John CiardiNFR/September 1972
OF GREAT AND LITTLE MEN
by Mark R. Conte
John Ciardi sat in an old green armchair in the teacher’s lounge that was backstage of the small yellowed auditorium and spoke patiently to a prison poet about his poems.. “You have to use today’s language,: he said. “You wouldn’t say, ‘I love thine eyes in moonlight’ to a young girl, would you>?” The prison poet nodded, pretending he understood. Standing in the line behind the inmate were other prison poets, men who would never write for anyone else but their girlfriends and their mothers. They knew it deep down inside. Poetry would never mean their whole life as it meant to Ciardi., reciting carefully chosen poems in his booming voice, explaining the sounds and the rhythm of a poem, rolling the names of famous fellow poets off his tongue, bringing poetry to such places as Union Correctional Institution. No it would never mean that much to them. He knew that. Yet he sat in the chair and spoke to each new hopeful poet, explaining the world of poetry , his thinning hair falling across his temples, his suspenders hugging the shoulders that were beginning to look small on top of his large aging body. Ciardi was Poet in Residence at nearby University of Florida that semester and was asked by Professors R. Brandon Kershner and David Rebmann to speak at the prison poetry class they were teaching at the prison.
Moments before, he had left the prison school auditorium with an applause that roared through the prison school by the inmate students. There are not may people who can get a roaring applause from reading poetry. John Ciardi is one of the few who can.
The last of the prison poets left and Ciardi walked to a small table and poured himself a cup of coffee. The teachers from the prison school sat around a long table like tick birds gathering around a grazing cow as Ciardi grunted into a chair.
“Why did you leave out the bit about ‘Then only corruption will serve justice’ in the second show?”
“Oh that,” said Steve Toskar, the teacher who had arranged for Ciardi’s vist to the prison. “That was impromptu.”
“I think I started talking about the political lawyers,” Ciardi said. “You know, the first time your son is arrested, you expect leniency. The second time, maybe kindness, but the third time, you had better get yourself an influential attorney.” The teachers smiled wisely and nodded.
“Policemen are different today,” Ciardi said. “In the old days, if a kid was picked up, the policeman would grab him by the neck and bring him home to his parents, teling them to give him a good spanking. Today, they’re all trying to build bigger arrest records. They’re all looking for a promotion. If you’re a teenager with lonh hair, you’re going to get stopped by the police. I never get stopped. They don’t stop Cadillacs or Lincolns. There was a ripple of laughter from the teachers as they leaned forward for more. “I was going to buy a Volkswagon once and bug it with all kind of microphones. Then I was going to put on a wig and a beard and drive around at night until I was stopped by the police. He smiled gleefully. It would have been all on tape. But my lawyer advised me not to do this. You knolw how lawyers are. Although I probably would have been better off spending my money on that. As it turned out, I invested that particular money in a losing proposition and lost all of it.” He paused a moment and sipped his coffee. The room was unexpectedly quiet. The teachers sat calmly smiling, waiting to be entertained, tuning their ears for years of conversation stoppers of “When Ciardi told me…..”
“The best investments I made were in art,” Ciardi said. “I bought a Piccasso for seven hundred and fifty dollars quite a few years ago. I was offered five thousand dollars two years after I bought it and the price keeps going up. One of the teachers mentioned Robert Frost and his voice cam alive.
“They made a movie short of his poem ‘Stopping by the woods on a snowy evening’ up in New England. It was supposed to be cute, I guess. When the line about his horse jingling his bells, a horse is seen jungling his bells. It was a frilly thing really. When I saw it with Frost, he asked me how I liked it. I said, ‘you’re not a lolly pop’. Well, two years later when we were answering questions at an engement, in reply to a question, he said, ‘I’m not a lolly pop.’ He never forgot it.” A young poet who had just begun publishing asked, “Are you aware of the popularity of poetry in Brazil and why can’t it happen here? “ Ciardi shifted in his chair to face the young poet. “Poetry is popular in all the Latin American countries, ” Ciardi said. “In Chili, there is a book store every three blocks. You’ll see laborers stopping for lunch on the sidewalk, opening their lunchbags, taking a sandwich in one hand and a book of poetry in the other. It’s a wonderful thing.”
“There was an old lady in Hungary, and every Friday night, they would have a get together at her house with sandwiches and drinks and then she would read her poems and everyone in the room would cry. You don’t see that here. People don’t want to have a good cry anymore. It’s not chic.”
“I read a column by Judson Jerome in The Writer magazine,” Interrupted the young poet, “and he said the death of W. H. Auden has left us with no great poet. Do you agree with that?”
“Well, I guess so. Jerome feels that this is true. Of course, all these poerts came at the right time, when poetry was changing. Sometimes I think you have to be born at the right time.”
“My argument with form poetry is that in the six hundred years it existed it has produced some really bad poetry. If a poet writes ‘Of thee I sing and all birds sing’ how do you tell him it stinks?
“You tell him he must improve on the blank page.” Ciardi said dryly.A black teacher who had been directing inmate students out of the school came into the teacher’s lounge and sat at the table. As if on cue, one of the teachers said, “What was the discussion you had on Black poetry last year with some of the students here? I’ve heard seven or eight different versions.” Ciardi leaned back. “I think it was a poem about a black martyr and God knows we’ve had plenty of them. But it was written as if the man was perfect. I have never seen a perfect man. Why can’t we have martyrs that are slightly imperfect?
Steve Toskar, who had been in the principle’s office came in and told Ciardi it would be a good idea for Ciardi to meet the prison warden. The warden had had a busy day, Toskar said, and would receive Ciardi in his office. Ciardi, who had taught at the University of /florida earlier in the day and then at the prison, sighed. “Yes, but I would like to be getting back to Gainesville soon.” The teachers rose and broke into small talk, as if congratulating each other on a great achievement, while Ciardi quietly put on his coat in the back of the room, waiting to be presented to the warden.