John Ciardi

1916 –

John Anthony Ciardi was born on June 24, 1916, in Boston, the child of Italian immigrants. He attended Bates College and Tufts College (now, University) and received his master’s degree from the University of Michigan in 1939. He is the author of more than forty volumes of poetry, among them The Collected Poems of John Ciardi (University of Arkansas Press, 1997); The Birds of Pompeii (University of Arkansas Press, 1985); The Little That Is All (Rutgers University Press, 1974); Person to Person (Rutgers University Press, 1964); and Other Skies (Little, Brown and Company, 1947). Ciardi is perhaps best known for How Does a Poem Mean? (Houghton Mifflin, 1959), which became a standard text for college and high school poetry courses. He also translated an acclaimed edition of Dante’s The Divine Comedy.

Ciardi was a regular commentator on National Public Radio (NPR) and served as editor of the Saturday Review for many years. He began his career teaching English at the University of Kansas City, and, after serving a three-year term in the U.S. Air Force, went on to teach at Harvard University in 1946. He remained at Harvard as the Briggs-Copeland Instructor in English until 1953, when he accepted a position at Rutgers University.

In 1961, Ciardi broke with the educational establishment to devote himself to his own literary endeavors, although he remained an active and visible member of the academic community through lectures, poetry readings, and appearances on educational television. He began writing children’s poetry as a way of getting his own children interested in reading. These works, especially I Met a Man Who Sang the Sillies (Lippincott, 1961), a collection of nonsense verse, became tremendously popular. Ciardi was a vocal proponent of sharing poetry with a mass audience, and he made a conscientious effort to address the average reader through much of his work without sacrificing complexity or formal intricacy. His verse, which often eschewed contemporary poetic trends and the “elevated” themes Ciardi associated with romantic and sentimental sensibilities, gained a large public following.

Ciardi’s awards and honors include a grant from The Fund for the Advancement of Education and the Prix de Rome from The American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Ciardi died of a heart attack on March 30, 1986, in Edison, New Jersey, but not before composing his own epitaph: “Here, time concurring (and it does); / Lies Ciardi. If no kingdom come, / A kingdom was. Such as it was / This one beside it is a slum.”