John Cardi’s Selected Poems and
the “Italian-American Question”
*


 

John Cardi’s first mention in surviving letters to a selected po­ems came on 1 October 1979, when he mentioned to George Gar­rett that it was a book he ought to get around to sometime “soon.” Then two weeks later he wrote to Garrett that he would be leaving his word histories (his new, all-consuming passion) behind when he got to Florida in order “to concentrate on a rigidly culled Se­lected Poems.” But in another letter to Garrett seven months later, on 16 April 1980, Ciardi revealed that he had not done much with the project and was beginning to feel a little uneasy about it: “I have had too many chances to publish and consequently pub­lished too much. I’d like time to prune and to see what emerges. If anything.” That summer Ciardi asked Eric Swenson at W. W. Norton if he would be interested in publishing his selected poems, but nothing came of the inquiry and he repeated it some fifteen months later, in November 1981. He was thinking of a three-hun­dred-page book, “a sort of retrospective show.” This time Swen­son answered that the size of the book was a problem and asked if it could be reduced. With nothing more hopeful to go on than that, Ciardi may well have wondered if there was a future for him at W. W. Norton, a reasonable question considering that a month later Swenson wrote to say that For Instance, Ciardi’s last book of poems, was being remaindered after being in print a mere two years. On 21 December, Ciardi wrote Miller Williams, director of the University of Arkansas Press to say that Swenson was “wary as Hell” of publishing his selected poems “as a commercial ven­ture and asked if I could get a U Press to do it. You, I know, are more or less bound to Arkies, of which I am other than. Do you know of a U Press that might go for it, possibly on a joint imprint and distribution?” Almost at once, Williams offered Ciardi a con­tract to publish Selected Poems, and by 8 February 1982, papers were signed and Ciardi was ready to begin working with his last publisher of adult poems.

But from February 1982 to June 1983, Ciardi procrastinated. With his September 1983 deadline fast approaching, Ciardi wrote to Stuart Wright in May that he had to get “seriously to work” on the project: “I’ve told myself to get at it for 3 years and keep run­ning into a block about going over old stuff, but I must delay no longer.” Some six weeks later he wrote to Saipan buddy Ed Lawson: “I find I hate going back [over the poems]. As a generali­zation, dead’s dead.” As the summer wore on, Ciardi became more and more depressed about selecting his poems; it was so disagreeable a job, in fact, that he fell into another period of indo­lence rather than face it. On 23 June he wrote to John Nims:

 

Beethoven festered in his locked room working on the pas­toral [Sinfonia pastorale?] with trays of food mouldering un­touched, his clothes filthy, his chamber pot unemptied, the score looking like the mud of a chicken run, snarling when the woman knocked. I’m not quite that messy. And would that I had such a score at the center of my wallow. But I have sunk into a doodlesome and compulsive rhythm of nothing and a table piled like a dumpster.

 

A week later he wrote to Nims again, this time to apologize “if I gave off a general sound of lamentation.” He explained that he was working on his Selected Poems:

 

I could not have imagined how hateful the task is (it is probably at the root of any bitching I did). I have invented every way of dodging the task. Now I am out of dodges and time and must do it. Having done too much, I end up dis­mally aware that I have done nothing, and hate replowing my acre of stone. Thank God for the blindness that permits an engagement with work-in-process. To look back is to sight through the wrong (right?) end of the telescope, Dwindledom.

 

Ciardi’s depression was also caused by his sixty-seventh birth­day on 24 June. His wife wrote to Nancy Williams that she had served up a birthday dinner of mussels and quiche, which she hoped had “boosted his morale.” Ciardi wrote to Gil Gallagher, trying to mask his feelings behind self-deprecating humor:

 

I have, alas, birthdayed! I, dashing dancer, dandy man, golden boy gunner, promising young poet, and Mother’s darling cuddle woke to find myself trapped in this crapped out old man’s body! What am I doing here? Help!

 

But by early July Ciardi had somehow managed to get past his birthday and most of the work for Selected Poems. He wrote to George Garrett that he’d be sending the manuscript to Arkansas by the end of the month and was much relieved to have it nearly behind him:

 

Never will I have taken greater pleasure in being rid of a weight of dead paper. At least I have learned in trying to put this stuff into a book that there is no order to my life. The style of it is whimsical random.

 

On about 19 July, Ciardi did indeed mail off the manuscript for Selected Poems, which he and Miller Williams agreed should con­tain the entire Lives of X. However, he had failed at providing an introductory note, coming up, as he wrote to Williams, “with nothing to which silence was not to be preferred.” Perhaps, he added, “the jacket copy might say that the poems are not strictly chronological and that Lives of X is reproduced entire for some reason I am not able to phrase.” Once he mailed Selected Poems, his spirits rose and his energy for “work-in-process” returned. He wrote with relief to his sister Ella that Selected had been delivered to the publisher and that other things were afoot too: “Have also finished a new book of dirty limericks. Am pounding away at the manuscript of some children’s poems. And have a good bulge on Browser’s III.” And he felt better too: “My idiot son, Benn,” he continued to Ella, “has become an unemployed golf nut. It was a pleasure to go out with him yesterday and show him that wise old flab could still beat ignorant muscle.” The potassium supplements must be working, he wrote to Williams, for what else could ex­plain his sudden ability to play eighteen holes of golf, albeit by cart? (This seems to be the time, too, when he began riding an ex­ercise bicycle in front of the blaring television in Metuchen every night, set loud enough to drown the machine as well as the rau­cous rock music coming from the basement studio.) He was also up to resuming what he thought of as his good-humored abusive­ness. He wrote to Williams that he would be seventy in three years:

 

I guess I’ll be able to stand it so long as no one is tempted to confuse me with Richard Eberhart. I hope you do not live so long that you will become known as the Robert P. Tristam Coffin of the Ozarks. I only breathe that hope to make the point that there can be fates worse than death.

 

When galleys of Selected Poems reached him about 20 August 1984, Ciardi wrote to fellow etymologist Walter Newman that he was tempted to subtitle it “43 Blathering Years.” He and Judith spent the next two weeks with the Fredlands on Nantucket where he rested, looked over the galleys (which he was very pleased with), and kept up with a little correspondence. One letter was to Jeff Lovill, a young man from Arizona State University who was writing a Ph.D. dissertation on Ciardi and had written on 23 August with a variety of questions and comments. Roman Catho­lic himself, Lovill was particularly curious about Ciardi’s apos­tasy, which John tried to explain:

 

I think of [religion] as an adolescent imbalance I sur­vived. . . . The simple fact is that I do nothing with reference to God or an after life. God and language seem to be its principal inventions, and I am interested in the inventions as clues to the inventor. Dante and the Browser’s Dictionaries are part of one absorption in the same curiosity. Isaac Asi­mov says he wants to know what universe we are living in. So do I. But I don’t speak mathematics and the language of science. Still, why pass through without looking?

 

Part of what Ciardi was looking for is revealed in his irony-filtered “Diary Entry,” an author’s proof of which reached him about 1 September for publication in a festschrift in honor of James Tate and which was later published in The Birds of Pompeii (1985), the last of his books that Ciardi saw through production and into print.

 

I was in a mood for disaster

but couldn’t afford much.

At the God store I counted out

my last three worn perversos

 

and ordered an ounce of avalanche.

His thumb on the scale,

it came to one grain of sand

which He blew in my eye,

perhaps to teach me something.

Which He did. A rule of thumb:

all else being equal,

I’ll not be caught, not soon again,

trying to do business on His scale.

 

On 9 September 1983, Ciardi wrote to John Stone and reported on the galleys of Selected Poems. “I’m a bit surprised,” he wrote, “at how heavily Italo-American it is. If anyone gets around to re­viewing it, I’ll hear about that. And it will miss the point that the Italian background was my first pasture, not where I went. So I’ll be typed. So be it.” Many of his early poems, of course, plus many of the reminiscences in Lives of X, and a smattering of poems that had appeared through the years displayed a strong pull toward his Italian-American childhood and what is generally called a “cultural heritage.” But to Ciardi, nationality was secondary to the process of looking inward for self-discovery, which he always be­lieved was a universal experience that everyman could share. The outer trappings were particular to the man, but the process of searching into oneself opened the poems to all men—that is, if one could look deeply enough and write compellingly enough. On 9 September 1983, when he wrote to his friend Vince Clemente about the galleys of Selected, Ciardi repeated his concern over “how Italian it is” but remembered again a story he liked to tell about Robert Lowell. In the final analysis, he wrote to Clemente, anyone who noted “how Italian” his new book was would miss the point:

 

Lowell missed it once. I published in The Atlantic “SPQR, A Letter from Rome,” and he wrote to say it was the best Ital­ian-American poem he had read. As if he wrote Am and I wrote It-Am. Well, yes and no. About the way Archie Mac­Leish, bless great memory, wore a tam with a Scottish clan emblem. Mine was a pick and shovel rampant, gold on a dinner pail ebon. Later it was two martinis on an expense account lunch tab.

 

Clemente had, in fact, drawn Ciardi out about his Italian Americanism five years earlier, in November 1978. Clemente at that time was thinking about putting together a book of poems and commentary by Italian-American poets who were to describe how their common backgrounds helped to form their poetic con­sciousness. Ciardi wanted to help his friend and had agreed to provide an introduction to the book, but he had reservations.

 

I like the sense of the project you suggest. I find myself, however, oddly blocked by “the Am-It esthetic.” Can an­other word be found? I am not sure there is such a thing; and if there is I doubt I have it. It isn’t that I am l’Italiano di­razzato [denationalized Italian], though I guess I am. Though I also know I am not. I have poured out endless poems about the Italian “roots.” Yet Jefferson, Tom Paine, and even—God save the mark, Emerson—are as much at the roots of my mind and feeling as the It. of my Am.

 

Five days later, still troubled with the idea of an Italian-Ameri­can aesthetic, Ciardi wrote again to Clemente with a stronger ver­sion of the Lowell story he had told in September:

 

I don’t know of anyone who thinks in terms of Italo-Am po­ets. I had a longish poem about Italy in the Atlantic some years back, and when Robert Lowell wrote to praise its Italo-Am voice, I took offense. Did the s.o.b. suppose I had used an Am. Eng. inferior to his or that . . . mine [was] less Am. Eng. than his? Well, even the good ones can be fools.

 

At Christmas 1978, Ciardi wrote to Lew Turco that although he was still wary of Clemente’s project, he would do what he could “short of cash—not with one son in law school (Jonnel) and Benn and Myra successfully (and permanently, I suspect) unemployed.”

He couldn’t shake entirely free of the Italian-American question whenever he wrote to Turco or Clemente, and there are references to it on and off over the next couple of years. He wrote to Turco on 28 February 1979:

 

I really don’t know what to make of so much Italo-Am. I’ve never thought in terms of I-Am poetry. I don’t know any I-Am poets, as such. Lew Turco is an Am. poet who hap­pened to have It. parents. T. Roethke is a ditto with Ger. parents.

 

Still toying with the idea two weeks later, in the afterglow of having just finished typing the entries to his first book of word histories, A Browser’s Dictionary in Key West, Ciardi repeated him­self once again to Turco, but added a reflective afterthought on his own work as a poet:

 

Increasingly, I have the feeling that I write only for the dead, and that the mind and idiom of those I write for and to, once the last few have died, will not be duplicated. I have the feeling that we are coming to an age that lacks memory. For whom, then, are poets to do their remembering? Scratch it on the inside of the skull wall—maybe the last church mouse will find it to puzzle at. No one else gives a damn. Maybe it all died the day Kenneth Rexroth decided to list Bob Dylan as a leading poet.

 

No, he wrote, “I’m just not sure there is anyone out there . . . there certainly is no one out there along It-Am lines. Tend your garden.”

The entire question seemed to fluster Ciardi. He liked Turco and Clemente, but he did not feel the same connections to an Ital­ian-American poetry that they seemed to feel. He had commented to an interviewer in 1978 that he often did not like Italian-Ameri­can gatherings because they tended to become “jingoistic,” as though Italian culture was “infinitely better than some other cul­ture.” He could not agree with that point of view. “I think Italy has bequeathed magnified things to Europe and Europe has be­queathed some magnificent things back to Italy, but I’d like to be known as a person of European culture.” He wrote almost apolo­getically to Vince Clemente on 2 September 1981:

 

What can I tell you about this “Italian question”? It has never meant as much to me as it seems to have meant to others. I was born in the North End of Boston but taken to Medford as a baby. I grew up “in the country” (seven miles out). I did, of course, visit relatives in the North End fre­quently, but was early aware of it as a self-insulating non-America. The Italian community, as I felt from my earliest perception, was afraid of breaking out of its shell and strongly disapproved of children who gave up the ghetto patterns. I loved many of the people I visited and forgave them their narrowness, but I also knew from the start they were foolishly turned in on themselves. . . .

 

And so it was with genuine surprise that Ciardi noticed “how heavily Italo-American” Selected Poems had turned out to be, al­though it may be argued from one point of view that this was more optical illusion than reality. What made the book look more Italian American than it was was its arrangement. There were 136 poems in all, broken down into seven parts or chapters. Ciardi opened with a twenty-three-poem section that he called Tribal Poems, taking him autobiographically from his baptism in “The Evil Eye” to the death of his mother in “Addio.” Then, by way of additional ethnic emphasis, Ciardi ended with his entire Lives of X, about half of which included long sections on his Italian back­ground and family memories, plus his experiences as an Italian-American boy in a German-Irish neighborhood. Exactly half of the book’s 222 pages (but only 36 poems) were given over to these two chapters, and sandwiched in between them were five addi­tional chapters (I Marry You, Thickets, On the Patio, Bang Bang [World War II poems], and Conversations), 105 poems in all. Ital­ian American or not, the book had an attractive quirkiness to it, with poems grouped in such a way as to make them appear fresh in their new surroundings.

A key to Ciardi’s mindset when he put Selected together was his inability to think long about poems from the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s and his decision to reprint great amounts from the 1970s: all of Lives of X, twenty-two poems from The Little That Is All, and twenty-seven from For Instance. The real imbalance in Selected was not the inclusion of too many Italian poems but the omission of too many excellent early poems: there is nothing from Homeward to America, only four from Other Skies, two from Live Another Day, six from From Time to Time, and so on, with the best representation among early books coming from As If (nine), 39 Poems (nine), In the Stoneworks (eleven) and Person to Person (thirteen). With respect to subject matter, Ciardi chose more of the things that were inter­esting him in the 1970s over earlier subjects, as for instance, he included nearly twice as many suburban poems in On the Patio as there are World War II poems in Bang Bang. During the forty years that had elapsed between the dramatically important and life-threatening events of World War II and Selected Poems, Ciardi had been transformed from a reluctant warrior into a successful member of “po biz,” with a suburban home in Metuchen and a winter residence in Key West, all of which accounts for his heavy interest in observations made from the patio—and the unfortunate imbalance in Selected. Moreover, by selecting a mere thirteen per­cent of his poems for Selected (and not so much as a single triplet from his great translation of The Divine Comedy), Ciardi chose a way of representing himself that was far too narrow, for Ciardi reads best when one spans the decades with him, reading at length among the poems that were important to him moment by moment and year by year. Only then do his love of family and art, his religious skepticism, his search for identity, his fascination with everyday events, his passion for the unimportant poem—emerge as an impressive catalogue of concerns, themes deliber­ately developed over a lifetime. And only then does his voice, de­scribed so well by Edward Krickel as “slangy yet learned,” emerge as warmly human in its sympathies and mercies.

 

Edward M. Cifelli

County College of Morris

 

 

 

 



*Excerpted from John Ciardi: A Biography (Fayetteville: U of Arkansas P, 1997).

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