John Ciardi 1916-1986
(Full name John Anthony Ciardi) American poet, editor, critic, author of books for children, nonfiction writer, and translator.
The following entry presents an overview of Ciardi's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 10, 40, and 44.
Highly respected as a translator, critic, educator, and editor of poetry, Ciardi began his prolific literary career as a poet in the late 1930s. Based primarily upon personal experience and narrated in a personal voice, Ciardi's poetry reflects his life as the son of Italian immigrants. In much of his verse he wrote realistically of the myth of the American dream, detailing social and domestic aspects of a country preoccupied with material gain. Ciardi's poetry written after World War II expresses his concern with materialism and inhumanity while also focusing on his family and home life.
Ciardi was born in 1916 to a family of Italian heritage. His father was an insurance agent who was killed in an automobile accident when Ciardi was three years old. The loss devastated his mother, who never fully recovered. Ciardi often thought that his mother was trying to mold him into a replacement of his father; this theme was explored in his later poetry. After his father's death, Ciardi's family moved to Medford, Massachusetts, on the banks of the Mystic River. The Mystic later became a recurrent symbol in Ciardi's work. As a youth, Ciardi supported himself with a series of menial jobs. He attended Tufts University, where he came under the influence of poetry teacher John Holmes, who had a great impact on Ciardi's career. Holmes persuaded Ciardi to enter the University of Michigan and become a candidate for the Avery Hopwood Award in poetry, which Ciardi subsequently won. The Hopwood instigated the publication of his first collection, Homeward to America (1940), and earned him a fellowship at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, of which Ciardi became an important member. In 1940, Ciardi began teaching at Kansas City University. Feeling his teaching career took too much time away from writing, Ciardi left his last full-time teaching position at Rutgers University in 1961. He devoted part of his time as poetry editor of The Saturday Review, a position he held from 1956 to 1977, and the rest to writing. Ciardi died in 1986.
Ciardi's first volume of verse, Homeward to America, presents a United States not yet recovered from the Depression and fully aware of the imminence of war. The realization of war is recounted in his next volume, Other Skies (1947), which contains poems chronicling Ciardi's military career during World War II. Several of Ciardi's early collections include poems detailing the daily concerns of contemporary life, including Live Another Day (1949) and From Time to Time (1951). For Instance (1979) includes poems on themes common to Ciardi's earlier work, including the poet's observations of the mundane aspects of daily life in the suburbs. Some of the poems depend on wordplay, such as “Stations.” Ciardi also wrote several volumes of children's poetry in which wordplay and humor play an important role. Ciardi's translation of Dante's The Divine Comedy (1977) differs from other translations in that he did not use the triple rhyme of the original, finding English lacking for that form. However, he did retain the three-line stanza of the original, in which he rhymes the first and third lines. Also unusual is Ciardi's use of idiomatic language to convey the sense of the original Italian. In addition to his work as a poet and translator, Ciardi has written several nonfiction works on poetry criticism, including How Does a Poem Mean? (1960) and Manner of Speaking (1972); and on the English language, including The Browser's Dictionary and Native's Guide to the Unknown American Language (1980) and A Second Browser's Dictionary and Native's Guide to the Unknown American Language (1983).
Many reviewers debate whether Ciardi should be considered a major or minor poet. The debate centers on his subject matter; some critics argue that the everyday nature of his themes make them somehow unimportant. Ciardi himself asserted the value of the “unimportant poem,” and several reviewers defended him on this point. For example, George P. Garrett stated, “The concept of the ‘unimportant poem’ liberates us to write out of what we imagine happens to us in the real world, to make something out of our own experience.” Several reviewers found exception with Ciardi's use of idiomatic language in his translation of Dante, complaining that he lost some of the delicacy and subtlety of the original. Joan Ross Acocella concluded, “The constant stretching for a heartier, more modern and American idiom not only vulgarizes; it also guarantees that wherever Dante expresses himself by implication rather than by direct statement, Ciardi will either miss or ignore the nuance.” Other complaints concerning his translation include that he often lost the sense of the original in order to force the rhyme. Ciardi's impact on poetry is perhaps best measured through the younger poets whom he influenced as a teacher and as editor of The Saturday Review. Burton Raffel summed up Ciardi's career as follows: “Blessed with a fine voice, a ready wit, and a relentless honesty, Ciardi became in many ways an archetype of the existentially successful twentieth-century American poet, peripatetic, able to fit into and exploit chinks in the great American scheme of things, while never fitting in as either a recognized peg or hole.”