John Ciardi

I confess a deep affinity for the core aesthetic of John Ciardi (1916-1986). He cast a cold eye on both grandiose themes and the poet’s signatory “voice.” Elevated themes could be an affectation, a mask for sentimentality and puffery, he thought; the signatory voice limited a poet’s range and made the writing generic, even self-parodic.

Ciardi wrote poems prodigiously and also gave us a classic teaching text: How Does a Poem Mean? He was a devoted evangelizer for poetry who worked hard to spread the good news to a wide audience.


I’ve zeroed an altimeter on the floor
then raised it to a table and read three feet.
Nothing but music knows what air is
more precisely than this. I read on its face
Sensitive Altimeter and believe it.

Once on a clear day over Arkansas
I watched the ridges on the radar screen,
then looked down from the blister and hung like prayer:
the instrument was perfect: ridge by ridge
the electric land was true as the land it took from.

These, I am persuaded, are instances
round as the eye to see with,
perfections of one place in the visited world
and omens to the godly
teaching an increase of possibility.

I believe that when a civilization
equal to its instruments is born
we may prepare to build such cities as music
arrives to on the air, lands where we are
the instruments of April in the seed.

The Bird in Whatever Name

A bird with a name it does not itself
recognize, and I cannot recall—
if ever I knew it, and no matter—
lives off the great gross Rhinoceros of Africa.

The slathering hide of the great gross Rhinoceros,
slabbed like a river in a stiff wind,
is rancid at the bent seams, and clogged
with lice and fly-grubs at the pores and pittings.

The Rhino-bird, whatever its unknown name,
attends its warty barge through the jungle,
the feast of its own need picking the tickle
of many small corruptions from behemoth,

who, impervious to all roarers, is yet defenseless, alone,
against the whine of the fly in his ear, and stricken
to helpless furies by the squirm of the uncoiling grub
tucked into the soft creases of the impenetrable.

My bird—and oh it is my bird and yours!—crawls
him as killingly as saints their god, springs
circling over him to foretell all coming,
descends in the calm lapses to ride a-perch on his horn

or snout. Even into the mouth and nares of the beast
he goes—so some have reported—to pick infection
from power. And can the beast not love
the bird that comes to him with songs and mercies?

—Oh jungle, jungle, in whose ferns life dreamed itself
and woke, saw itself and was, looked back
and found in every bird and beast its feature,
told of itself, whatever name is given.


Gulls in Wyoming, Utah, follow the plows,
picking the small jet lives from the turned furrows.

It half unfastens nature, their being there
a mile up and a thousand in from the sea.

In Gloucester, yes. In Manilla, Capetown, Dover—
by all the salt-shot names of the edges,

and slid beyond the edges, following, wide
and easy on the wind, the turned wakes, there—

at home where all mind trespasses and prays
and the impossible is a habitat—

there a man can answer with a psalm
from true-salt the blue dream a gull is.

But these landlubbers, half-hen and half-buzzard,
picking black lice out of the desert’s pores—

call these things gulls? I call them bleached crows!
—Or did. Until I saw the sea still leaving,

first in Red Desert country, then in Salt Lake.
It must be salt deceives them from themselves:

somehow they smell it but can’t find that water.
How could they guess at years-ago by millions?

I think they’re queerly lost by a right instinct.
Or else they’re only waiting, their instinct sound,

to be on hand when the next ocean starts here.
I wish they’d go to sea where they belong

and let the hawks and buzzards have the desert
in their own terms, as if it meant to last.

And then again I’m glad they’re queerly home:
their presence teaches possibility

another range. And every man a moral:
put wings to a stomach and all the world is reached.


At ninety-seven my uncle found God heavy.
“My legs,” he sighed, “May I go before they do.”
So small an ambition:could it be asking too much
even from a universe? It or luck

spun him the answer he wanted. Sometimes we win.
I was in Asia and missed the funeral,
all but a postcard C/O AM. EX., BANGKOK.
I bought gold leaf and rubbed a Buddha for him,

my shoes at the door, with feet left to put in them.
His name was di Simone, which is “of Simon.”
He could not read, but his family legend whispered
of a turned-Jew centuries back. He married

my mother’s sister and passed as Alec the Barber,
though really Alessio. The gold leaf crumbles.
It makes sparks on the floor like lathe-curlings.
But some of it sticks. In time the God turns gold

and we are all one family. Back in my shoes,
I fed beggars in his name for the plains-wide days
he walked me for quail or pheasant or what comes
in or out of season. “God,” he would say,

“sends birds, not calendars.” He was right a while,
but calendars come, too. I must have loved him,
and did not know it till I fed beggars for him
and gilded an unfinished god for its vault.

True or False

Real emeralds are worth more than synthetics
but the only way to tell one from the other
is to heat them to a stated temperature,
then tap. When it’s done properly
the real one shatters.

                      I have no emeralds.
I was told this about them by a woman
who said someone had told her. True or false,
I have held my own palmful of bright breakage
from a truth too late. I know the principle.

Most Like an Arch This Marriage

Most like an arch—an entrance which upholds
and shores the stone-crush up the air like lace.
Mass made idea, and idea held in place.
A lock in time. Inside half-heaven unfolds.

Most like an arch—two weaknesses that lean
into a strength. Two fallings become firm.
Two joined abeyances become a term
naming the fact that teaches fact to mean.

Not quite that? Not much less. World as it is,
what’s strong and separate falters. All I do
at piling stone on stone apart from you
is roofless around nothing. Till we kiss

I am no more than upright and unset.
It is by falling in and in we make
the all-bearing point, for one another’s sake,
in faultless failing, raised by our own weight.

An Old Man Confesses

I have no cause, and God has not confessed
what purpose time serves. I am bored by death.
I have its cave-damp glowing in my chest.
I have its stone-dust muddled on my breath.

Carrion. Age is carrion. I disgust
even the flesh I am. And where’s the priest
so clean of bloat, so justified and just
he could strip back such skins and find a feast?

Get him away, half-woman as he is
and smelling of old cupboards. I am gone
into a mud deeper than the abyss
down which his adolescent angels shone

like energies. Ah, what a world that was!
I could have leaped to Heaven on my own legs!
Now bats hang from the rafters of the house
and blow-flies bore my flaps to lay their eggs.

Only my tongue stays fast. Rattle and clatter.
as if it signified to say and say.
Maybe saying it is the heart of the matter.
Or just that it costs so little to prattle away.

Say the old fool went prattling to the end.
All words taste better than the gas I sigh.
And while words last me, I can still pretend
that I may phrase some reason not to die.

I doubt it. Let these words do: “The old sot
lay at his last gasp in a rotten hide
and ran words like a leakage, till the rot
inside the fact had drained. And then he died.”

For Myra out of the Album

I changed the baby, fed it, dithered
and got dithered at, with a grin added
and arms and legs pumping,
which means “Hug me!” So I hugged
small as anything is done soft.

There was that hour once in a cone of light.

Outside the cone, the dithering universe.

I have been here, and some of it was love.

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