The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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....

(The entire section is 533 words.)