Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 771
John Anthony Ciardi (CHAHR-dee) was an accomplished and prolific poet who wrote for both adults and children, but he gained his greatest recognition as an editor, translator, and critic. He and his three sisters were born in Boston, Massachusetts; his parents, Carminantonio and Concetta Ciardi, had been born near Naples,...
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John Anthony Ciardi (CHAHR-dee) was an accomplished and prolific poet who wrote for both adults and children, but he gained his greatest recognition as an editor, translator, and critic. He and his three sisters were born in Boston, Massachusetts; his parents, Carminantonio and Concetta Ciardi, had been born near Naples, Italy. Ciardi was only three years old when his father was killed in an automobile crash. Echoes of his upbringing in a traditional Catholic-Italian family, the clashes of the old ways and the new, and his longing for a father he never knew are found throughout his work.
After graduating from public high school in 1933, Ciardi spent a year working to earn money for college. He then enrolled at Bates College in Maine but failed most of his courses and left after one year. When he tried again at Tufts University, he encountered the professor John Holmes, who inspired and encouraged him as a student and as a poet. Ciardi graduated magna cum laude in 1938, and that fall he began graduate study at the University of Michigan. He chose that university in part because of the Avery Hopwood Awards; Ciardi hoped to win the award for poetry, as much for the money as for the recognition, and he won the award in 1939. A year later he published his first volume of poetry, Homeward to America, a well-received collection of lyric poems exploring the immigrant son’s search for self-identity.
Ciardi accepted a position as English instructor at the University of Kansas City. Over the next twenty years, with only a period during which he served in the Air Force during World War II, he taught English literature and creative writing at the University of Kansas City, Harvard University, and Rutgers University. He also taught at, and for many years directed, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.
Other Skies, a collection of poems about Ciardi’s war experiences, received mixed reviews, and in the next volume, Live Another Day, many individual poems were praised highly, though the collection was criticized for not being cohesive. That same year Ciardi became an editor for Twayne Publishers, where he initiated an “Annual Twayne First Book Contest” to encourage new poets.
In 1950 he edited the anthology Mid-Century American Poets. More than just a collection of famous works by famous poets, the anthology was carefully assembled to show the diverse strengths of American poetry. Six years later Ciardi began a long stint as poetry editor for the Saturday Review, where his exacting standards drew attention. He refused to praise everything; instead he harshly criticized work by such popular poets as Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Rod McKuen. Some readers objected, but many critics and poets admired Ciardi’s strong stance. Many of his reviews and responses from readers were gathered into two volumes, Dialogue with an Audience and Manner of Speaking.
During the 1950’s Ciardi published four more volumes of poetry, including As If: Poems New and Selected, which showed the range of his emotion and the depth of his craftsmanship, and I Marry You: A Sheaf of Love Poems, a deeply felt collection of poems about his relationship with Judith Hostetter Ciardi, whom he had married in 1946. The latter was among the most successful and popular of his twenty volumes of poetry.
For many readers Ciardi is known as a translator of Dante. His translation of The Inferno was well-received and widely used in college classes. He continued the project with The Purgatorio, The Paradiso, and a one-volume The Divine Comedy, and used the occasion to debate the requirements of poetry translation. Ciardi’s translations, accompanied by summaries, notes, and glosses, offer English readers a reliable way into Dante’s world.
Children made up another important audience for Ciardi. Between 1959 and 1986 he published thirteen volumes for young readers, including The Reason for the Pelican; You Read to Me, I’ll Read to You, which contains the frequently anthologized “My Cat, Mrs. Lick-a-Chin”; Someone Could Win a Polar Bear; and Fast and Slow: Poems for Advanced Children and Beginning Parents.
Toward the end of his life Ciardi was still looking for new directions for his writing. He collaborated with Isaac Asimov on Limericks: Too Gross and A Grossery of Limericks, and he continued to publish volumes of serious poetry. A lifelong fascination with words led him to linguistic research. The result was A Browser’s Dictionary, and Native’s Guide to the Unknown American Language. At his death from a heart attack on March 30, 1986, this prolific writer, translator, critic, editor, and reviewer left behind a large body of poems, diaries, and essays, many of which have been published posthumously.