It is old school customIt is old school custom Regarding the title, “trenta-sei” is Italian for the number “thirty-six.” Ciardi uses the number in the title to give name to a new poetic form for a 36 line poem he himself created. In a letter to Vince Clemente, Ciardi defines the poetic form when discussing an earlier poem titled “A Trente-sei for the Boat People”: “A trente-sei is six six-line stanzas, the second of which begins with the second line of stanza one, the third with the third line, the fourth with the fourth line, etc. Them Eyetralian troubadors forgot to invent it, but I did it because it is a natural form and because it just came out that way. I may even try it again.” to pretend to be sad
when we think about the early death of Keatsthe early death of Keats English Poet John Keats died in 1821, from tuberculosis, at the age of 25..
The species-truth of the matter is we are glad.
PsilanthropicPsilanthropic A word Ciardi makes up here, meaning something like ‘merely human,’ taken from the Greek psilos (mere) and anthropos (man)” among exegetesexegetes People who interpret scripture; skilled interpreters,
I am so moved that when the platethe plate The collection plate in which church goers may drop a monetary offering for the church and pass along to others 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-sweetsHis poems are a candy store of bitter-sweets Echoes John Keats’ sonnet “On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again”: “once more humbly assay / The bitter-sweet of this Shakespearian fruit” (lines 7-8) .
We munch whole flights of angelswhole flights of angels An echo of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Following Hamlet’s death, Horatio says, “Now cracks a noble heart.—Good-night, sweet prince, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!” (Act 5, Scene 2, lines 359-360) from his shelves
drooling a sticky glutglut An excessive, abundant supply; a surplus, 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 turretturret A castle tower spitting flame,
I watched boys flower through orange winding sheets
and shammedshammed Faked, pretended 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 guya penny—enough for the old guy A Greek mythological reference to the fee for the boatman Charon, ferryman of Hades, to transport the dead to the underworld was two pennies, one for each eye. The line also echoes T.S. Eliot’s epigraph to “The Hollow Men”: “A penny for the Old Guy” (1925).,
and almost enough saved to sweeten my breath
with a toast I will pledge to the Ape of the DivineApe of the Divine Possible reference to Hanuman, a Hindu monkey deity. The god of death, Rama, protected him and prevented him from the experience of death.
the saddest music keeps the sweetest timethe saddest music keeps the sweetest time Echoes Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “To a Skylark”: “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought” (line 90).
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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...