It is a shudder by which I am faulted.
I like the trivial, vulgar, and exalted.
— J. V. Cunningham, “On Doctor Drink”
ON BENEFIT STREET in Providence, Rhode Island, there has sat, for the past two centuries, my favorite library. I cannot boast more than a tourist’s relationship with the Providence Athenaeum, but there seems a magic to it larger than its storied history (Poe and Lovecraft both haunted it, among many others). That larger magic rests, I think, in a particular belief that permeates the place, a belief referenced in the name and form of the building, the odd amalgam these represent of the classical and the naïvely American, a belief that a library ought to be a sort of living shrine — something holy.
Providence’s “Athenaeum” is one of many institutions that bear that name, which originally was given to the temple of Athena, goddess of wisdom, in the city (also her namesake) of Athens. Her temple, frequented by scholars and poets, was idealized as a place where learning was a form of worship and worship intended to become a form of learning. About 22 centuries later, the name was popular for American “membership” libraries and scholarly societies. Buildings that bore the name, such as those in Providence, Boston, Nantucket, Salem, Newport, and elsewhere throughout New England, were conspicuously classical: fluted pillars and faux-Grecian touches abound; the busts of the ancient poets and philosophers gaze down with looks of comfortable approval. And along the quiet shelves went the sunburned children of a wild continent, pressing their faces into the cool past, learning, worshiping. Looking for something.
James Vincent Cunningham was born in Cumberland, Maryland, in 1911. His father, a steam-shovel operator, soon moved his family to the Mountain West, settling first in Billings, Montana, then in Denver. Cunningham attended a private Jesuit high school in Denver and graduated at 15, having shown himself remarkably proficient in Greek and Latin. His father’s death in an industrial accident pushed him into the workforce. By the time of the stock market crash of 1929, he was working for a broker on the Denver Stock Exchange. He personally witnessed the suicides of two ruined businessmen that autumn.
He hopped trains, looking for work, throughout the Depression. A correspondence with the poet Yvor Winters germinated into a living arrangement and a chance at some college. Cunningham took up residence in a shed on Winters’s property and enrolled at Stanford, where Winters taught, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree in classics and a PhD in English.
Cunningham spent World War II teaching math to military pilots. After the war, he began a gusty teaching career that whisked him from the University of Chicago to the University of Hawaii to Harvard and more, before dropping him at Brandeis, where he taught from 1953 until his 1980 retirement. He was married three times. He received two Guggenheim fellowships and several very prestigious grants. His criticism, particularly on works of the English Renaissance, was highly regarded.
He published only a few hundred poems, most of them extremely short, all of them essentially perfect. He died in a Massachusetts nursing home in 1985.
I reference this odd American tradition of the athenaeum because I cannot think of a better way to introduce Cunningham’s poetry. Like the physical athenaeums, it is impossible to imagine without a classical past, sincerely and blithely appropriated. Like them, his poetry is dedicated, quite overtly, to the pursuit of wisdom. Like them, it is set, gleaming and incongruous, upon the punk and crusty soil of America.
Cunningham, who once opened a lecture by describing himself as a “renegade Irish Catholic from the plains of Montana,” was an extreme formalist. In a 1939 essay, he wrote “Poetry is what looks like poetry, what sounds like poetry. It is metrical composition.” Free verse, in such a view, is an oxymoron. He made little effort to conceal his disdain for many of his fellow poets. In one poem addressed to them directly, “For My Contemporaries,” from 1942’s The Helmsman, he calls them “Ambitious boys / Whose big lines swell / With spiritual noise,” and it is clear that, to him, such noise is unworthy of being called poetry.
Cunningham was fascinated by the distillation of language, thought, and experience into wisdom. And so it stands to reason that, though he wrote and translated a variety of verse, his particular specialty was the epigram. The epigram is to poetry what the fable is to fiction. It is a pithy saying, a well-crafted proverb. Its purpose is to express an insight and, furthermore, to instruct, as briefly and memorably as possible.
The Exclusions of a Rhyme: Poems and Epigrams, first published in 1960, has been released in a fresh edition this year from Wiseblood Books. It collects Cunningham’s first four books of poetry — The Helmsman, The Judge Is Fury, Doctor Drink, and Trivial, Vulgar, and Exalted — and many of his Latin translations. With an enlightening introduction by Stephen Shivone, it is as good an entryway into Cunningham as one could desire.
The union of the classical and the American is everywhere in these poems, but the effect is anything but old-fashioned and stodgy. Like his classical forebears (Martial, Catullus, Statius, Horace, many of whom he translated both in school and in his later work), Cunningham’s lines capture, in their stark beauty, moral wisdom born of base human experience.
Soaring one moment, scatological the next, the topics that drew the poet’s eye were all the stuff of unvarnished life, often drawn from the landscape of the West, across which he zigzagged repeatedly. We witness love, sex, lying, death, drunkenness, regret, distraction, curiosity, grudges, derangement, laziness, useless scholarship, torment, aging, confusion, conflicted allegiances, poverty, weeds, sorrow, an unresponsive God, snakes, wasps, spousal bliss, spousal hell, and — threading it all together — wisdom.
His Montana youth is evoked sparely and beautifully in “August Hail”:
In late summer the wild geese
In the white draws are flying.
The grain beards in the blue peace.
The weeds are drying.
In “Distinctions at Dusk,” the changeability of the inner life is reflected in the outer world:
Closed in a final rain
Clouds are complete,
Vows of shadowful light
And every hour is late.
We sit with Cunningham in a sticky bar in “New York: 5 March 1957,” watching “[t]he stripper of the gawking of my youth.” Examples of his gruff commitment to honesty abound, as in Epigram 23: “I have wined / With lewdness and with crudeness, and I find / Love is my enemy.”
Through these admissions, we sense that he is able to write of squalor and the collapse, of vagaries and betrayals, of “love as quiet as regret / And love like anger in the night,” only because he has, for his support, the consolation of having learned. Something is gained, something gleaned. “The voyage of the soul is simply / Through age to wisdom,” Cunningham writes in “The Helmsman: An Ode,” “But wisdom, if it comes, / Comes like the ripening gleam of wheat.”
Wisdom is not an easily accessible category in contemporary American discourse or culture. We value intelligence, surely, and debate, but wisdom is neither of those things, and is sometimes opposed by both. It takes time to achieve, and we seem to have less and less patience. The hope embodied in the athenaeum is often sadly disappointed. Yet poetry is a literary vehicle uniquely suited to the transmission of wisdom in compact doses, and Cunningham’s potent lines, which are packed with it, may be just the strong medicine we need.
Paul J. Pastor is a poet, editor, and author, most recently of Bower Lodge: Poems (Fernwood Press, 2021). He lives in Oregon.