On June 24, 1916, John Ciardi was born to Italian immigrants who had
settled in the "North End" section of Boston, Massachusetts. After losing
his father in an automobile accident at age three, he was raised by his
barely literate mother and three older sisters. He became interested in
poetry as a young child, and that early interest deepened when his family
moved to suburban Boston (Medford). He first began to show signs of
poetic genius while studying at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. He
transferred to Tufts University, graduating in 1938, and did graduate
study at the University of Michigan (he published his first volume of
poetry in 1940, a year after getting his M.A. degree).
After serving as a B-29 bomber pilot in WWII, Ciardi returned home to
teach poetry at a number of American colleges (he routinely won "best
teacher" awards). In 1956, he became poetry editor of The Saturday
Review, a post he held until 1972. In addition to his many volumes of
poetry and his popular "Browser's Dictionary" books, he earned
international acclaim for a translation of Dante's "Inferno." His 1960
book "How Does a Poem Mean?" became one of history's most popular poetry
textbooks, and is still used in many colleges today. For many years, he
also did commentaries on words and word etymologies for National Public
Ciardi achieved a celebrity status in his lifetime, twice appearing on
Johnny Carson's "The Tonight Show." He was also one of history's few
poets to become rich as a result of writing poetry (about his wealth, he
once quipped, "I am my broker's keeper").
I've always been interested in the prose creations of poets, especially
their aphorisms and epigrams. And when I began searching through Ciardi's
work, he did not disappoint. Here are some of his best lines:
"The day will happen whether or not you get up."
"There's nothing wrong with sobriety in moderation."
"Early to bed and early to rise probably indicates unskilled labor."
"Gentility is what is left over from rich ancestors
after the money is gone."
"The classroom should be an entrance into the world,
not an escape from it."
"A university is what a college becomes
when the faculty loses interest in students."
"The Constitution gives every American the inalienable right
to make a damn fool of himself.”
"The rareness of excellence should not be made
into an excuse for the failure to recognize it."
"You don't have to suffer to be a poet;
adolescence is enough suffering for anyone."
"I learned that the rate at which one recognizes his own badness
is the rate at which he grows as a writer."
"Modern art is what happens when painters stop looking at girls
and persuade themselves that they have a better idea."
"Love is the word used to label the sexual excitement of the young,
the habituation of the middle-aged,
and the mutual dependence of the old."
He also penned this great metaphorical line on the value of a good question:
"A good question is never answered.
It is not a bolt to be tightened into place
but a seed to be planted and to bear more seed
toward the hope of greening the landscape of idea."