Edward Estlin Cummings was born on October 14, 1894 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He made up his first poem when he was three. His mother would record his poems in a little book called “Estlin’s Original Poems.”
He also invented new words for his poems.
Cummings had a teacher that encouraged him in his writing, and an uncle who gave him a guide to writing poems called The Rhymester which became one of his most cherished possessions. The Poetry Foundation reports: “Between the ages of eight and twenty-two, he wrote a poem a day, exploring many traditional poetic forms.”
Estlin served in World War I, and published a fictionalized account of his experiences in 1922. It was called “The Enormous Room.” A year later, he published his first book of poems. As the author observes:
“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!”
Typical poems by cummings placed words all over the page. He changed grammatical rules to meet his needs. Burgess observes in the Author’s Note:
“In many ways, Cummings was a champion of the small. He wrote about birds, grasshoppers, snowflakes, and other everyday pleasures. He frequently used lowercase letters, and he became famous for his use of the small ‘i.’ At a time when many of his contemporaries believed it was necessary to write a ‘long poem’ to become established as a major poet, Cummings preferred smaller forms.”
The author further explains that because of Estlin’s love for lowercase letters, he began to sign his name all in lowercase, so that he became e.e. cummings.
At the end of the book, there is a timeline, some examples of his poems, and an author’s note.
Illustrator Kris Di Giacomo uses multimedia and wordplay of her own to show the imaginative ways cummings experimented with form. She used a typewriter typeface to distinguish cummings’ words from the author’s narration.
The author explains that cummings ran into a lot of resistance for his unique rendering of words into art, but he “went right on dreaming and making. For inside, he knew his poems were new and true.” In time, the author informs us, “more and more people came to see the beauty of E.E.’s poetry, and he became one of the most beloved poets in America.”
Evaluation: I’m not sure the author picked the best poems to introduce cummings to children, but at the very least, Burgess shows the creative ways in which the poet’s words were arrayed on a page. The books conveys a couple of positive messages: that sometimes to make advances one needs to think outside the box, and that courage and persistence can pay off in the end. My own personal favorite by this poet I think has appeal for both children and adults:
a doll wired
to the radiator of his
icecoalwood truck a
whom somebody buried
upsidedown in an ashbarrel so
of course dominic
& mrs dominic washed his sweet
face & mended
his bright torn trousers (quite
as if he were really her &
‘s how dominic has a doll
& every now and then my
friend dominic depaola
gives me a most tremendous hug
we & worlds
than dolls &
Published by Enchanted Lion Books, 2015