Monday, April 06, 2015

David Ferry and a Difference with Poetry: Ellery Street, a new selected from The Grolier Press

David Ferry

David Ferry and a Difference with Poetry:
Ellery Street, a new selected from The Grolier Press

article by Michael T. Steffen

Because he has been accomplished and acclaimed as a translator of literary classics in poetry (Gilgamesh, Horace, Virgil), the achievement of David Ferry’s original poetry has been little taken on. It is a question that made Poetry magazine’s editor Christian Wiman speculate in his presentation of Ferry’s Ruth B. Lilly Prize back in 2011. Wiman’s thought was that in time Ferry’s own poems would be equally acknowledged and appreciated. One step toward that has been taken. As part of the Grolier Series of Established Poets, Ifeanyi Menkiti has brought out a choice selection of Ferry’s original poems with the title Ellery Street, after one of the poems selected from Ferry’s 1983 Strangers: A Book of Poems (and an actual street near the Cambridge Public Library where the poet lived between 1960 and 1996).

One thing poetry most definitely allows the individual is a space for private revolt. In the case of Ferry, who has been so diligent, reliable and true under his classical poets—really what could we expect but the snail (an image from Ferry of the beauty of the body) struggling from its elaborate onerous shell and just relishing in venting some complaints about the tomb of scholarship from the point of view of just a man with lungs to fill with air, eyes with light, looking back at the reading room and calling the scholars out for their “imbecile gaze.” Ecclesiastes warns us there’s weariness in writing many books.

It is an amusing paradox for the reader, and a testament to the persistent inspiration of poetry, as well as to the poet’s brilliance with the dilemma to sing of “human unsuccess” (Yeats) with Ferry’s demonstrative rather than literal way about it. Beyond letting out that there is something “imbecile” about erudition and this earnest game of poetry, inextricable—du-uh—from language and scholarship, Ferry’s poetry wants to be awkward, say, enough to include a snail, an old lady with terribly scarred legs and a fat girl as examples of “how beautiful…the body” to consider along with the supposedly enviable, obvious image of youth in its prime:

A boy passes by, his bare

Chest flashing like a shield in the summer air;
All conquering,

The king, going to the drug store.

The bare chest “flashing”—like the shield of one of Virgil’s heroes! And the discreet seemliness of the couplet separated by the spacing (…bare/…air). David Ferry possesses the wherewithal to write as he chooses. Yet for his private fedupness with the insistent triumphal shades and laurels of the fifth art, and genuine sense of humility and love for ordinariness, he chooses to be patient and illustrative rather than argumentative, meandering rather than terse and punchy. It is original, very different in its allowances from the streamline verse that fills so many new books and journals these days.

It is as if, shedding the pomp of Roman empire hexameters, odes and epodes, Ferry has woken another old friend, William Wordsworth, to go outside and look around, at—impatiens in the garden. Or to listen to the timely clicking of leaves on an impossibly hot October afternoon. His ear is so attuned to what’s going on with nature and human nature around him. He picks up on the subtlety of a mature man’s lesson about temperament conveyed to a teenager, through the deliberately slowed rhythm of dribbling a basketball. The ball bounces like the formal scansion of a line of poetry. As there’s a “court” in playing this and other ball games, Ferry reminds us of the original higher ideal of our bearing in this play, called sportsmanship, giving the poem the title “Courtesy.” How we played sports (we used to be told) was just as important as competing to win. Brutal victory at any cost was frowned on. Ferry goes about to remind us, though he is not preachy or pedantic about it, of such effaced virtues. Doing so, Ifeanyi Menkiti has brilliantly observed in his introduction to Ellery Street, these poems countenance “a certain way of managing the breakdown of our various powers and affections, so that all is not lost.”

This particular continuity of sensibility endures the paradoxes of time, to a somewhat disturbing glimpse of the body in the poem “At a Street Corner” from Ferry’s 2012 National Book Award winning Bewilderment:

Look here, look at my hands,
They look like little wet toads
After a rainstorm’s over,
Hopping, hopping, hopping.

This is one of the values of the selection: having the occasion to let Ferry’s original poems echo off one another, with variety reflected in the poet’s signature themes, his suspicion for language and concepts, the intractable element of the world in our observations and experiences (which leave us “bewildered”), the dissociation (even dispossession) between ourselves and our bodies—memorably recorded by the ambiguous arrival in “At a Bus Stop; Eurydice” :
She was amazed, amazed.
Can death really take me?
The bus went away.
It took the old lady away.

Ifeanyi Menkiti has taken great care in editing and introducing this selection. Maybe one reader will wonder, Where is “Everybody’s Tree”? or What about “Learning from History”? Generating discourse will be another great benefit of this wonderful book showcasing one of the Boston area’s and one of America’s most prized and genuinely appreciated poets.

Ellery Street by David Ferry
edited in the Grolier Established Poets Series
is available for $18.00
at The Grolier Poetry Book Shop
6 Plympton Street
Cambridge, MA 02138

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