J. V. Cunningham Analysis

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J. V. Cunningham Analysis

(Poets and Poetry in America)

J. V. Cunningham’s small but distinguished corpus of poetry (he preferred to call it verse) challenges many modern assumptions. In an age dominated by freer forms, he devoted himself to meter, fixed stanzas, and—more often than not—rhyme. His poems are taut, plain, and philosophical, with the feeling tightly controlled. The proportion of general statement to sensory detail is high, as is that of abstract words to concrete and imagistic language. Although he eschewed the self as the focus of lyric, he had a highly proprietary attitude toward his poems, insisting that they belonged essentially to him rather than to his readers. He appeared quite content to reach a relatively select readership capable of appreciating the subtlety and precision of his work. In both theory and practice, he went his own way, often in contradistinction to, sometimes in defiance of, the norms of twentieth century lyric.

The Collected Poems and Epigrams of J. V. Cunningham

As a scholar trained in the Greek and Latin classics and in English Renaissance poetry, he brought the predilections of his favorite literary periods to his own verse. His classicism emerges in a number of ways. Cunningham’s favorite form, the epigram, was perfected in Latin by Martial in the first century c.e. and in English by Ben Jonson early in the seventeenth century. More than half the poems in The Collected Poems and Epigrams of J. V. Cunningham are termed epigrams, while a number of others have epigrammatic qualities. Although he called only one of his poems an ode, a number of others fall within the tradition of the Horatian ode. He frequently imitates—or rather seeks English equivalents for—Latin stanzas and meters. It is no accident that his favorite stanzas, like those of Horace in his odes, are quatrains, sometimes with the contours and movement of the Roman poet’s Alcaic meter, and couplets, which were Martial’s and Jonson’s preferred way of rendering the terse and witty statements of epigram.

Another aspect of his classicism is his fondness for Latin titles such as “Agnosco Veteris Vestigia Flammae” (I recognize the traces of an old flame), “Timor Dei” (the fear of God), and “Lector Aere Perennior.” The last of these illustrates his penchant for allusion, as it appropriates a famous Horatian phrase about poetry being a monument more lasting than bronze and applies it to the lector, the reader of the poetry. Wittily manipulating a Latin commonplace about the fame of poets, some basic concepts of medieval Scholasticism, and Pythagoras’s theory of the transmigration of souls, Cunningham argues that the poet’s immortality inheres not in the poet, who, except as a name, is forgotten, but in the reader—in each successive reader for whom the poem comes to life again. Adapting phrases from Horace is one of his favorite ploys. Horace wrote odi profanum vulgus (“I hate the common crowd”); Cunningham, “I like the trivial, vulgar, and exalted.” He also appropriates the old but relatively rare Latinate word haecceity, meaning “thisness,” to express his own theory that the preoccupation with any particular “this” is evil.

Often, he takes advantage of Latin roots to extend meaning. One of his lines in “All Choice Is Error”—“Radical change, the root of human woe!”— reminds the reader that “radical” means root. His poem “Passion” requires for its full effect an awareness that patior (whose past participle, passus, provides the basis of the English word) means “suffer,” that patior is a passive verb (he calls passion “love’s passive form”), and that the medieval derivation passio was used not only in theological discourse, referring to Christ’s suffering, but also in philosophical discourse, to indicate that which is passive or acted on. Sometimes his employment of etymology is very sly, as in his phrase “mere conservative,” where, clued by his awareness that “conservative” is an honorific to Cunningham, the reader...

(The entire section is 3,880 words.)