J(ames) V(incent) Cunningham 1911–
American poet, critic, and editor.
Cunningham is respected for his finely crafted poetry and for his poetic theories, which stress the value of formal techniques. Early in his career Cunningham wrote in the modernist tradition and was associated with the literary circle surrounding the poet and critic Yvor Winters. By the 1940s, however, Cunningham had rejected modernism as well as romanticism, which he believes is the basis for much modernist verse; he adopted instead a terse and witty epigrammatic style. Cunningham holds that a romantic sensibility can lead only to imprecision and emotionalism, while strict classical formalism encourages clarity, analysis, and objectivity. Often compared to the works of John Donne, Ben Jonson, and Alexander Pope, most of Cunningham's later verse is carefully rhymed and measured with little emphasis on imagery. Rather than the symbolic description employed by the modernists, Cunningham presents direct philosophical and metaphysical commentary.
Cunningham developed his epigrammatic poetry in his collections The Helmsman (1942), The Judge Is Fury (1947), Doctor Drink (1950), Trivial, Vulgar, and Exalted (1957), and The Exclusions of a Rhyme (1960). Some critics interpret many of the poems in these volumes as considerations of the human fate after death and praise Cunningham's rational approach to the search for meaning in life. In his long poem To What Strangers, What Welcome (1964) Cunningham modifies his earlier style by extending his epigrams into a narrative sequence. In this symbolic account of a physical and psychological journey he also experiments with sensory detail. Most critics agree that these devices, combined with his characteristic exactitude and formal restraint, make To What Strangers, What Welcome one of Cunningham's strongest works.
In his prose work In Quest of the Opal (1950) Cunningham comments in the third person on his own poetry. In that work and in The Collected Essays (1976) Cunningham also analyzes the verse of other writers from the Renaissance to the modern period. His long essay Woe or Wonder (1951), which was reprinted in The Collected Essays, explores the relationship between technical devices and emotional impact in Shakespeare's tragedies. The work is considered an important contribution to the existing body of Shakespearean criticism.
(See also CLC, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5.)
The poems in this brief and beautifully printed collection [The Helmsman], difficult as they are to place in the stream of American and English poetry, are of unusual interest. They are the products of a talent which is emphatically and avowedly not modern, but which, though it operates within quite narrow bounds, and intentionally so, is none the less expert and sensitive. Cunningham is a humanist scholar and a philosopher, concerned with choice, the will, wisdom, reason, and nature viewed both concretely and as an abstraction; yet curiously enough, however abstract the subject matter may be, the reader is always conscious that it is part of what might be termed the autobiography of the mind producing it. Cunningham's personality, ironic, austere, sharply self-conscious yet objective, is everywhere on the poems. They do not, therefore, seem so much humanistic as literally classical, as though Cunningham were trying to erect in his own sparse works an American Silver Age. (p. 279)
Adopting classical forms and conventions, [Cunningham] enters many of his poems, particularly the title ode, a number of epigrams, and a punning mock elegy. One thinks a little of Housman in his less winsome moods. Rejecting the ways of the "men of wild perceptions," Cunningham says of himself finally:
Cold as the serpent and as wise
Have held my eyes:
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[The essay from which the following excerpt is taken originally appeared in The Hudson Review in 1948.]
J. V. Cunningham is a man who began as a Catholic and who in the process of losing his faith acquired a good deal of philosophical erudition and a restless yet uncompromising mind. Of his original faith he retained, as nearly as I can discover, only a few metaphysical convictions, and those of a type which offer more certitude than consolation. I do not share all of his convictions, and I hold a few convictions which he does not share; yet it seems to me certain that his mind is more lucid, more sure of its own contents, and more profoundly "modern" (if we must have such a mind) than that of anyone else writing poetry today, and it seems to me equally certain that he is more surely a master of his craft, within the forms which he has used, than is any other poet writing today…. [Meditation on Statistical Method] is not, as I have known occasional readers to think it, a piece of neat light verse. It is a serious comment on a major topic; intellectually, it is absolutely lucid; and it exhibits that combination of passion and irony which is supposed in our time to be essential. In my opinion (and I believe in Cunningham's) passion can get along without irony quite as well as with it, though not without intelligence. However, passion, irony, and intelligence are all present in this poem, and are beautifully related to each other. (pp. 171-73)
[Such poems as Meditation on Statistical Method, On the Calculus, and others in The Helmsman and The Judge Is Fury] will not appeal to those who consider poetry to be a "revery over remembered sensory impressions." Neither will they appeal to those who share what is popularly regarded as the modern temperament and who have little experience with the modern (or any other) mind. These are not the work of an unhappy adolescent; they are the work of a mature scholar, thinker, and craftsman. And I believe that they will stand the most rigorous comparison with the finest short poems in English. (p. 173)
Yvor Winters, "Three Poets (Randall Jarrell, John Berryman and J. V. Cunningham, 1948)," in his Yvor Winters: Uncollected Essays and Reviews, edited by Francis Murphy, The Swallow Press Inc., 1973, pp. 167-73.∗
There are not so many serious poets in America that we can afford to neglect the collected poems of a talent like [J. V. Cunningham], yet I am afraid that present neglect is what Mr. Cunningham must have—and, to some extent, he has courted it. By reaction, it appears, he has particularly cultivated just those qualities that are likely to repel the publicists of the age. I sympathize with his attitude, for there is no general public worth having, yet I regret that his attitude has constricted his poetry [in The Exclusions of a Rhyme]; it is too much in reaction. But before I go into this, I would like to show his advantages.
First, he is a master, in his way. His tight, short, rhymed lines could hardly be improved…. The forms and tone of Mr. Cunningham's verse are neo-classic; as far as his style goes, no poet since Swift need have written, and the vernacular does not exist. Exclusions with a vengeance! Now and then an image is admitted, as in "The Dog-Days."… But there are entire poems which contain no image: they are written as sententiae. What are they about? The discipline of the will … love, pride, anger … the work of art. Dispassion and diffidence are key words. His poems are demonstrations of ideas, and are themselves the ideas they demonstrate. Moreover, there is much grace in his method, and those who have an ear for verse will enjoy his poems for that reason alone. (pp. 284-85)
I admire Mr. Cunningham, as you see, and I am glad that there is one of him in America. But there are other ways of poetry which, I am afraid, Mr. Cunningham would exclude, and this brings me to my main criticism of his verse. It is simply that you cannot show the triumph of discipline over disorder unless you also show the disorder. You cannot produce Lear without the storm scene, nor bring Oedipus to Colonus without passing through Thebes. The poet must always fear his own wisdom, the self-examination which says, Why write anything at all? Is not the perfection of...
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It is likely that rather few people interested in poetry have read anything by J. V. Cunningham: he was not included in any of the popular anthologies until Allen Tate's, last year; his books have been difficult to obtain, and very few critics have referred to him even in passing. Yet he must be one of the most accomplished poets alive, and one of the few of whom it can be said that he will still be worth reading in fifty years' time.
There are various other reasons for his neglect, of course. One is that though he started writing in the 'thirties, he has used none of the modes popular in the last three decades. Readers accustomed to novelty may be upset by the fact that most of the poems in the present complete collection [The Exclusions of a Rhyme] are stylistically as much of the seventeenth century as of the twentieth. However, if this is true, it's also true that they are as much of the twentieth as of the seventeenth—they contain the idiosyncrasies of neither age. His style is close to, say, Rochester's in "Absent from thee, I languish still" or Donne's in the "Hymn to God the Father." Anyone who finds such poems can mean anything to him in 1960 should have little difficulty with Cunningham; anyone who does not might as well return to comic books.
Cunningham writes compactly and plainly, but he is not an especially easy poet. He is about as difficult, in many poems, as the early Lowell, but he is no more difficult, and I find him on the whole a good deal more rewarding. The difficulty comes not so much from obscurity of thought and feeling, as from the concentration of his language, which contains a large proportion of abstract words. And here is another reason why Cunningham is neglected; most critics, conveniently forgetting the language of the Four Quartets, regard abstract words with a kind of superstitious contempt. It is true that abstractions can be one of the many ways in which one can avoid saying anything; but very often they constitute the only possible full confrontation of one's subject matter. In using them, a writer is demanding that we take on trust the particulars of a...
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The Exclusions of a Rhyme is in effect the collected poems of J. V. Cunningham…. Its publication is therefore an important event, for although his poetry has yet to receive the attention it deserves, Cunningham is, within his limits, the most expert craftsman we have today. (p. 181)
For a career covering nearly thirty years, the body of his work is as small as the level is high. The limits within which he works are the result not so much, perhaps, of the rigorous application of a particular literary theory as of the severe intellectual scrutiny of form and content and their interrelations which the theory demands. At any rate, Cunningham appears deliberately to embrace the limits imposed by...
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Cunningham writes poetry of controlled statement which suggests the Renaissance masters of the short poem. The development is logical rather than associative, and abstract rather than concrete. The introductory poem to The Helmsman, in which the reader is told what he must do if he wishes to read poetry, and in which a scholastic vocabulary carries the meaning, illustrates the style….
When we discover Renaissance influence in a twentieth century poet, we expect it to be metaphysical, but Cunningham is not affected by the usual influences. Although Cunningham's verse displays a certain home-grown pleasure in metaphysical wit, the most easily traceable influence on his poetry is not that of...
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[In Tradition and Poetic Structure, a] strong and exact mind is at work on rich materials…. Mr. Cunningham deals with Statius, Marvell, Dunbar, Nashe, Wallace Stevens, and Shakespeare. The second half of the book is a reprint of Woe or Wonder (1951), five essays on Shakespearean Tragedy. The book as a whole is an important step toward a history of the modes of literary artifice. Each chapter shows in a different way how our knowledge of the traditional definition of the species to which a poem belongs aids us to understand that poem, i.e., to value it for the right reason…. A successful example is the recovery of the distinction between Shakespeare's plot and the modern (plotless) plot. The...
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Goaded by Tradition and Poetic Structure I have been doing a little homework on the use of the term "tradition" in literary studies. The results are not comforting. Most critics who use the term seem to have picked up the knack in Madison Avenue; the word is rarely a sign, it's a status symbol, like Saxon Hawk tweeds on men of discernment. Often its presumptive meaning is delivered in a cloud of vague and undeclared politics; the reader feels that something is going on, but he is discouraged from taking a close look. (pp. 476-77)
In this as in most other respects Mr. Cunningham is outstandingly decorous. "Tradition" figures largely in his speech, but he never flashes the term as a fraternity...
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J. V. Cunningham seems to me the most consistently distinguished poet writing in English today, and one of the finest in the language; to make myself clear, however, I shall have to begin with a few reservations.
Some years ago Cunningham did a very rash thing: he published an essay on his own poems [The Quest of the Opal]. I wish he had never written it, but it is interesting and it is in print, and one has to use it. In discussing two of the earliest poems, The Wandering Scholar's Prayer and The Dog-Days, Cunningham describes them as poems of sensibility, essentially romantic and remote from his natural talent, and he is right. On the first page of his pamphlet, however, he...
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Though this short volume [Collected Poems and Epigrams] contains his entire published output in verse, and though—judged by his own standard—the outstanding poems in it number perhaps no more than half a dozen, Cunningham is, in my judgement, one of the major poets of the century. He is, besides, an outstanding critic and literary scholar, and has written one of the few great (I chose the word very carefully) volumes of Shakespearian criticism [Woe or Wonder]. (p. 588)
Cunningham draws his intellectual and emotional sustenance from his studies of the past. In this he is similar to, in some of their periods, his contemporaries, like Eliot, Stevens. Yeats and Lowell, although his...
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The "Collected Essays" includes everything, presumably, that Cunningham wishes to retain: the famous "Woe or Wonder" (1951), a study of the emotional effect of the major Shakespearean tragedies; "Tradition and Poetic Structure" (1960), a collection of essays on problems of literary form; a batch of later essays on questions of style; and, at the end, a remarkable commentary on his own poetry, couched in the third person rather than the first, and published in 1964 as "The Journal of John Cardan."…
Cunningham is one of the best poets in America, for some things; and … he is one of the best critics in America, for the same things. He is a professional poet in Thomas Mann's version of that fate, "a...
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If there were only one diamond in the whole world, some people might worship it, while others might consider it merely an interesting curiosity. (p. 25)
As this awkward little parable suggests, I admire J. V. Cunningham's poems and epigrams quite a lot. I think that if there were more than one of him—or even if he had successful imitators—his work might be as popular as engagement rings. But he is unique; in many ways his poems have nothing at all to do with modern poetry. And so, honored though he is …, I don't believe that nearly as many people read his poems as would get deep pleasure from them.
The lapidary comparison is suggested by the poems themselves: brilliant,...
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[The Collected Essays of J. V. Cunningham] are essentially an account of how literature is written and how it ought to be read; they are, to my knowledge, the most useful account we have, and one of the most profound. I say "literature" because, though all the essays deal with writings in verse, Cunningham's methods and conclusions (except where he discusses meter) apply equally well to prose. His work is useful for its specific conclusions, or findings, and even more so for its methods and their applicability. For Cunningham is not the sort of critic who improvises on the theme of a text, or jolts us with the power of his "readerresponse"; he is a Wissenschaftler, a scientist in the best German sense,...
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