John Ciardi: The Edward M. Cifelli Collection
Type of Material: Books, audio recordings, manuscripts, and artifacts.
Personal Name: John Ciardi
Collection ID: Collection 372
Creator: John Ciardi and Edward M. Cifelli
Extent: 18 cubic ft.
Span Dates: 1940-2003
And one ought to mention for all those to whom such things matter that ethnicity by itself is not a factor in establishing Ciardi’s literary reputation. For Italian Americans, of course, there is special fun and pride in his poems about Italian Sunday dinners, favorite uncles and aunts, and his father’s love of opera, for Ciardi wrote often and well about such subjects; however, he never thought of himself as being so narrowly American, so marginalized. He is known today for many, many poems that have nothing at all to do with his being Italian. And so, while he valued his European heritage and treasured his Italian roots, Ciardi became an important unhyphenated American poet. He believed unquestionably that in a meritocracy, the only thing that matters is the quality of one’s work: good poems would be remembered.
A second reason readers connect with Ciardi is his sixteen books of award-winning children’s poetry, books with such fun-sounding titles as The Man Who Sang the Sillies, The Reason for the Pelican, and Doodle Soup. There are monster poems, bedtime poems, and plenty of naughty boys and girls poems. And Ciardi was not merely a successful writer of children’s poems, he was also very popular in their classrooms as well, where he met with them as often as they asked him to. These poetic accomplishments would be enough for most reputations to rest on, but with John Ciardi, they pale in comparison to his importance as the translator of the greatest Italian poet of all time, Dante Alighieri. Ciardi’s translation of Dante’s masterwork, The Inferno, was published in 1954 and is still in print today in the Modern Library Edition. And despite many new translations, Ciardi’s remains both popular and so widely respected that college students routinely have his translation assigned in the standard Norton anthology of world literature. The second and third volumes of Ciardi’s translation of Dante’s great book, The Purgatorio and The Paradiso, were published in 1961 and 1970, and maintained the same high standards and reader satisfaction. As Dudley Fitts wrote of Ciardi’s translation in 1954, this is "the best we have seen: Here is our Dante, Dante for the first time translated into virile, tense American verse. . . a shining event in a bad age"
Yet another reason accounting for Ciardi’s popularity and national reputation is actually a combination of reasons, like his CBS network program called Accent in 1961-62; his National Public Radio program called A Word in Your Ear from 1977-86; his twice-a-month magazine column called "Manner of Speaking" in the nationally known Saturday Review from 1961-72; and his directorship from 1955-72 of what was then the country’s most widely respected writers' conference, Bread Loaf, in Middlebury, Vermont. Ciardi was so important to the literary landscape in mid-century America that he made two appearances on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
The fifth reason accounting for John Ciardi’s position in twentieth-century American letters is his set of Browser’s Dictionaries. Ciardi had always been intrigued by every aspect of language, so when he became curious about where words and expressions came from, he entered the field with the same passion that he had shown for poetry then children's literature then Dante. The miracle is that on even such esoteric topics as etymologies, Ciardi managed to be a popular writer. He interested a commercial publisher, Harper & Row, in publishing the first book, which sold so many copies that three volumes were eventually published. Ciardi never sacrificed what might be called academic respectability in these books, but as usual with him, one is more impressed with his readability and common touch than with the also evident high level of scholarship.
If one needs even more reason to explain Ciardi’s reputation over his lifetime, there is always his lecture-circuit popularity. He actually left a tenured full-professorship at Rutgers University in order to support his family by lecturing all over the country at such high rates that even he could sometimes be embarrassed by them. He was fond of saying that people would rarely buy books of poetry, but that they would regularly pay him large sums of money to talk about them.
And thus it was that this once poverty-stricken son of Italian immigrants managed to turn a career in poetry into a million-dollar industry. Only in America!
The John Ciardi Collection consists of books, manuscripts, artifacts, records, audio recordings, framed items, and research materials assembled and acquired by Dr. Edward Cifelli.
The collection's original order has been maintained where applicable and re-created
in others to assist researchers more easily. Items housed in acidic or metal housings
have been removed from these housings for preservation reasons and have been placed
in acid free folders and containers. All metal fasteners have been removed and replaced
in accordance with accepted archival standards of preservation.
When citing the collection, please credit: John Ciardi Collection, Special Collections, Stony Brook University Libraries.
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SUBGROUP I: Books