The premise of Poet’s Choice, edited by Paul Engle and Joseph Langland, and published in 1962, is simple and appealing: 100 American and English poets pick their favorite from among the poems they have written and append a comment. Forty-seven years later, the book makes for melancholy reading because most of the poets are dead, including some of the best – John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, Louise Bogan, Edgar Bowers, J.V. Cunningham, Robert Frost, Anthony Hecht, Donald Justice, Marianne Moore, Karl Shapiro and Allen Tate. Among the rare survivors are Philip Levine, Alastair Reid and Richard Wilbur.
Poet’s Choice is melancholy for another reason: Today, one would have to think very hard and probably bend one’s standards beyond recognition to name 100 living poets whose work is worth reading and rereading. Even some of the minor poets in the Engle/Langland volume – X.J. Kennedy, for instance, and John Ciardi – are a pleasure to read.
Not surprisingly, the only poet whose poem and comment fit on a single page is Cunningham, master of concision. With retrospective appropriateness (he died in 1985) his selection is titled “Epitaph”:
“When I shall be without regret
And shall mortality forget,
When I shall die who lived for this,
I shall not miss the things I miss.
And you who notice where I lie
Ask not my name. It is not I.”
Of the poem’s 41 words, 36 are monosyllables. As with many of his poems, and as with thousands of headstone inscriptions I’ve read in New England and upstate New York, the jauntiness of “Epitaph” belies its grimness: “I shall not miss the things I miss.” According to Timothy Steele, editor The Poems of J.V. Cunningham, “Epitaph” was written at Palo Alto in the summer of 1942. It was published in The Judge is Fury (1947) as the eleventh in a sequence of 43 brief poems titled “Epigrams: A Journal.” In his edition, Steele reprints the sentence Cunningham contributed to Poet’s Choice:
“I like this poem because it is all denotation and no connotation; because it has only one level of meaning; because it is not ironic, paradoxical, complex, or subtle; and because the meter is monotonously regular.”
“Epitaph” is a study in iambs, an elegantly satisfying structure, written as though William Carlos Williams had never lived and Ben Jonson were still alive. The affectless tone of Cunningham’s commentary is a provocation. He parodies the critical jargon, the uncomprehending language of reviewing, of his day. By 1962 you can already hear the barbarians inside the gates. Allen Ginsberg contributes a section of “Howl,” and his commentary begins:
“`Part II, Howl’ – took 4 buttons of dried Peyote in apartment on Nob Hill, S.F….”