BROOKLINE, Mass. — After David Ferry of Brookline was named one of the five finalists for the 2012 National Book Award for poetry for his collection “Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations” (University of Chicago Press), the 88-year-old joked, “I think my only advantage is I’m so much older than these guys. Maybe they’ll give me a pre-posthumous award.”
Wednesday night in New York, Ferry was in fact named the winner. “It was absolutely great,” he says. “I haven’t recovered from this fantastic experience.”
The poems in “Bewilderment” (sample his poem “October” below) are about death and sickness and loss; about spring and autumn as metaphors; about aging; about his wife, the literary critic Anne Ferry, who died in 2006; about the poor and hanging around in bars; about questioning what it all means and what lasts and why.
“Questioning, but not getting any answer. I guess maybe you’ll conclude that ‘Bewilderment’ is an accurate title,” Ferry quips.
In his poem, “The Intention of Things,” he writes:
“It’s still, alas, the same old story: to live
Long is to outlive many; and after all,
We don’t even know, then, what it was all about.
The answer to part of the riddle is, we each
Have something peculiarly our own, that we
Mean to develop by letting it take its course.”
“My writing almost never comes from deciding I’m going to write a poem on this subject,” Ferry says. “It almost always comes from … some language I found in my own writing notes to myself. I have a phrase I can’t get out of my head and so the poem might come from thinking about that. It doesn’t come from systemic purpose. I don’t think in terms of projects.”
Until now, Ferry has perhaps been best known for his translations: “Gilgamesh: A New Rendering in English Verse” (1992), “Epistles of Horace: A Translation” (2001), “The Eclogues of Virgil” (1999) and “The Odes of Horace: A Translation” (1998). He renders them in plain language (for example, “working his ass off”) with a dash of antique terms that helps make the writing feel fresh while still maintaining a sense of its age.
He isn’t able to read Babylonian cuneiform, but for “Gilgamesh” wrote “what I call a rendering” based on word-for-word scholarly translations of the poem. The language he knows best besides English is French, he says. And he started out with a basic knowledge of Latin gained from “only the usual good school courses” that he’s been building on as he’s been doing translating—often using prose translations from the original Latin as his starting point.
The books of translations grew out of his habit of including translations in his collections of his own poetry since he published one translated poem in his first collection “On the Way to the Island” in 1960. His later books were salted with more and more translations. In “Bewilderment,” translations from Virgil, Horace, Rilke and Cavafy accent and reinforce the subjects of his own poems. And they instill the book with a sense of vast time and questions about what lasts through the generations.
Ferry studied at Amherst College and Harvard University. He has taught at Wellesley College and Boston University. This fall he’s co-teaching a class on his translation of Virgil’s “Eclogues” at Suffolk University.
“I really can kind of date my vocational experience,” Ferry says, “from a paper I was writing about Robert Frost [while studying at Amherst] and two wonderful poems of his, one called ‘Once By the Pacific’ and one called ‘Spring Pools,’ and events that happened in three or four lines of each of those poems, metrical events. I realized—I may be inventing the memory, but I don’t think I am—that now I know what I want to do and that was I want to talk to people about poems. And that I was going to be the kind of teacher who was more interested in what’s happening in particular lines than he is in large historical phases and generalizations and so on. That was before I wrote any poems, but I think it meant I was likely to write some poems.”
He quotes Frost’s “Once By the Pacific” from memory:
“Great waves looked over others coming in,
And thought of doing something to the shore
That water never did to land before. …
You could not tell, and yet it looked as if
The shore was lucky in being backed by cliff.”
“All of a sudden,” Ferry says, “there’s that anapestic foot, duh-duh-dum, ‘The shore was lucky in being backed by cliff.’ That little panicky effect that takes place in the line just knocked me out.”
Ferry says, “I’ve always been—as a teacher, as graduate student, as a student and I think really as a child—I’ve been interested in poems but not so much for what the take home pay is, what you might sum up from them in moral or intellectual terms or whatever, but what’s in the certain lines and how lines relates to other lines.”
By David Ferry
The day was hot, and entirely breathless, so
The remarkably quiet remarkably steady leaf fall
Seemed as if it had no cause at all.
The ticking sound of falling leaves was like
The ticking sound of gentle rainfall as
They gently fell on leaves already fallen,
Or as, when as they passed them in their falling,
Now and again it happened that one of them touched
One or another leaf as yet not falling,
Still clinging to the idea of being summer:
As if the leaves that were falling, but not the day,
Had read, and understood, the calendar.
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