Friday, August 19, 2011

`A Succinct Summary of a Major Transition'

At the back of each issue, the editors of First Things collect odds and ends, brief notices, often humorous, and publish them under the heading “While We’re At It.” In the August/September issue is this:

“We have very clever readers. Here is something from the poet David Middleton, apparently dashed off after reading a column on our website:

“History of an Idea - after J. V. Cunningham

“`I Am That I Am’ God said to Moses;
But nowadays all anyone knows is
`I gotta be me,’ as Me proposes.”

The clincher in Middleton’s epigram is the capitalized “Me,” but the juxtaposing of Cunningham and Sammy Davis Jr.’s ego-anthem is gorgeous. It’s probably useful to note that two of Davis’ autobiographies were titled Yes, I Can (1965) and Why Me? (1980). In “Epigrams: A Journal,” collected in The Judge is Fury (1947), Cunningham includes “History of Ideas”:

“God is love. Then by conversion
Love is God, and sex conversion.”

In his edition of The Poems of J.V. Cunningham (1997), Timothy Steele dates the epigram to 1943 and notes the allusion to John 4:8: “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” About Cunningham’s use of “conversion” he writes:

“The word is used, first, with its meaning in logic—the transposition of the subject and predicate of a proposition—and, second, with its meaning in religion—the process by which an unbeliever acquires faith or by which a person switches affiliation from one church to another.”

Steele also quotes Yvor Winters’ comment on Cunningham’s epigram in Forms of Discovery: Critical and Historical Essays on the Forms of the Short Poem in English (1967):

“These lines give us a succinct summary of a major transition: they take us from the New Testament to W.B. Yeats.”

From faith and hope to sex-crazed Irish occult maunderings. Or, in the case of Middleton’s epigram, from Exodus 3:14 to “What else can I be but what I am?” (Lyrics by Walter Marks.)

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