John Ciardi

John Ciardi

John Ciardi was born in Boston on 24th June 1916. The son of Italian immigrants, he was educated at Bates College, Maine, Turfs University and received his master's degree from the University of Michigan in 1939.

While at university Ciardi developed left-wing political opinions and joined the campaign against fascist governments in Italy, Germany, Portugal and Spain. His first volume of poems, Homeward to America, in 1940.

When the Japanese Air Force bombed Pearl Harbor, Ciardi joined the United States Air Force. After training he failed to get a commission as he had been classified as a PAF (a premature anti-fascist) because as a student he had signed petitions in favour of the Popular Front government in Spain. During the Second World War Ciardi was a gunner on a B-29 Superfortress.

After the war he taught English at Harvard University (1946-1953) and Rutgers University (1953-61). Ciardi was a strong advocate of poets writing for a mass audience. His poems How Does a Poem Mean? (1959) and I Met a Man Who Sang the Sillies (1961) were much used in schools and colleges.

Books by Ciardi include Other Skies (1947), Live Another Day (1940), Dialogue With an Audience (1963), Person to Person (1964), A Genesis (1967), The Little That Is All (1974), A Browser's Dictionary (1980), A Second Browser's Dictionary (1983) and The Birds of Pompeii (1985), John Ciardi died of a heart attack in Edison, New Jersey, on 30th March, 1986.

Primary Sources

(1) Studs Terkel interviewed John Ciardi of the United States Air Force about his experiences during the Second World War for his book, The Good War (1985)

I had dreams of being a pilot, so I signed up as an aviation cadet. The army decided I was not pilot material. The army was right. They sent me to navigation school. I would have come out as a navigator and been sent to the Eighth Air Force. As a graduate student, I had signed some petitions in favor of the Spanish Loyalists. When I came up for graduation from the navigation school, I was classified as a PAF - a premature anti-fascist. The Dies Committee had wired in. I did not get a commission. A year later, I heard that all forty-four men of my graduating class were either dead or missing in action.

When we got to Saipan, I was a gunner on a B-29. It seemed certain to me we were not going to survive. We had to fly thirty-five missions. The average life of a crew was something between six and eight missions. So you simply took the extra pay, took the badges, took relief from dirty details.

On the night before a mission, you reviewed the facts. You tried to get some sleep. The army is very good at keeping you awake forever before you have a long mission. Sleep wouldn't come to you. You get to thinking by this time tomorrow you may have burned to death. I used to have little routines for kidding myself: Forget it, you died last week. You'd get some Dutch courage out of that.

We were in the terrible business of burning out Japanese towns. That meant women and old people, children. One part of me - a surviving savage voice - says, I'm sorry we left any of them living. I wish we'd finished killing them all. Of course, as soon as rationality overcomes the first impulse, you say. Now, come on, this is the human race, let's try to be civilized.

I had to condition myself to be a killer. This was remote control. All we did was push buttons. I didn't see anybody we killed. I saw the fires we set. The first four and a half months was wasted effort. We lost all those crews for nothing. We had been trained to do precision high-altitude bombing from thirty-two thousand feet. It was all beautifully planned, except we discovered the Siberian jet stream. The winds went off all computed bomb tables. We began to get winds

at two hundred knots, and the bombs simply scattered all over Japan. We were hitting nothing and losing planes.

Curtis LeMay came in and changed the whole operation. He had been head of the Eighth Air Force and was sent over to take on the Twentieth. That's the one I was in. He changed tactics. He said. Go in at night from five thousand feet, without gunners, just a couple of rear-end observers. We'll save weight on the turrets and on ammunition. The Japanese have no fighter resistance at night. They have no radar. We'll drop fire sticks.

I have some of my strike photos at home. Tokyo looked like one leveled bed of ash. The only things standing were some stone buildings. If you looked at the photos carefully, you'd see that they were gutted. Some of the people jumped into rivers to get away from these fire storms. They were packed in so tight to get away from the fire, they suffocated. They were so close to one another, they couldn't fall over. It must have been horrible.