Poet’s works live on in his former hometown

Staff Writer

John Ciardi, right, an acclaimed poet who lived in Metuchen, receives an award from former Metuchen Mayor Donald Wernik in this undated photo. PHOTO COURTESY OF TYREEN A. REUTER John Ciardi, right, an acclaimed poet who lived in Metuchen, receives an award from former Metuchen Mayor Donald Wernik in this undated photo. PHOTO COURTESY OF TYREEN A. REUTER METUCHEN — More than 1,000 materials belonging to the late poet John Ciardi are now in the hands of the residents of his beloved borough.

A Massachusetts native, Ciardi spent the majority of his life in Metuchen, living and working as a poet, editor and etymologist until his death in 1986.

“Dad lived a large portion of his life in Metuchen, and he loved Metuchen and contributed to it,” said his daughter Myra, who donated the materials to the Metuchen-Edison Historical Society last June. “It seemed appropriate to see if someone [in town] had interest [in the materials].”

The historical society displayed some of the items at its annual Local History Day Feb. 8. For the first time, visitors could see original manuscripts and notebooks kept by the New Jersey poet.

“When he lived in Metuchen, that was the prime period in which he was writing his works and poetry, and so a lot of manuscripts relate to that time when he was in Metuchen and the various materials that he was able to produce [there],” said archivist Jennifer Warren, who was hired by the society to catalog the donation. “Arguably, the most prolific time in his career was while he was living in Metuchen, and he spent a lot of that time writing manuscripts in his home.”

Ciardi was an award-winning figure in the literary community who received many honors, including the Prix de Rome from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and recognition from the National Council of Teachers of English for excellence in children’s poetry. He was renowned for his translation of Dante’s “Inferno” from Italian to English.

Myra said she felt that her donation to the society was a good fit for her father, who was involved in the community and developed a special fondness for the borough.

“I had stored materials for 20 years, and I didn’t realize just how much I had,” Myra said. “I was so pleased when the historical society said that they would be glad to have the papers. When I look back, Dad would be very happy to know that those are being archived somewhere so that someone can look through them.”

Ciardi was an active community member who served on the board of the Metuchen Public Library and would read to children at local schools, according to Myra.

“One of my favorite poems he wrote was about digging a hole in the front yard and what happened as a result,” Myra said. “There were poems about my brothers … and he would write about discipline sometimes.

He would write about our dog, how it would sit at his feet. His view of the world around him was very simple.”

Warren said the collection contains original manuscripts and the beginning of an autobiography. Nearly all the works were written at Ciardi’s Metuchen home.

“A majority of the manuscripts were published, but there are a lot that weren’t,” Warren said. “There are a lot of original drafts of some of his poems — you can see his handwritten corrections, as well. … Most of it is personal correspondence, so you get a good idea of his relationship with his family, his children and his colleagues.” Throughout his career, Ciardi kept all his correspondence, including communications related to booking lectures at college campuses during the 1960s.

“He would send a letter for every acceptance or rejection of publication,” Myra said. “He was very involved in lecturing — he would crisscross the nation for months at a time. He was a wonderful lecturer who never had to prepare anything. Whatever he wanted to speak about, he could do so extemporaneously. He could go on and on about poetry. He was discussing things that he knew intimately.”

According to Steve Reuter, president of the Metuchen-Edison Historical Society, other pieces from the collection have found a home in the Library of Congress. Myra said she was happy that both organizations could make use of some of the materials.

“Metuchen was as responsive to Dad as he was to Metuchen,” Myra said. “He is a part of Metuchen’s history. … And as time goes by, he will be a part of the fiber of what Metuchen is.”