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John Ciardi: edged out by the Beat Generation

American poet and etymologist best known for his translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy

  • Why Nobody Pets the Lion at the Zoo
  • The morning that the world began 
  • The Lion growled a growl at Man. 
  • And I suspect the Lion might 
  • (If he’d been closer) have tried a bite.
  • I think that’s as it ought to be 
  • And not as it was taught to me.
  • I think the Lion has a right
  • To growl a growl and bite a bite.
  • And if the Lion bothered Adam, 
  • He should have growled right back at ‘im.
  • The way to treat a Lion right 
  • Is growl for growl and bite for bite.
  • True, the Lion is better fit 
  • For biting than for being bit.
  • The Catalpa
  • The catalpa’s white week is ending there  
  • in its corner of my yard. It has its arms full of its own flowering now, but the least air  
  • spills off a petal and a breeze lets fall 
  • whole coronations. There is not much more  
  • of what this is. Is every gladness quick?  
  • That tree’s a nuisance, really. Long before  
  • the summer’s out, its beans, long as a stick,  
  • will start to shed. And every year one limb  
  • cracks without falling off and hangs there dead till I get up and risk my neck to trim  
  • what it knows how to lose but not to shed.  
  • I keep it only for this one white pass.  
  • The end of June’s its garden; July, its Fall;  
  • all else, the world remembering what it was  
  • in the seven days of its visible miracle.
  • What should I keep if averages were all?
  • Lines
  • I did not have exactly a way of life 
  • but the bee amazed me and the wind’s plenty 
  • was almost believable. Hearing a magpie laugh 
  • through a ghost town in Wyoming, saying Hello 
  • in Cambridge, eating cheese by the frothy Rhine, 
  • leaning from plexiglass over Tokyo, 
  • I was not able to make one life of all 
  • the presences I haunted. Still the bee
  • amazed me, and I did not care to call
  • accounts from the wind. Once only, at Pompeii, 
  • I fell into a sleep I understood, 
  • and woke to find I had not lost my way.
John Ciardi

John Ciardi (1916-1986) was an American poet and etymologist, perhaps best known for his translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. He wrote light verse, children’s verse and more serious verse as well. He also published a critically acclaimed book on teaching, writing and reading poetry, How Does a Poem Mean? Ciardi served during World War II in the Army Air Force as a gunner on a B-29 bomber, flying approximately 20 missions over Japan during the war. Ciardi and his often understated verse style were edged out during his literary career in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s by the more flamboyant Beat Generation of poets; however, the rise of the Formalist movement in poetry sparked a renewed interest in his poems.

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  • Why Nobody Pets the Lion at the Zoo
  • The morning that the world began 
  • The Lion growled a growl at Man. 
  • And I suspect the Lion might 
  • (If he’d been closer) have tried a bite.
  • I think that’s as it ought to be 
  • And not as it was taught to me.
  • I think the Lion has a right
  • To growl a growl and bite a bite.
  • And if the Lion bothered Adam, 
  • He should have growled right back at ‘im.
  • The way to treat a Lion right 
  • Is growl for growl and bite for bite.
  • True, the Lion is better fit 
  • For biting than for being bit.
  • The Catalpa
  • The catalpa’s white week is ending there  
  • in its corner of my yard. It has its arms full of its own flowering now, but the least air  
  • spills off a petal and a breeze lets fall 
  • whole coronations. There is not much more  
  • of what this is. Is every gladness quick?  
  • That tree’s a nuisance, really. Long before  
  • the summer’s out, its beans, long as a stick,  
  • will start to shed. And every year one limb  
  • cracks without falling off and hangs there dead till I get up and risk my neck to trim  
  • what it knows how to lose but not to shed.  
  • I keep it only for this one white pass.  
  • The end of June’s its garden; July, its Fall;  
  • all else, the world remembering what it was  
  • in the seven days of its visible miracle.
  • What should I keep if averages were all?
  • Lines
  • I did not have exactly a way of life 
  • but the bee amazed me and the wind’s plenty 
  • was almost believable. Hearing a magpie laugh 
  • through a ghost town in Wyoming, saying Hello 
  • in Cambridge, eating cheese by the frothy Rhine, 
  • leaning from plexiglass over Tokyo, 
  • I was not able to make one life of all 
  • the presences I haunted. Still the bee
  • amazed me, and I did not care to call
  • accounts from the wind. Once only, at Pompeii, 
  • I fell into a sleep I understood, 
  • and woke to find I had not lost my way.
John Ciardi

John Ciardi (1916-1986) was an American poet and etymologist, perhaps best known for his translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. He wrote light verse, children’s verse and more serious verse as well. He also published a critically acclaimed book on teaching, writing and reading poetry, How Does a Poem Mean? Ciardi served during World War II in the Army Air Force as a gunner on a B-29 bomber, flying approximately 20 missions over Japan during the war. Ciardi and his often understated verse style were edged out during his literary career in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s by the more flamboyant Beat Generation of poets; however, the rise of the Formalist movement in poetry sparked a renewed interest in his poems.

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