A rich literary legacy from three masters of the short poem

Three master stylists died this year: James Vincent Cunningham, Philip A. Larkin, and Robert Graves. All three have enriched our language in verse and prose. More particularly, each was a master of the short poem, a form that had fallen into disuse in our time.

Cunningham, a professor of English at Brandeis University, was an essayist and scholar of great distinction. Larkin wrote reviews, essays, and two novels. And Graves may be best known for his 1934 novel, ``I, Claudius.''

But it's as poets that each should be remembered. The short poem, being short, should be memorable; and Cunningham, Larkin, and Graves wrote many memorable ones. Each poet eschewed the purple passage. They achieved their effects through a union of thought and rhythm that passes the test C. H. Sisson, the British poet-critic, puts to poems: ``The test is what can be held in the mind, as a rhythm.''

Historically, the basic short poem is the epigram, and each of these poets wrote epigrammatically. That is, each wrote tersely, wittily, with thought, not image, bearing the emotional charge.

Take Graves. Born in 1895, he attained distinction as a war poet, then as a love poet. He was also a character of prodigious energies, turning out some 140 books and 800 short pieces. From 1929 on, he lived on the island of Majorca, shunning the telephone and the typewriter. What he cared most for, and what his peers loved him most for, were his short poems.

Graves had a playful side that deserves illustration. A poem called ``Lollocks'' begins: ``By sloth of sorrow fathered,/These dusty-featured Lollocks/ Have their nativity in all disordered/ Backs of cupboard drawers.'' Lollocks, which you won't find in any encyclopedia, save perhaps a medieval one, plague our days and nights, and Graves's poem is a kind of incantation or curse against these mythical beasts.

Philip Larkin's sense of humor was more subdued. Born in 1922, he was a librarian all his life, spending the last 30 years in Hull, a fishing port in the northeast of England. He wrote jazz reviews for the Daily Telegraph for 10 years, now collected in the volume ``All What Jazz'' (reviewed on these pages Oct. 2); his taste ran to Louis Armstrong rather than Dizzy Gillespie. Extremely influential as a poet, he was also quite popular. The quality of his affection is indicated by his befriending of noveli st Barbara Pym before her work became popular.

A Larkin poem sounds sad; but the art, the epigrammatic art, relieves the sadness. One goes like this (it's called ``Days''): ``What are days for?/Days are where we live./They come, they wake us/ Time and time over./They are to be happy in:/Where can we live but days?/ Ah, solving that question/Brings the priest and the doctor/In their long coats/ Running over the fields.''

And now for an American: Shakespearean scholar and founding chairman of the Brandeis University English Department, J. V. Cunningham (born 1912), the least known of the three, was perhaps the fiercest in defending the art of the short poem. In a succession of essays, he formulated and reformulated his point that, through ignorance or a kind of pride, the contemporary poet has abandoned a set of principles, enshrined in the concept of meter, that made possible the kind of acute perceptions pe ople read poetry for.

According to Cunningham, ``free verse'' has not replaced traditional verse, it has displaced it. Cunningham's essays were always well illustrated with quotations from every period of English poetry.

Cunningham's forte was the epigram proper. I have used them for many years to illustrate aspects of form. As literary compositions, Cunningham's epigrams have a perfection that larger, woollier poems lack. They remain a source of inspiration and renewal for the art of the short poem in English.

Frequently literary in origin, Cunningham's epigrams speak to, and often of, the heart: ``Within this mindless vault/Lie Tristan and Isolt/ Tranced in each other's beauties./They had no other duties.''

Cunningham, Larkin, and Graves: a triumvirate whose poetic legacy ensures them a lasting life in the republic of letters.

Tom D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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