The Poem

“Meditation on a Memoir” is a brief poem of sixteen lines that are arranged in four stanzas of four lines each. The meter is iambic dimeter, a very short and unusual metrical line. The first stanza contains three questions, the next two stanzas respond to those questions, and the final stanza resolves the poem with another question. The title announces both the approach (meditation) and the subject (memoir). To meditate is to think deeply on the significance of a subject, and it is not the usual poetic mode in J. V. Cunningham’s work. “Memoir” is a word that Cunningham uses a number of times in his poetry, and it requires some commentary. For Cunningham, a memoir is the revelation of all of the intimate details in a person’s life. Another poem by Cunningham, “Memoir,” makes clear what type of revelations are involved: “Now that he’s famous fame will not elude me:/ For $14.95 read how he screwed me.” The first line of “Meditation on a Memoir” immediately calls such revelations into question: “Who knows his will?” Does anyone truly know himself or herself well enough to reveal all in a memoir?

The second stanza continues to undermine the claim that anyone can know his or her “will” well enough to confess all in a memoir. People’s lives consist of the “Surf of illusion,” and they can find peace in sleep only by “skilled delusion.” This is framed syntactically as an answer to the questions of the first stanza....

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Forms and Devices

The poem is unusual in its use of very regular iambic dimeter. The effects of such a short poetic line are significant. The short and regular lines are gnomic and epigrammatic as they sort out large and general principles in human affairs. In addition, the lines in the first and last stanzas are end-stopped, while those of the second and third stanzas are run on. This follows the syntactic form of question and answer. The rhymes of the poem are also of interest. The rhymes of the first stanza promise certainty, as “will” is related to “fulfill” and “mood” to “conclude.” The rhymes of the second stanza undo any claim to completion in the conjunction of “illusion” and “delusion.” In addition, the subjects of a memoir are paired in the rhyme of “themes” and “dreams.”

Cunningham often uses personification in his poems. Here “silence” is portrayed as a human figure who listens with “delight” to the tears that are released. Cunningham tends to use personification rather than images, since the poems deal with general principles instead of particular occurrences. However, there are a few images in the poem. For example, in the second stanza, the image of surf suggests a swirling of illusion that destroys any stability. However, surf that “Spins from the deep” is connected to a sustained metaphor that controls the structure of the poem: the moon that controls the tides of all of the oceans and seas. The movement of the moon controls the “tide of tears” and the surf of the second stanza. Humankind is tossed about by some unknown, greater power just as the seas are tossed about by the moon. The question of the first line of the poem is answered by the metaphor that concludes the poem: “What lunar senses,/ Compel his dreams?” People do not control or know their wills; their themes are only dreams and they are compelled by something other than human will. The pride of people in both knowing and revealing their wills is reduced at the end to a creature who is moved back and forth at the will or whim of another uncontrollable force.