Cunningham, J(ames) V(incent) (Vol. 3)
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...
(The entire section is 2,338 words.)