Monday, September 15, 2014

Book Review: The Collected Poems of John Ciardi

Book Title: The Collected Poems of John Ciardi
Author: John Ciardi, selected by Edward M. Cifelli
Date: 1997
Publisher: University of Arkansas Press
ISBN: 1-55728-449-0
Length: 596 pages plus index
Quote: “[S]tudents..gave me plenty to think about when I asked which poems they thought should be included in this book.”
What’s not to love about this collection is that it’s not, after all, the collected poems of John Ciardi, 1916-1986. The man lived too long and published too many poems for his collected works to be bound in one normal-sized book. This book, though substantial, contains only about half of Ciardi’s output—not including prose, poems marketed for children, or translations; he wrote about twenty volumes of those, too. The Collected Poems  will give a reader many hours of pleasure, but I contend that it ought to be titled The Selected Poems of John Ciardi; I suspect that the reason why it wasn’t is that, while living, Ciardi selected his own Selected Poems.
And you’ll miss having the whole lot...especially while skipping through The Alphabestiary, a volume of short, funny verses that really demands to be reprinted in its entirety. I’ve never read The Alphabestiary. Now, having read just half the poems in it, I want to read the whole thing.
One book you may manage to do without (I think I could) is Lives of X, the memoir Ciardi rashly decided to write in blank verse. He had a sufficiently interesting life—Ellis Island immigrants’ son, laborer, combat aviator, teacher, translator, traveller, successful professional poet—to make a lively memoir, but blank verse, I feel, is formal enough to become ridiculous when the topics are less momentous than Milton’s or Shakespeare’s. Ciardi managed to write a full-length book of it. One of its chapters would have been a gross-out even in prose.
What’s left and various. Ciardi was a successful poet for fifty-three years. Possibly the daily search for fresh topics, and fresh ways of writing about them, was what kept him active for so long. (He consistently described himself as fat and his habits as unhealthy, which makes his persistent good health and wry cheerfulness seem unfair.) He wrote rhymed and unrhymed, metrical and unmetrical, funny, sad, earnest, whimsical, and occasionally raunchy poems; apart from the regrettable chapters in Lives of X no two were alike. He tried to be original and avoid conventional “prettiness.” In that he consistently succeeded. By most standards, other than originality, the poems succeed in varying degrees. They don’t come up to the standard of the world-class poems Ciardi was best known for translating, but they compare well with the work of other twentieth-century “modern” poets, E.E. Cummings, Elizabeth Bishop, Langston Hughes, Randall Jarrell, Sylvia Plath, either Robert or Amy Lowell.
A few favorites? I like the tribute to a white heron, first published in the 1950s, when Ciardi was questioning his inherited Catholicism:

               “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...till the air recites
                Its heron back. And doubt all else. But praise.”
Ciardi had the luxury of educated readers, who appreciated the play on "O rare" and orare, and revelled in it; he also had the blessing of being sober enough to keep a teaching job, so that he didn’t slide away into obscurities like Ezra Pound’s, or into friends-only personal references like Anne Sexton’s. 
After reading earlier poems in which Ciardi worked through the traumas of his inner child, it’s a comfort to find this later poem:

                “Let sons honor their mothers. Mine was mad...
                she ripped with her own teeth what flesh she had
                and fed it, poisoned, to her young...
                I smiled and the world began. What a long ease
                Follows forgiving!”
And this carefully balanced thought, in the 1960s:

                “B is for BANNER, which proudly we hail.
                For BLAST and for BRASS and for BURIAL-DETAIL.
                And for BILLY and BUCK, who are studying BRAILLE.”
Have you done something nice for the veteran in your family, today, Gentle Reader?
Being quite sure that our poor dear teacher is dead, I should also call the attention of anyone else who was in my seventh grade literature class to page 404 of this collection:

                “What’s a teacher
                if she can’t say a name right?...John Sea-YARD-i...
                That was no sound of mine. I was John CHAR-di.”
In grade seven, I think Ciardi might have been amused to know, one of my teachers—a kind and simple soul who didn’t speak Italian, had never known anyone who did, and wore glasses that weren’t the right prescription for her eyes—seriously told one of us to read aloud a poem by “John Key-YARD-i.” I remember thinking, “That can’t possibly be right,” and then, “But funny things happened to names on Ellis Island. Maybe he says ‘Key-yard-i.’ That would be in the Teachers’ Manual.” Since I didn’t become a high school English teacher myself, I stumbled through adult life without knowing how Ciardi pronounced his own name. It was nice, around age forty, to find out. (Further along in this book, another poem gives the history of the name.)
Then there’s “In the Hole,” which Ciardi published with two different punchlines.

                “I had time and a shovel. I began to dig.
                There is always something a man can use a hole for...
                Brewster Diffenbach,
                pink and ridiculous in his policeman suit,
                asked if I had a building permit. I told him
                to run along till he saw me building something...
                By morning the hole had shut. It had even
                sodded itself over. I suspect my neighbors.
                I suspect Diffenbach and law and order...
                One foot more
                might have hit stone and stopped me, but I doubt it.”
The last line expresses an attitude of the narrator’s toward the neighbors and Brewster Diffenbach. In Selected Poems Ciardi changed the attitude to “Forgive me.” In this collection Cifelli gives the earlier version first. It’s rude. Some of Ciardi’s other adult (or “senile”) poems are even ruder, which is a reason Cifelli gives for not including, in this collection, any of his simpler “juvenile” poems—Cifelli didn’t think children should be encouraged to read this book.
So who should read this book? Perhaps, most of all, those who think the success of women poets, and the appearance of annoyingly “gay” male poets, means that poetry has somehow become less manly than it was for Sidney or Byron or Wallace Stevens. Ciardi wrote in many different tones and moods but his work is consistently masculine—by which I do not mean merely detached, or unsentimental, or well educated; I mean that if I didn’t know who’d written these poems I wouldn’t necessarily guess that the author was bilingual, or was classified as part of an ethnic minority during his lifetime, but I would guess he was a man. 
Furthermore, although several of these poems are about being Italian-American, all of them are American. And proud. They’re not jingoistic; they’re credibly matter-of-fact about combat, and they share the irreverence many of his own generation felt toward President Reagan, but I don’t think any other country could have been the home of this book. In the twentieth century some poets worried about being “un-American” and some, like Sylvia Plath and Langston Hughes, even moved overseas. Ciardi noticed when the fear of “Un-American Activities” was going too far; for himself he didn’t need to worry.
But you don’t have to “need” poetry in order to like it. If you enjoy the English language and approximately four hundred different ways to have fun with it, while also saying something nobody else has said, you will enjoy The Collected Poems of John Ciardi. Enough that, if and when it becomes available, after reading this book you might still buy a two-or-three-volume set of The COMPLETE Collected Poems of John Ciardi.

Incomplete though it is, this book sells for collector's prices. Can you believe over $300 for a "new" hardcover copy? Ciardi no longer needs our support, but those who want to support this web site may order a used paperback copy for $20 + $5 shipping.