Ciardi, John 1916–
Ciardi is an American poet whose poems are marked, according to Josephine Jacobsen, by "a refusal to play safe." As a writer of books for both adults and children, his ambition is to have his poetry appeal to a general audience; he does so with poems that are perceptive, witty, and tough. Ciardi, an influential critic, has also been a teacher, editor, and translator. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
[John Ciardi's] war poems generally, and his love poems and political and satirical pieces, make him a graphic spokesman for the liberal and literate mind today, a mind in touch with earthy reality and even a certain redeeming crudeness, and also alive to the world of thought. (p. 250)
M. L. Rosenthal, in his The Modern Poets: A Critical Introduction (copyright © 1960 by M. L. Rosenthal; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1960.
No one (least of all, I imagine, John Ciardi) would call "In Fact," his ninth collection of poetry, a great book or even a particularly important one. But it is damned enjoyable reading—a statement that can rarely be made about any new book of poetry. It gets in some good licks at evil and awakens our response to joy.
It is a day-by-day sort of book—often as familiar as the bulletin board in the suburban Co-op. None of the poems are particularly ambitious, as are those in Ciardi's other volumes. Some are outright jokes with only an overtone of larger meaning, such as "Vodka," which is "upwind from all other essences" because it doesn't stay on the breath, yet "Like poetry, vodka informs any thing with which it is diluted."…
Perhaps the greater number of the poems bear on suburbia directly, sometimes with joy, more often with bitter wonder about how we can learn to live with our prosperity. (p. 78)
[The] pathetic need of the fortunate living within commuting distance of madness to see and believe anything, even to hear the glad birdsong while waiting for the train, is one of the book's preoccupations. The final, and most moving, poem of the book, "Letter to a Wrong Child," recommends a trip to Europe, where one may lose oneself in the Babel and misery of the race, as an alternative to suicide for
my martyr, my poor, alas, white protestant middle-class wept goose of this prosperous wrong paved barnyard.
The key terms of the book are mercy and self. It celebrates giving in spite of all reason and justice and boundaries; national flags the poet would "gladly waive." The self itself needs mercy "for whatever / you did dark in some Keokuk … of the soul." But self and mercy come together most frequently in bed. Love needs magic in order not to be a "relationship," and the poems work at intimacy, tenderness, and escape from analysis and judgment. On this theme Ciardi is sometimes too much like Cummings….
The book raises questions that I am sure Ciardi wanted to raise: How about a kind of poetry of hearty honesty and directness, poetry that is just plain good reading, sane, funny, delighting in words, images, patterns, socking out with opinions and ribaldry, with no philosophical pretension and no Weltschmerz? Well, it's fresh air, surely, and edifying reading for suburban neighbors. It is a crosswind to current intellectual lanes, it will ruffle a lot of prejudices. The spirit is ancient—that of the classical epigrams. But is it finally enough?
The answer is that no one said it was final or claimed sufficiency. It seems a rather casual book, and it fills...
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a lot of casual but demanding needs. (p. 79)
Judson Jerome, "The Wedding of Mercy and Self," in Saturday Review (© 1963 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), March 23, 1963, pp. 78-9.
I read [Ciardi's "Tenzone"] as a competition in which both [the Soul and Body, the poem's speakers,] attack the Soul: the Soul first attacks itself; then the Body joins in and finishes the job. But the poem is a debate, though the Soul does not realize it. The question at issue is "Which writes the poetry?"
The Soul begins with a wryly ironical description of the poet as a performer on the lecture circuit, inspired, witty, well-paid, lucent—"a gem of serenest ray"—and then confesses sadly that this gem of the lecture circuit "is, alas, I." In the following stanzas the Soul describes the poet as his critics see and judge him—a view and a judgment which the Soul tends to share. But since the Soul has already identified itself with the poet, it is, in describing him, frankly describing and judging itself….
When the Soul calls the poet a "greedy pig," it is not calling the Body names, it is calling itself names. Or, rather, it is doing two things at once: it is reporting the kind of thing that others … say about the poet, and it is agreeing with their judgment, which is a judgment against itself. The accusation that the Soul brings against itself is that it has sold itself out to the Body, has therefore, in effect, reduced itself to the level of the Body, has itself become nothing but a "belly" and a "greedy pig." (p. 19)
In judging itself so harshly, however, the Soul has implied its own importance. It has assumed entire responsibility for the poetry that has and has not been written. In the second part of the poem, the Body strips it of this importance. The Body begins with a wryly ironical description of the poet as a poet—grave, secretive, ignorant—"flaming and fire-freed"—and then says deliberately that this aspirant writer of poetry is "not wholly you," i.e. not wholly the Soul. The Body has a share in writing the poetry too…. The Soul is unsubstantial—a "glowworm," a "spook," a "wind" (though also a monkey on the Body's back)—and it writes poor poetry: it blows on ashes that won't catch fire. For, after all, good poetry is "belly and bone"—it is written out of physical and sensuous experience. The Body, not the Soul, is the true poet. The Soul is as dead as "yesterday's squall," but the Body knows how to savor "today's air." It lives and likes and thrives on the sensuous, the physical, and the material.
Thus the poor Soul gets it from both sides. The Soul, assuming its own importance, gives itself up because of its self-betrayal. The Body, denying the Soul's importance (the Soul is no more than a "burp"), gives the Soul up, feeling it can do better on its own: write better poetry and enjoy life more fully. But the poem that Ciardi has written says more than either of its two speakers. What it says is that Body and Soul are inseparable: Soul lives off of Body and can do nothing without it. Poetry is written by Body and Soul. (p. 21)
Laurence Perrine, "Ciardi's 'Tenzone'," in The Explicator (© copyright, 1970, by The Explicator), May, 1970, pp. 19, 21.
Like Sinyavsky, Ciardi has been deemed a subversive by certain mealy-mouthed inquisitors, but his true subversiveness eludes the wranglings of House committees. For Lives of X strips away the "old lies" to reveal the rag-and-bone shop that surrounded the youthful poet's growth to manhood:
As I was born— To dim red glows I sensed but could not read except to know there are Presences, and to learn the first of everything is a lunacy whose chatter starts before us in the dark.
The Orphic voice is subversive in that it breaks down the subject-object distinctions of the Cartesian mind, puts us in touch with the chattering lunacy (the curling sea that circled the rim of Achilles's shield) that precedes us in the dark. Ciardi follows Wordsworth and Frost in molding the blank verse to the flowing immediacy of his remembrances, and in so doing explodes some of the mind-forged manacles that shackle modern poetry. There is no modish trifling with chaos and madness here, none of the Cartesian gimmicks of the Symbolist élite. Ciardi, like Robert Lowell and Stanley Kunitz and a few others, has recovered the Romantic sense of existential subjectivity that lay buried under T. S. Eliot's strictures about the "objective correlative" and Ezra Pound's notion that the poem must present "an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time …" Time in Lives of X is never a frozen instant, but becomes instead a vehicle for the existential encounter between poet and world. The moments of epiphany, Wordsworth's "spots of time," embody the crisp sensations of a Hemingway or Joyce short story:
I took my drink at clammy soapstone round a drain of stinks and slid back into bed, my toes still curled from the cold lick of linoleum.
The central theme is the growth of the poet's consciousness through time, his eventual turning away from the "mad histories" of his Italian immigrant family. But the madness is set in a social context, a vicious Irish South Boston of tenements and bigoted priests, and the turning away is accompanied by a powerful outflow of sympathy for his earthy proletarian family. Unlike such trendy Poundian irrationalists as Michael McClure and Gregory Corso, Ciardi refuses to glorify (or simplify) insanity and regression—he establishes a profound dialectic between Id and Ego, lunacy and Orphic order. (p. 31)
Ciardi shows that [the I-Thou relation between poet and world] is "ahead of thought"—it is the ground of human feeling upon which a healthy rationality can be erected. All forms of primitivism (including the fascist variety) are, in fact, a kind of debased thought, a manipulative objectification of the living universe. All objects have "inscape," in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and every poet must "deal out that being indoors each one dwells." A Hopkinsian intensity is captured by Ciardi in "The Graph," probably his most successful poem to date, in which the erudite Italian-American youth is suddenly transformed into a World War II airman:
By time and after, where the guessed-at dead curled in, unborn, and charred before they hit, or blew to gases when their tanks cooked off, or only passed forever through one cloud; we manned wired systems, and the diagrams wavered on blue mirages like decals washed off a sunken panel, whole but warped.
The jet-stream currents of Ciardi's imagery coalesce into an intense awareness of dehumanized brutality. The graph that totals up the number of enemy dead becomes a symbol of this "wired" brutality, the manipulative Cartesian cruelty of modern life. The symbol is at all points inseparable from the poet's experience; it is never imposed on that experience (what Erich Auerbach calls "figural symbolism"). After an apocalyptic air raid we are left with the poet writing "what I remember of the dead, / our duplicates and their own in the globing moon." This is an appropriate vision of the humanism that pervades Lives of X. (pp. 31-2)
John W. Hughes, in Saturday Review (© 1971 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), May 22, 1971.
Ciardi possesses an authentic poetic voice with a technical mastery of his craft to match his spiritual affinity for it. (p. 21)
[Ciardi] focuses with remarkable clarity on the elements upon which one builds a theme into a poem. Ciardi is passionate about writing poetry; he recognizes full well the axiom that it is the poem which gives the theme its force.
It is in the poetic handling of his subjects (i.e., the "rhythm, diction, image, and form") that Ciardi reveals his poetic principles most clearly, and here we find him very consistent. He most often uses, for example, a closed "form." That is, his poems are normally tightly contained in traditional stanzas, although he frequently spreads syntactical units from one stanza to another. Containment of this sort extends from individual stanzas to entire poems, creating an unmistakable sense of completion, but completion in a Ciardi poem is built of other elements as well. His ideas, for example, are developed within standard grammatical constructions, using normal word order more frequently than inverted forms. As to "rhythm," Ciardi's aim is to achieve natural speech patterns and to reflect a "living" language; he uses what he calls a "sensitively trained memory" of iambic pentameter, "the norm of English metrics."… (pp. 21-2)
Another key element of Ciardi's poetic principles is his desire to be understood…. Ciardi's poems occasionally fail because they are too understandable…. Stated differently, the accumulated effect of predictability in stanzas, grammar-patterns, and rhythms has a kind of logical sturdiness—and the expectation of it—which is, too often, an implicit threat to the metaphorical logic of the poem. Yet this is but an occasional failing, and it is important to remember that Ciardi never intended to sacrifice the logic of metaphor….
Ciardi's verse is intensely personal, introspective, and self-revealing. His poems reflect the quiet considerations of a thoughtful, sensitive man. They are not white-hot representations of emotion: Ciardi more often thinks about passion. His "diction" is less emotionally charged than it is intricately patterned. Frequently passion emerges in Ciardi "imagery" only after it has been filtered through the poet's sense of the ironic or comic….
The theme that exemplifies the great diversity of Ciardi's talent is poetry itself. Such poems as "The Gift," "On the poet as a marionette," "The Poet's Words," "A Guide to Poetry," "Why don't you write for me?" and "Vodka" clearly reveal his great poetic inventiveness. Each poem is about poetry, but no two poems are alike: they are, in turn, meditative, spiritual, despairing, cynical, arrogant, and humorous. From a technical standpoint, Ciardi has altered his handling of "rhythm, diction, image, and form" to meet the specific needs of the various poems. (p. 22)
["The Size of Song"] is one of Ciardi's marvelous small achievements. It consists of two equal movements of eight lines each and deals with the symbolic connection between birds and the creative or poetic spirit. Birds to Ciardi are always something special. They represent pure song, perfect, freedom, prayer in motion, and aesthetic experience. Ciardi develops this poem along literal and figurative lines simultaneously. At the literal level, of course, the details are physically right: the smaller birds sing the prettiest songs while the larger birds can neither sing nor fly…. Figuratively, however, "bird" becomes the symbol for "poet," and the poem may be read as a commentary on the "successful" poet.
The argument of "The Size of Song" is simply that, in the first place, smaller birds sing the best songs, and, in the second place, larger birds eventually lose their power not only to sing but also to fly. The size of the poem is consistently small which, in a passing sort of way, makes the poem reflect its content through its form but, more importantly, adds intensity to the symbol….
The opening lines of stanza one contain a simple statement as well as a delicate image of a tiny, songful bird. "Some rule of birds kills off the song / in any that begin to grow / much larger than a fist or so."… The lines have no punctuation except the final period, and this lack of punctuation combines with certain sound values—smooth liquids, sliding sibilants, and open long vowels—to create a sense of unimpeded motion. The effect of motion is perfect as it prefigures the image of flight which will soon be developed. (p. 23)
The final three lines of the first stanza are divided into two sentences, almost identical in length. In the first, "Bird music is the tremolo / of the tremulous," there is a delicate turn on the bird image. In these lines the bird-poet connection becomes a bit more insistent. The word "song" back in line 1 is a shortened form of "bird song" (on the literal level), but "bird music" in line 6 is not quite the same thing. The word "music" implies artistic composition, coming from the Greek mousikos, meaning "of the Muses." The sounds of birds are "bird songs," never "bird music." This is an important poetic addition as it begins to develop the poem's primary symbol. The words "tremolo" and "tremulous" play perfectly on each other, suggesting at the same time human sound and weakness while being physically apropos of birds as well. (pp. 23, 26)
Metrically … both stanzas create a sense of speed and motion, altered at the end for a special effect. Through its metrics, its sounds, and its strong sense of freedom within form, the poem actually reproduces a flight-like motion. And the motion is made even more bird-like by the kind of floating pause between stanzas, possibly intended to recreate the momentary pause that birds take as they drift or fall free for an instant in time.
"The Size of Song" is a considerable poetic achievement. The image of the bird-poet is neatly built and expanded on both levels while at the same time the poem is structurally the embodiment of both rules of birds: it is small and it flies.
"The Size of Song" is also a good example of Ciardi's poetic principles in action. The poem is a "journey to itself," and at the same time it is a self-revealing journey into the poet. Moreover, the treatment of his subject in this poem is representative of Ciardi's attitudes and techniques…. It has, for example, the type of tight closure which Ciardi tries for, and it may be noted here that the poem's containment is less box-like than it is circular. In point of fact, the poem is most like the figure eight in that it captures a sense of fluid motion which seems to turn in and out at the same time, always turning back on itself to reach its point of origin. Grammatically and rhythmically the poem is typical of Ciardi's work; the atypical sentence fragment with which he ends the poem achieves some of its effectiveness because the reader receives it with surprise. The short line at the very end is also a break with the metrical pattern of the poem, effective, in part, because of its very difference.
Finally, it may be noted that "The Size of Song" is ultimately a poem with a reflective tone. The poet recalls in a series of observations a set of relationships which he believes to be true of the poet and his art. He engages us more intellectually than passionately, and the result is that we are able to gain an aesthetic perspective which is, to me, worth having—and sharing. (pp. 26-7)
Edward Cifelli, "The Size of John Ciardi's Song," in The CEA Critic (copyright © 1973 by the College English Association, Inc.), November, 1973, pp. 21-3, 26-7.