John Ciardi Collection
Manuscript Collection 372

Description
Books, audio recordings, manuscripts, and artifacts; 1950s-2003.
18 cubic ft.
Organization: Series arrangement by original and alphabetical order.
Donated by Dr. Edward Cifelli, John Ciardi's biographer, in 2003.

Collection processed by Kristen J. Nyitray in March 2005 with the assistance of F. Berenice Baez-Revueltas, graduate student assistant.
Online finding aid published July 2006.

Preface
Introduction
Scope and Content Note
Series Description and Container Listings

Preface

The John Ciardi Collection was donated in 2003 by Edward M. Cifelli, the author of John Ciardi: A Biography and editor of The Collected Poems of John Ciardi. Both books were published in 1997. Dr. Cifelli is a retired professor of English from County College of Morris in Randolph, NJ and can be reached at jerseybookman@yahoo.com. A dedication celebration for the collection was hosted by the Special Collections Department and the Center for Italian Studies on November 19, 2003.

Introduction

John Ciardi (1916-1986) by Edward M. Cifelli

When poet John Ciardi died unexpectedly of a heart attack on Easter Sunday 1986 at his home in Metuchen, New Jersey, he was internationally mourned. Every major news outlet in the United States carried an obituary story, for Ciardi had earned his reputation as an American literary figure. More than that, he had also somehow managed to achieve the elusive American Dream by becoming that rarest of all rare things, the millionaire poet. A humbly born son of Italian immigrants in Boston’s Little Italy, Ciardi had built by 1986 a solid reputation in six different areas as a kind of larger-than-life cultural legend.

First and foremost, he was well known for his poetry, 21 volumes of it, beginning in 1940 and ending when the last four books were published after his death by special arrangement with the executors of his estate. The last of these, his 600-page Collected Poems, was published in 1997 and is still available from the University of Arkansas Press. In the end, Ciardi’s niche as one of America’s best mid-century poets the, "Eisenhower Laureate" as Tom Disch in a review of Collected Poems called him in Poetry, is well established: he occupies a well-earned position among such notable mid-century poets as Richard Wilbur, Elizabeth Bishop, and Robert Lowell.

Ciardi was master of what he liked to call the Unimportant Poem, the sort of poem written to celebrate nothing more important than the sipping of coffee at breakfast or the watching of birds in the backyard. He wrote love poems too, and poems about his Italian heritage. He was also a veteran of World War II and wrote an excellent book of poems, Other Skies, about that experience. He wrote one complete book, Lives of X, about being born in Boston's Italian North End and then growing up in a nearby German-Irish town. He was being humble when he called his poems "unimportant" because they were about the most important subject of all not just his own life, but everyone’s.

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!

Scope and Content Note

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.

The collection is open to research without restrictions in accordance with general access principles, and under the discretion of the staff of the Special Collections Department. The collection's creator (Dr. Edward Cifelli) maintains copyright to his personal papers and publications. All requests to use or reproduce any of Dr. Cifelli's materials should be addressed in writing to the Head of Special Collections and University Archives.

In citing the collection, please credit it as follows: John Ciardi Collection, Special Collections Department, University Libraries, Stony Brook University.

Materials within this collection may be located with the use of the collection's finding aid available in hardcopy and online through the University's Library web page.

Series Outline and Container Listing

SUBGROUP I: Books

Series 1: Books of Adult Poetry

Series 2: Anthologies with Ciardi's Poems


Series 3: Books of Children's Poetry


Series 4: Children's Anthologies with Ciardi's Poems


Series 5: Books of Limericks


Series 6: Translations of Dante's Divine Comedy

Sub-series 1: Cantos 1-4, UKC REVIEW
Sub-series 2: New World Writing, #15, Purgatorio, canto 2
Sub-series 3: The Rarer Action, Paradiso, Canto 33
Sub-series 4: RUP (1954)
Sub-series 5: Mentor Editions
Sub-series 6: Norton Edition
Sub-series 7: Franklin Editions
Sub-series 8: Modern Library Edition
Sub-series 9: Three Lectures
Sub-series 10: Italian Literature in Translation


Series 7: Textbooks
Sub-series 1: How Does a Poem Mean?
Sub-series 2: Poetry: A Closer Look
Sub-series 3: Steps to Reading Literature

Series 8: Books with Essays by Ciardi

Series 9: Treat It Gentle (The autobiography of jazz musician Sidney Bechet)

Series 10: Browser's Dictionaries

Series 11: Autobiography and Biography

Series 12: Bibliography

Series 13: Books about Ciardi

SUBGROUP II: Miscellaneous Items
SUBGROUP III: Manuscripts and Letters
SUBGROUP IV: Framed Items
SUBGROUP V: Recordings
SUBGROUP VI: Miscellaneous Ciardi Tapes
[audio and video]
SUBGROUP VII: Individual Issues of The Saturday Review
SUBGROUP VIII: John Ciardi Research Material - Dr. Edward Cifelli