06/25/03
John Ciardi
    by Kevin Shortsleeve

"Once long ago in a far away beginning 'by the sea'
In, of course, a kingdom, one fine day
With (why not?) A lark in a tree
(Yes all the poems I ever see
Put all their larks in the air
Such poor tired larks! 'let one rest in my tree,'
I thought. So I put it there.)

So begins "The King Who Saved Himself from Being Saved," written in John Ciardi's typical, off-handed and whimsical way. Ciardi is unique in the field of children's poetry. His humorous, sophisticated voice celebrated playfulness in a manner that is perhaps unmatched in the field of verse for children.

Born in Boston's North End in 1916, Ciardi worked his way through high school and college. While a student at The University of Michigan, he won the Avery Hopwood Award for Poetry, which helped launch his career as a poet and literary critic. What followed was a long string of similar successes, a professorship at Harvard, an abundance of published works for both adults and children and even a stint as host of "Accent," a weekly educational program on CBS Television in the early sixties. Ciardi is probably best known, however, as the translator of Dante's Divine Comedy - his version being the canonical one for most college English students.

As learned as Ciardi was, it is somewhat mind-boggling to witness how easily he could shift from serious works of scholarly criticism to nonsense rhymes. But he did it - and apparently with the greatest of ease. In his poem, "Sylvester," a kangaroo intercepts a letter containing a proposal of marriage, and much to the surprise of the gentleman who sent the letter, the kangaroo accepts his proposal. When the gentleman explains that the letter was intended for a lady and not a kangaroo, the animal angrily refuses his explanation and will not take no for an answer.

So goes the nonsense of Professor Ciardi. If you really want to laugh, and at the same time gain a little insight into childhood, seek out his picture books, like The Monster's Den or The Man Who Sang the Sillies. All of his children's books were illustrated by Edward Gorey, whose deadpan line drawings are the perfect compliment to Ciardi's humor.
Once, musing about tucking his children into bed, Ciardi wrote:
"Their voices are so soft away and slow,
That I have to think when it comes time to go
That the Luckies are the Happies, and the Happies are the Sillies,
And the Sillies are the sweetest that I know."

Copyright 2003 Kevin Shortsleeve

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