One of the qualities essential to being good at reading poetry is also one of the qualities essential to being good at life: a capacity for surprise. It’s easy to become so mired in our likes or dislikes that we can no longer recall, much less be, that person inside of us who once responded to poems—and to people—without any preconceived notions of what we wanted them to be.
I mention this for a couple of reasons. The first has to do with how David Ferry’s work exists in the public consciousness—or in that small segment of the public that reads poetry, which is actually the country’s unconsciousness, and more powerful for being that. Most people think of Ferry as primarily a translator, partly because he’s turned his attention to major works like Horace’s Odes and Gilgamesh, and partly because he’s just so damn good at it.
But nothing is more fluid and mercurial than literary reputation. (People forget that, well into middle age, Ezra Pound’s strongest public presence was as a translator.) One of the surprising things, then, for anyone coming to Ferry’s own poetry for the first time, is that it turns out to be at least as good as his translations, and probably better. Translations age, because the idioms used to enliven them have no permanent connection with the soul of the work, which is rooted in the past, and so those idioms eventually, inevitably come to seem inadequate. Poems, the best ones, have a permanence about them, because they have some quality—and it’s not always the same quality—that survives atrophying idiom. Ferry’s poems have this quality, which I describe below, and I feel sure that in time this pendulum between his work as a translator and his work as a poet is going to swing—if in fact that hasn’t already happened.
The second surprise is simply in the poems themselves. We live in a time of obvious, even aggressive assertions of style and singularity. Among younger generations the eccentric is prized, even the grotesque. I like some of the poetry that comes out of this impulse, though the sheer deluge of willed eccentricity can be a bit exhausting. And actually, willed eccentricity is always doomed from the start; it’s only the unconscious strangeness, the style formed and deformed by necessity, that’s compelling.
In any event, David Ferry’s poetry has little in common with the current style. In fact, sometimes it sounds more like the people he has translated—Virgil and Horace, especially—or like poets who have been so important to him, notably Wordsworth. It’s a bracing effect: to have that classical impulse toward clarity and restraint fused with a much later imperative of inner urgency and emotional candor. These tensions between the old and the new, between the withheld and the revealed, between a kind of ancient sense of fatedness and a modern, almost-religious sense of redemption—all of this is at the heart of Ferry’s poems, and I think it’s what will keep them around for a long time. That, and the fact that they can simply break your heart.—cw