- 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.
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John Ciardi: “A Trenta-Sei of the Pleasure We Take in the Early Death of Keats”
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.
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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, Ciardi made an impact upon the general public. His poetry received popular approval while his academic research attracted critical kudos. Driven by his love of words and language, John Ciardi provided lively and frequently controversial offerings to the literary scene.
The son of Italian immigrants, Ciardi, at age three, lost his father in an automobile accident. Ciardi recalls a peaceful youth, enlivened by the addition of Irish and Italian families to the neighborhood. His tranquil life developed into a series of bruises and black eyes...
Poems By John Ciardi
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- A Trenta-Sei of the Pleasure We Take in the Early Death of Keats