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North End laureate, Part II

John Ciardi

John Ciardi

Two years after the death of his father, John Ciardi moved with his family from the North End out to the “country” (i.e., Medford) and into a house they shared with Aunt Christina and Uncle Alec.

Together, the families struggled to make ends meet. Echoing the lives of many North Enders, Christina worked at Schraff’s as a candy dipper while Alec was a barber on Causeway Street. The mother kept the house with its chickens and giant garden, and then worked some nights on the late shift as a men’s tailor. The children also helped out, working various jobs after school during the summer.

His sister Ella, who left a taped memoir of John’s childhood, recalled him as follows:

John was a rough-and-tumble kid growing up with a voracious appetite but a pleasant, happy-go-lucky attitude. On Sunday morning, he would pick us to read the funnies to. But as soon as he could read, the paper disappeared until he was through with it.

Ciardi had excellent grades at Medford High School and began to dabble in the art that would become one of his main claims to fame: poetry. To pursue, this John decided to go to Bates College in Maine. His mother and his sisters worked extra hard to save money for his tuition, and John worked as well, digging ditches. He left for Bates with patches in his pants. When he came home during the next holiday he had a brand new suit. When his family asked him where he gotten it, he told them: “I played poker with the sons of the rich and I won.”

Ciardi found Bates to be overly moralistic and more concerned about his character than his education. In addition, the cost of tuition plus room and board was too much to sustain, so at the end of the year and a half he returned to Medford, where he applied and was accepted to Tufts University. At Tufts, John met John Holms, a junior faculty member who Ciardi identified with more than with Harvard Ph.D.’s at the university. Holmes recognized John’s poetic talents, guiding and encouraging him through to his graduation in 1938, and then beyond to his application to the University of Michigan and the Hopwood Award for Poetry, which he won. He used part of the prize money — $1,200 — to repay money he had borrowed from his godfather and sister Ella, then gave some to his mother.

In 1942 he enlisted in the Army Air Corps and was assigned to navigation school. He shipped out to the Pacific and flew 20 missions over Japan as a gunner on a B-29. He was decorated with an Air Ribbon and Oak Leaf Cluster. After the war, he taught briefly at the University of Kansas City, where he met and married Myra Judith Hostetter. When later that year he was hired as an instructor at Harvard University, he and Myra moved into the third floor of the family’s Medford home.

Ciardi went on to enjoy an illustrious academic career. In addition to his renowned poetry, he completed a translation of the three books of Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” He became a faculty member at Rutgers University in 1953, where he taught until 1961. After that, he left the university to become a full-time writer, book reviewer and reporter of word histories on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition.” He died of a heart attack on March 30, 1986.

Kenneth Rexroght described Ciardi as “singularly unlike most American poets with their narrow lives and feuds. He is more like a very literate, gently appetitive, Italo-American airplane pilot, fond of deep simple things like his wife and kids, his friends and students, Dante’s verse and good food and wine.”

I would also add that this singularity came from something else: John Ciardi was a North Ender.

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.