John Ciardi Ciardi, John (Vol. 129) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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).

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Homeward to America (poetry) 1940

Other Skies (poetry) 1947

Live Another Day: Poems (poetry) 1949

Mid-Century American Poets [editor] (poetry) 1950

From Time to Time (poetry) 1951

As If: Poems New and Selected (poetry) 1955

I Marry You: A Sheaf of Love Poems (poetry) 1958

The Reason for the Pelican (juvenile poetry) 1959

Thirty-Nine Poems (poetry) 1959

How Does a Poem Mean? (prose) 1960

In the Stoneworks (poetry) 1961

In Fact (poetry) 1962

The Wish-Tree (juvenile poetry) 1962

Dialogue with an Audience (essays) 1963

Person to Person (poetry) 1964

This Strangest Everything (poetry) 1966

An Alphabestiary (poetry) 1967

A Genesis (poetry) 1967

The Achievement of John Ciardi: A Comprehensive Selection of His Poems with a Critical Introduction (poetry) 1969

Someone Could Win a Polar Bear (juvenile poetry) 1970

Lines of X (poetry) 1971

On Poetry and the Poetic Process [with Joseph B. Roberts] (prose) 1971

Manner of Speaking (essays) 1972

The Little That Is All (poetry) 1974

Fast and Slow: Poems for Advanced Children and Beginning Parents (juvenile poetry) 1975

The Divine Comedy [translator; includes The Inferno, The Purgatorio, and The Paradiso, by Dante Alighieri] (poetry) 1977

For Instance (poetry) 1979

The Browser's Dictionary and Native's Guide to the Unknown American Language (nonfiction) 1980

A Second Browser's Dictionary and Native's Guide to the Unknown American Language (nonfiction) 1983

Selected Poems (poetry) 1984

The Birds of Pompeii (poetry) 1985

Doodle Soup (juvenile poetry) 1986

Echoes: Poems Left Behind (poetry) 1989

Poems of Love and Marriage (poetry) 1989

Howard Nemerov (review date Autumn 1954)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Few Bricks from Babel,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. 62, No. 4, Autumn, 1954, pp. 655-63.

[In the following excerpt, Nemerov complains that Ciardi's translation of Dante's Inferno is not faithful to the original poem.]

John Ciardi, in his version of the Inferno, tries for “a language as close as possible to Dante's, which is in essence a sparse, direct, and idiomatic language, distinguishable from prose only in that it transcends every known notion of prose.” He does not attempt to imitate the triple rime because he believes the resources of English insufficient for this purpose without serious distortion, but feeling that some rime is necessary “to approximate Dante's way of going” he preserves the three-line stanza and rimes the first and third lines (cf. the version of J. B. Fletcher, 1931).

“Sparse, direct, and idiomatic”—certainly, but in what idiom? Mr. Ciardi's view of Dante emphasizes qualities which he evidently feels have been neglected in earlier translations; nevertheless his necessities are the eternal ones which all translators must live with as they may, and we find him, like the others, juggling sense, measure, and sound until he can reach some more or less pleasing compromise. For example, Mr. Ciardi translates “merda” in the approved modern manner, sparse, direct, idiomatic, and even feels the need of a footnote (the substance of which he repeats on another, similar occasion) to tell us that Dante “deliberately coarsens his language when he wishes to describe certain kinds of coarseness.” Very well, but only a few lines before this there appears the word “sterco,” which the need of three syllables instead of one causes him to translate as “excrement,” without footnote, just like Longfellow. I merely mean that theories of translation spare us none of these decisions.

It is this idea of the idiomatic which is puzzling. I think Mr. Ciardi means that one ought not to be afraid of slang expressions, modern terms, if they make a clear equivalent for the Italian; and among the Demons, the Malebranche, he suddenly finds three modern equivalents in a few lines: “a squad of my boys,” “no foul play,” “front and center.” There is perhaps nothing totally inappropriate in any one of these, but they don't mix very well; and while “tratti avanti” may be rendered “front and center” without violence to the sense, it scarcely helps matters by bringing with it the sudden apparition of a hotel clerk. But, beyond this, what does the translator do when idiomatic equivalents do not come easily to hand? Evidently he must do something else, and what Mr. Ciardi does is become awkwardly literal, so that, for example, Guido da Montefeltro's advice to Boniface, “lunga promessa con l'attender corto,” comes out word for word as “long promise and short observance,” though this expression is neither an English idiom nor even—there is a difference—idiomatic English. But there is another sense for the idea of the idiomatic, and, I think, a more important one: the idea of the idiom, or style, in which a work is written. This idea deals with the harmoniousness of expression, the rightness of the relations between expressions, in a single passage or a whole work; and in this sense I somewhat doubt if we have here a modern idiom at all, or anything more nearly resembling one than what can be made of a few chance phrases here and there which will give for a moment a modern color to a language otherwise commonplace enough, a language which, seeking an “idiomatic” equivalent for, say, “quella lettura” (the one that seduced Paolo and Francesca), falls back upon “that high old story.” The closeness with which the language of poetry refers to the language of common speech must depend upon the qualities of the common speech; if this be characterless, or effective only from time to time and not...

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Joan Ross Acocella (essay date June 1974)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Cult of Language: A Study of Two Modern Translations of Dante,” in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 2, June, 1974, pp. 140-56.

[In the following essay, Acocella recognizes the legitimacy of Dorothy Sayers's and John Ciardi's approach to translating Dante, but complains, “their shared belief in the tanginess of Dante's language does no good service to that language; its subtleties tend to become banalities, and its more vigorous colloquial moments take on, particularly in Ciardi, a flat crudeness completely foreign to Dante's poetry.”]

It must be admitted that in general our modern translators, if they have not necessarily produced better...

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John Ciardi with Vince Clemente (interview date 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘A Man Is What He Does with His Attention’: A Conversation with John Ciardi,” in John Ciardi: Measure of the Man, edited by Vince Clemente, University of Arkansas Press, 1987, pp. 213-28.

[In the following interview conducted in 1984 and originally published in Poesis: A Journal of Criticism, Ciardi discusses his career, his poetry, and the influence of his teachers on his work.]

It was in 1953 during an unscheduled company inspection; I was in my final week of basic training, the 716 M.P. Battalion, Fort Dix, New Jersey. I can see the lunatic as clearly as if he had just walked through my study door—the Company Commander, Col. Walter...

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Edward Krickel (essay date 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Ciardi's Winter Words: Some Oblique Notes on a Southern Education,” in John Ciardi: Measure of the Man, edited by Vince Clemente, University of Arkansas Press, 1987, pp. 192-98.

[In the following essay, Krickel discusses the merit found in Ciardi's later poems, despite some reviewers' assertions that the poet was past his prime.]

If a reader of (some) general culture approached John Ciardi's poems for the first time by way of reviews of recent books, For Instance (1979) and Selected Poems (1984), he would probably not go on to the poems. It might serve him right, but it would serve many other things wrong. Forty years ago, Ciardi...

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Maxine Kumin (essay date 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “John Ciardi and the ‘Witch of Fungi,’” in John Ciardi: Measure of the Man, edited by Vince Clemente, University of Arkansas Press, 1987, pp. 131-2.

[In the following essay, Kumin recounts her personal experience with Ciardi at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.]

Long before I actually met John Ciardi, he had attained a mythic stature in my eyes. My mentor in the late fifties, Professor John Holmes of Tufts, who arranged for me to teach freshman composition part-time at his university, had befriended Ciardi, a student there, twenty years earlier. Holmes delighted in describing the young John, a lanky undergraduate, slouching half-diffidently,...

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Burton Raffel (essay date Winter 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “John Ciardi: A Man of Much Reason,” in Literary Review, Vol. 32, No. 2, Winter, 1989, pp. 272-77.

[In the following essay, Raffel sums up Ciardi's career, stating “Ciardi survived, he wrote, he lived a full life and he died with a long and honorable bibliography, and a veritable cornucopia of esteem and love, to remain after him.”]

“I began to teach because I couldn't make a living as a writer,” explained John Ciardi in a 1984 interview. In the years after he was able to go it alone, making more than a living from his books (poetry and much more than poetry), his many readings, his lectures and radio programs and the like, Ciardi was well-known...

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George P. Garrett (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Good Influence of John Ciardi,” in his The Sorrows of Fat City, University of South Carolina Press, 1992, pp. 91-106.

[In the following essay, Garrett summarizes the influence Ciardi's writing, teaching, and editorial careers had on poetry.]

Not everything that happens is a learning
experience. Maybe nothing is.

—John Ciardi, “For Instance”

I am thinking here of influence not in the complex, gnarled and often crabbed senses of it as adopted and advanced by the gospel according to Harold Bloom; not, then, as some kind of intellectual haunting, not as a matter of any great and shadowy anxiety nor in the least as any...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Ciardi, John. “What Does It Take to Enjoy a Poem?” In Saturday Review Treasury, edited by John Havertick and others, pp. 385-93. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957.

Asserts that adults should enjoy a poem as a child does, for its images and rhythm.

Hurley, Andrew. “Waiting for the Other Shoe: Some Observations on Rhyme.” In Auctor Ludens: Essays on Play in Literature, edited by Gerald Guinness and Andrew Hurley, pp. 127-36. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1986.

Discusses rhyme in poetry using arguments presented in John Ciardi's and Miller Williams's How Does a Poem Mean?...

(The entire section is 173 words.)