David Ferry was born in 1924 in Orange, New Jersey. He entered the Air Force after his freshman year at Amherst College, returning to complete his degree in 1948. Ferry credits his professors at Amherst with making him “bookish” and admits he “read spottily” as a child. Ferry earned a graduate degree at Harvard University, where he began writing poems and had his first work published in the Kenyon Review. In the New York Times Book Review, Carmeal Ciruaru described Ferry’s poems in Of No Country I Know as “contemplative, humble and keenly perceptive. Above all, they are questioning.” Though known for his translations, the collection, which includes work from six previous books, proves the depth and craft of Ferry’s own poetic vision. As Ciruaru notes, “his speakers are not at home in life; they are always on the outside looking in—to their own minds, their bodies, the places they call home.” Ferry’s careful attention to psychological and emotional states led poet W.S. Merwin to proclaim that Ferry deals with “complexities of feeling with unfailing proportion and grace."
Though he did not study Latin or Greek in school, Ferry began translating—or “rendering”—ancient poets like Horace in the early 1980s, including three Odes in his book Strangers (1983). In an interview with Judith Moore, Ferry described the almost accidental path he took to becoming one of American poetry’s great poet-translators: “[A] friend at Harvard who liked my poems and some other translations of mine that he'd seen, began to give me assignments in Gilgamesh. I don't know any Babylonian but I worked from the word-for-word scholarly text, including my friend's translation of several passages in that poem. He guided me to the other good word-for-word translations and I did this rendering of Gilgamesh and my friend Frank Bidart showed it to Jonathan Galassi at Farrar, Strauss, and he published it.”
Ferry's translations since Gilgamesh have been widely acclaimed. The New Criterion critic D. S. Carne-Ross declared, “Ferry's governance is so fine that he has made it seem easy to translate Horace." The New York Sun praised Ferry’s translation of the Georgics as “either tender or grand,” adding that “Mr. Ferry's individual pentameters...are always euphonious, often singable, and sometimes magnificent—truly worthy of the best poet's best poem.”
Ferry’s many awards include the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award, the Teasdale Prize for Poetry, the Ingram Merrill Award, the William Arrowsmith Translation Prize from AGNI magazine and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Academy of American Poets. In 1998 he was elected a fellow to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The Sophie Chantal Hart Professor Emeritus of English at Wellesley College, he is a visiting lecturer in creative writing at Boston University. He was married to the literary critic Anne Ferry until her death in 2006.
- On the Way to the Island, Wesleyan University Press, 1960.
- A Letter and Some Photographs: A Group of Poems, Sea Pen Press & Paper Mill (Seattle, WA), 1981.
- Strangers: A Book of Poems, University of Chicago Press (Chicago), 1983.
- Gilgamesh: A New Rendering in English Verse (adaptation), Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (New York City), 1992.
- Dwelling Places: Poems and Translations, University of Chicago Press, 1993.
- (Translator) The Odes of Horace, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1997.
- Of No Country I Know: New and Selected Poems and Translations, University of Chicago Press, 1999.
- (Translator) The Eclogues of Virgil: A Translation, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1999.
- (Translator) The Epistles of Horace; A Translation, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.
- (Translator) The Georgics of Virgil, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2006.
- (Editor) The Laurel Wordsworth, Dell, 1959.
- The Limits of Mortality: An Essay on Wordsworth's Major Poems, Wesleyan University Press, 1959.
- (Editor with others) British Literature, 3rd edition (Ferry was not associated with earlier editions), Heath, 1974.
- (Selector and author of introduction) David Moolten, Plums & Ashes (poetry), Northeastern University Press (Boston), 1994.
- Library Journal, January, 1998, p. 104.
- New Criterion, January, 1998, p. 56.
- New Republic, April 27, 1998, p. 34; August 30, 1999, p. 39.
- Publishers Weekly, September 22, 1997, p. 77; September 27, 1999, p. 99.
Poems By DAVID FERRY
More poems by David Ferry (31 poems)
- Coffee Lips
- Evening News II
- from Gilgamesh: Tablet 1
- from Gilgamesh: Tablet 11
- In Eden
- In the Reading Room
- Learning from History
- Little Vietnam Futurist Poem
- Martial 1.101
- Movie Star Peter at the Supper for Street People
- Out at Lanesville
- Photographs from a Book
- Seen Through a Window
- That Evening At Dinner
- The Crippled Girl, The Rose
- The Guest Ellen at the Supper for Street People
- The Soldier
- To Sally
- to where
- Virgil, Aeneid, II, ii. 250–267
- What It Does
Translated By David Ferry
Articles By DAVID FERRY
- Always in Disguise
2011 Ruth Lilly Prize winner David Ferry on writing, translation, and everything in between.
Articles About DAVID FERRY
Audio & PodcastsPoem of the Day Poem of the Day Poetry Off the Shelf
Something Like Meter
An introduction to 2011 Ruth Lilly Prize winner David Ferry.
"You are what's fallen"
Poems from David Ferry, Calvin Forbes, Spencer Reece, plus Joshua Mehigan on poetry and madness.
VideoNewsHour Poetry Series
- Poet David Ferry on Writing Verse, Reading Poems, Winning Awards at 88
David Ferry, a poet concerned with making connections to classical literature, was recently honored with the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize as well as the National Book Award for poetry.
LIFE SPAN 1924–