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Poems Of J.V. Cunningham Hardcover – July 15, 1997
The Amazon Book Review
Author interviews, book reviews, editors picks, and more. Read it now
Cunningham's (1911-1985) precisely bitter epigrams deserve more admirers. This gathering of all his verse returns to print such barbed, impregnable accomplishments as this poem (quoted whole): "Time heals not: it extends a sorrow's scope / As goldsmiths gold, which we may wear like hope." Like Ben Jonson's, Cunningham's best lines often state his moral or stylistic goals: "The classic indignation, / The sullen clarity / Of passions in their station, / Moved by propriety." Other favorite topics are regret, epistemology, bad books, theology, alcohol, and sex. (The lesser poems simply condemn, or resent, or become dirty jokes.) Epigrams state rules, clarify, generalize and show impersonal authority; Cunningham's parched, self-suspicious intelligence fit such ends, and formed his "plain style"-- "Savage, direct and bitten, / Not pitying and unclean." Like the diamonds used as drill bits, Cunningham's rigorously specialized verses are harder and clearer than what they attack, pointed, unornate, small-scale, useful, and valuable.
Copyright © 1996, Boston Review. All rights reserved. -- From The Boston Review
From the Back Cover
The lifework in verse of one of the finest and liveliest American poets of the twentieth century, this collection of the poems of J.V. Cunningham (1911-1958) documents the poet's development from his early days as an experimental modernist during the Depression to his later emergence as a master of the classical 'pain style, ' distinguished by its wit, feeling, and subtlety. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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"The ladies in my life, serially sexed,
Unscrew one lover and screw in the next." [The title is "The Lights of Love."]
"Death in this music dwells, I cease to be
In this attentive, taut passivity."
"All hastens to its end. If life and love
Seem slow it is their ends we're ignorant of."
There are many interesting (that word again!) things in this collection. Some of these are: (1) Watching Cunningham evolve throughout the course of his first volume "The Helmsman." (2) The highly simpatico introduction and notes by poet Timothy Steele. (3) Translations of several authors, mostly ancient, whose spirit Cunningham certainly shares. Here's one example, from Martial:
"Sabinus, I don't like you. You know why?
Sabinus, I don't like you. That is why."
years ago I was introduced to his work by a professor who had been
a pupil of Yvor Winters. Winters had a very traditional view of poetry.
He hated William Carlos Williams verse for example. But he praised
Cunningham for poetry as good as anything Ben Jonson wrote. Guy
Davenport summed it up nicely when he described Cunningham's poems
for being "as finely made as a Swiss watch." Enjoy!