World War II Poets: John Ciardi

John Ciardi (1916-1986) was a well-known American poet, literary critic, and cultural force in America in the years following World War II. He wrote over fifteen books of poetry and several books of essays. As a published poet and especially as poetry editor for the Saturday Review of Literature from 1956-1972, his views on poetry were widely disseminated. His most famous literary controversy occurred when he disparaged the poetic efforts of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, causing a public outcry about his insensitivity to Lindbergh’s status as the wife of an important American cultural hero and a prominent figure in her own right as an author of a number of popular books. However, he never recanted or even modified his attacks on her poetry, claiming that it was the “reviewer’s duty to damn” bad poetry.

One less well known aspect of Ciardi’s life is that he served in WWII as a gunner on B-29 bomber aircraft in the Pacific theater of the war. He and his crew were among the first B-29 crews to bomb mainland Japan, flying the 13-hour roundtrip mission from Isley Field on Saipan to Tokyo and back on a regular basis. His position as a gunner, sitting in the right blister (a glass bubble that extended out slightly from the fuselage) of the aft section of a B-29, made him vulnerable to attacks by Japanese aircraft approaching from the right side. His view from his blister position afforded him a too-clear panorama of all aerial activity on the right side of the aircraft where he could observe the destruction of both American bombers and attacking Japanese aircraft. On one occasion a stricken B-29 fell out of formation, passing just under the aircraft in which he was flying. As it passed beneath him, he and the gunner located in the top fuselage blister of the stricken aircraft exchanged farewell waves. He and his crew returned from that mission, but the crew of the stricken aircraft did not.

It was not Ciardi’s original intent to serve as a gunner. He enlisted in the Army Air Force in 1942 hoping to become a pilot. His initial testing disqualified him from entering pilot training and he was selected to enter navigator training. He had completed his navigational training program but was prevented from receiving his navigator’s wings when, according to his account, he was discovered to have been associated with communist-oriented groups during his days at the University of Michigan. This was what he claimed; however, there is some evidence that he was eliminated from the program as a result of insubordination, going AWOL, and for fighting with an officer. At any rate, he lost his hope of attaining officer rank and was sent to gunnery school, where he trained as an aerial gunner and was eventually assigned as a gunner on B-29s.

During his time in training and combat he wrote poetry regularly, poetry which described his experiences in, and reactions to, military service. Even during the war, while he was flying in combat, his poems were being published in such prestigious magazines as the Atlantic Monthly and Poetry. Many of these poems appeared in his second book of poetry, Other Skies, published after the war. His WWII poems are among his best, showing his perceptive eye and mastery of the English language. They include both elegies for lost airmen and ironic commentaries on the self-promoting bureaucratic nature of military organizations.

Ciardi wrote birthday poems before, during, and after the war. He wrote birthday poems for the following five years, all of which have the war as a background context: 1941, 1943, 1944, 1945, and 1946. His birthday was June 16. In the first of his wartime birthday poems, when he was twenty-five, he was anticipating the onset of the war. In the next two of these years (1943 and 1944) he was engaged in different aspects of training; in the following year he was in a combat flying unit (1945); and his final birthday poem appeared in the year following war’s end, 1946. These poems are a blend of self-assessment in the context of world events. They reflect the unique Ciardi blend of clear-headed understanding and witty, often biting, commentary.

The poem titles are:

For My Twenty-Fifth Birthday in Nineteen Forty-one (1941)
Night Piece for My Twenty-Seventh Birthday (1943)
Reveille for My Twenty-Eighth Birthday (1944)
Poem for My Twenty-Ninth Birthday (1945)
Poem for My Thirtieth Birthday (1946)

All five poems have the same metrical pattern, rhyme scheme, and line length. The meter is that most appropriate of meditative patterns, iambic pentameter. Each stanza has six lines, and the rhyme scheme is normally ababcc with some variations (one poem, “For My Twenty-Fifth Birthday,” has an aabbcc pattern, and another, “Reveille,” has an abbacc pattern). The average number of stanzas is ten; “For My Twenty-Fifth Birthday” has eight stanzas; “Night Piece” has nine stanzas; “Reveille” has ten; “Poem for My Twenty-Ninth Birthday,” the longest, has fourteen; “Poem for My Thirtieth Birthday” has ten. It is clear that Ciardi saw these poems as possessing significant personal as well as social meaning.

For My Twenty-Fifth Birthday in Nineteen Forty-One: a Treasonous Breakfast

In June of 1941 John Ciardi was on a break from teaching English at the University of Kansas City; he had completed his education at the University of Michigan in 1940. In the summer of that year he had attended his first Bread Loaf Poetry Workshop, which featured Robert Frost as the eminent poetry expert; after the war Ciardi became director of the Bread Loaf Conference. In the summer of 1941 he wrote a friend that he was taking flying lessons and hoped to become an instructor in the newly burgeoning flying training programs that had been established across the United States. He also wrote about the possibility of becoming a ferry pilot, flying bombers from the United States and Canada to England; he stated that a hard-working pilot could earn as much as $10,000 in two months’ time; the idea of making that kind of money appealed to him. But his first birthday poem is not about flying airplanes; it is his comparison of world conditions in the year in which he was born, 1916, to world conditions in the summer of 1941.

Ciardi begins his poem by describing the morning scene:

So sleep undoes itself and I arrive
Awake to morning and to twenty-five.
Outside the ramblers climb their strings to summer,
The finished lilacs tumble, and from somewhere
The whistles call the seven o’clocks to be
Rich man, poor, beggar man . . . and me.

The second stanza recalls the moment of his birth and the reaction of family members and friends in the family kitchen. The third stanza places the moment of his birth in its historical context, in the year 1916, specifically the war that was then in its third year in Europe. He imagines that the timing of his birth coincides with the death of a soldier in combat:

And out beyond, some unknown come before
And passed into a uniform no more
Cursed mud and shrapnel, but across the arc
Of whistling shells and calendars took dark
To keep and carry, crossing violently
The door that swung another way for me.

The next stanza contrasts that time with this, one year after the second war in Europe has started, one that Ciardi expects he will become a part of, even though the event that brought the United States into the war, the attack at Pearl Harbor, was six months in the future. He provides an extended image of men as birds, slaughtered in combat:

And suddenly Now. And we are back again
To more than memory; those plucked dead men
Find images in every continent
Until it seems that all the world was meant
For running men and running boys to start
And fall like hawks, breaking the air apart.

After thanking his mother and his sisters for helping him to be born, he returns to his contemplation of war, recognizing his appetite for breakfast is a kind of “treason” to those dead in war:

And so good morning to such dead men, too,
Who teach the living that it may be true . . .

Good morning, anyone, for any reason,
And if a second egg is a delicate treason
Against the bombers’ sky and city’s crater,
With Mother’s blessing I will be that traitor.
Whatever engine sits the calendar
Not to die before is half the war.

His final stanza continues his reflections on thoughts of the dead in a living but war-threatened world:

The dead, calmly adjusted to their night,
Reach that condition by loss of appetite,
But here good morning as the mornings bring
The mind alive and stretched like a gull’s wing
To try its daily lardering and be
Acrobat, scavenger, mariner—and me.

Early in 1942 Ciardi enlisted in the Army Air Forces. In the summer of 1942, at the time of his 26th birthday, he was in a kind of limbo, restlessly awaiting word of his first training assignment, and wrote no birthday poem, the only year in a six-year period in which he did not write (or perhaps did not publish) a birthday poem.

Night Piece for My Twenty-Seventh Birthday: “Apprenticed to a Sextant and the Wars”

In June of 1943, Ciardi was assigned to Selman Field, near Monroe, Louisiana, and was approximately two-thirds of the way through his navigator training program. In his training he was taught the fundamentals of plotting courses on maps and determining the aircraft position using various navigational tools. One of the most important of these tools was the sextant, which navigators used to sight on specific bright stars in the night sky or the sun during daylight. Using navigational tables, navigators could determine their positions by measuring longitude and latitude using the sextant and then referring to printed tables to determine their positions. References to the sextant and to various stars appear throughout the poem.

The poem opens with references to these celestial objects and to the “Law,” a term that Ciardi uses to refer to several concepts: the law that predicts the positions and governs the movements of the stars, the law of the states which are in conflict, and the law of military regimen of which he is now a part.

Punctually now, by all we learned at school,
The stars fade down the angles of their rank,
First Venus, then Orion. Rule by rule
The book performs. Law, like a marble bank,
Locks to gleaming tumblers, perfect doors,
The sweep of polished pillars and tile floors.

In the first stanza Ciardi establishes the setting: it is a rigid institutional environment: navigational school and military barracks. In the second stanza, he incorporates references to the earlier use of star-gazing to predict the future, blending concepts of astrology with modern scientific navigational techniques:

See, it is so: Astronomer, Man of Law,
Priest, Radio Announcer—all who Know
Have prophesied. And all forecasters saw
The omen that was neither rain nor snow
But a precise arrangement of the spheres
Hung in the sky to label all our years.

The next two stanzas continue Ciardi’s assessment of the impact of the celestial arrangement of the heavenly bodies and the efforts of humans to interpret them. In the fifth and sixth stanzas he describes his personal situation as it relates to the circumstances he has been describing:

Under the taut and tabulated stars
I stand in barracks shadow like a pool
Apprenticed to a sextant and the wars
Where even murder must be learned at school,
And sky, a shadow to be memorized,
Charts the shadows we had not surmised.

This is my night piece to the placid moon,
Memory, omens, and the Men of Law,
By clock and stars the ritual is soon:
The hour ends on the tiniest chime of awe
And time begins another number here
Punctual to the midnight of the year.

Ciardi can see in his reading of the stars that “the ritual is near”: the event for which he has been training is about to arrive, his entry into the war. And even though there is a “shining runner” (stanza eight) who will bring essential action to the men who are now asleep, they are all on a course to meet their foreordained and inevitable ends, as the final stanza suggests:

And all the rest is Law. Beneath what trees
The stars may drop him, or upon what cloud
He will return, there are no proofs but these:
Law will not walk the streets to cry aloud
Its future. Law may murder good.
Law is the last Law to be understood.

Reveille for My Twenty-Eighth Birthday: “Journeyman Expert in the Trades of Kill”

After being dismissed from the navigator training program, Ciardi was reduced in rank to private and sent to gunnery training at Lowry Field, near Denver, Colorado. By June of 1944 he was assigned to Walker Army Air Base, in the desolate center of Kansas. The base had been rapidly built, designed as a training facility where various flying crew members would come to be assigned to specific crews. In June he and the other members of his crew were involved in training flights designed to develop in-flight teamwork among the nine B-29 crewmen. In addition to Ciardi, there were eight other crewmembers: pilot and co-pilot, navigator, bombardier, flight engineer, tail gunner, top turret gunner, and two side gunners (the position Ciardi held). In addition to being responsible for knowing how to operate the aircraft’s defensive guns, Ciardi was also expected to be knowledgeable about the operation and arming of the aircraft’s bombs. Not surprisingly, this birthday poem contains abundant terminology related to guns and the machinery of war.

The first stanza of his 1944 birthday poem begins when he is abruptly awakened to a world of energy and hustle where the war is being fought in every segment of the globe:

Now on the bluster and the toil of wind
From the four darkened corners of the world
Morning is the brass jazz of bugles hurled
Like sudden weathers on the field of mind.
And all the sheep I had set out to graze
Huddle and close against the threat of days.

The sheep that Ciardi has supposedly been counting in his dream state now become symbolic of the men in the unit who are caught up in the motions of war preparedness. Forced to report to morning formation, he must delay his morning cigarette and shave until after his name has been called and a check mark entered on a roster. In this birthday poem, one year after his apprenticeship with a sextant, he has now become an integral part of the warmaking mechanism:

The manifest machine, tooled as a lever,
Descends to touch its cog gear by gear,
And on the roll call of another year
I am the theorem of the pure believer:
The thumbs for switches and the hands for pliers
Moved on a diagram of nerves like wires.

The poet, as gunner, is as much a part of his weapon as any machined part; he is now a

Journeyman expert in the trades of kill,
Scholar of bomb and fuse, and the controls
Of wireless stars and the starred wire that pulls
The turrets to their edict—dressed in such skill,
Am I that burning angel whose wild stance
Bore other features only across distance?

The “burning angel” seems to be a reference to Revelations 8:8: “And the second angel sounded, and as it were a great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea: and the third part of the sea became blood; And the third part of the creatures which were in the sea, and had life, died; and the third part of the ships were destroyed.” This apocalyptic vision summons the image of death by fire falling from the skies into the ocean; in Ciardi’s situation, the fire could be caused either by the effects of his guns firing on an enemy aircraft or an enemy aircraft firing on his aircraft. Although Ciardi was not yet flying over any ocean, he must have known he would be soon, as almost all B-29s were being sent to the Pacific theater to engage in the war on Japan. He returns to the burning image in the next stanza, combining his student status with his new skills, that

though the mountain burn
I am the bachelor of three schools of law
And have my trade, precise and equally:
To burn by air, to shoot by land, to drown by sea.

In the final stanza of the poem, he is able to return to his morning cigarette and his new apprenticeship,

My hand the blueprint that the lightning traced,
My wish resolved, mechanical and lean;
Decided hotly, then numb as a machine.

Poem for My Twenty-Ninth Birthday: “I Climb to Sign in Fire”

In the fall of 1944 Ciardi and his B-29 crew departed the United States and arrived on the island of Saipan, which had been taken from Japanese control by American forces on 9 July. By the time Ciardi and his crew arrived four months later, runways large enough to accommodate the large B-29 bombers had been carved out of the coral surface of the island. Some Japanese survivors of the battle still lived in caves and other interior locations. From December of 1944 through March of 1945 Ciardi flew on fifteen missions before he was reassigned to non-flying duties as a clerk on General Emmett “Rosie” O’Donnell’s headquarters staff, where he wrote awards and decorations recommendations, letters of condolence to family members of deceased airmen, and administrative reports. His transfer from flying to staff duties was a direct result of his success as a published poet, making evident to all his skills as a writer.  By June of 1945 he had seen several of his fellow gunners lost in combat, and even most of his old crew had been killed when they failed to return from a mission shortly after he left the crew.

Having served his time in a combat capacity, he records his response as the bombers start their preflight activities before taking off on their day bombing missions over Japan:

Once more the predawn throbs on engine sound
Down coral slope, papaya grove, and pine,
Into the sea whose pastures girdle round
The native in his jungle, I in mine . . .

Having flown several long combat missions, Ciardi can easily imagine what the fliers are experiencing on their missions:

We waken, and the cities of our day
Move down a cross-haired bomb sight in the mind.

The third stanza records his personal status on his birthday, a status linked closely to world events:

Now have I named another year of time
Learning to count not mine but a world’s age.
And on the morning of no birth I climb
To sign in fire your and my heritage:
The bomb whose metal carcass dressed and bled
Is our day’s gift to populate the dead.

The actions of carrying and the dropping of the bombs permeate this, his longest birthday poem; every stanza reiterates Ciardi’s sense of responsibility and guilt for the appalling effects of the bombs dropped on the target areas. In the following two stanzas he contrasts the “darkness” of the native Saipan islander with the darkness associated with the effects of wartime bombing:

His is the simplest darkness, our grotesque
Of straps and buckles, parachutes and guns,
Our gear of kit and cartridge, helmet, mask,
Life vest, rations, and the elegance
Of all our conscious gestures and our gum,
Darken us further than our guess can come.

The remaining nine stanzas trace the progress of the bomber crews from takeoff to return in a series of images combining visual detail with moral implication.

First, the early morning takeoff:

On a metal din
Our gears resolve us from the valley night
To plateaus where the rapt emblazoned fin
Our perfect bomber lifts to the first light
Mounts on the air up which the morning sun
Prophesies Asia and a death to come.

Then, as the bomber flies across the Pacific Ocean on its way to bomb Japan, he describes the gunner’s vision as he looks through his gunsight:

Here returns to me
Where I inherit on a bomber’s run
Your image from the sundial of the sea.
I dream you smiling, waking fleshed in grace,
And see, a gunsight photographs your face.

As they approach the mainland of Japan, their only wish is to return safely:

A single motion and a single fire
To burn, return, and live upon desire.

The sea over which they fly is seen as representing “malice” to the fliers, for they know that if they are forced to crash into the ocean, its hard surface may cause as much damage as if they landed on the ground:

The whitecaps strewn like lint on a stone floor
Wait, will swallow, close, and wait once more.

When they see Mount Fuji, the most prominent landmark of the Japanese mainland, they prepare to drop their ordnance:

Fuji, the magic mountain of what was,
Places our past on the trajectory
Of the co-sined and wind-computed fall
Our bombs descend to save or kill us all.

While on the bomb run they “fire at fighters” as they

await the rose
Blossoming in fire upon the town
Whose living history we have come to close.

The poet imagines a future in which war memorials will be erected in a futile effort to compensate for the deaths caused by bombing:

Our innocence shall haunt our murderous end
Longer than statues or the tabled walls
Alphabetized to death.

Finally, the long mission over, they return safely to their island base:

And last, by dark, we have our rock again:
Our wheels touch and our waiting lives return,
Far off the dead are lying in the rain,
And on their dark the ruined cities burn

The repeated contrasts of light and dark, innocence and guilt, survival and death, reappear throughout the poem.

Poem for My Thirtieth Birthday: “I Waken Like a Stranger to My Life”

The last of Ciardi’s wartime birthday poems describes Ciardi as a civilian after the war’s end, looking back on the carnage and destruction of the war, attempting to assess its meaning. Ciardi had left the Pacific in mid-September of 1945 and was out of the Army Air Force by the end of the first week of October. He had accepted an offer to become a faculty member at Harvard University in the fall of 1946, and in the summer was attempting to adjust to a peacetime world after having spent four years in military service. The idea of becoming a Harvard faculty member one year after serving as an enlisted gunner on a B-29 must have seemed like the strangest of all possible transformations.

His 1946 birthday poem, “Poem for My Thirtieth Birthday,” reflects the issues that he saw as central to a consideration of his place in a world that had profoundly changed for him as a result of his wartime experience. Like his other poems, it begins with his awakening, this time to a peacetime world, in which the war experiences are distant:

To shatter as we shatter at a sound
And plan to smile on breakfast eggs and hunt
Headline and paragraph across our toast,
Hoping somewhere to find the true account
That guarantees the roof will stand, walls
Not blow apart, and reason keep our meanwhiles.

But his first waking thought is of the men who died:

Now in my thirtieth year, statistically
Midway down my insurable intent,
I waken like a stranger to my life
Thinking my life is full of boys that went
Like tinsel into wind and blew like flame
Or spat themselves on rock like bitter phlegm.

He is disconcerted by modern technology’s control over daily lives:

Technologies that heat our morning baths
Measure our toast and ring when circuits close,

And he worries about the danger of preoccupation with daily life causing memories of the destruction of war to recede:

Now at this ticking time of metal clocks
When all my days are ringing in my ears,
The falling minutes drench me like a rain
Whose thunder is my own unfinished fears
That all the deaths we die were tried before,
And reason must forever lose its war.

He worries also that the experiences of the recent past will be lost in the media messages of the present:

Nor any radio mentions between commercials,
Is how the unreligious shadow grows
A taste like grass roots deadening the tongue
That waved like treetops, those minutes we were young.

In addition to their value as individual comments on Ciardi’s life at different phases of his war experiences, the Ciardi birthday poems are valuable for the arc they describe in the overall progress of the war and Ciardi’s small part in the war. Because Ciardi is especially sensitive to cultural and social as well as personal forces at work in this stressful period, they provide valuable documentation of the adjustments all servicemen and women had to make at a time when adaptation to world events was a necessary activity in this tumultuous period of American history.

Ciardi wrote only two other birthday poems in his remaining years, one in 1948, when he was participating as a spokesman on behalf of the Progressive Party presidential candidates, and one in 1955, when he began teaching at Rutgers University and began his career as poetry editor of the Saturday Review.