AMERICA'S BEST FORGOTTEN POET
Feb 16, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 22 • By J. BOTTUM
In 1985, a minor American poet named J. V. Cunningham died at the age of seventy-four. A writer of elegant and precise little miniatures -- brief epigrams for the most part, and epigrammatical even when longer -- he had his share of publication in some of the premier venues for poetry in his time: Hound and Horn, Poetry, the New Republic, the Partisan Review, the Southern Review, and elsewhere. He had as well his share of strong admirers, including his longtime friend Yvor Winters, the younger poets X. J. Kennedy and Mark Strand, and the critic Denis Donoghue.
But he produced fewer than two hundred poems -- several only two lines long -- in a career of over fifty years, and although he lived through a number of poetic fads in America from the 1930s to the 1980s, he managed to remain unfashionable during them all. With a handful of what many professional critics and fellow poets acknowledge as nice minor verses, but without a single major poem identifiable by the greater poetry-reading public, he was little noticed, little anthologized, and little read. The system of foundation grants, artists' colonies, and college poet-in-residence programs that emerged in America during his lifetime allowed him to remain, mostly at Brandeis University outside of Boston, a professional poet and man of letters, lecturing and teaching and occasionally writing essays of interesting Shakespeare criticism and commentary on his own and others' poems. Within ten years after his death, however, his work had suffered the invariable fate of minor poetry -- as his last thin and incomplete volume of collected verse from a subsidized press slipped unnoticed out of print.
Late last year, one final effort was made to salvage Cunningham when Timothy Steele -- who had conducted a biographical interview with the poet for the Iowa Review shortly before his death -- edited and brought out from the combined poetry imprint of Swallow/Ohio State University Press a new and more complete collection of his poems.
The book succeeded in obtaining from the major book-review journals in America some desultory nods toward the fading poet, but it has so far produced no real boom for Cunningham's work: no outraged calls to revive a forgotten master, no trumpeted invitations to discover an unknown genius.
And thus there is slipping away, perhaps forever, even among the most devoted readers of poetry in America, an awareness of someone who -- it seems worthwhile to mention -- may have been the most talented poet of his generation, one of only three or four masters of a particular poetic form in the history of English poetry, and a genuine American original.
Among poets in America, there is a tradition of deprecating poetry, a sort of counter-current to the equally American tradition of Walt Whitman's enormous proclamations for poetic importance. Robert Frost always called his work "lines" rather than poems, while J. V. Cunningham -- living under the shadow cast over his generation by the world-dominating T. S. Eliot's dense, rich, spiritual poetry in the very grand manner -- insisted in self-defense that he wrote no poetry. In the 1939 "For My Contemporaries" (one of his better -- known works but in many ways merely a typical example of his technique of tight, little ironic lines followed by a sudden and serious twist), he declared:
His path to such constricted, ironic, humorous, latinate verse was a strange one -- perhaps most of all in its association with the American West that would produce such odd juxtapositions of narrow form and spacious matter as his "Montana Pastoral" or his sequence of poems about driving across the country, "To What Strangers, What Welcome."