Poem Guide

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

Making the difficult look easy.

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.

Originally Published: June 1st, 2011

Poet, editor, critic, and translator Miller Williams was born in Hoxie, Arkansas in 1930, the son of a Methodist clergyman and civil rights activist. Miller’s work is known for its gritty realism as much as for its musicality. Equally comfortable in formal and free verse, Williams wrote poems grounded in...