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About a Poem: Robert Pinsky on J.V. Cunningham’s Epigram 43

This Humanist whom no belief constrained
Grew so broad-minded he was scatter-brained.

-J. V. Cunningham

Is the boundary clear or blurry, that separates the sacrimental and the sanctimonious? Between peace and complacency? Wisdom and pomposity? Buddha and poo-poo?

If such boundaries are at all blurry or unreliable, what can help?

I can think of two answers to that question: laughter and space. In this poem from his Collected Poems, J.V. Cunningham deploys both: the spatial realities of "constrained" and "broad-minded" and "scatter-brained," in some ways the same and in some ways different, create laughter. The laughter is delighted by the differences and by the similarities, the gesture of "scattered" and the gesture of "broad" nearly identical. (But not.)

Buddhism, transplanted (or spread?) successfully to American soil, occasionally suffers the leaf-mold of sanctimony. In such cases, wit like Cunningham's, drying out excessive wetness, may help.

J. V. Cunningham (1911-1985) was a dour, droll ex-Catholic scholar and poet, an admirer of the Roman epigramist Martial. Robert Pinsky was the thirty-nineth poet laureate of the United States and is founder of the Favorite Poem Project. He has appeared on "The Simpsons" and received the Harold Washington Award from the City of Chicago. His most recent book is Essential Pleasures: A New Anthology of Poems to Read Aloud (Norton).

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