Wednesday, April 21, 2010

An Audience for David Ferry

An Audience for David Ferry, at the Suffolk University Poetry Center, Thursday May 1 2010
by Michael T. Steffen

Though I’ve been more a visitor to than a citizen of the “country that his poems made”my acquaintance with David Ferry’s work and name predates my particular awareness of him as a master translator and honored poet in his own right. Before I’d unwittingly enrolled myself in the singing school of translation, focused on the poet Pierre de Ronsard (which interested and required a lot of attention to Horace, a magisterial influence for the young French lyricist of paradoxical loves and apostrophized odes) I’d read Mr. Ferry’s rendering of Gilgamesh, little thinking in those days that the epic of ancient Mesopotamia would root into the earth of my memory to hold as it has.

For most of us Homer is as tangible a great father of poetry to be located, and the alpha of his Andra, if not mu of his Manin —will seem lunar enough of an island of origins for the milling young poet to plant his flag and say, From here I mend my sails. Let us go.

But David Ferry outdistanced most, if not all, English language poets in the archeological voyage, with the help of Professor Moran, by giving us the story

of him who knew the most of all men knew;
who made the journey; heartbroken; reconciled;

who knew the way things were before the Flood,
the secret things, the mystery; who went

to the end of the earth, and over; who returned,
and wrote the story on a tablet of stone.

Lost in translation, in thoughts thereof, and of the rare accomplishment of Gilgamesh, I waited for David Ferry to begin his reading.

Considering the span of personal notoriety and the great ancient names Ferry crosses (not long ago I’d read a passage from his translation of the Æneid in Poetry magazine), my mind was hardly prepared to see just a normal human being stand up to the podium. I may have been expecting a hovering spectral aura (behind a curtain to shield us) echoing with cavernous voices from the deep past to a murmur of fountains. That is the kind of ambience imagination can imbue an atmosphere with, I guess—as the man himself, not half as scary, on the contrary warm, welcoming, much admired, stood before us all, reading to us each, even to me. Or from where I sat, especially to me, as I remembered how I’d included in the introduction to my translations of Ronsard some comments on how the Renaissance poet transformed the phrases of his classical models to make new resonant language. “Cueillez dès aujourhuy les roses de la vie” to this day in most French ears remains as proverbial and familiar as Horace’s carpe diem, spread still around most of the western world.

Of so many readings from inspiring poets one is likely to attend in the area, a few will be especially remembered. This past Thursday’s reading at the Suffolk Poetry Center will be memorable for more than just myself among the standing-room-only gathering, including Fred Marchant, and the student and poet Mitch Manning who gave Mr. Ferry an insightful and impressive introduction.

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