A Trenta-Sei of the Pleasure We Take in the Early Death of Keats

By John Ciardi 1916–1986 John Ciardi
It is old school custom to pretend to be sad
when we think about the early death of Keats.
The species-truth of the matter is we are glad.
Psilanthropic among exegetes,
I am so moved that when the plate comes by
I almost think to pay the God—but why?

When we think about the early death of Keats
we are glad to be spared the bother of dying ourselves.
His poems are a candy store of bitter-sweets.
We munch whole flights of angels from his shelves
drooling a sticky glut, almost enough
to sicken us. But what delicious stuff!

The species-truth of the matter is we are glad
to have a death to munch on. Truth to tell,
we are also glad to pretend it makes us sad.
When it comes to dying, Keats did it so well
we thrill to the performance. Safely here,
this side of the fallen curtain, we stand and cheer.

Psilanthropic among exegetes,
as once in a miles-high turret spitting flame,
I watched boys flower through orange winding sheets
and shammed a mourning because it put a name
to a death I might have taken—which in a way
made me immortal for another day—

I was so moved that when the plate came by
I had my dollar in hand to give to death
but changed to a penny—enough for the old guy,
and almost enough saved to sweeten my breath
with a toast I will pledge to the Ape of the Divine
in thanks for every death that spares me mine.

I almost thought of paying the God—but why?
Had the boy lived, he might have grown as dull
as Tennyson. Far better, I say, to die
and leave us a formed feeling. O beautiful,
pale, dying poet, fading as soft as rhyme,
the saddest music keeps the sweetest time.




John Ciardi, "A Trenta-Sei of the Pleasure We Take in the Early Death of Keats” from Collected Poems of John Ciardi, by permission of the Ciardi Family Trust.

Source: Poetry (August 1986).

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Poet John Ciardi 1916–1986

Subjects Death, Humor & Satire, Poetry & Poets, Reading & Books

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John Ciardi: “A Trenta-Sei of the Pleasure We Take in the Early Death of Keats”

Making the difficult look easy.

By Miller Williams

John Ciardi devised the form of the trenta-sei (thirty-six, in Italian) in 1985. It had its first publication after his death in the 1989 volume Echoes: Poems Left Behind. One wouldn’t expect the form to have worked its way into the consciousness of many poets by now, but it’s somewhat surprising to me that three or four haven’t been sufficiently intrigued to accept the challenge and explore the possibilities it presents.

This certainly is not the first time a poet has turned from the path of tradition and invented a form. In a number of such instances, the new way of going has found fertile ground in the minds of poets around the world. Not long after Petrarch invented the sonnet in the fourteenth century, poets in several languages were making good use of it. Spenser’s modification of the form some 200 years later carried his name and inclination around the planet, as did Shakespeare’s variation a few years later. Franco Bernini’s caudate sonnet—the tail was tacked on about 1500—didn’t stir nearly as much interest, but a lot of them have been written, and they’re still taking shape. Arnaut Daniel turned his hand around 1200 to the invention of the sestina. Jean Passerat devised the villanelle around 1570. In 1989 John Ciardi gave us the trenta-sei.

The poem consists of six six-line stanzas rhyming ababcc, with lines two through six in stanza one becoming line one of a following stanza, in that order. As a resolving device, he allows the fifth line of stanza one to change from the present tense to the past when it appears as the first line of stanza five.

As in other works by John Ciardi, the line is clearly the unit of the poem, a unit at the same time of sound, sense, and syntax, so that the reader progressing through the poem feels solid ground underfoot. At the same time, most of the lines raise a question, in the mind of the reader, that the next line will answer:

The species-truth of the matter is we are glad (of what?)
to have a death to munch on. Truth to tell, (which truth is what?)
we are also glad to pretend it makes us sad.
When it comes to dying, Keats did it so well (how well?)
we thrill to the performance…

And so forth, building for the reader a compelling sense of forward motion.

Ciardi’s rarest accomplishment in this poem, apart from the prosodic form, is the closing of a thought with the closing of each stanza. It’s not often that we find a poet so clearly in control of the poem.

The resolution of the poem is perhaps its finest moment: It looks back on itself and says to the reader—inductively, so that she can take it home—“This is what the poem is getting at,” and says it with such finality that if it were the last line on the page, one would not turn the page to see if the poem ended there. The poem doesn’t just end: it resolves.

All of this is to say that John Ciardi has done what the maker of any artwork wants to do, which is to make the very difficult look easy, to give form to the wildest feelings, and—though this rarely happens—to give the art a shape it didn’t have before. One would think that such a shape in poetry would begin to appear in anthologies and textbooks, and that other poets would be persuaded by the intriguing challenges and possibilities to write their own trenta-seis.

 

Miller Williams on John Ciardi’s “A Trenta-Sei of the Pleasure We Take in the Early Death of Keats” from Dark Horses: Poets on Overlooked Poems. Copyright 2007 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the author and the University of Illinois Press.

A Trenta-Sei of the Pleasure We Take in the Early Death of Keats

By John Ciardi 1916–1986 John Ciardi
 John  Ciardi

Biography

To millions of Americans, the late John Ciardi was "Mr. Poet, the one who has written, talked, taught, edited, translated, anthologized, criticized, and propelled poetry into a popular, lively art," according to Peter Comer of the Chicago Tribune. Although recognized primarily as a poet and critic, Ciardi's literary endeavors encompassed a vast range of material. From juvenile nonsense poetry to scholarly verse translations, . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Death, Humor & Satire, Poetry & Poets, Reading & Books

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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