Authors: J. V. Cunningham

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet and critic

Author Works


The Helmsman, 1942

The Judge Is Fury, 1947

Doctor Drink, 1950

Trivial, Vulgar, and Exalted: Epigrams, 1957

The Exclusions of a Rhyme: Poems and Epigrams, 1960

To What Strangers, What Welcome: A Sequence of Short Poems, 1964

Some Salt: Poems and Epigrams . . . , 1967

The Collected Poems and Epigrams of J. V. Cunningham, 1971

Selected Poems, 1971

The Poems of J. V. Cunningham, 1997


The Quest of the Opal: A Commentary on “The Helmsman,” 1950

Woe or Wonder: The Emotional Effect of Shakespearean Tragedy, 1951

Tradition and Poetic Structure: Essays in Literary History and Criticism, 1960

The Journal of John Cardan: Together with “The Quest of the Opal” and “The Problem of Form,” 1964

The Collected Essays of J. V. Cunningham, 1976

Edited Texts:

The Problem of Style, 1966

The Renaissance in England, 1966

In Shakespeare’s Day, 1970


James Vincent Cunningham was born in western Maryland in 1911. He attended Stanford University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1934 and a doctorate in 1945. At Stanford, he studied under Yvor Winters, the American poet and critic. After completing his education, Cunningham was to spend the rest of his life teaching in American universities; he acquired the reputation as an inspiring teacher who demanded excellence from his students. During his teaching years he wrote the elegant and spare poems and the uncompromising criticism that made his reputation as a poet and a scholar.{$I[AN]9810001890}{$I[A]Cunningham, J. V.}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Cunningham, J. V.}{$I[tim]1911;Cunningham, J. V.}

J. V. Cunningham

(Courtesy of Brandeis University)

Cunningham taught mathematics at the University of California, Los Angeles, during World War II, but his most important efforts lay in his teaching literature and criticism at a number of universities. He taught English at Stanford from 1937 to 1943 while completing his Ph.D. and taught for a year as an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii, Honolulu.

Cunningham published his first book of poetry, The Helmsman, in 1942 while a graduate student at Stanford. The poems in this collection are not typical of Cunningham’s work; they are extended poems, and a few are odes. However, the book does use classical sources and models, as his later poetry was to do. He published another collection of poems, The Judge Is Fury, in 1947. There is a marked change in style in this book. There are none of the classical allusions, and there is no archaic diction. The imagery, as can be seen in “Montana Pastoral,” is taken from nature rather than art, and it counterpoints the traditional pastoral with an unlikely American location.

While he was an assistant professor at the University of Chicago, Cunningham published an important collection of poems titled Doctor Drink. In this book Cunningham displays his typical style and subject matter in the epigrams of which he was a master. The Roman poet Martial supplied the classical model for the epigram, and Cunningham translated a number of poems by Martial into idiomatic English. Cunningham’s own epigrams are truly contemporary, although they use an ancient form.

During the years Cunningham was producing poetry, he was also teaching literature in a number of American universities and writing books of criticism. The first critical book, Woe or Wonder: The Emotional Effect of Shakespearean Tragedy, used William Shakespeare’s words and the concepts of the period to trace the proper emotions of Shakespearean tragedy. The book remains an important formulation of a central problem in the study of tragedy. Cunningham later collected a number of his essays into a 1960 volume titled Tradition and Poetic Structure. The title suggests Cunningham’s critical interests: the historically based traditions that inform and create poetic form. The essays are pithy and completely convincing as he comes to terms with the forms of earlier poets such as Thomas Nashe and more recent ones such as Wallace Stevens.

Cunningham moved to Brandeis University as a professor in English in 1953 after a year at the University of Virginia. He was to become an important presence at the newly established Brandeis. In that period of stability and prestige he published his best work. For example, the book of poems The Exclusions of a Rhyme: Poems and Epigrams is an example of Cunningham’s mature style and his mastery of his material, especially in his epigrams and short poems. At this time he began to receive some recognition for his accomplishments and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in poetry for 1959-1960 and later for 1966-1967. He also received a grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the National Endowment for the Arts as well as a fellowship from the Academy of American Poets.

Cunningham’s next book of poetry, To What Strangers, What Welcome: A Sequence of Short Poems, is very different in style and subject matter. It is a narrative created from fifteen linked short poems, many of which use syllabic meter rather than traditional meter and rhyme. It is Cunningham at his most romantic and shows a side of him that only rarely worked its way free of the classical restraint of so much of his work.

Cunningham’s last book of new poems, Some Salt: Poems and Epigrams . . . , returns to the traditional epigram and is marked by his sardonic wit and amusing rhymes. The Collected Poems and Epigrams of J. V. Cunningham was published in 1971, and The Collected Essays of J. V. Cunningham in 1976. Cunningham retired from Brandeis University a few years later, and he died in Waltham, Massachusetts, in 1985.

J. V. Cunningham was a traditional poet in a modernist and experimental period. He never followed fashion in either his poetry or his criticism. As a result, he received few honors and prizes until the publication of The Collected Poems and Epigrams. His models in both poetry and criticism can be traced back to the Elizabethans and the Romans. From these models he created the finest epigrams and some of the most moving lyrics of his time.

BibliographyCunningham, J. V. Interview by Timothy Steele. The Iowa Review 15 (Fall, 1985): 1-24. In this delightful and revealing look at Cunningham’s life and ideas about poetry, the poet describes writing poetry as a “professional task,” not a mystical act. He defends the practice of meter and abhors its decline in recent poetry.Pinsky, Robert. “Two Examples of Poetic Discursiveness.” Chicago Review 27 (Fall, 1975): 133-141. Pinsky sees Cunningham’s “discursiveness” as a positive quality. It is “concise and accurate” and without the usual poetic devices of imagery and irony. He claims that this leads to poetry that has the power and authority found in Ben Jonson’s poetry.Rathmann, Andrew. Review of The Poems of J. V. Cunningham. Chicago Review 43, no. 3 (Summer, 1997): 107-103. Rathmann gives a critical analysis of Cunningham’s work and laments the fact that Cunningham is not more widely known despite the admiration of many contemporary poet-critics.Shapiro, Alan. “‘Far Lamps at Night’: The Poetry of J. V. Cunningham,” and “The Early Seventies and J. V. Cunningham.” In In Praise of the Impure: Poetry and the Ethical Imagination: Essays, 1980-1991. Evanston, Ill.: TriQuarterly Books, 1993. Shapiro, a former student of Cunningham at Brandeis University, believes that Cunningham deserves to be more “highly esteemed.” He analyzes a few poems and shows that Cunningham did not blindly follow traditions but set his poetry against them to create a fruitful intertextuality.Stall, Lindon. “The Trivial, Vulgar, and Exalted: The Poems of J. V. Cunningham.” The Southern Review 9 (Spring, 1973): 1044-1048. Stall claims that Cunningham’s “intelligibility” is responsible for his lack of fame. Stall states that Cunningham has restored the epigram to seriousness and brought that ancient form a new power.Stein, Robert A. “The Collected Poems and Epigrams of J. V. Cunningham.” Western Humanities Review 27 (Fall, 1973): 23-25. An evenhanded review of Cunningham’s poems. Stein states flatly that Cunningham has written some great poems. He also sees some liabilities, especially Cunningham’s use of too many clever paradoxes.
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