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A. Mary Murphy
CUNNINGHAM, J(AMES) V(INCENT)
(1911—1985) J. V Cunningham, a master of the epigram and the short poem, was closer in style and spirit to the classical and Renaissance poets Horace, Martial, Ben Jonson, and Robert Herrick than to the modernists or the descendents of Walt Whitman (see modernism). His small body of work, characterized by brevity, complexity, and exactitude of statement, was, by his own admission, unfashionable, and his poetry is comparable with that of Yvor winters and Edgar bowers.
Born in Cumberland, Maryland, Cunningham grew up in Billings, Montana, and Denver, Colorado, where he attended a Jesuit high school. During the depression, he traveled the Southwest, writing for trade journals. In 1931 Cunningham entered Stanford, earning a B.A. in classics (1934) and a Ph.D. in English (1945). In 1953 he joined the faculty at Brandeis, where he remained until retirement in 1980. The Poems of J. V Cunningham, edited by Timothy Steele, was published in 1997.
Cunninghams theory of poetry, developed throughout his Collected Essays (1976), influenced the new formalism movement. Cunningham claimed romantic definitions of poetry erected pretensions no poem could satisfy and limited the kinds of poetry that could be written. According to him, the situation worsened when the modernists championed free verse, proclaiming meter monotonous and artificial, leaving the poet with only associations, images, and moods. Cunningham considered a good poem a system of propositions and "the definitive statement in meter of something worth saying" because meter, "the ground bass of all poetry," allows a poet to more subtly and accurately convey a wider range of meanings and feelings than can be conveyed by nonmetrical language (431, 250). He preferred "verse" to "poetry" (see prosody and free verse): "Verse is a professional activity, social and objective, and its methods and standards are those of craftsmanship." The virtues of verse, he wrote, "are civic virtues. If [verse] lacks much, what it does have is ascertainable and can be judged" (406). Cunningham considered poetry "amateurish, religious, and eminently unsociable" because "it dwells in the spiritual life, in the private haunts of theology or voodoo" (406).
In the early poem "For My Contemporaries" (1942), Cunningham details his conversion from poetry to verse in rhymed, dimeter lines: "I now make verses / Who aimed at art." Unlike the mad "ambitious boys" with their "spiritual noise," Cunningham prefers the sanity of verse, which he says cured him of poetry's madness. Like the CONFESSIONAL poets, Cunningham could turn the matter of his life into poetry, but he managed it elegantly and acerbically, as in the late epigram "The Lights of Love" (1942): "The ladies in my life, serially sexed, / Unscrew one lover and screw in the next."
Stoical, abstract, tightly formal, and rhymed, Cunningham's poems spurn the conventions of modern poetry. He nearly single-handedly revived the classical epigram and, with Winters and Bowers, introduced the urbane plain style—the "styleless style" notable for its compression, directness, seeming simplicity, and lack of ornamentation, unusual syntax, conceits, and figurative language—into American poetry.
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