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

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 (Poetry, 1986)

Writing Ideas

  1. John Ciardi invented the form of the “trenta-sei” (thirty-six, in Italian). Before reading Miller Williams’s poem guide, see if you can break the poem’s “code,” or write its program so that anybody, reading your poem-program, could produce a trenta-sei of their own. Pay attention to repetition and rhyme schemes.
  2. Ciardi’s poem begins by debunking an “old school custom,” namely that we should still mourn the long-ago death of a genius. Write a poem in which you explore, and explain, why another old school custom doesn’t hold true.

Discussion Questions

  1. What kinds of diction does Ciardi’s poem employ? Try to assign words to a spectrum of language choices that range from high (“psilanthropic”) to low (“munch”). What kinds of textures do Ciardi’s various word choices add to his poem? Why deploy such a range of diction?
  2. Ciardi’s poem presents, explores, and eventually resolves an argument. What does the “plot” of this poem look like? Can you diagram it (represent its logic in a visual way)? Try diagramming each stanza first.
  3. The poem depends on at least two allusions to other poets. Do you recognize the poets’ names? How does knowing (or not knowing) an allusion in a poem affect your understanding of it? Does reading some poems by Keats and Tennyson alter your reaction to this poem? How?

Teaching Tips

  1. As Miller Williams notes in his guide to this poem, John Ciardi invented the form of the “trenta-sei.” Forms invented by poets are sometimes called “nonce forms.” Have your students read Williams’s guide, perhaps after they have completed the first writing idea from above. Then have them research other received (sestina, villanelle, pantoum) as well as nonce forms (for example, the double dactyl). By drawing on some of the rules and techniques of these forms, ask students to invent their own nonce form. They could write the poem’s “code,” as well as a brief explanation of what elements of other forms they have included in their own, and what topics or themes are most appropriate to their form. Have students exchange these descriptions and attempt to write poems in their classmates’ nonce forms.
  2. In what way does Ciardi’s poem depend on its readers also knowing the work of Keats and Tennyson? Do your students feel like they “get” the poem, even if they don’t know Keats’s history, or why Tennyson is thought to be a “dull” poet? Have a discussion on the work Ciardi’s allusions do and don’t do. Your discussion might open up onto other poems that depend on outside knowledge or reference—T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is only the most famous, but other poems might include works by Ezra Pound or Geoffrey Hill (you might have your students read Ange Mlinko’s poem guide to “On Reading Crowds and Power”). Have students explore poems with allusions, either through the Poetry Foundation’s archive or in anthologies. Ask them to think about different kinds of allusions, and the different kinds of work that allusions do. Then stage a class debate: allusions in poems are good versus allusions in poems are bad. Have groups prepare opening remarks and 2-3 main points and rebuttals. 
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