The Collected Poems of John Ciardi

by John Ciardi

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2008

The Collected Poems of John Ciardi is a very large volume that contains 450 poems, representing 62 percent of Ciardi’s poetic production but excluding his fifteen books of children’s poetry and his translation of The Divine Comedy. There is already a Selected Poems of John Ciardi(1984) in existence, but Edward M. Cifelli or the University of Arkansas Press has determined that there is a need for a larger collection of Ciardi’s poems, and Cifelli suggests that a complete poems is being contemplated. Ciardi died in 1986, so Cifelli has chosen the poems and edited them for this work. He provides a very brief foreword to the collection and an index and not much else. He does not, for example, give the dates of individual poems or the publishers of Ciardi’s twenty books of poetry.

Ciardi was a prolific poet and a popular one; his poems sold well, but they have not received much academic criticism or recognition. He was a traditional poet who wrote in regular meters and forms. He apparently had little interest in experimenting with the poetic models he had inherited, so he continued to write as if modernism and postmodernism did not exist. He was not an obscure or difficult poet, which may help to account for his popularity. In a blurb on the back of the book, Cifelli claims that Ciardi should be “understood as writing in a special class of American poets, including contemporaries like Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Wilbur, and Randall Jarrell.” It damages Ciardi’s reputation and the nature of his achievement to compare him with such important and very different poets. Ciardi was an old-fashioned and minor poet who never changed his style or approach.

Ciardi was not, of course, only a poet. He was a true man of letters; he was a full-time professor at Rutgers University and other universities for a number of years, and he wrote a weekly column for The Saturday Review for more than two decades. In addition, he wrote children’s poetry and did translations. He was engaged in too many enterprises to devote exclusive time to the poetry on which his reputation will be decided. He also probably wrote too many poems. The later poems of Ciardi show a real decline in poetic ambition and power.

Ciardi’s early poetry does show an interest in metaphor and deals with themes related to the troubled years of World War II. For example, “Letter to Mother” balances the negative experiences of his mother as an immigrant from Italy, only to find that “it was good, it was all good.” However, in the last section of the poem, Ciardi describes himself as a journeyer of the mind who has not found “the hoped for land.” After establishing the metaphoric analogy between him and his mother, he denies it in the last line: “But there will be no America discovered by analogy.” Any achievement he has will not be the equal of America. This ironic twist softens the earlier personal assertion. Irony was to become Ciardi’s dominant mode.

“The Foolish Wing” uses the metaphor of a bird’s flight to describe vaunting ambition; the bird, and by analogy humankind, fails because it does not know limits. The portrayal of a failed quest in this first book of poems is unusual. Ciardi certainly had ambitions, and he seems to praise the attempt rather then see the need for limits.

“To a Young American the Day After the Fall of Barcelona” examines the Spanish Civil War and what an American response to it should be. The “young American” has been brought up on Greek tragedy, or “Aeschylean fire” in Ciardi’s phrase. The speaker of the poem orders the young man to “burn your books and come away.” The choice is between leaving “your world to be undone” and accepting responsibility to take action. The tone of the poem is hectoring and somewhat presumptuous in a young poet.

“Spring Song I,” modeled on Robert Herrick’s “Corinna’s Going A-Maying,” is well done. The invitation to celebrate spring and the run-on lines and regular meter create urgency. The language is not completely separated from its sources, but it achieves its effect through sound and meter.

“Elegy: For You, Father” is a curious poem. The syntax is clogged and the diction stale. Ciardi directs his father to “accept your ruin” and then to cast up his bones to warn the world of humanity’s inevitable fate. The tone is unfortunate; there is no feeling for the dead father or his own loss but instead preemptory instructions since “we have need of dead men’s blessings.” Ciardi wrote other and much more successful elegies to the father he lost when he was only three.

“On Sending Home My Civilian Clothes” is the first of many war poems Ciardi would write. He treats the subject satirically as he bids good-bye to civilian glitter and puts on “new disguises.” With this transformation, he has set “an engine on my will/ To measure, pity, stalk, and kill.” “Pity” sounds curiously out of place in this list, but it does temper the change of an ordinary man into an “engine.” Ciardi adds a further irony by declaring in a closing couplet: “Already foreign as I guess/ The postage to a lost address.” He never could resist an ironic ending, even to a poem already thick with irony.

“Death of a Bomber” describes from a ground view a bomber attempting to land after being shot up in battle. The men are saved as “death goes by” and life begins once more. Ciardi effectively uses allegorical figures to describe the contrast between the men, who are spared, and the bomber, which dies.

“Elegy Just in Case” takes a comic look at the very real possibility of death in war. The meter is trochaic tetrameter, so it has the effect of a spell or a charm. The speaker’s remains will be kissed by termites rather than women, and the beetles will have what is left. His epitaph will remember that “your flesh was sweet to learn.”

The 1950’s was the decade in which Ciardi established his name as a poet. In From Time to Time (1951), he wrote one of his best poems, “Mystic River.” It is a “dirty river by religious explorers/ Named Mysticke.” Ciardi then quotes these early settlers on the river: To them it is a “gentle and salubrious river,” “distillynge so sweet an air through its course.” This once-holy place may have become polluted, but it still “lights the wake of Gods.” The gods are dead; the river is a place where “nothing’s planted/ Beside the rollerdrome and hot dog stand.” However, Ciardi’s speaker recalls boyhood days of swimming and sculling on the river. He and his friends made a raft to watch the dying fish, and fever came from it as well; a playmate died from its diseased waters. Nevertheless, the speaker then asks to become “lit to the bone” and to be as a bird who flies “above the shuttered house.” He will not remain above his roots; he will be “captured by light, drawn down and down and down” to the “caved-in town.” The Mystic will outstay “the death of Gods and make a life of light/ That breaks, but calls a million birds to flight.” It is an impressive ending, but it is not clear if he is given enlightenment as the light images suggest and will now see his world differently or whether he will be one of those million birds who take flight at dawn and leave this “caved-in” world behind. The metaphors seem to cross here, and the ending is uncertain. The poem owes quite a bit to W. B. Yeats. The ending is very close to “The Wild Swans at Coole,” and Ciardi appropriates “bound and free,” one of Yeats’s special phrases.

I Marry You (1958) was one of Ciardi’s most popular books of poetry; it went through five editions in ten years. One of its central poems is “Men Marry What They Need, I Marry You.” Other men “marry their queen, their daughter, or their mother”; so they are not marrying another person but shadows of their own desire. Only the Ciardi speaker, of all humankind, has the perception to marry someone for her true self. In love poetry it is traditional to praise the beloved over all others; in this poem Ciardi seems to praise his own ability to make the essential choice. In addition, the poem contains some interesting assertions about the supremacy of this marriage. It will apparently protect the lovers from time. A John Donne fly buzzes about the married couple, but in this all-sufficient love, “why should I bother/ the flies about me?”

“Most Like an Arch This Marriage,” another of Ciardi’s marriage poems, uses the sustained metaphor of the arch to unite the two separate elements that make up the marriage union. Within the arch “two weaknesses . . . lean/ into a strength. Two failings become firm.” The ending teases out the sexual implications of the arch: “It is by falling in and in we make/ the all-bearing point, for one another’s sake.”

“Elegy,” another poem about Ciardi’s father (much better than the earlier “Elegy”), contrasts the father’s natural aptitudes “with a spade in his hand” with his tedious and sedentary work collecting dimes for life-insurance policies. On Sundays the father can return to his natural realm and visit the land he has purchased with that tedious and unnatural toil. The poet is forced, however, to label these memories as false, since his father died when he was only three. He has instead a “dream” of his lost and lamented father.

“The Stills and Rapids of Your Nakedness” is one of many poems Ciardi wrote for his wife. She is compared to the seasons and weather of nature as she awakes. The poet speaker is part of this process, as he is transformed from “wood to grown green” in praise of her. The metaphor is sustained and the relationship extended in an effective way.

“Two Egrets” serves as a representative of Ciardi’s nature poems. The egrets are seen on an Easter morning, and Ciardi is perhaps a little too eager to find symbolic meaning in the natural scene. They are first observed “like two white hands/ washing one another/ in the prime of light.” Then the theological meaning is drawn: “the white stroke of the egrets/ turned the air—a prayer/ and the idea of prayer.”

Cifelli includes three sections from Ciardi’s autobiographical book of poems, Lives of X (1971). These sections deal with his early life with his parents, his days at school, and his early experiences as a laborer on a fishing boat. The poetry is written in a loose blank verse, and the structure is loose as it moves through memories. The first section, “The Shaft,” takes up the loss of his father. He describes closeness with as well as the absence of his father, “as men go, round their corners, to what they do after they have kissed their sons.” When the father dies, his mother finds consolation in her son; she “would not waste/ the prayers she lit but got him back in me.”

The Collected Poems of John Ciardi is likely to restore some of Ciardi’s lost popularity as a poet. Unfortunately, however, the volume required fuller editing and a more rigorous process for selecting poems. Cifelli mentions in the foreword that Ciardi created a poetic genre called the “Unimportant Poem”; nevertheless, there are far too many unimportant poems in this collection, especially among the later poems. In addition, in cases where Ciardi revised an earlier poem, Cifelli gives readers only the revised and final version, so they cannot see how Ciardi’s poetic strategies changed as he rethought some of his more familiar poems.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIII, April 15, 1997, p. 1377.

Library Journal. CXXII, March 1, 1997, p. 78.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, February 24, 1997, p. 84.

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