James Vincent Cunningham

[J. V. Cunningham] (1911-1985 / Cumberland, Maryland)

Biography of James Vincent Cunningham

James Vincent Cunningham poet

James Vincent Cunningham (August 23, 1911 – March 30, 1985) was an American poet, literary critic, and teacher. Sometimes described as a neo-classicist or anti-modernist, his poetry was distinguished by its clarity, its brevity, and its traditional formality of rhyme and rhythm at a time when many American poets were breaking away from traditional fixed meters. His finely crafted epigrams in the style of Latin poets were much praised and frequently anthologized. But he also wrote spare, mature poems about love and estrangement, most notably the 15-poem sequence entitled To What Strangers, What Welcome (1964).


Cunningham's output was as spare as his style. He published only a few hundred carefully wrought poems over his relatively long career. Many were just a few lines long.

His epigrams (including his translations of the Latin poet Martial) and short poems were often witty and sometimes ribald (see, e.g., "It Was in Vegas, Celibate and Able"). “I like the trivial, vulgar and exalted,” he once said. Richard Wilbur labeled him our best epigrammatic poet.

Cunningham was one of a small number of modern writers to treat the epigram in its full, classical sense: a short, direct poem dealing with subjects from the whole range of personal experience, not necessarily satirical.
And there was also work that was not epigrammatical. His plain-spoken lyrics about love, sex, loss, and the American West were especially haunting and original (e.g., "Maples in the slant sun/The gay color of decay/Was it unforgivable,/My darling, that you loved me?").

Critics often yoked him to his early influence, Yvor Winters, but his verse actually bears only a formalistic similarity to Winters's work. The poet Thom Gunn, in reviewing The Exclusions of a Rhyme in the 1960s, commented that Cunningham "must be one of the most accomplished poets alive, and one of the few of whom it can be said that he will still be worth reading in fifty years' time." Though his style and reserve were very much at odds with fashions of the period in which he wrote, they are all the more striking for that fact.

Cunningham was awarded Guggenheim fellowships in 1959-60 and 1966-67 and received a Fellowship of the Academy of American Poets in 1976. He won grants from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1965 and the National Endowment for the Arts in 1966. Some of his poems have been set to music by the English composer Robin Holloway.

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from Doctor Drink, #1

In the thirtieth year of life
I took my heart to be my wife,

And as I turn in bed by night
I have my heart for my delight.

No other heart may mine estrange
For my heart changes as I change,

And it is bound, and I am free,
And with my death it dies with me.

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