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9. Portrait of the artist as a complex man: Engagement and discovery in picturebook biographies of poets’ lives

Maria Casado Villanueva (1982) is Associate Professor in English at the University of South-Eastern Norway. Her latest publication is: “Using film for intercultural learning” in Teaching and learning english interculturally (2020, edited by M. Dypedahl and R. Lund)

In this chapter, I examine two biographical picturebooks: A river of words: The story of William Carlos Williams (2008) and Enormous smallness: A story of E.E. Cummings (2013). I try to show how these books both convey information and provide an aesthetic experience that helps readers experience and understand modernist poetry, as well as question traditional understandings of biography and identity.

Keywords: picturebook, biography, Cummings, Williams, modernism


The boundaries between fact, craft, and fiction have always been blurred in literary biography (Benton, 2009). When the account is of the life of an artist, and the format chosen that of a picturebook, this hybrid quality is even more obvious. In this chapter, I examine two biographical picturebooks: A river of words: The story of William Carlos Williams (Bryant and Sweet, 2008) and Enormous smallness: A story of E.E. Cummings (Burgess & Di Giacomo, 2013). These works celebrate the artistry and personalities of the eponymous American poets. They deal with biographical facts (dates and historical events) but they also aid readers to access the literary production of these authors, representatives of American Modernism.

A phenomenon both embedded in and reacting to a complex historical moment, modernism was influenced by a number of discourses: psychoanalysis; philosophical theories of time, space, memory, and interiority; technology; other arts and forms of popular culture, such as films and advertising. At times deliberately complex, at times deceptively simple, modernist texts responded to a desire to show the inadequacy of the aesthetics of romanticism and realism, which failed to represent the experience of the modern human being. This “crisis of representation” became a defining element of the movement (Lewis, 2007, p. 3) and often resulted in texts that were “self-contained rather than representational” (Childs, 2007, p. 19). The modernist period offers instances of what Roland Barthes term “writerly” texts, those texts which must not be passively consumed but crave a specially active participation of the reader to interpret them. Such interpretation does not require to ascribe “a (more or less justified, more or less free) meaning” to the text but “on the contrary to appreciate what plural constitutes it” (Barthes, 1973/2002, p. 5).

A river of words and Enormous Smallness present a number of differences in terms of design, pictorial style, and textual rhetoric, but I want to focus on the common strategies they use both to foster the engagement of potential readers and to help them understand and enjoy the complexities of Williams’ and Cummings’ work. I will mostly concentrate on the biographical accounts, and some doublespreads will be the object of closer examination. Occasionally, however, I will also refer to paratextual elements such as titles and covers.

According to Maria Nikolajeva (2014), texts may possess a number of features which “optimise” the readers’ engagement, that is, their cognitive and affective involvement with text, their desire to comprehend and enjoy it (p. 4). Firstly, I will analyse how these picturebooks achieve this goal verbally and visually, by making use of conventional narrative and characterization techniques and evoking elements which are familiar to the readers. Secondly, I argue how through the fragmentary organization of the visual space these books also invite readers to abandon fluid reading. They exploit the possibilities of multimodality to present the authors’ work in innovative ways but without directing interpretation, mirroring the very process of discovery that modernist literature requires from the readers. The estrangement of language and kaleidoscopic visuals promote a form of reading that has been termed by Julie Taylor (2018) as “childish reading”, a process opposed to a reading guided by the desire of finding out a logic a univocal meaning behind the text.1 Finally, by challenging the readers’ views about issues such as objective reality and identity, I consider how these picturebooks can be regarded as examples of what Michael Benton (2009) calls biomythographies, life accounts which problematize their own status as biographies. In this way, I argue that these books exemplify the inadequacy of the literary-didactic split which has traditionally articulated discussions of children’s literature. Factual information is not the only source of knowledge, but the aesthetic experience these books provide can be regarded in itself as a form of knowledge acquisition. The enjoyment derived from the exploration of these books’ art can help readers to understand how art and literature work and how we respond to them (Nikolajeva, 2014, p. 226).

Engaging the Reader

A river of words and Enormous smallness deploy a number of strategies to engage the audience, by evoking familiar forms of literature and fostering empathy towards the stories’ protagonists. Firstly, several verbal and pictorial elements conform to the readers’ notions of a traditional biographical narrative. Following the title spread, A river of words presents, on the left-hand page, a framed portrait (realistic although stylized) of a mature Williams looking at the readers.2 This close-up of an amiable face engages them through proximity and eye contact. On the right-hand page, we can read the opening lines of one of Williams’ poems: “When I was younger it was plain to me I must make something of myself” (Bryant & Sweet, 2008, doublespread 2). The lines express an ambition which invites the reader to turn the page and witness this process of personal development. The visual and verbal elements of this first doublespread, together with the book’s subtitle (“The story of William Carlos Williams”), conform to the traditional view of a biography as a narrative equivalent to a realistic portrait.

Enormous smallness also opens with a frequently quoted sentence by E.E. Cummings: “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are” (Burgess & Di Giacomo, 2013, doublespread 1), a message very much in line with that conveyed in many books and films addressed to young audiences. The epigraphs chosen to open both these biographies create the expectations of coming-of-age stories, with characters worth emulating, as they seem to want to develop their potential, in the case of Williams, or search for their true selves, in the case of Cummings. These epigraphs also suggest a unified and coherent idea of identity as something to be discovered in an individual process of maturation.

In the successive doublespreads, the reader is further engaged with familiar narrative threads which evoke well-known childhood readings. The first pages of A river of words introduce Williams as a playful child, refer to the author with a familiar form of his given name and underline the affinities between him and a potential young audience: “Like the other boys in Rutherford, New Jersey, Willie Williams liked to play baseball and to race his friends up and down the street”. We are then introduced to those qualities which made him special, such as his liking for solitude and ability to observe nature. Passages of poetic prose and onomatopoeia evoke child-language and classic childhood readings: “When he grew tired he stretched out beside the Passaic River, Gurgle, gurgle, swish swoosh! – Gurgle gurgle. The Water went slipping and sliding over the smooth rocks, then poured in torrent over the falls…” (Bryant & Sweet, 2008, doublespread 3).

In Enormous smallness, Cumming’s life story opens with a well-known folktale formula in rhymed verse that explicitly addresses the reader. “Inside an enormous city/in a house on a very small street/there once lived a poet/I would like you to meet” (Burgess & Di Giacomo, 2013, doublespread 3). The verses are subsumed in the image of a street that runs in front of the reader. The implication is that readers are ushered along this road by the knowledgeable narrative voice. In the left-hand page of the next doublespread (4), a friendly-looking Cummings leans out of a window while the text invites the reader to peek inside his room (“peek inside and you will see/where ee writes his poetry”) of which a fragment can be seen on the right-hand page. The focalization of the next doublespread (5) places the reader in Cummings’ position, on a chair in front of his typewriter (of the author, only the hands can be seen) in a harmonious domestic environment, with his wife calling him to tea.

Thus, in both picturebooks, texts and images contribute to underline elements of familiarity and domesticity; and the poets are presented as everymen. Stylistically, the verbal elements recall childhood readings such as nursery rhymes and fairy tales abounding in repetition, alliteration, and rhyme, devices characteristic of traditional forms of poetry with which even unexperienced readers may be familiar.

In successive pages, these picturebooks deal with the poets’ early creative experiences, and the role that teachers and schooling had in their artistic blossoming. In A river of words, the reader witnesses a young Williams, inspired by school, writing his first poem (see Fig. 9.1). The text reproduces the poem in the same font that is used throughout the book, while the picture draws the reader into the creative process. The reader is positioned in place of the character and can see exactly what the young Williams would see – his hand, his school notebook, and his childish handwriting. In the next page, that shows a picture similar to the initial presentation of Cummings, the text articulates Williams’ thoughts: “I want to write about ordinary things”. This information is paraphrased within a speech bubble in the illustration. These words are presented to the reader as an explicit manifesto, in simple language, of what his poetry would become; they announce the trend which would later be named Imagism.

Figure 9.1

A river of words: The story of William Carlos Williams (2008), by Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet. Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.

Reproduced with permission.

Similarly, Enormous smallness depicts Cummings at three years composing his first poem (see Fig. 9.2). An endearing, rather stylized portrayal of the poet as a young child and the melody and simplicity of Burgess’ poetic text matches the language of Cummings’ first-ever creation.

Figure 9.2

Enormous smallness: A story of E.E. Cummings (2013), by Matthew Burgess and Kris Di Giacomo. Enchanted Lion Books.

Reproduced with permission.Special thanks to Enchanted Lion Books for allowing the use of images free of charge.

In both picturebooks, the poetic quality of the text, as well as the depictions of the characters’ earliest incursions into creativity, can easily be linked to readers’ own experience of poetry, with what they know about conventional stanzas and sound patterns. This can help an audience of people unfamiliar with modernism to more easily fathom the principles guiding Williams’ and Cummings’ artistic development – from familiar patterns to a progressive adherence to modernist aesthetics. Evoking apparently unsophisticated forms of poetry, as Enormous smallness does, can also help the reader to link these with the poet’s later production, which in many cases retains an element of seemingly infantile simplicity. Interestingly, both books use profuse pictorial representations of windows as visual metaphors of their intention both to draw readers into the poets’ intimate space and to show them the ways in which Williams and Cummings projected their original poetic gaze onto the outer world.

Challenging the Reader

Parallel to the technique of introducing readers to the stories through familiar narrative structures which emphasize the coherence of a linear biographical account, the creators of these books employ design and illustration techniques, based on juxtaposition and discontinuity. In A river of words, after Williams’ explicit declaration of intention commented on above, successive doublespreads alternate sides of illustrated biographical information with pictorial designs that contain Williams’ poems or quotes. In Enormous smallness, Cummings’ own words are an integral part of the illustrations throughout the book. It is no coincidence that both Melissa Sweet and Kris Di Giacomo use collage or collage-like techniques, and their artwork clearly foregrounds the aesthetic concerns of the poetry of Williams and Cummings respectively.

As Elina Druker (2018) observes in her discussion of collage in picturebooks, this technique often invites the reader/viewer to see common objects in unfamiliar contexts, implicitly vindicating the capacity of the ordinary thing to become a subject of aesthetic creation, an intention very much in line with the ideas that Williams expressed in the doublespread commented on above. Sweet, the illustrator of A river of words, explains how challenging it was to find the right technique to celebrate Williams’ poetry. She finally decided that using endpapers of discarded books in collages seemed to be the most suitable way of conveying Williams’ “era and the modern art of his time that was so influential to [him]” (Bryant & Sweet, 2008, illustrator note). The technique is especially well-suited because modernist writers, specifically imagists, usually included in their writing fragments of different discourses, advertisements, newspapers, and magazines. Williams’ epic work Paterson, for example, alternates poems and a variety of different documents in what has been called a “collage-like” structure (MacGowan, 2004, p. 271). This intertextual quality, Giovanna Epifania (2012) observes, gave the texts “a degree of spatiality on the page, a pictorial dimension similar to the collage technique because verbal fragments emerging from diverse sources and times [were] conflated and juxtaposed in a non-linear progression” (p. 60). Similarly, the picturebooks invite a “childish reading” of the visually loaded doublespreads, a delight in the profusion of detail, which results in a breakage of the logical development of the narrative.

At the same time, if visual collage calls attention to the materiality of the work of art, modernist literary collage brought forward the materiality of literature and the iconicity and phonic material of the word itself, making explicit the modernist concern with the referential limitations of art (Perloff, 1983, p. 10). This was a central element in Cummings’ poetry. In Enormous smallness we find several examples where letters are scattered around the picture and where their graphic representation as well as the onomatopoeic quality of words is brought to the fore, such as a doublespread where a very young Cummings enjoys orchestrating a circus of words, coining and merging them playfully. The verbal text reads: “Estlin Loved Words, what words say and how they sound and look he loved the way they hum, buzz pop and swish. Estlin also liked to invent new words like this one: wash-ho zephyr. And he squished others together, like this ‘beamhamegg’” (Burgess & Di Giacomo, 2013, doublespread 10). The words’ placement and the choice of fonts help to visualize their semantic content; for example, the double vowel “oo” in “look” is used to frame an elephant’s eyes. This diverts the attention of the reader from meaning to form resulting in a “playful awareness of words” also typical of childish reading (Watson cited in Taylor, 2018, p. 351).

Thus, A river of words and Enormous smallness, apart from being life narratives, engage with the work of Williams and Cummings in ways which seem to range from literary interpretation to adaptation and appropriation. They also deploy the possibilities of the pictorial to bring forward the close relationship between modernist poetry and visual art. The ways these books integrate poems on the page and combine them with visual elements is especially relevant, since in early modernism, when aesthetic tendencies changed rapidly, the influence of the visual arts was key in the development of poetry. Both artists and public saw these forms of expression as part of the same project of artistic renovation (Diepeveen, 2014) and Williams himself once wondered:

What were we searching for? No one knew consistently enough to formulate a ‘movement’. We were restless and constrained, closely allied with the painters. Impressionism, dadaism, surrealism applied to both painting and the poem. … The immediate image, which was impressionistic, sure enough, fascinated us all. (Williams, 1967, p. 148)

There is a doublespread in A river of words which deals explicitly with the relationship between Williams’ poetry and the pictorial (see Fig. 9.3). In the left-hand page, the text offers a brief account of Williams’ cultural activities during his university years and his interest in the paintings of the period (doublespread 10).

Figure 9.3

A river of words: The story of William Carlos Williams (2008), by Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet. Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.

Reproduced with permission.

The clear verbal information is combined with an illustration which provides a number of references to external sources that would escape anyone unfamiliar with the modernist movement, evidencing the fact that the book addresses multiple audiences. They spark the interest of knowledgeable readers and engage them in an intertextual game which, again, frustrates any attempt to find a stable meaning in these allusions.

In front of a framed Matisse-like still life the reader can recognize Williams from previous portraits and will identify the other three figures as the people referred to above as his friends. Ezra Pound would only be identified from his appearance if the reader was familiar with his eccentric hairstyle. Representative quotations from these artists’ works have been integrated in the picture, inside speech bubbles. Nevertheless, the sources are only referenced at the end, together with the book publication details and would not help most readers to identify the characters or interpret the image beyond the statement phrased above; “friends … discussing art, and enjoying together”.

Most interestingly, the interplay between pictorial art and poetry commented on here is further exemplified in the opposite page, which reproduces one of Williams’ more visual poems without including any information related to its composition, publication or interpretation. This poem, which came to be known as “The Great Figure”, sought to convey the effect that the unexpected passing of a fire truck had on Williams on one occasion. He described the composition as the record of a “sudden and forceful” impression (Williams, 1967, p. 172). The poem is a perfect example of the modernist concepts represented by Williams’ quotation on the previous page (“no ideas but in things”), and of the graphic quality of his poetry. It concentrates on a unique, dominant image, an everyday non-poetic object. Onomatopoeic words emphasize a sonorous quality but there is no figurative language at play, and lines are short and sharp. The visual element is preeminent: first perceived only as the figure 5 in gold, the fire truck comes into focus as the vehicle speeds down the street. The poem is influenced by futurism and its attempts to reflect pictorially the dynamism and chaotic movement of modern life. In A river of words the verses of the reproduced poem are crammed between surrounding scraps of paper. Some elements of this collage are words in the poem and it is difficult for the reader to establish the boundaries between text and a background of reds, pinks and several representations of the number “five”, in both words and figures. This design can be regarded as a multimodal interpretation of the poem; colours and repeated figures create an effect of chaos which reinforces the impressions conveyed by the words. Moreover, this collage is also an interpictorial reference to a painting by Williams’ friend Charles Demuth, based on this poem and called “I saw a great figure” (1928). In Demuth’s work, inspired by Futuristic and Cubist aesthetics, the number five appears concentrically and becomes gradually smaller in a discontinuous surface that evokes the trucks’ movement away from the viewer.

Thus, this doublespread consists of one page offering an account of Williams’ activities as a student and his relationship with artists of the period while the other, in juxtaposition, shows an example of the result of this relationship. However, the readers are left to their own devices to create the connection. Moreover, very few of them will be able to establish the intertextual links invoked by the quotes in the speech bubbles. For most of them, these words will remain enigmatic, and the reference to Demuth’s painting unclear. Significantly, however, all of them will experience fragments of textual and visual impressions that are much like the way in which Williams perceived the modern world and reflected it in his poems.

This “visual turn” in poetry was not limited to intertextual relations between individual works (as is the case of Williams and Demuth’s mutual inspiration). It also resulted in deep changes in the physical appearance of the poetry itself (Diepeveen, 2014, p. 45) and the form of the poem on the page also became part of the poetic expression. This ludic use of the written word became a key element in Cummings’ poetry. He (who had also published a collection of visual art) wrote in 1960, “not all of my poems are to be read aloud – some … are to be seen & not heard” (Cummings, 1969, p. 267). At one point, he even wanted each of his poems printed on a separate page because, “with a few exceptions, my poems are essentially pictures” (Cummings quoted in Norman, 1972, pp. 288–289).

Enormous smallness addresses this feature explicitly in another doublespread where, not unlike the one in A river of words we have just discussed, a poem exemplifies the information contained in the verbal text (see Fig. 9.4). The latter is subsumed in the picture and imitates the pictorial quality of Cummings’ poems.

Figure 9.4

Enormous smallness: A story of E.E. Cummings (2013), by Matthew Burgess and Kris Di Giacomo. Enchanted Lion Books.

Reproduced with permission.

The words are printed in different fonts and sizes which help visualize their meaning, and the language Burgess uses, like Cummings’, relies on surprising devices (like the expression “eyes being on tiptoes”). In the illustration, a number of people express, in speech bubbles, some of the criticisms of Cummings’ poetry. One of these detractors is holding a paper where one of Cummings’ visual poems is reproduced in its entirety. The caricaturized faces of these scandalized people, noses in the air, will encourage the readers to turn their sympathy towards the poem and its author. Like “The Great Figure”, this poem is about the visual impression left on Cummings by the colourful clouds in the sky. As in Williams’ work, this poem is eminently sensorial, and the image of the locomotive spouting violets is, like the fire engine, representative of progress and modernity.

The manner in which Cummings displayed the words on the page is one of his ways of defamiliarizing language; it is a visual counterpart to his fracturing of lexical, grammatical, and syntactic rules. These strategies evidence the active participation on the part of the reader to create meaning(s) required by the modernist text. Significantly, in Enormous smallness the disposition of the words of the poem as found in most anthologies is altered. There are wider spaces between words, which emphasize the effect of fragmentation and make the interpretive process even harder (this effect may also suggest a human silhouette).

The Problem of Representation

The biographical account in both A river of words and in Enormous smallness is thus frequently interrupted by and juxtaposed with the characters’ poetic work, as in the examples analysed above. Although the narrative thread is present until the poets reach maturity and there is always an emphasis on their moral integrity, the books’ narrative fragmentation emphasizes the artistic dimension of literary biographies and their “uncomfortable position between factual and fictional truth” (Benton, 2009, p. xiv). These picturebooks celebrate these authors’ lives while making explicit that these stories are creative endeavours and this could invite competent readers to reconsider their own ideas about biography and historical truth. Michael Benton (2009) uses the term “biomythography” to denote a type of life account that “subvert[s] any concept of life-writing based on a simplistic account of supposed ‘facts’” (p. xvii). Biomythographies have paradoxical effects: they contribute to creating and perpetuating myths, but also expose the myth-making process by reminding us that documentation is always incomplete and life is too “elusive” to be narrated without imagination (Denzin and Runyan cited in Benton, 2009, p. 48). In this sense, A river of words and Enormous smallness could be considered examples of biomythography; in fact, Enormous smallness explicitly questions the official status of its own narrative through the use of the indefinite article in its subtitle: “A story of E.E. Cummings”.

Moreover, the fragmentariness of these life accounts also problematizes the satisfactory sense of the self that the initial epigraphs evoke. Indeed, the patchy effect derived from the books’ narrative structures, as well as from their pictorial technique and design, contributes to presenting identity as a discontinuous notion, much in line with what the poets’ own work reflects. In his poems, Williams refers to himself in ways that have been described as “cubist portraits” (Sborgi, 2007, p. 274); similarly, Cummings makes reference to his “so many selves, so many fiends and gods”, the poetic persona being a “fool who calls him[self] I” (Cummings, 1991, p. 609). In his prose works, he explicitly addresses the inconsistency of this “I” through a number of aliases. The last doublespread of Enormous smallness is an attempt to find wholeness by reconciling his present self with the child he once was: “As an old man, Edward Estlin Cummings often remembered his childhood days in the lively house on Irvin Street. He could still see himself as boy gazing out at the sunset…”. However, the poem chosen to close the biography contains an interrogative note which questions the “I” which the initial quotation had taken for granted: “who are you, little i [sic]/(five or six years old)….” (Burgess & Di Giacomo, 2013, doublespread 25). These complex appraisals of the self are visually represented by two similar images: in A river of words, the cover illustration, where Williams’ silhouette is fragmented in a collage of printed letters and poems; and in Enormous smallness, a final picture of Cummings’ silhouette filled with ethereal clouds.


The artists and writers involved in the creation of these two biographical picturebooks manage to deal with the tensions between coherent and satisfactory presentations of the poets’ artistic and personal development and the expression of the fragmentary experience which their poetry reflects. They favour the readers’ engagement by using different verbal and visual strategies to draw them into these life narratives and adopt positive responses toward the protagonists and their poetry. They are also explicitly didactical in presenting biographical facts and comments on the form and meaning of Williams’ and Cummings’ poems. However, by fragmenting the stories and visually reinterpreting the poets’ work, these picturebooks provide an aesthetic experience that may make readers more receptive to the impressionistic quality of modernist poetics. Like the authors’ poems, their doublespreads invite playful exploration, thwarting any attempt to find unambiguous meaning. Ultimately, they may encourage readers to reflect on the ways they experience the world, and lead them to question their understandings of a life account and of identity.


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Burgess, M. & Di Giacomo, K. (Illustrator) (2013). Enormous smallness: A story of E.E. Cummings. New York, NY: Enchanted Lion Books.

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Perloff, M. (1983). The invention of collage. New York Literary Forum, 10–11, 5–47.

Sborgi, A. V. (2007). Between literature and the visual arts: Portraits of the self in William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, and Fernando Pessoa. In H. Carvalhão Buescu & J. Ferreira Duarte (Eds.), Stories and portraits of the self (pp. 267–281). Amsterdam: Rodopi.

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1In her exploration of Gertrude Stein’s First Reader Taylor draws on Eve Kosofki Sedwick’s notion of “reparative reading” as opposed “suspicious” or “paranoid” reading (obsessed with deciphering clues and finding meaning, and averse to surprise) and on J. Halberstam’s idea that the child as the ideal reparative reader. Taylor then makes a difference between the “childlike” vision (pure and refreshing) and the “childish” one, stubborn resistance to normative (adult) ways of reading, and argues that Stein’s reader is a celebration of the later.
2Pages are not numbered in neither of the two picturebooks analysed. When necessary, I will refer to the number of the doublespread counting from the next after the endpaper.
3Special thanks to Enchanted Lion Books for allowing the use of images free of charge.

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