I’m reading J.V. Cunningham again, including the Iowa Review interview he did in 1983 with Timothy Steele. Cunningham died in 1985, the year the interview was published, at the age of seventy-three, and Steele went on to edit The Poems of J.V. Cunningham (1997). The poems are famously terse, cant-free and sometimes savage. In the interview he says:
“I ran across a note I made some years ago, wondering about what were . . . the sources of the bare plain style I find congenial, though certainly do not try to write in all the time. In that, I noted a small poem of Robinson, not the typical Robinson, but a small straightforward poem, `An Old Story,’ some Landor, and the poetry of Swift.”
I read “An Old Story” again and understood why a man as sensitive as Cunningham, whose own death was imminent, would favor a poem that closes with these lines: “I never knew the worth of him / Until he died.” Then I recalled that Cunningham’s other models, Landor and Swift, also wrote pithy, irreverent, epigrammatic poems about mortality and our reactions to it. Here is Landor’s “Age”:
“Death, tho’ I see him not, is near
And grudges me my eightieth year.
Now, I would give him all these last
For one that fifty have run past.
Ah! he strikes all things, all alike,
But bargains: those he will not strike.”
And this is Landor’s “A Funeral”:
“A hearse is passing by in solemn state,
Within lies one whom people call the great.
Its plumes seem nodding to the girls below
As they gaze upward at the raree-show,
Boys from the pavement snatch their tops, and run
To know what in the world can be the fun.”
For the record, a raree-show is, according to the OED, “an exhibition, show, or spectacle of any kind, esp. one regarded as lurid, vulgar, or populist” (e.g., a presidential campaign). From Swift we have this from “A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General”:
“And could he be indeed so old
As by the newspapers we’re told?
Threescore, I think, is pretty high;
’Twas time in conscience he should die
This world he cumbered long enough;
He burnt his candle to the snuff;
And that’s the reason, some folks think,
He left behind so great a stink.”
The object of Swift’s contempt is John Churchill (1650-1722), the first Duke of Marlborough. Three centuries have passed and we still relish the venom.
Cunningham is one of those poets – Stevie Smith and C.H. Sisson are others (as is Swift) -- who remain unclassifiable and will never be mistaken for “major” (whatever that means) by the critics. One reads them devotedly across a lifetime. They are reliably sane and companionable. Here is a parting taste of Cunningham:
“It might be observed that the idea implied, almost asserted, in the term `creative writing’ is not so good. There is a kind of pretension about it. There is a spiritual claim, the creative versus the inert, the organic versus the inorganic, and all that sort of thing. Anyone who is committed to the discipline of English should be able to write well on something and preferably on a variety of somethings.”