J. V. Cunningham Analysis

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J. V. Cunningham wrote scholarly and critical essays on Statius, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, and Wallace Stevens, as well as on a number of other poets and aspects of poetry. He edited a literary anthology, The Renaissance in England (1966), and wrote commentaries on his own poetry under the titles The Quest of the Opal: A Commentary on “The Helmsman” (1950) and The Journal of John Cardan: Together with “The Quest of the Opal” and “The Problem of Form” (1964). The volume into which his prose was collected is extremely valuable in the study of his poetry, not only for his penetrating essays on style and form but also for his scholarly discussions of literary modes and periods, which cast light on his own poetic practice.


During the early 1930’s, when J. V. Cunningham was composing the first of the poems that he later considered worth printing, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were exerting a powerful influence on modern poetry. In many respects a literary maverick, Cunningham objected particularly to the growing disregard of poetic meter and to Archibald MacLeish’s dictum that “A poem should not mean/ But be.” While pursuing degrees at Stanford University and beginning his career as an English instructor, Cunningham wrote uncompromisingly metrical poems that always meant something. Although he taught in several leading universities, he achieved prominence as scholar and poet only on his appointment as chair of the English department at the young Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, in 1953; thereafter, he gained many honors: Guggenheim Fellowships in 1959 and 1967, a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award in 1965, and designation as only the second University Professor at Brandeis in 1966. He was awarded an Academy of American Poets Fellowship in 1976.

His highly disciplined, concise, and intellectual poetry won acknowledgment from literary scholars such as Yvor Winters and Denis Donoghue, as well as from the makers of many poetry anthologies. In addition, Cunningham’s teaching influenced a younger generation of poets, particularly Alan Shapiro.


Cunningham, J. V. Interview by Timothy Steele. Iowa Review 15 (Fall, 1985): 1-24. In this delightful and revealing look at Cunningham’s life and ideas about poetry, the poet describes writing poetry as a “professional task,” not a mystical act. He defends the practice of meter and abhors its decline in recent poetry.

Kerrigan, William. “J. V. Cunningham’s Meditation on Method.” Sewanee Review 109, no. 1 (Winter, 2001): 65. Praises Cunningham as the greatest writer of English epigrams since Ben Jonson.

Pinsky, Robert. “Two Examples of Poetic Discursiveness.” Chicago Review 27 (Fall, 1975): 133-141. Pinsky sees Cunningham’s “discursiveness” as a positive quality. It is “concise and accurate” and without the usual poetic devices of imagery and irony. He claims that this leads to poetry that has the power and authority found in Ben Jonson’s poetry.

Rathmann, Andrew. Review of The Poems of J. V. Cunningham. Chicago Review 43, no. 3 (Summer, 1997): 107-103. Rathmann gives a critical analysis of Cunningham’s work and laments the fact that Cunningham is not more widely known despite the admiration of many contemporary poet-critics.

Shapiro, Alan. “’Far Lamps at Night’: The Poetry of J. V. Cunningham,” and “The Early Seventies and J. V. Cunningham.” In In Praise of the Impure: Poetry and the Ethical Imagination: Essays, 1980-1991. Evanston, Ill.: TriQuarterly Books, 1993. Shapiro, a former student of Cunningham at Brandeis University, believes that Cunningham deserves to be more “highly esteemed.” He analyzes a few poems and shows that Cunningham did not blindly follow traditions but set his poetry against them to create a fruitful intertextuality.

Stall, Lindon. “The Trivial, Vulgar, and Exalted: The Poems of J. V. Cunningham.” Southern Review 9 (Spring, 1973): 1044-1048. Stall claims that Cunningham’s “intelligibility” is responsible for his lack of fame. Stall states that Cunningham has restored the epigram to seriousness and brought that ancient form a new power.

Stein, Robert A. “The Collected Poems and Epigrams of J. V. Cunningham.” Western Humanities Review 27 (Fall, 1973): 23-25. An evenhanded review of Cunningham’s poems. Stein states flatly that Cunningham has written some great poems. He also sees some liabilities, especially Cunningham’s use of too many clever paradoxes.