written by Matthew Burgess
illustrated by Kris Di Giacomo
published by Enchanted Lion Books, April 2015
Picture Book Biography for ages 4+, 64 pp.
*Includes 5 poems, Author’s Note, and Chronology
**Starred Review from Kirkus**
♥ My Cummings Birthday Post (with black bean soup) is here.
♥ I wrote about Cummings the poet and painter here.
* * *
The beautiful and talented Renee LaTulippe is hosting the Roundup today at No Water River. Ride your elephant over there and check out all the delicious poetic offerings being shared in the blogosphere this week.
Copyright © 2015 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.