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This son of Italian immigrants born in Boston’s North End, Ciardi grew up in Medford, Massachusetts. He studied at his hometown college, Tufts, before receiving his M.A. from the University of Michigan in 1939. Ciardi not only wrote 21 books of poetry but achieved the distinction of having earned more than one million dollars-not all from poetry!
When Pearl Harbor was bombed, Ciardi sought but was denied his dream of becoming a pilot. Why? He was “a premature antifascist” because when he was a student, he signed petitions favoring the heroic Spanish Loyalists. Ciardi was, however, permitted to be a gunner on a B-29 Superfortress whose gunner crews average lifespan was five to eight missions. One of his assignments was to drop deadly fire sticks on innumerable invisible Japanese homes, adults, and children.
John Ciardi’s first book of poems, Homeward to America (1940) was followed by war poems titled Other Skies (1947). His entire corpus, Collected Poems edited by his biographer, Edward Cifelli, was published in 1997. A long useful critical work, How Does a Poem Mean?, was issued in 1959. With Isaac Asimov he wrote Limericks. He not only translated Dante’s Divine Comedy but wrote The Monster Den, humorous verse inspired by his family, as well as other fun books for children.
After years of teaching English-at Harvard (1946-1953) and Rutgers (1953-1961)-Ciardi resigned his tenured faculty position for an independent career. He served as a highly popular poetry editor of the Saturday Review from 1956 to 1972. His occasional public television broadcasts were supplemented by his weekly National Public Radio series begun in 1980 as “A Word in Your Ear.”
A National Teachers Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children was presented in 1982. He died of a heart attack on Easter Sunday 1986.
The Poetry of John Ciardi
What lifts the heron leaning on the air
I praise without a name. A crouch, a flare,
a long stroke through the cumulus of trees,
a shaped thought at the sky – then gone. O rare!
Saint Francis, being happiest on his knees,
would have cried Father! Cry anything you please
But praise. By any name or none. But praise
the white original burst that lights
the heron on his two soft kissing kites.
When saints praise heaven lit by doves and rays,
I sit by pond scums till the air recites
It’s heron back. And doubt all else. But praise.
Yesterday Mrs. Friar phoned.”Mr. Ciardi,
how do you do?” she said. “I am sorry to say
this isn’t exactly a social call. The fact is
your dog has just deposited-forgive me-
a large repulsive object in my petunias.”
I thought to ask, “Have you checked the rectal grooving
for a positive I.D.?” My dog, as it happened,
was in Vermont with my son, who had gone fishing-
if that’s what one does with a girl, two cases of beer,
and a borrowed camper. I guessed I’d get no trout.
But why lose out on organic gold for a wise crack
“Yes, Mrs. Friar,” l said, “I understand.”
“Most kind of you,” she said. “Not at all,” I said.
I went with a spade. She pointed, looking away.
“I always have loved dogs,” she said, “but really!”
I scooped it up and bowed. “The animal of it.
I hope this hasn’t upset you, Mrs. Friar.”
“Not really,” she said, “but really!” I bore the turd
across the line to my own petunias
and buried it till the glorious resurrection
when even these suburbs shall give up their dead.
MEN MARRY WHAT THEY NEED
Men marry what they need. I marry you,
morning by morning, day by day, night by night,
and every marriage makes this marriage new.
In the broken name of heaven, in the light
that shatters granite, by the spitting shore,
in air that leaps and wobbles like a kite,
I marry you from time and a great door
is shut and stays shut against wind, sea, stone,
sunburst, and heavenfall. And home once more
inside our walls of skin and struts of bone,
man-woman, woman-man, and each the other,
I marry you by all dark and all dawn
and have my laugh at death. Why should I bother
the flies about me? Let them buzz and do.
Men marry their queen, their daughter, or their mother
by hidden names, but that thin buzz whines through:
where reasons are no reason, cause is true.
Men marry what they need. I marry you.