Perhaps the most striking apprentice-master relationship in 20th Century American poetry was that of J. V. Cunningham to Yvor Winters. Winters, a critic who was ultimately more acclaimed for the vividness of his passion than the strength of his aesthetic, inspired more poets than he influenced. Cunningham became the most important poet to actually absorb the Winters aesthetic and base his poetic style on it. And because Cunningham, unlike Winters, devoted the bulk of his professional life to poetry rather than theory or criticism (though he wrote some distinguished essays and books on both), he can reasonably be said to be, even more than his mentor, the foremost poet of this school.
Cunningham was born 23 August 1911 in Cumberland, Maryland, but his family moved to Billings, Montana, when he was three. He spent most of his childhood in Montana, and always considered it his home state. His father, James Joseph Cunningham, was a steam-shovel operator working in railroad construction; he died in an accident while Cunningham was still in high school.
The young Cunningham had shown great promise as a scholar, and his mother, Anna Finan Cunningham, moved the family to Denver, where the schools were better. He studied the classics at Regis High School, a Jesuit institution, and finished the Latin and Greek program by the time he was 15. During this same period, he first made the acquaintance, by correspondence, of Winters, then a graduate student at Stanford. They were brought together by a mutual friend who was interested in contemporary poetry, and nurtured the same interest in the youthful scholar.
But Cunningham's education was cut short. First his father died, and he postponed college to get a job as a messenger boy at the Denver Stock Exhange. Then he lost that, after the stock market crash of 1929. He became a hobo, traveling the West and Southwest working odd jobs— including the occasional writing job for a local newspaper. He had never completely given up on the idea of writing, or of scholarship, and finally, while down and out in Arizona in the winter of 1931, he wrote Winters asking for help. Winters responded with the offer of living quarters in a shed on his property, and Cunningham moved to Palo Alto, California, and enrolled at Stanford.
Like Donald Justice, another poet deeply influenced by the eccentric poet/critic, Cunningham never actually studied with Winters. But he did finish his education at Stanford over the next 15 years, receiving an AB degree in classics in 1934 and a doctorate in English in 1945.
He remained in academia, teaching at the University of Chicago, the University of Hawaii, Harvard University, the University of Virginia, and Washington University. In 1953 he joined the faculty of Brandeis University, where he remained until his retirement in 1980. He was twice a Guggenheim fellow, in 1959-60 and 1966-67, and a fellow 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. He was married three times, to poet Barbara Gibbs in 1937 (divorced 1943), Dolora Gallagher in 1945 (divorced 1949), and Jessie Campbell in 1950. He died in 1985.
He published several books in his lifetime, among them The Helmsman (1942), The Judge Is Fury (1947), Doctor Drink (1950), Trivial, Vulgar, and Exalted: Epigrams (1957), The Exclusions of a Rhyme (1960), To What Strangers, What Welcome (1964), and Some Salt: Poems and Epigrams (1967). But for all that, his total output was relatively slight, totaling less than two hundred poems, most of them short (some only two lines). Cunningham became known as a master of the epigram, probably the master in 20th Century America, where few poets have taken the form seriously. Mark Strand, e.e. cummings and Richard Wilbur have written epigrams, but for the most part, the epigram has been the province of light versifiers like Dorothy Parker and Ogden Nash. Interestingly, the line of demarcation between the literary and the light is so stringent in American poetry that Cunningham's work does not appear alongside these figures in anthologies of light verse, though his work is as witty and accessible as theirs, as in the poem about the reader who "Dislikes my book, calls it to my discredit/A book you can't put down before you've read it."
Winters's influence on Cunningham included formal rigor, anti-modernism, and a sense of poetry as an important part of a culture's moral dialog, although Cunningham's moral lessons were frequently touched with more ribaldry than Winters's ("Lip was a man who used his head./ He used it when he went to bed/With his friend's wife, and with his friend,/ With either sex at either end"). But other influences were important, too. His early Latin and Greek studies drew him to the classical Roman epigrammists, especially Martial (whom he translated). He drew a passion for argument and precise moral distinctions from his Jesuit training and his own Roman Catholic upbringing (although he was to lose his faith, the loss of which he lamented in his poetry).
Cunningham was to frustrate some admirers for the tenacity with which he stuck to his aesthetic code. He was criticized for emotional detachment; as Louis Simpson said of him, "You cannot show the triumph of discipline over disorder unless you also show the disorder." Critic J. Bottum praised his epigrams for achieving "everything the epigram can do," but pointed out that there is more to poetry than what the epigram can do, and suggested that Cunningham, with his gifts, could have done much more. Even Winters demurred from Cunningham's assertion that sensory images have no place in poetry.
In 1997, an important rerelease of Cunningham's work, edited and with an introduction by poet Timothy Steele, revived his reputation and stirred new interest in his work.