Ciardi, John (Vol. 10)
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.)
M. L. Rosenthal
[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
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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...
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John W. Hughes
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...
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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...
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