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J. V. Cunningham was born in Cumberland, Maryland, on August 23, 1911, the son of working-class Irish parents. His father, a railroad worker, moved the family to Billings, Montana, where Cunningham spent most of his childhood. Although he completed high school in 1927, his formal education was suspended for many years due to his father's death and the ensuing financial difficulties. He worked as a messenger boy in the Denver Stock Exchange until he lost the job in the Crash of 1929; he then left home in search of work and began drifting from job to job across the southwestern states, frequently finding himself homeless and hungry. After several years and several unsuccessful attempts at getting himself to college, Cunningham came into a windfall: Yvor Winters, the celebrated poet and critic, invited him to study at Stanford University. He attended Stanford for both undergraduate and graduate school, receiving his Ph.D. in 1945.
Apart from a short stint teaching mathematics to Air Force pilots during World War II, Cunningham spent the rest of his working life as a teacher in numerous universities across the country, among them the University of Chicago, the University of Hawaii, Harvard University, the University of Virginia, and Washington University. In 1953 he began teaching at Brandeis University, where he worked until his retirement in 1980.
Cunningham is the author of numerous collections of poetry, among them The Poems of J. V. Cunningham (Swallow Press / Ohio University Press, 1997), Let Thy Words Be Few (1986), Some Salt: Poems and Epigrams (1967), The Exclusions of a Rhyme (1960), Trivial, Vulgar, and Exalted: Epigrams (1957), and The Helmsman (1942). Also a critic, editor, and general man of letters, Cunningham is perhaps best known for his epigrammatic poetry, which was much esteemed by his literary colleagues. His honors include fellowships from The Academy of American Poets and The Guggenheim Foundation, as well as grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and The National Institute of Arts and Letters. In spite of this recognition, Cunningham's audience remained a relatively small one: as most of his work aligns itself formally and stylistically with classical poetry and breaks with popular contemporary trends, it received little public attention during his lifetime. He died in Waltham, Massachusetts, on March 30, 1985.