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John Ciardi: North End’s poet laureate

John Ciardi

John Ciardi

“I was born June 24, 1916, at 25 Sheave Street in Boston’s North End, which was then as now, though more so then, Little Italy … . My mother, in the custom of her tribe, bore me in the same bed in which she connived me … . ”

So wrote John Ciardi, renowned poet, translator and teacher. I had long known of Ciardi’s translation of Dante, and I knew he was Italian American, but I did not know he had been born in the North End. Truthfully, I don’t recall now how I discovered that he was. But what matters is that he was a North Ender, that it meant something to him, and that it means something to the North End to remember it.

Ciardi’s life story is told in Edward M. Cifelli’s “John Ciardi: A Biography” (1997), and Ciardi wrote a short account of his early life called “About Being Born, and Surviving It,” published after his death in 1986. There, Ciardi describes his early life in the North End, where he lived with his mother, father and three sisters.

Ciardi’s father, Carminantonio, was born in 1882 in the town of San Potitio Ultra and immigrated to Dover, N.J., in the 1890s moving shortly thereafter to the North End. There, he met Concetta Di Benedictis, who was born in 1881 in the town that of Manocalzati, close to Antonio’s town of origin. It is not clear if she immigrated to Boston with her parents and siblings in 1893 or remained in Italy for a time, only to join them later. What is clear is that the journey over in steerage haunted her for the rest of her life.

Antonio and Concetta married in 1906 and moved to 25 Sheafe Street, next to her sister Christina and brother-in-law Alec, whose apartment enjoined theirs, and whose connecting door remained open so that the sisters lived in one bigger apartment with their husbands and children. They could see the Old North Church from their kitchen window. This was the church with the clock, before the hurricane. As Ciardi writes in his poem “Bedlam Revisited:”

… The spire of the Old North Church, like a tin horn
upside down on the roofs, was our kitchen clock,
and dropped the hours like rock onto a rock
over the Hull Street graveyard. Gone. All gone.

A laborer and tailor, Antonio also began working as a field agent for Metropolitan Life Insurance, collecting weekly 5-or-10-cent premiums from Italian families in the North End. Concetta also worked as a seamstress, making and mending clothing for North-End neighbors. The family was doing well by all accounts until tragedy stuck. On Saturday morning, July 20, 1919, Antonio set off to a mandatory combination picnic-sales meeting. He left early with his Italian co-workers in the back seat of an open touring car followed by a second car of friends. The two cars raced and jockeyed for position, until either a sideswipe or swerve caused Antonio to be thrown out and killed instantly.

Ciardi wrote about his father’s funeral in the poem “It Took Four Flowerboats to Convoy My Father’s Black Cadillac,” in which he described it like a day at sea:

“… it was my first cruise … / … half of which I remember, and half of which
I remember being told after I had forgotten it once. / There were thirty-three powerboats from “Figli d’Italia” alone; / seventeen from Metropolitan … and half the North End in the rest …”

John was barely 3 years old, but he remembered being lifted by his uncle to kiss the cold forehead of his laid-out father. His mother “took [Antonio’s death] into some inner sanctum … . … the rest of her long life waiting to join him, his wife forever.”

Next month: Part 2

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About James Pasto

James S. Pasto is a senior lecturer at Boston University, co-founder of the North End Historical Society and editor of the society's journal. To share stories about North End's past, e-mail pasto@bostoniano.info. To find out more about the North End Historical Society, visit alexgoldfeld.com/NEHS.html.