Tag Archives: J.V. Cunningham


“Origin” and “Bees”: The Latest (New Yorker) Installment of Official Verse Culture

Preface: Because people don’t tend to read blogs for contextualizing entries, a fair number of readers might assume that the following article reflects an all-out hostility to poetry that appears in The New Yorker. Before any reader makes that assumption, I would urge her or him to read my blog post (November 9, 2014) on Suzanne Lummis’s poem about Ophelia, which also was published in The New Yorker.

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“shall i uncover honey / where maggots are” – “The Kingfishers,” Charles Olson

In a recent issue of The New Yorker (Sept. 3rd), a poem entitled “Origin” (pages 52-53) begins:

“I was born inside a mourning dove.”

The poem poses a riddle, initially, since birth is a process by which a living creature separates from its gestating entity. It doesn’t prove to be an interesting riddle; rather, its pathos at the poem’s conclusion only serves to underline how far short its opening falls from matching even the effort of a popular song. “Jumping’ Jack Flash”‘s use of figurative language in its first line is far more intriguing. providing the reader with enough complexity to move with accelerating interest to the second line. (Though Keith Richards is credited with the music, it is Bill Wyman’s primary riff that underscores this impetuous metaphor of the British generation born during World War II.)

Katie Condon’s trope plays with the long-standing obsession of poets with dead animals, as well as the constant proximity of death to animal life. One could take this subject and turn it into a compelling poem, but it would require an artist who pays more attention to the use of her pronouns. “I” and “us” and “you” are sprinkled around this poem like garnishes on a plate of microwaved frozen food that do nothing to hide its high salt content. Did no reader of this poem before it was published suggest to Ms. Condon that she needs to review the relationship between these pronouns?

While fans of this kind of poem might view my comments are overly harsh, I want to remind them that far more strident attitudes towards Condon’s poetics are at work in contemporary verse. I can imagine many avant-garde poets (and their significant affiliates) sneering “Quietude” and viewing the sentiment of the poem as a kind of maggot that the Fly of Limited Imagination has graced the carcass of Tradition with. I’ll leave it to other blogs to argue that case, but I will say that if “Origin” is an example of what Ph.D. candidates in Literature and Creative Writing are producing these days, then academic poetry is truly taking a turn towards the banal.

In fairness to Ms. Condon, I am cutting and pasting the link to her website, which appears to provide links to other poems she’s had published. I am not in any rush to read them, but perhaps those who yearn for “success” as poets might want to hurry to her site to see what they should emulate.


I myself find Condon’s poem most useful as a reminder to visit William Blake’s “The Fly.”

“The Fly”

Little Fly
Thy summer’s play,
My thoughtless hand
Has brush’d away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink & sing;
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength & breath;
And the want
Of thought is death;

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.

In Condon’s poem, what is conspicuously missing is the “blind hand.”

As for the ending of Condon’s poem (“I am // as afraid as you.”, I jotted down a quatrain shortly after reading her poem:


No maggot is afraid.
The tiny egg, when laid,
Knows thickened, sated Fate
Will never make him wait.

Turning this critique on myself, I hope that anyone who finds my rejoinder as insufficient as I do quickly turns to someone who could have done a far better job: J.V. Cunningham. Just as I suggest that readers would be better off reading Blake than Condon, I do not pretend that my work is more deserving of sustained attention than those who have far surpassed my efforts.

Post-Script: Oddly enough, there is also a poem about “Bees” in the same issue, and the juxtaposition recalled a poet who would have viewed this pair of poems with utter disdain. As such, I have just now gone back to the beginning and inserted an epigraph.


Epigrams: Post-Modern and Regressive

The routine of housecleaning yesterday (I prefer the chores of washing dishes, vacuuming, laundry, and washing the tub, in that order) sometimes helps distract one from the usual internal grousing and opens up a countervailing perspective. In thinking about the variety of writing presented at the Poetic Research Bureau on Saturday, I began wondering about whether there is such a thing as a post-modern epigram. Charles Bernstein’s presentation included an obligatory sideswipe attack on traditional prosody, but it came across as a rare miss in an otherwise superb set. Part of the reason for the failure of this punch to hit anything but stale air is the lack of a meaningful target, especially if we’re thinking of epigrams written in verse. For the most part, the satirical acidity of an epigram increases with the use of meter and especially with rhyme. To jettison those structural underpinnings as if they no longer possessed any lingering resourcefulness could only mean that an undue haste has taken hold and begun to demolish one of the most enduring citadels of social critique.

First, though, let’s look at the question raised about the evolution of wit: is there such a thing as a post-modern epigram? If there is, then there must be an antecedent: the modernist epigram. My first inclination is to say that I can’t think of an epigram by a modernist writer that is somehow, in its very enactment of language, an example of modernist consciousness. In issue number eight of OR magazine, for instance, Dennis Phillips uses as an epigraph for his poem, “On Sentimentality,” an epigram in ULYSSES: “The sentimentalist is he who would enjoy without incurring the immense debtorship for a thing done.” After the em-dash, Phillips notes: “—Dedalus via Joyce via Meredith.” There’s a lovely balance to Joyce’s sentence: it bites down on the Latinate strand (“incurring”) and the trip-hammer jolt of monosyllabic etymology (“thing done”) with a seductive oscillation. Is there, however, something specifically modernist about it? If modernism flaunts its sensibility as difficult, then I find myself asking how much difference is there between Dedalus’s definition and the lines by Swift that Dedalus might quote if someone were to ask, “Are you talking about me?”

But malice never was his aim.

He flayed the vice, yet spared the name.

No individual could resent,

Where thousands equally were meant.


For a split to be visible between the past and modernism’s heave-ho, one needs more of a bifurcation than this. If there is such a thing as a modernist epigram, I’d like to suggest that it might be most prominently found in the writing of Gertrude Stein. It’s possible, in fact, that her work needs to be reframed within that kind of point and counterpoint. If HOW TO WRITE is read as a meditation always already on the verge of becoming a concatenation of skewed epigrams, then perhaps we have the gauge for determining what it might mean to undertake the writing of post-modern epigrams. Within that context, the writing presented at PRB’s event reverberated with a sense of resuscitation of debt acknowledged. Everybody I heard on Saturday left unspoken a basic postulate: Stein broke down the expectations of normative logic in a way that makes our contemporary efforts pliable and adhesive. We don’t have to strain to make our fragmentary conclusions celebrate their partial grasp: we feel their palpable desperation at our inability to measure facts and have those calculations account for all our contingencies.

At the same time that I thoroughly enjoyed all the work I heard at PRB, I have found myself wondering if the epigram is a device that can accommodate both those who wish to follow Nietzsche’s and Valery’s sustained practice of that form and those whose episodic use of the epigrammatic enables them to make memorable forays that deserve our nurture, too. One such poet is J.V. Cunningham, whose epigrams are often tinged with the melancholy of a misogynist who not only was not the first to draw blood, but who suffers from wounds that are only capable of being staunched by his satire.

Perhaps epigrams must be utterly aligned with their milieu and traditional arrangements can no longer possibly suffice. Nevertheless, I would have welcomed this past Saturday a poem as good as Cunningham’s “I, too, have been to the Huntington” about the general locale in which we are working as poets:


A railroad baron in the West

Built this nest,


With someone else’s pick and shovel

Built this hovel,


And bought these statues semi-nude,



Where ladies’ bosoms are revealed,

And concealed,


And David equally with Venus

Has no penis.


If you know of a post-modern poem or epigram that has mocked a sentimentalist with equally witty dexterity, please send your nominations and I’ll be glad to post them: William.BillMohr@gmail.com.