J. V. Cunningham Cunningham, J(ames) V(incent) (Vol. 3) - Essay

Cunningham, J(ames) V(incent) (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Cunningham, J(ames) V(incent) 1911–

Cunningham is a distinguished American poet. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

J. V. Cunningham is looking at the modern world from the standpoint of traditional modes of writing, and principally from those of the eighteenth century. He evidently feels himself pulled together and helped by regular metrical patterns and rhymes, reassured and bolstered by form as it has been defined and exemplified by generations of writers before him; one imagines him as a man who would probably feel dismayed and even terrified if ordered, under pain of death, to write in free verse. He knows his limitations, and often one feels that he concedes entirely too much to them: there is, after all, a poetry of opening-out and going-beyond as well as one of compression and concision. But as a compressor, as a coupleteer, as a fastidious and mordant wit, a man who makes interesting dwellings of the neat cells of the couplet and the quatrain, he is hard to beat….

Cunningham is a good, deliberately small and authentic poet, a man with tight lips, a good education, and his own agonies. [To What Strangers, What Welcome] should be read, and above all by future Traditionalists and Compressors; he is their man.

James Dickey, "J. V. Cunningham" (1965), in his Babel to Byzantium (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, by James Dickey), Farrar, Straus, 1968, pp. 193-94.

When a major poet adopts a new style it is always an event of considerable importance. J. V. Cunningham is a major poet, and To What Strangers, What Welcome is an important book. The syllabic meter, in which about one-third of the poems are written, is the book's most distinctive feature. The meter is very popular just now but is rarely written well, perhaps because it is so easy to write (one only need count syllables). But good poems have been written in the meter, and it has distinct properties which should be recognized….

Although not all the poems in the sequence are written in syllabics, it is an odd fact that some of those poems apparently written in standard meter resemble the ones in syllabics….

Experience and its understanding for Cunningham often appear to be separate phenomena. One has an experience, then one understands it. Writing of the poet he has said, "his opponent is experience." And the journey in To What Strangers seems to be a metaphor for the confrontation of experience, or the quest of sensibility; the return home, then, the renunciation of the lover, is for the sake of the intelligence. But if experience and understanding are separate, it is nevertheless interesting that in these poems he presents the reader with much more of the experience than he had formerly done, and the specificity gives power to the middle and end of the sequence….

A curious and disturbing assumption that seems to underlie these poems is that a poem must deal with only one subject at a time. If one is an epigrammatist, as Cunningham is, this is certainly true: one limits his subject closely and brings it sharply into focus in a short, incisive poem. Nevertheless, Cunningham, while using the methods of the short poem, seems to wish for a wider scope, a less limited subject; commenting on the sequence he refers to Boethius and Dante and addresses himself to the problem of making the short poem longer. This he attempts to do by an implicit plot, sometimes, I think, too vaguely implied. To see what may be accomplished by the method one should study To What Strangers carefully, but one should be alert to its dangers: there are weak but necessary poems in the sequence, and even the best ones depend so heavily on the plot that they cannot quite stand alone.

In the early poetry one usually gets a precise abstract statement concerning the experience, but one gets little of the experience itself. In the later sequence, however, one has an abbreviation of the actual encounter. While dealing with the necessity of choosing between the abstraction and the experience Cunningham here seems to be employing more of the sensory world and comes closer to defining a relationship between the two which is not based on exclusion. The style is new to Cunningham, both in regard to methods of writing individual poems and in regard to the kinds of perceptions involved. And whereas one may prefer the precision of his earlier work, as I do, one should recognize the achievement of this book.

Kenneth Fields, in The Southern Review, Vol. 3, No. 2, Spring 1967, pp. 563-68.

"While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening toward empire" [says Robinson Jeffers] and Norman Mailer slouches towards Bethlehem to be born, we have dire need of someone who speaks for sanity and decorum (Cunningham is not hopelessly decorous!) and prosecutes with decisive wit some prevailing complacencies of modernism and certain indiscretions which have taken place in the history of ideas…. [In Cunningham's] collected poems—their paucity is a tribute to the courage with which he must have sacrificed many peccable lines—there are … dark reminiscences of waste places (the Montana poems), odes in the Latin or Metaphysical manner, personal lyrics of singular, compassionate irony (the entire sequence, "To What Strangers, What Welcome," is remarkably versatile in mood, form and accent), and ferocious little parodies that burn the skin. Everywhere he is erudite with ease, euphonic without fortissimo, conservative without foregoing the particular impish (indeed waspish) note that only existence in our swift-declining, vociferous century can supply.

Vernon Young, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1972 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXIV, No. 4, Winter, 1971–72, pp. 682-83.

[Cunningham's] own poetry is Jonsonesque. I do not hesitate to pin it down more narrowly: the characteristic Cunningham poem is a direct development from Jonson's Underwoods, or rather from the short poems of that collection. He has the same lightness of touch, the same half-smiling sorrow, the same awareness of the ideative content of life…. Yet there is nothing antiquarian about Cunningham's usage, and this apparently must be emphasized since many readers today feel that no one can imitate the poetry of the past without betraying the present. Cunningham is a scholar, like all poets he is in some sense an imitator, his sensibility is embedded in tradition; yet his approach to writing is totally and individually creative. The evidence of this, the peculiar tension and unalterability of truly self-contained poems, is seen in every line. Once one grants that for certain temperaments archaism of form and diction is not a striving for effect but a natural mode, and once one concedes to the poet his right to an idiosyncratic, not to say anomalous, place in literary society, Cunningham's poems come forward as the products of our age, on an equal footing with those of any poet alive….

Cunningham is actually close to those of his own generation against whom he thought he was writing, poets like Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Berryman, Roethke, Olson, Delmore Schwartz. He is indelibly a part of that scene, an important part. And perhaps it is worth noting that although he has occasionally used syllabic meter from the beginning, including some remarkable hendecasyllabics, he has turned to them more and more in his recent work, especially in such autobiographical poems as the sequence called To What Strangers, What Welcome (1964).

The volume of Cunningham's output is small, but compact and without waste, tough, distinctive, filled with strange flint-like intensity. "The judge," he has written, "is fury," and the poet is "deftly mad." We cannot doubt the authenticity of these works of despair and intransigence….

Cunningham has brought the epigram alive again, and he alone has done it. True, scattered here and there are other epigrams we remember in modern poetry, by Roethke, Louise Bogan, Paul Goodman, Jonathan Williams, and others. If you searched hard enough you might find a dozen or more genuine epigrams in Pound's Cantos. But only Cunningham has concentrated on the form as a major category of literary endeavor, something worth doing for its own sake. As with his lyric poems, he has taken his formal impetus straight from the center of the Renaissance, from Jonson, from Owen and Martial, from the Latin tradition generally; to which he has brought his modern sensibility…. [Though] the epigram is a demanding form and Cunningham has produced some poor specimens, his good ones are astonishing. They may be the best in nearly three hundred years of English.

Hayden Carruth, "A Location of J. V. Cunningham," in Michigan Quarterly Review, Spring, 1972, pp. 75-83.

Let me put the cards on the table. Cunningham has written some great poems, the sort that tempt one to consider making pronouncements about posterity. As is to be expected of any real practitioner, he has also written many very good poems that prompt interest and respect but eventually let themselves slide aside, lacking a significance, an emotional chord. His work as a whole merits our utmost attention—mainly, of course, for the few truly great poems, which readers will no doubt discover for themselves, and for the traditional poetic qualities so admirably sustained throughout. Despite its liabilities, his work contributes something very distinguished and important to our poetic landscape….

Certainly Cunningham's style, form and tone are modelled upon the classical and Renaissance epigram, yet there is another strong aspect of his work—something very much his own—I should be inclined to link with Stevens, to whose attempts at accommodating the circumstances of modernity and worn yet persistent traditions Cunningham is fundamentally closer. Cunningham's poems draw the air of contemplation, of the mind's listening to itself to discover what endures, capturing those special moments when, as Stevens puts it, "The reader became the book." It is no accident that Stevens is the only modern Cunningham has written about extensively, there being such responsiveness on Cunningham's part to dramas of introspection's gains and limitations….

Always Cunningham's poetry implicitly holds that wisdom resides in self-consciously justified habits of perception and style, a thorough knowledge of the heart's tricks and the mind's indispensable capacity for seeing clearly. And the mind is no more secure or free than the heart. Within such introspective understandings, a need for otherness grows. Hence a struggle for keeping open the possibility of otherness unfolds. One of Cunningham's scholastically tinged doctrines—that "all choice is error" because particularization is both inevitable and evil in its denial of potentiality—intellectualizes the problem. Similarly, in another context, the notion that precisely through technical perfection, "engineered" verse creates the chance for "Redeeming grace" implies this struggle…. Fortunately for us, a good deal of Cunningham's poetry focuses on the richer matter of human love, its inescapably selfish wages, and on the contemplation of time and death….

The essential resources of Cunningham's method … are, first of all, the use of conventional meter and rhyme, together with a syntax frequently woven around paradoxes, antitheses, parallels, the reiteration of key terms to achieve impersonal clarity, and a relentless accumulation of negatives. Through the meter and rhyme, and the arrangement of rhetorical units so that they work together with … the metrical, the line becomes clear and the realization of form is made part of the poem itself. Hence Cunningham's poems always have the effect of—indeed, create, in the best sense, the theatrical illusion of—composed, thoroughly considered and completed statement. His style, which students of the Renaissance will immediately recognize as the plain style, might as reasonably be termed declarative. Conventional symbols and plain diction contribute, yet Cunningham's poetic power stems largely from his control of meter, rhyme, and syntax.

Any method has its liabilities; Cunningham's occasionally leads into lines with too many internal rhymes, apostrophes that are grandiloquent, paradoxes that are too clever, parallels or antitheses that are virtually bombast….

Though Cunningham's place in the history of poetry rests in large measure on his many fine epigrams, I wish he had taken more time for lyrics, and for working with blank verse. Cunningham handles blank verse exceptionally well, and he doubtlessly knew his ability from early-on…. Moreover, blank verse would seem to suit his contemplative moods, his syntactic control, and his abstract phrases that sometimes border on the belle-lettristic. What may be melodramatic in a tight context can be workable in a more expansive one, and compressed, philosophical formulations, in a short poem, can be obscure or pointless without more detail than Cunningham is sometimes willing to provide. At any rate, Cunningham has not entirely neglected his skill with blank verse….

We need to read all of Cunningham's work … because it sustains poetry's traditional resources at their very highest level, and precisely because these resources are scantily available today. At stake is not simply a sense of technique but also of values. "To My Wife," which I return to time and again and find my favorite, belies simple, modernistically informed contrasts between "the process of experience" and "its precepts"—a lyric, let it suffice to say, that has all the craftsmanship and humanity we should expect….

Robert A. Stein, "The Collected Poems and Epigrams of J. V. Cunningham," in Western Humanities Review, Winter, 1973, pp. 1-12.

J. V. Cunningham's Collected Poems and Epigrams demonstrates the liabilities of excessive education. These poems, arranged in chronological sections dating from 1931 to 1968, and including some Latin translations and epigrams, suffocate in their own erudition—not an erudition like Eliot's or Pound's, of complex allusion and arcane reference, rather a belief in the value of verse. Dry, didactic, and imitative of the Metaphysical poets, Cunningham excludes all that was vivid in them, reducing their metres and conceits to the level of barren prosodic exercises. Nor is there even a semblance of change or modulation in all these poems; 1931 is identical to 1968. Stilted quatrains, commonplace rhymes, trivial subjects: the drift of this entire volume could be called entropic.

James Atlas, "Old Wines, New Bottles, Old Bottles, New Wines," in Poetry (© 1973 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), January, 1973, p. 229.