Ideally, John Ciardi’s poems should be read as a whole, not as individual works, for their total effect is much greater than the sum of their various parts. Ciardi’s engaging “personality” constitutes an integral informing intelligence, a presence that becomes more complex and developed as the experience of his poetry grows. His work is comparatively accessible—indeed his “first law” for all poetry is that it be easily understood by the general reader.
In an important prefatory essay to the 1949 volume Live Another Day, Ciardi set down thirteen prescriptive principles of his poetic creed. These fundamental rules served him as a guideline for his own poetry and as a standard for the evaluation and judgment of the works of others. An understanding of these critical precepts is important to the analysis of Ciardi’s poetry.
Ciardi’s first and most important rule is that the reader should be able to understand a given poem. Ciardi had little use for certain poets (T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound among them) whom he called “baroque,” inbred mannerists writing to other writers rather than generating their work from the raw material of nature “outward to the lives of men.” Moreover, Ciardi believed that a poem should be affirmative and specific “about the lives of people.” He recalled the origins of the genre by reminding readers that poetry should be read aloud, that its effect is to the ear not the eye. Ciardi asserted that poetry can be about any subject and may utilize any diction (no word is “not fit”), thus echoing William Wordsworth’s democratic principles set forth in his preface to Lyrical Ballads (2d ed., 1800). Ciardi also believed that “personality” must emerge from the work, otherwise it “is dead.” Pursuing more technical prosodic elements, his premises include the opinion that to succeed, a poem “must create its own form,” and that ambiguities must be recognized and understood in each of their separate possibilities.
One can recognize that much of Ciardi’s poetic credo is derivative, especially from the modern New Critical approach. In reference to his translations of Dante, Ciardi confessed unabashedly that he was “a thief of other men’s scholarship” but argued logically and persuasively that such work has “no better purpose” than to serve other people’s needs. In his own poetic principles, however, he went beyond any limited doctrinaire critical tenets and stressed the totality of a specific work, each line being “a conceived unit” of the whole. His final points were technical: He saw rhyme in the poem as “part of the total voice-punctuation” and metrics as being more successful when the conventional iambic pentameter line is less strictly observed.
Critics have declared that no two of Ciardi’s poems are alike. Although that observation may be something of an overstatement, certainly both his subjects and his forms, his diction and his tone, all demonstrate both poetic inventiveness and a remarkably broad range of personal interests. Indeed, in their subjectivity lies the primary theme of this most autobiographical poet: himself and his search for orientation and stability in a protean and often hostile and uncertain world. Readers, however, soon notice certain recurring themes: the pervasive influence of his first-generation Italian background, the shattering personal loss of his father, and the anxieties and contradictions, as well as the joys, of everyday contemporary urban life. The universal problem of discovering “a self” amid its distractions lies at the heart of Ciardi’s work.
In his preference for the short, usually lyric poem, Ciardi consistently used closed forms and tightly structured traditional stanzas, whether or not he employed rhyme; more often than not the reader is aware of a beginning, middle, and end. Following his own dictum advocating “common speech,” Ciardi’s lively vernacular diction is honestly direct, sometimes irreverent, and even crude, often employing colloquialisms. Often faulted for being repetitious and belaboring the obvious as well as for lacking a direct emotional charge in his choice of diction, Ciardi nevertheless refused to assume a philosophical stance alien to his nature, nor did he depart from his own particular “sense of the form.” Perhaps his anecdotal subjects were often not equal to his masterful technical skills, but when one considers the number of poets of whom the reverse is true, Ciardi’s remarkable poetic achievement comes into focus.
Homeward to America
In Ciardi’s first book, Homeward to America, the volume that launched his career by winning the Hopwood Prize at the University of Michigan, he exhibited many of the characteristics that mark all his work—the search for and development of a self presented with wit and irony. Drawing obvious analogies between his parents’ migration to the United States— their search for a “home”—and his own experience, he concludes (in “Letter to Mother”) that despite their courageous and dramatic precedent, he must find his way alone. Although the weaker poems in the collection are little more than externalizations of emotions dimly felt by the young poet, in...
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