Always in Disguise

2011 Ruth Lilly Prize winner David Ferry on writing, translation, and everything in between.
By David Ferry interviewed by Tess Taylor (David Ferry and Tess Taylor)

David Ferry was born in Orange, N.J., in 1924 and attended Amherst College, where he studied first with Reuben Brower and then, after a stint in the army during World War II, with César Lombardi Barber. Though he knew early on that he wanted to study and teach literature, Ferry writes, “I didn't start writing poems till graduate school.” After getting his PhD at Harvard, he published two scholarly books on Wordsworth. Then, in 1960, his first book of poems, On the Way to the Island, was published. Ferry was 36. His next full-length book, Strangers, would not appear until 1983.

Of the nearly 25 years between his first two books, Ferry says, “Until I started doing a lot of translating, I don’t think I wrote more than three times a year, and I tended to revise a poem over 10 years or so. That’s less true now; some of the poems now seem to come out of the life experience of working on these poems and translations together. They speak to each other.” Indeed, his book Dwelling Places: Poems and Translations appeared in 1993, and his selected poems, Of No Country I Know, in 1999. Both comprise roughly equal numbers of translations and original poems, arranged in ways that reverberate against one another.

Ferry has been forging elegant and unsettling conversations between past and present for his whole writing life. During his years of writing poems that are “his own,” Ferry has also translated from German, Italian, ancient Babylonian, and French as well as become widely known for his translations of Latin texts by Virgil and Horace. But while his complete volumes of Odes or Georgics seem to inhabit Virgil’s voice or Horace’s, it’s key to notice how his collections of poems and translations mosaic the voices of “self” and “other,” cunningly mixing the two. In Ferry’s forthcoming Bewilderment, a translation by Cavafy about unhappiness over the loss of a homosexual lover is followed by a passage from the Aeneid about “unhappy Dido.” The two speakers, each tormented by sexual deprivation, echo one another. They also frame other bereavements in the book, among them Ferry’s own recent loss of his wife.

But what is it to have anything—or any loss—be one’s own? Ferry does write his own poems–and his translations—in his “own” voice, but by the time they arrive in a collection, Ferry has unsettled any easy notion of autobiography. In fact, his presence in a book resembles the old classical figure whereby a Leonardo or Michelangelo might paint his own face as one among the gathered apostles. He, like they, reminds us that the artist is always in disguise.

Ultimately, Ferry’s poems both use and scramble tradition, refresh and estrange it. They are, as he writes in his own poem “The Birds,” “like the birds that gather in Virgil’s lines / In the park at evening, sitting among the branches / Not knowing who it is they’re sitting among. . . .” The poet himself, like these birds, reflects:

I don’t know who it is I am sitting next to

I can hear some notes tried out about the song
That they are trying to sing, but I don’t know
What song it is, it’s not exactly mine.


Tess Taylor: You’ve published a number of books of translations—the Odes and Epistles of Horace, the Eclogues and Georgics of Virgil—and it’s said you’re now working on a translation of the Aeneid. Each of your books of poems also contains a number of other translations. What would you say about your experience of working as a translator and your experience writing poems of your own?

David Ferry: In the early 1980s, not having read much Horace, I translated one ode of Horace’s, “I.4 To Sestius,” and a friend of mine at BU, Donald Carne-Ross, a wonderful scholar of the classics, liked it, and liked my poems, and he began to assign other poems to me. I got hooked. I worked on them all, I loved them so.

Another friend, at Harvard, William Moran, a great scholar of ancient languages, liked my poems, and he asked me to make verses out of his scholarly, word-for-word English translation of two passages in the Gilgamesh epic. I responded, and then he guided me through other word-for-word texts, and I fell for the Gilgamesh and my rendering of it. I fell in love with Virgil too—I'm not a classicist or a Latinist—at first through the way Horace in The Odes showed his reading of Virgil, and so it went.

But I certainly didn’t start out with an ambition to become a translator. Sort of accidental, but also kind of a love story. The other thing to say right away is that I’m not very clear that “translator” and “poet” are separate categories. In both activities, my continuous experience is the experience of writing lines, trying to make those lines work as well as they can, to be as pleasing as they can be, to be as understanding of the text they’re working with as they can be. In the case of, say, the Aeneid, which I am working on now, the text must be understood, and the understanding demonstrated, as fully and responsively as possible, in the “new poem” which is the “translation.” Every talk about translation that I’ve ever given has had the title “Not Getting It Right,” and of course that’s always true, because of the obvious differences in talent but also because it’s a different language written in a different culture at a different time, and so forth. But any translation is a poem of its own and should be judged as such. It is the work of a poet writing lines. Anyone who translates must discover this.

TT: What languages have you studied, and when?

DF: French, both in high school and college; three years of Latin in high school, one in graduate school, and none other. I’m not a classicist and not bilingual in any language. Working with the other language, whatever it is, on a particular task, I know it very well as I work on it. When I finish a particular passage, say, of the Aeneid, I know the language of that passage well, but then I have to start my whole life over. Of course I consult with my classicist mentors: Wendell Clausen when he was alive, Richard Thomas, Donald Carne-Ross when he was alive, Michael Putnam. I’d never read any of these works before I started translating them. They emerge as a surprise!

I do have a good knowledge of how these poems, or passages from them, have become implicated in English and the other modern languages.

TT: When did you first come to poetry? Were there specific professors or other teachers who impressed you early on?

DF: At Amherst, reading Frost, Pope, and Stevens with Reuben Brower; Hopkins with G. Armour Craig; Shakespeare with Cesar Lombardi Barber and Theodore Baird. I can almost say, and I mean it seriously, that my whole life as a teacher and, though I didn’t know it at the time, as a poet, was determined on the days when I heard what happened metrically in the third foot of the third line of Frost’s “Spring Pools,” “And like the flowers beside them chill and shiver.” It was the acting out of the early cold spring wind—and also in Frost’s “Once by the Pacific,” in the third foot of the line “The shore was lucky in being backed by cliff.” The panic in it. It blew the top of my head off.

TT: I’ve been impressed by the scholarship of your wife, Anne Ferry, who wrote a great book about Milton, compiled a terrific anthology, and then wrote a meditation on the work of making anthologies. She seems to have been a wonderful person to think about poetry with. Would you care to share something about your lives together?

DF: The love poems in my books do share something about our lives together. Just to speak of the work, though: yes, I agree with you about Milton’s Epic Voice (and her book about Milton and Dryden), and the on-target anthology she did with Reuben Brower and David Kalstone. Her edited book on anthologies was not at all a “survey” of the subject but a series of subtle and amazingly original essays that seize the opportunity of the book’s “topic” to say profoundly important things about the nature of reading. Her great and celebrated book The Title to the Poem uses the subject of titling with amazing originality. After her death, Stanford published her last book, By Design: Intention in Poetry. That amply shows that she was indeed “a wonderful person to think about poetry with.” For her readers, for her students, for me.

TT: You published your first book of poems, On the Way to the Island, in the mid-1960s, when you were in your 30s. Then there’s a gap of 23 years until the appearance of your next book, Strangers. Would you tell us something about your life during those years?

DF: Simplest answer: slow writer, two or three poems a year, 20 years means a book—trying to make the book have some sort of coherence; teaching; committees; bone-lazy.

TT: Strangers begins with two notable poems—“A Tomb at Tarquinia” and “A Bus Stop; Eurydice”—which both have the conjoined and unsettling affect of suburbanizing the classics, while simultaneously drawing the classical world in closer proximity to us than we may often think of it. Do you feel as though the classics are with you as you write your own poems? If so, and when they are with you, how do you see their fit in relation to modern life?

DF: “A Tomb at Tarquinia” has to do with the wonderful sculpture of an Etruscan couple in the Villa Giulia in Rome, and its relation to marriage, and, yes, also to my own marriage: sheltered, beautiful, vulnerable. And of course, the other one refers to the basic Orpheus-Eurydice story, which I knew at that time mainly from Monteverdi and Glück.

TT: Many of the titles of your books of poems—I think here of Dwelling Places, Of No Country I Know, and Strangers—reference either inhabitation or the place where we fail to inhabit, and in fact become strange to ourselves. I wonder if this is considered? Does this trope of belonging versus not belonging help us understand how you think about poems and poetry?

DF: Anne gave me the titles of all those books. But I’d have to give an unsatisfactory answer. It just sort of keeps coming up. I do notice that there is a lot of stuff about displaced figures. I don’t look at myself that way except in the way that everyone does. And everyone does. We happen to own a print of Watteau dressed up as a figure of a shepherd for the Fêtes Vénitiennes. I put him in a poem called “Civilization and Its Discontents.” He’s a sad brave playing a pathetic little musette—very different from the lords and ladies dancing around him. What with my long happy marriage and my marvelous children, I don’t think this aloneness, in this case or any other in my poems, has some expressly autobiographical correlation, but it may be something in the way one feels and observes, all of us.

TT: To put this a different way: As I read your work through, I noticed a great many poems about mad or semi-unstable people, people who are on life’s margins socially, physically, or mentally. What thoughts do you have about why you might be drawn to these people as subjects for poems?

DF: Some of the poems that are like this started from observations of men and women who have come to a supper for people who need it, at a church in Boston—I work at the suppers at the Church of the Advent on Beacon Hill—and Anne and I worked at this for years: I still do. I guess consequentially, for it had an effect on my books Dwelling Places and Of No Country I Know, and it will be true of a few poems in my next book, Bewilderment. . . . [Other influences may be] reading we did about “wild men,” especially in 13th-century depictions, but also in the Bible and elsewhere.

I seemed to find a kind of joint project about street people and these old figures of the medieval wild man, so my poems really gathered a shared vocabulary. My rendering of the Gilgamesh story also has had an effect—I guess these scenes derive partly from my experience at the suppers but also, and maybe mainly, from this reading and from the activity of writing such poems.

I think a lot, too, about Thom Gunn’s great, perfect, heartbreaking book The Man with Night Sweats—how to give form to displacement and distress. 

TT: How do you see your work as a translator in relationship to your work as a poet?

DF: It’s tempting to think of “original poems” as if there is no text they’re translating. But I suppose again, if every translation must become a poem, every poem has a central source it must be rendering. Even if a poem is about an event, a situation, a happening, that event is experienced as having its own vocabulary, however inchoate, which the poem must understand or render, as best it can, and do so in lines. And in many (I’m tempted to say in most) cases, that “experiential text” must also include the experience of other poems, which are, in one way or another, translated into the new poem.

Reading “a life experience” isn’t categorically so different from reading a passage from the Aeneid or the Odes of Horace or Gilgamesh. This comes full circle—in the end you’re stuck with the fact that you’re kind of reading your own poem.

TT: Indeed! Your books are often collages. If you are translating one poem rather than, say, the whole Georgics, how do you decide what to translate and why? Are you simply drawn to certain poems?

DF: Almost all the big translations have been assignments. The Odes came through Donald Carne-Ross. Gilgamesh came through William Moran, a great Babylonian honcho at Harvard. But then I keep coming across things. It helps to have been helped by classicists.

TT: When you compose a book for its coherence—the coherence you’ve waited sometimes 20 years for—how do you see your translations fitting within the scheme of work that is “your own”? Is the relationship compositional or thematic?

DF: In Bewilderment there are a lot of poems about unrealizable love or sexual deprivation, bereavement. Some of them just came up. For instance, the Cavafy came in part out of liking what Robert Pinsky has done, wonderfully, with one poem of Cavafy’s. Then I knew the Dido from the Aeneid. It’s all about happenstance, but then it also happens to connect up. The things that happen to you seem to happen by accident but, because you’re you, they seem to connect to other things.

I guess another way to say this is this: the book Bewilderment is about bereavement. But it’s also essentially about reading.

TT: And when you translate multiple authors, as well as putting in your own poems, how do you see the question of voice carrying between the various poets you assemble into “your book”?

DF: Some of the poems are referential to other references—in one poem I quote Virgil quoting himself—or to lines where it seems that Frost is actually quoting Virgil. Another way to say this is that I think about “the voice” by not thinking about it. If there’s going to be a transaction between the thing being translated and your own voice—it has to be there—you have to still write in your own voice. Your own voice has its own characteristics, and if you’re translating something old and great, you still have to have your own voice.

But at the same point you’re also stealing other voices. Like I steal Wyatt’s voice. In my poem “That Now Were Wild,” which appears in Bewilderment, I’ve placed the poem next to a fragment of the Aeneid about shades in the riverbank waiting to get across. I wanted the language of the Virgil poem to cast some light into my own poem, but I’m also deliberately quoting a poem. I’m using that quote to tell people that someone dying, that someone loved departing, is actually a kind of sexual betrayal. It’s opportunistic. Wyatt’s voice is heartbreakingly wonderful, and I just wanted to use it.

TT: We’ve talked about these longer conversations across time, like with Wyatt. Who more modern do you read?

DF: I think I want to focus here on who that’s not living. The biggest for me, the poets who have had the most effect on my life and work, are Wordsworth, Frost, and Stevens. In college, I wrote Stevens a letter and he wrote a letter back. Thrill of my life! His handling of the line is amazing. And Williams. And the best poems of James Merrill. Of course, if we get out of the near present, there’s Wordsworth because of the way his verse-line sounds. In graduate school I just fell for him, and wrote a book about him.

Later I came to Horace and Virgil without having previously read them. Something just comes into my life and takes off, and it really comes as a surprise. But Wordsworth’s Prelude is, well, it’s just it. I don’t know how to say it any other way. I think the passage in The Prelude in which he says that he has a dream, but earlier it seems that it’s Coleridge dream, but then he says it is his—and he’s carrying a stone and a shell … and the stone is Euclid’s and the shell is poetry, tokens of all that is valuable, and the waters of the earth are gathering upon them—I’d say that might well be the best passage in English poetry.

TT: So here you are writing about grief but also about reading. It strikes me that this idea of poems not belonging to anyone—but happening perhaps by being read through other poems—reminds me a little of the idea of not belonging to any one place or home, which you keep circling about in the content of some of the poems we mentioned earlier. The problem of Dwelling Places.  Do you think there’s something there?

DF: You know, I hadn’t thought of it that way, but now that you mention it, it seems you could be right. You could be right. We read to find a place to dwell on, and even in, for a time; it’s of no country I know. There are many strangers in it, including myself. My Anne knew that about my poems when she gave those titles to my books. If she were alive now, I bet she’d have given my new book the title I give it: Bewilderment.

Originally Published: May 18th, 2011

David Ferry is an acclaimed American poet and translator. Ferry’s translations, which include some of the world's major works of poetry including The Odes of Horace, and both The Eclogues and Georgics of Virgil, are known for their fluency and grace. In addition to his lauded translations, Ferry is also...

Tess Taylor is the author of the poetry collections Work & Days (2016) and The Forage House (2013). Her work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, the Boston Review, the Harvard Review, Literary Imagination, the Times Literary Supplement, Memorious, and the New Yorker. She was the 2010-2011 Amy Clampitt...

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  1. October 5, 2011
     Katherine Baum

    I came upon this article while I was searching for Anne Ferry on
    Google. My summer reading was "Milton's Epic Voice" and I can't
    remember when I enjoyed a book as much as this. As a lifelong
    student in philosophy I seldom read literature anymore, except
    poetry, because my sister-in-law is a poet on the coast of Oregon,
    and Richard Wilbur and a few other of my favorite poets.
    Since Anne recommends your poems David, I will begin reading them
    as well as her other books. I am sorry that she is gone now.