John Ciardi

John Ciardi bigraphy, stories - American poet, professor, translator

John Ciardi : biography

June 24, 1916 – March 30, 1986

John Anthony Ciardi ( ; June 24, 1916 – March 30, 1986) was an American poet, translator, and etymologist. While primarily known as a poet, he also translated Dante’s Divine Comedy, wrote several volumes of children’s poetry, pursued etymology, contributed to the Saturday Review as a columnist and long-time poetry editor, and directed the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont. In 1959, Ciardi published a book on how to read, write, and teach poetry, How Does a Poem Mean?, which has proven to be among the most-used books of its kind. At the peak of his popularity in the early 1960s, Ciardi also had a network television program on CBS, Accent. 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.


"In 1956, Ciardi received the Prix de Rome from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1982, the National Council of Teachers of English awarded him its award for excellence in children’s poetry." He also won American Platform Association’s Carl Sandburg Award in 1980.NOTES ON PEOPLE; Wallace Heading Home to Alabama After Treatment. ALBIN KREBS AND LAURIE JOHNSTON. The New York Times. Section B; Page 5, Column 1; Metropolitan Desk July 15, 1980.

On Words

National Public Radio (NPR) continues to make Ciardi’s commentaries available. Etymologies and commentary on words such as daisy, demijohn, jimmies, gerrymander, glitch, snafu, cretin, and baseball, among others, are available from the archives of their website. NPR also began making his commentaries available as podcasts, starting in November 2005.

Literary career

"After the war, Mr. Ciardi returned briefly to Kansas State, before being named instructor [in 1946], and later assistant professor, in the Briggs Copeland chair at Harvard University, where he stayed until 1953." "While at Harvard, Mr. Ciardi began his long association with the Bread Loaf Writers Conference at Middlebury College in Vermont, where he lectured on poetry for almost 30 years, half that time as director of the program."

Ciardi had published his first book of poems, Homeward to America, in 1940, before the war, and his next book, Other Skies, focusing on his wartime experiences, was published in 1947. His third book, Live Another Day, came out in 1949. In 1950, Ciardi edited a poetry collection, Mid-Century American Poets, which identified the best poets of the generation that had come into its own in the 1940s: Richard Wilbur, Muriel Rukeyser, John Frederick Nims, Karl Shapiro, Elizabeth Bishop, Theodore Roethke, Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, Ciardi himself, and several others. Each poet selected several poems for inclusion, plus his or her comments on the poetic principles that guided the compositions, addressing especially the issue of the "unintelligibility" of modern poetry.

Ciardi had begun translating Dante for his classes at Harvard and continued with the work throughout his time there. His translation of The Inferno was published in 1954. Dudley Fitts, himself an important mid-century translator, said of Ciardi’s version, "[H]ere is our Dante, Dante for the first time translated into virile, tense American verse; a work of enormous erudition which (like its original) never forgets to be poetry; a shining event in a bad age." Joan Acocella (née Ross), however, noted "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."The Cult of Language: A Study of Two Modern Translations of Dante. By Joan Ross Acocella. Modern Language Quarterly 1974 35(2):140–156; . The translation "is widely used at universities." Ciardi’s translation of The Purgatorio followed in 1961 and The Paradiso in 1970. Ciardi’s version of Inferno was recorded and released by Folkways Records in 1954. Two years later, Ciardi would have his work featured again on an album titled, As If: Poems, New and Selected, by John Ciardi.