J. V. Cunningham Cunningham, J(ames) V(incent) (Vol. 31)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Edward Weismiller

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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:
         Their fierce impersonal...

(The entire section is 12,791 words.)