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...
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