Table of Contents
The Bordighera Poetry Prize
(Wise Women's Web)
Cifelli Writes on John Ciardi
M. Cifelli is the author of John Ciardi: A Biography; he
has also edited The Collected Poems of John Ciardi. Both
books were published in 1997 and are available in paperback through
the University of Arkansas Press, 1-800-626-0090 or through Amazon.com
and Barnes and Noble.com Dr. Cifelli is a retired professor of
English from County College of Morris in Randolph, NJ and can
be reached at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
by Edward M. Cifelli
When poet John Ciardi died unexpectedly of a heart attack on Easter
Sunday 1986 at his home in Metuchen, New Jersey, he was internationally
mourned. Every major news outlet in the United States carried
an obituary story, for Ciardi had earned his reputation as an
American literary figure. More than that, he had also somehow
managed to achieve the elusive American Dream by becoming that
rarest of all rare things, the millionaire poet. A humbly born
son of Italian immigrants in Bostons Little Italy, Ciardi
had built by 1986 a solid reputation in six different areas as
a kind of larger-than-life cultural legend.
and foremost, he was well known for his poetry, 21 volumes of
it, beginning in 1940 and ending when the last four books were
published after his death by special arrangement with the executors
of his estate. The last of these, his 600-page Collected Poems,
was published in 1997 and is still available from the University
of Arkansas Press. In the end, Ciardis niche as one of Americas
best mid-century poets the, "Eisenhower Laureate" as
Tom Disch in a review of Collected Poems called him in
Poetry, is well established: he occupies a well-earned
position among such notable mid-century poets as Richard Wilbur,
Elizabeth Bishop, and Robert Lowell.
Ciardi was master of what he liked to call the Unimportant Poem,
the sort of poem written to celebrate nothing more important than
the sipping of coffee at breakfast or the watching of birds in
the backyard. He wrote love poems too, and poems about his Italian
heritage. He was also a veteran of World War II and wrote an excellent
book of poems, Other Skies, about that experience. He wrote one
complete book, Lives of X, about being born in Boston's Italian
North End and then growing up in a nearby German-Irish town. He
was being humble when he called his poems "unimportant"
because they were about the most important subject of all not
just his own life, but everyones.
And one ought to mention for all those to whom such things matter
that ethnicity by itself is not a factor in establishing Ciardis
literary reputation. For Italian Americans, of course, there is
special fun and pride in his poems about Italian Sunday dinners,
favorite uncles and aunts, and his fathers love of opera,
for Ciardi wrote often and well about such subjects; however,
he never thought of himself as being so narrowly American, so
marginalized. He is known today for many, many poems that have
nothing at all to do with his being Italian. And so, while he
valued his European heritage and treasured his Italian roots,
Ciardi became an important unhyphenated American poet. He believed
unquestionably that in a meritocracy, the only thing that matters
is the quality of ones work: good poems would be remembered.
A second reason readers connect with Ciardi is his sixteen books
of award-winning childrens poetry, books with such fun-sounding
titles as The Man Who Sang the Sillies, The Reason for the Pelican,
and Doodle Soup. There are monster poems, bedtime poems, and plenty
of naughty boys and girls poems. And Ciardi was not merely a successful
writer of childrens poems, he was also very popular in their
classrooms as well, where he met with them as often as they asked
him to. These poetic accomplishments would be enough for most
reputations to rest on, but with John Ciardi, they pale in comparison
to his importance as the translator of the greatest Italian poet
of all time, Dante Alighieri. Ciardis translation of Dantes
masterwork, The Inferno, was published in 1954 and is still in
print today in the Modern Library Edition. And despite many new
translations, Ciardis remains both popular and so widely
respected that college students routinely have his translation
assigned in the standard Norton anthology of world literature.
The second and third volumes of Ciardis translation of Dantes
great book, The Purgatorio and The Paradiso, were published in
1961 and 1970, and maintained the same high standards and reader
satisfaction. As Dudley Fitts wrote of Ciardis translation
in 1954, this is "the best we have seen: Here is our Dante,
Dante for the first time translated into virile, tense American
verse. . . a shining event in a bad age"
another reason accounting for Ciardis popularity and national
reputation is actually a combination of reasons, like his CBS
network program called Accent in 1961-62; his National Public
Radio program called A Word in Your Ear from 1977-86; his twice-a-month
magazine column called "Manner of Speaking" in the nationally
known Saturday Review from 1961-72; and his directorship from
1955-72 of what was then the countrys most widely respected
writers conference, Bread Loaf, in Middlebury, Vermont.
Ciardi was so important to the literary landscape in mid-century
America that he made two appearances on the Tonight Show with
The fifth reason accounting for John Ciardis position in
twentieth-century American letters is his set of Browsers
Dictionaries. Ciardi had always been intrigued by every aspect
of language, so when he became curious about where words and expressions
came from, he entered the field with the same passion that he
had shown for poetry then childrens literature then Dante.
The miracle is that on even such esoteric topics as etymologies,
Ciardi managed to be a popular writer. He interested a commercial
publisher, Harper & Row, in publishing the first book, which
sold so many copies that three volumes were eventually published.
Ciardi never sacrificed what might be called academic respectability
in these books, but as usual with him, one is more impressed with
his readability and common touch than with the also evident high
level of scholarship.
If one needs even more reason to explain Ciardis reputation
over his lifetime, there is always his lecture-circuit popularity.
He actually left a tenured full-professorship at Rutgers University
in order to support his family by lecturing all over the country
at such high rates that even he could sometimes be embarrassed
by them. He was fond of saying that people would rarely buy books
of poetry, but that they would regularly pay him large sums of
money to talk about them.
And thus it was that this once poverty-stricken son of Italian
immigrants managed to turn a career in poetry into a million-dollar
industry. Only in America!
three of John Ciardi's many and varied poems! Click here.
above essay, copyright (C)2002 by Edward Cifelli. All rights,
including electronic, are reserved. May not be reprinted without
M. Cifelli is the author of John Ciardi: A Biography; he
also edited The Collected Poems of John Ciardi. Both books
published in 1997 and are available in paperback through the University
of Arkansas Press, 1-800-626-0090 --or through Amazon.com and
Barnes and Noble.com Dr. Cifelli is a retired professor of English
from County College of Morris in Randolph, NJ and can be reached