John Ciardi was born in Boston in 1916. The child if immigrant parents, he attended college in an era when college education was still considered a privilege rather than an expected part of American life. College was the path to a better career, and a path toward making something of the person so that they could give back to society. For Ciardi, he was able to use his college education received from Bates College, Tufts College, and then a master's degree from the University of Michigan in 1939 to do both.
The Midwest has a particular flavor to life that is somewhat lost in the high society of the East coast. Life is about life, not the social trappings that are used to fill our lives with entertainment and intrigue. Some poets of Ciardi's time, such William Carlos Williams, took the impressionism of the time to abstract extreme. The words became objects of the poem rather than the message, and the more disconnected the words, like a Picasso painting, the more the poem was considered to be extraordinary.
His perspective was undoubtedly influences the flavor on life in the Midwest. He was also influences by his tour of duty in the Pacific during WWII. A gunner in the air force, He flew on bombing raids over Sampan in a B-29 Ciardi kept a journal during this time, which was subsequently published. He did not condemn the men of war as killing machines. His journal was a view of the men and women caught up in the conflict who were lonely, tired, despairing of their future, and longing to return home. Events such as these change a man, and create in him a heart that has little toleration for the trappings of life which tries to compete with our hearts for meaning and purpose.
Ciardi, however, took a much more practical view of the purpose of poetry. In his book Mid Century American Poets, Ciardi wrote:
Really creative art never turns its back on nature, and by nature I mean all parts of life and of earth that have not yet been transformed into art, including, obviously, the mind and soul of the poet himself. To create, an artist must transform some part of this raw material into a work of art."
For Ciardi, poetry was a message to the people that was meant to "instruct and delight" or more completely, to instruct while delighting. In his later life, after the war, Ciardi turned much of his efforts to giving back to the community part of the blessing he had received through his education. Making frequent appearances on National Public Radio, Ciardi turned his attention to creating literature campaigns for school age children. His perspective on his writing was shown in this conversation with himself in a book called Dialogue with an Audience. In an imagined conversation with an average citizen, Ciardi gave his thesis statement regarding good poetry.
The indispensable experience of knowledge that defines a civilized human being. The poem takes a man through the moment of experience to the moment of insight. It arouses and adds to his total sentience. Then let me add explicitly what is already implicit in them -- that the experience of knowledge in a poem is always a self-delighting thing. As Horace put it, the end of poetry is 'to teach and delight,' or, more exactly rendered, 'teaching while delighting.'"
For Ciardi, his purpose was not to push the boundaries of how words are to be put together and try men's patience as they sought to understand disjunctioned words placed in a sentence like torn multicolored scraps of construction paper pasted to a preschoolers poster board. Ciardi made sure his pieces of construction paper were cut and refined fitting together in a complete picture like a beautiful mosaic. When he finished his creation, his meaning was clear, and he had delighted his audience with insight into a common piece of life. Of his writing, he said "It's not a how-to-do-it school [but] more nearly a confessional in which people who have spent their lives at the writing process itemize their failures while clinging to their hopes." In regard to modern art, Ciardi said ""Modern art is what happens when painters stop looking at girls and persuade themselves they have a better idea."
His desire was to instruct us about ourselves, while delighting and leaving behind a pleasant after taste.
Ciardi's Midwestern charm, combined with a sharp intellectual training and a bit of fun was seen in his poetry, and his personal appearances. In a NPR radio broadcast, he introduced himself this way.
This is John Ciardi, your resident word freak, foibling away at his old forte. Please take that as a clumsy lead in to a small song and dance on forte and foible. It is impossible to grasp entirely the sense of these two words until we know that they are from French fencing terminology in which the forte is the half of a dueler's blade from midpoint to the handle, the strong, firm half, and the foible is the pliable half from the midpoint to the tip. I am no duelist, but as I understand it, a fencer who takes his opponent's foible on his forte is in a favorable position to parry and thrust. Strength against weakness."
And so Ciardi parried and thrusted his way into literature, using strength of words against weaknesses of others to paint a picture of life, to instruct and delight is reader, and to contribute to their understanding of literature, and of themselves.
Ciardi's poem "Faces" is a wonderful journey into the possibilities of chance, and how one person can forever leave a positive influence on another. Written in free verse, the poem is the story of a person journey. Ciardi is hitch hiking form Michigan to Boston in the middle of winter. The mid west winters are not to be argued with in the middle of a cold night, and Ciardi described the wind driven snow as "a stone cracking drill of wind that shot a grit of snow" into his face as he hung his thumb out on a wintry night. One can feel the darkness and cold as Ciardi describes the night as "black as the inside of a pig." I have never been inside a pig, and I doubt that Ciardi had either. But the image is powerful, and the reader is left with no question of the bleak winter road which Ciardi traveled that evening.
Suddenly a friendly traveler pulled over, and gave Ciardi a ride 4 or 5-mile up the road. The two don't talk much. One could suppose in the dark of the night that Ciardi is trying to stop shivering and warm up a bit in the cab of the car while wondering how far his driver would take him. The poem is in a conversational tone, as if the reader and the poet are sitting across from each other over coffee talking about the event. The driver soon stops and gives Ciardi back to the night. And after he is gone, the poet realizes that he never got a good look at his host. In the dark Buick cab, the lights from the road left Ciardi with a half formed image of a face. It is this image that the poem is named after, and this thought is the core of the poems 'instruction and delight"
Ciardi says that he sent many years wondering about the driver that cold evening. The driver, after dropping Ciardi off, turned around and headed back the way he came. His contribution to Ciardi's journey wasn't due to convenience. It was the man's warm heart, and kind face that led him to drive 5 miles out of his way, and help Ciardi that cold evening.
The face, and symbolically the kindness, is what Ciardi looked for during the next twenty years of his life.
The remainder of the poem discusses the different experiences which Ciardi lived through, and how he continually thought about his guardian angel from that night. "
I've been finding faces that might do for his,
The Army was especially full of possibles,
But not to the point of monopoly, any party
Can spring through a doorway. "How do you do?"
You say and the face opens the door, and there you are Back in the winter's blast"
Such was the life of the poet during his educational journey at the University of Michigan, and such is the life of men in general. Every now and then, a person will show an extraordinary kindness, and go out of their way to touch another life. But then the page turns, or the car door opens and again we are left along to face the stinging grit of a cold snow blast, looking for our next ride, and our next face. The last stanza of the poem reached off the page, and the poet touches his reader with instruction and…