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As the resident poet at EcoHealth Alliance, my verse finds inspiration these days in the spectre of global pandemics. At LMU Munich's Amerika-Institut, where I tutor composition and poetics, I'm anatomizing the sonnets of E. A. Robinson for my dissertation. I also teach at Münchner Volkshochschule and Amerikahaus.

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Cunningham's "Apology"

1 May 2016

"Apology," like much of Cunningham's verse, employs a wit of measured design and modulated degree that seems more at home amid the tradition of the Metaphysical Poets of the seventeenth century than in the United States of the mid-twentieth.  Its echoes of George Herbert and John Donne notwithstanding, the idiom employed here, while elevated, is decidedly our own.

Admittedly, the poetry of J. V. Cunningham (1911-1985) was never in great vogue; indeed, it appears almost as if the poet went out of his way (after a brief flirtation with modernist techniques) to buck the literary fashions of his contemporaries.  Perhaps this churlishness reflects a hard-won tactic of survival:  Born in Cumberland, Maryland, to working-class Irish parents, Cunningham moved to Billings, Montana, while still a child; his formal education was suspended for many years due to his father's death (shortly before the Great Depression) and ensuing financial difficulties, which led him to drift, often hungry and homeless, from job to job across the country.

Yvor Winters, the celebrated poet and beloved mentor (of Robert Hass, Donald Hall, Robert Pinksy, and Donald Justice), invited Cunningham to study at Stanford University, where he pursued both his undergraduate and graduate studies, earning a Ph.D. in 1945.  Cunningham would later invest a fair amount of his scholarship exploring the correlation between poetic form and meaning, which began with critical essays on Shakespeare and continued with translations of Martial, Horace, and Statius.

Those consequential Latin renderings must have subsequently led to an ever closer style of reading how the interplay of syntax to line pair and parry:  The first three lines of each of the three quatrains pave a runway of iambic trimeter (with the occasional weak ending) for the flight of each fourth line, which, a full foot short, takes off in the ear, lifting rhymes that sound to redouble the heft of "damaged" and "grace".  The title itself torques the tautness of all this even further through its opposing, two-fold meanings of humility and a well-argued defense.

Cunningham wrote only about two hundred poems, a pittance by some career standards, and many of these are comprised of only a singular couplet.  The subjects of his verse—love and sex, cosmology and childhood—lie both near and far.  "For [Cunningham]," wrote Steven Helming in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "poetry must engage some outer reality not simply by pointing at it with an image or expressing a mood in relation to it; the poem must treat experience, make something of it."


Assuredly, this poïesis, this making of something, broaches questions of lasting legacy.  Thom Gunn wrote in the Yale Review that Cunningham was one of the few recent American poets of whom it can be said "will still be worth reading in fifty years' time."  Though modest even at its zenith, the poet's readership has always been a fervent coterie.   Even here in Maxvorstadt, his flame still flickers:  At a post-lecture reception at the Schelling-Salon last summer, Anna Flügge mentioned Cunningham's name in answering a query about her favorite poets; and Steven Helming himself, having recently retired from the University of Delaware and relocated to Munich, lives just a stone's throw from where you are now reading these words.

Mark Olival-Bartley, editor
Fortnightly Poem
Amerika-Institut, LMU Munich

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