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Poetry from two grandmasters of nuance; John Ciardi struggles with futility; For Instance, by John Ciardi. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. $9.95.

John Ciardi is an elder statesman of American poetry. In 40 years he has given us volumes of poems, criticism, children's verse, and an extremely fine translation of Dante's "Divine Comedy." But his recent work has become more an example of the malaise of American culture than an examination of its problems.

"For Instance" is Ciardi's 14th book of poetry. In it we are given a glimpse of the poet's struggles with semiretirement, Key West, suburbia, youth culture, alcohol, insomnia, and a growing sense of futility.

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In the course of 40 poems, Ciardi turns a cold eye on the world's difficulties.

There are examples of biting humor throughout the text ("Suburbia," "Censorship," "The Abstract Calorie"), but barely enough to relieve the acid taste. The few shining moments occur when the poems aim a clear eye at the human place in a still-mysterious world. "Alec" remembers a 97-year-old uncle who passed on when the poet was traveling in Asia. Following a local religious rite, he buys a sheet of gold leaf to rub on a Buddha. The gold leaf crumbles. It makes sparks on the floor like lathe- curlings. But some of it sticks. In time the God turns gold and we are all one family. Back in my shoes, I fed beggars in his name for the plains- wide days he walked me for quail or pheasant or what comes in or out of season. "God," he would say "sends birds, not calendars." He was right a while, but calendars come, too. I must have loved him, and did not know it till I fed beggars for him and gilded an unfinished god in its vault.

Although Ciardi possesses all the style and nuance, charged syntax and verbal authority that poetry requires, what is missing too often here is the image, the focus, the passion that drive mere "talk" to poetic climax, convert thinking to envisioning. We already knowm the world of these poems -- we want to know it better.

A poet who writes as well as Ciardi makes more than just books. He creates a human architecture, a city of the mind -- a place of reader can visit in his everyday life, not just during literary excursions. If there is to be construction constantly going on, we need that poet to build the care-crafted houses and personal temples where we can retreat to consider life and devotion.


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