John Ciardi was the first author about whom I said: here's someone who writes without clich,es. His writing had grace, but, better, it had altitude, flying over trite language like an eagle clearing a summit of dead trees.
My discovery came in the late 1950s, when I was an English major in college, with a minor in golfing, where I read greens more than books. For classes, I had a required reading list as long as an arm and an appetite for the unrequired almost beyond control. What to do? The writing of Ciardi, who was then an English professor in another school and in his first years as poetry editor of Saturday Review, suggested a method for cutting back. Read a writer's essay, poem, story or column until the first clich,e. At that collision, stop. Then drop. Give the writer the deserved rejection slip -- the one an editor should have sent earlier -- and go on to the next.
When news came of Ciardi's death the other day, I thought of all the time, pain and eyestrain he has saved me all these years. That's one debt. The other is for the hours on hours of pleasure that his clich,e-free prose and poetry provided, as though his writings were the back of that eagle and it was broad enough for me and millions of others who savored his books, to hitch rides.
As a professional writer for 45 of his 69 years, Ciardi left few topics untouched. He began -- where else? -- with himself. "The name 'Ciardi' is not natively Italian," he wrote. "Its root is Lombard, and the Lombards entered Italy from Germany under Alboin in the 7th century. At that point of entry the name was Gerhardt. But ask an Italian to say 'Gerhardt' and he will say 'Gerhardi.' In time Gerhardi softened to Gerardi, which passed readily to Cerardi, which in turn shortened to Ciardi. All I can add in support of my prejudice against these German goosesteppers is that my family has had 1,300 years to get over its doubtful beginnings and that it had the good sense to crossbreed with the tribal mixtures left over from the Greek colonies around Vesuvius. That admixture, plus various incidental rapes by various incidental invaders, is called a lineage at something like a racial average: the human race, that is."
The love of Ciardi's intellectual and tribal life was Dante Alighieri. T. S. Eliot's belief that "Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them, there is no third," was enough to set Ciardi to translating "The Divine Comedy." This 1954 translation has become the standard English text, both for college students going into the inferno for the first time and for scholars seeking the paradise of pure language. Ciardi said that the poem is "an inexhaustible invitation to poetic pleasure. . . . Any good poem releases more meaning than can be overtly asserted. No poet achieves greater effect than Dante in his release of the unspoken insight."
How good was Ciardi's translation? A comparison shows the startling difference. Charles Eliot Norton, an earlier scholar and translator, had this for the opening line of Canto I: "Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood, where the right way was lost. Ah! how hard a thing it is to tell what this wild and rough and difficult wood was, which in thought renews my fear! So bitter is it that death is little more. But in order to treat of the good that I found in it, I will tell of the other things that I saw there."
Ciardi: "Midway in our life's journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood. How shall I say what wood that was! I never saw so drear, so rank, so arduous a wilderness! Its very memory gives a shape to fear Death could scarce be more bitter than that place!
But since it came to good, I will recount all that I found revealed there by God's grace." Aside from the purer and clearer words -- "so rank, so arduous a wilderness" for Ciardi, against Norton's ponderous "wild and rough and difficult wood" -- Ciardi puts in the all-crucial "God's grace." Norton does not, as though this might well be merely a secular tale of middle-age adventures. Ciardi sees "The Divine Comedy" as the classic spiritual quest: "Theme exfoliating from theme, Dante knows that his rebirth was in the realization that he had been paying too much attention to worldly affairs (his political involvement in Florence), and to material philosophy (his earlier scholarship), and too little attention to God."
In the two weeks since Ciardi's death, I have gone back to "Manner of Speaking," a collection of his essays. In 348 pages, in essays on the occupational ignorance of university deans to his appreciation for students who keep their idealism intact, Ciardi was the impeccable stylist who epitomized what he cherished in others: being an intellectual ruminant. I looked for clich,es but, unlike Dante on the hunt for sins in hell, I found none.