Sunday, November 01, 2015
The Hastings Room Reading Series presents David Ferry Wed Nov. 4th 7PM (First Church Congregationalist 11 Garden Street, near Harvard Square)
The Hastings Room Reading Series
D a v i d F e r r y
The February 2000 issue of The New Criterion includes a poem by Rachel Hadas with the tile “Reading David Ferry’s poems.” The tribute heralds a special year for Mr. Ferry, seeing the publication of his translation of Virgil’s Eclogues. That year he would also win the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets and the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize from the Library of Congress for his book Of No Country I Know published the previous year.
The opening of Rachel Hadas’s poem evokes, very appropriately, the classical image for poetic speech, recalling Pindar, Horace and Virgil, of a fountain or spring, the excellence of water for is clarity and fluency. Hadas wries,
The words run clear like water in these poems.
The fluency feels generous and easy,
naturally eloquent, carrying in its current
grains of incident and meditation.
Many tiny facets briefly flash
before they are carried downstream…
W.S. Merwin has noted similar qualities for David’s poetry, the “assured quiet tone” that conveys “complexities of feeling with unfailing proportion and grace.”
Lines, such as the opening to the poem “That Now Are Wild and Do Not Remember”—“Where did you go to, when you went away”; or, like these from “The Crippled Girl, The Rose”—
It was as if a flower bloomed… and
The rose reserves the sweetness that it yields
strike us as blossoms themselves of the old poets Ferry as an educator and translator has much lived with. They are “poetic” lines, which locate Ferry with the likes of W.B. Yeats, W.H. Auden, James Merrill, Richard Wilbur and John Hollander, the 20th and 21st Century practitioners not just of the English line but of its sensibility and sense of mild ironies and enduring graces. So from the evidence of his original poetry, it is not difficult for readers to trace David back to the crime of his translations.
In the July/August 2001 Poetry magazine, then editor Christian Wiman made revealing remarks about David’s poetry, in honor of presenting the poet with that year’s prestigious Ruth Lily Poetry Prize. Wiman noted, “David Ferry’s poetry has little in common with the current style.” “We live in a time,” says Wiman, “of obvious, even aggressive assertions of style… the eccentric is prized.” Yet, Wiman continues, “willed eccentricity is doomed from the start; it’s only the unconscious strangeness, the style formed and deformed by necessity, that’s compelling.” “Wise passivity” is another noted quality of David’s, much in line with Rachel Hadas’s perceptions of his poetry as “generous and easy,/naturally eloquent…”
While David carries on the identity of a cultural inheritance, as though it were genetic, one of his recurring themes involves a recusant awareness of this fact, creating a strange sense of paradox, magnificently expressed in the opening lines of his poem “Ellery Street,” a direct critique of the “eloquence” of poetry (or “the songs we sing”), the lines themselves caught red-handed with eloquence:
How much too eloquent are the songs we sing:
nothing will tell how beautiful is the body…
In light of a tendency in the poetry to hold in on glimpses of the body that are not so beautiful—scarred legs, trembling hands—this line “nothing will tell how beautiful is the body” at once is a statement of potential irony about our perceptions of beauty, and also a sort of infrared beaming through the faculties of language itself. The signs are all potentially misleading; the appearance of things and our words for them are inadequate for the joy and love others bring us.
In his introduction to Ferry’s most recent book, Ellery Street, published by the Grolier Established Poets Series, editor Ifeanyi Menkiti speaks beyond the technical and tonal expertise, to the poet’s psychological exploration of and “way of managing the breakdown of our powers and affections, so that all is not lost.” This is insightful. In his own passive and ever humble manner, Ferry bears a solemn courage in confronting certain breakdowns, as in his beautiful epigrammatic poem “In Eden” :
You lie in our bed as if an orchard were over us.
You are what’s fallen from the fatal boughs.
Where will we go when they send us away from here?
Here again the paradox: the poetry of anti-poetry. Most commonly a poet of the first two lines of “In Eden” is going to try to reassure this gasp of astonishment at approaching sleep with some image to reassure us of our successful “translation,” perhaps as a constellation amid the stars. Yet it is the moment before such a poetic stroke, the feeling of sinking and sinking without knowing, that Ferry chooses to make vivid in the poem. It’s spoke plainly enough – “Where will we go…” – yet in its context is perhaps every bit as striking as the image of Achilles dragging Hector’s lifeless cadaver around the walls of Troy. The simple question of bewilderment and Homer’s image each ask: What do we do with this wonder of our humanity?
A moment ago, we mentioned Christian Wiman’s comments about “unconscious strangeness” and the pressure of necessity on form. These harken back to the qualities of Ferry’s breakthrough work to national recognition with his version of the Mesopotamian epic Gilgamesh in 1992. It is one of the oldest literary works in Western Literature, originally composed in cuneiform, at the same time as the oldest parts of the Bible. As William L. Moran wrote, Ferry’s epic “is not a translation of a Sumerian original. It is, rather, a highly selective and creative adaptation and transformation of what we find in the earlier works.” Those works included linear translations incapable of imaginative unity. While other freer adaptations made critical departures from the contextual probabilities of the original.
Richard Poirier noted, “The poetic splendor and sublimity of David Ferry’s Gilgamesh is entirely of his own making… his great poem is no more indebted to earlier versions of its story than is anything of Shakespeare’s to North’s Plutarch.”
A large part of this accomplishment lies in the establishing and sustaining of a large narrative voice capable of dramatic emotion, such as the fear of the people for their ruler, Gilgamesh, who is supposed to be their protector.
There was no withstanding the aura or power of the Wild
Ox Gilgamesh. Neither the father’s son
nor the wife of the noble; neither the mother’s daughter
nor the warrior’s bride was safe. The old men said:
“Is this the shepherd of the people? Is this
The wise shepherd, protector of the people?”
The gods of heaven listened to their complaint.
“Aruru is the maker of this king.
Neither the father’s son nor the wife of the noble
is safe in Uruk; neither the mother’s daughter
nor the warrior’s bride is safe. The old men say:
“Is this the shepherd of the people? Is this
the wise shepherd, protector of the people?
There is no withstanding the desire of the Wild Ox.”
Interrupted by neither textual fragmentation nor fanciful detours, Ferry’s version traces the problem of the hero-king’s unbearable rule—tyranny—to his humanization through friendship and grief with mysterious encounters in the spirit world. The visitations convincingly remind Gilgamesh of his humanity and its frailty, his need for compassion to deal with other humans. The way Ferry has worked out the theme, with great attention for a neutral yet compassionate voice, line for line over 90 pages, attests to the marvel of this poem. Its “unconscious strangeness” ranges dizzily in the mind with affirmation of our ever elusive, uncanny albeit wholly human experience with death. Its ability to speak to us in this way accounts for the story’s long preservation. It challenges the undeniable authority of everything “present,” like a photo of the earth from the moon.