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

This blog post is a repost from the amazing Brain Pickings – a blog well worth following.

I have loved E. E Cummings ever since hearing “She Being Brand New” recited in the 1988 film ‘Plain Clothes‘.  Cummings, a contemporary of other favourites such as Hemingway, uses words-as-pictures to the most effective end.


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

Paraphrased from an article by

It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are. In a Cummings poem, the reader must often pick his way toward comprehension, which comes, when it does, in a burst of delight and recognition.

Susan Cheever wrote in her  biography of E. E. Cummings,

Enormous Smallness: A Story of E. E. Cummings  is an uncommonly delightful picture-book celebration of Cummings’s life by Brooklyn-based poet Matthew Burgess, illustrated by Kris Di Giacomo.

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.

Read the full article at www.brainpickings.org

John Ruskin the man who Couldn’t

John Ruskin was a Victorian polymath and genius. Renowned during his own lifetime he was a leading English art critic, draughtsman, watercolourist, social thinker and philanthropist.

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Celebrated for his lectures at Oxford he wrote on subjects ranging from geology, architecture, myth, ornithology, literature, education, botany and political economics.

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Ruskin penned essays, poetry, travel guides, letters and even a fairy tale. In all of his writing, he emphasised the connections between nature, art and society.


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He also made detailed sketches and paintings of rocks, plants, birds, landscapes, and architectural structures and ornamentation. He argued that the principal role of the artist is “truth to nature”.

He also championed the Pre-Raphaelites who were influenced by his ideas.

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His work later focused on social and political issues and he founded the Guild of St. George, a cratfsmans guild that endures today.

However, Ruskin was unhappy in love.

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He married 19 year old Effie Gray in 1848 and she filed for anulment of their marriage only 6 years later on the grounds of non-consummation.

In a letter to her parents she wrote:

He alleged various reasons, hatred of children, religious motives, a desire to preserve my beauty, and finally this last year he told me his true reason… that he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening 10th April [1848].

The Ruskin’s marriage is portrayed in the 2014 film, written by Emma Thompson Effie Gray. 

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Ruskin is portrayed as a stiff and absent husband, coddled by overbearing parents, who only cares for his books and lectures, and uncaring of his young,  vivacious and pretty wife.

Other theories suppose Ruskin was only acquainted by the nude bodies of Greek and Roman statues and so horrified by the reality of his wife’s nakedness and pubic hair.

Other accounts tell of his love for young girls between the ages of 9-17 years. Indeed in a letter to his doctor he wrote:

I like my girls from ten to sixteen—allowing of 17 or 18 as long as they’re not in love with anybody but me.—I’ve got some darlings of 8—12—14—just now, and my Pigwiggina here—12—who fetches my wood and is learning to play my bells.

Nevertheless, Effie left him and married Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais, a disciple of Ruskin’s. They had 8 children together.

Ruskin never remarried.

Perhaps Ruskin’s life was one of profound and deep sorrow. The genius of the Romantic era, a man full of admiration for beauty, truth and nature, had no success in love.

Or perhaps he loved ideas more than he loved the reality he lived.