Ancestral Lines: An Interview with David Ferry

Accepting the National Book Award for his 2012 collection Bewilderment, an 88-year old David Ferry quipped that he’d been awarded a “preposterous pre-posthumous” prize. The humility is typical, but the intensity of his wordplay signals how much is at stake for Ferry in acknowledging a life spent making lines.

Ferry’s first book of verse, On the Way to the Island, appeared in 1960. A long hiatus from publishing ended in 1983 with Strangers: A Book of Poems. By his own reckoning, Ferry’s career as a poet really got started only after his retirement, in 1989, from teaching and administrative duties at Wellesley College. Ferry’s steady output of poems and translations since then includes Gilgamesh: A New Rendering in English Verse (1992), Dwelling Places: Poems and Translations (1993), The Odes of Horace (1997), The Eclogues of Virgil (2000), Of No Country I Know (1999), The Georgics of Virgil (2005), On This Side of the River (2012), and, in 2017, The Aeneid. (A passage from Book VII of his Aeneid was featured in Literary Matters 9:3). Ferry’s work has been accorded such honors as the Harold Morton Translation Award, the Ruth Lilly Prize, and the Lenore Marshall Prize.

When we sat down to talk with Ferry about his poetry, we expected him to focus on line-making as the key to poem-making, and to explore, in detail, the variety of transactions that occur when any poet is hard at work in their chosen measures. What we did not expect to encounter is Ferry’s determination, present below by implication, to talk about living poems rather than living poets. Perhaps this laudable ethic derives from Ferry’s having kept such long and close company with the dead, who have notoriously little to say about the contemporary scene.

For over sixty years now Ferry’s work has deliberately and convincingly blurred any border we might want to maintain between “original” poem and translation. As Lloyd Schwartz has written, Ferry’s work “…shows us that his magnificent translations are as intimately personal as his own poems are heart-breakingly classical. In his wisdom, his self-awareness, his humor at the ways of the world, he has become our Horace. And even better, in the process he has become even more deeply and indispensably himself.”

Ferry turned 97 in March of this year.

  • Daniel Bosch and George Kalogeris

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INTERVIEWER

Was poetry part of your early life at home?

FERRY

My parents weren’t particularly literary people. My mother had in school learned to recite a number of passages from Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott and so on, so I knew about “The stag at eve had drunk his fill / Where danced the moon on Monan’s rill,” and I knew various lines from Shakespeare. In the Depression my father moonlighted as an organist at a church.  My mother fell in love with him, she said, because he played Schumann’s “Träumerei” on the piano. So music was a big thing, and therefore poetry was a big thing, in the sense that out of the music that I heard, some were lines of poems from oratorios and so on that he was putting on at that church. I think that as a child, listening to music, I was hearing lines of poetry, in a sense. I had bouts of being a big reader, and bouts of not being a big reader, all through childhood and high school. But I wouldn’t say I had a literary childhood in the sense of being fostered that way in my house.

INTERVIEWER 

Do you recall particular poems, or lines, that made an impact on your developing sense of what poems do?

FERRY

I remember a Memorial Day, in the early 30s, and hearing some lines of poetry that were recited in this sort of center of a valley at the base of the town, where there was a big park. People recited things like “In Flanders Fields the poppies blow,” and so on. I may be making it up retroactively, but I think that I heard Bryant’s quite wonderful but unctuous and self-consciously majestic poem, “Thanatopsis.” And I recall the passage, “So live that when thy summons comes to join / The innumerable caravan…” There is something about the way that line lightly stresses the word “innumerable,” that felt like the word was enacting the kind of crowd that had gathered there. So poetry was in my head. Whitman, when I was in high school, partly because he was so sexy, felt just terrific. But I didn’t as a child try to write poems; I wasn’t much interested.

INTERVIEWER

Yet you were interested in the different sounds that language can make, and the ways that time and space inform those sounds.

FERRY

Yes. I remember waking up—I guess we were getting on to a ferry-boat at Baltimore going to Norfolk when I was sixteen, I think. We were on our way to Florida to see my father’s sister’s family. And I remember hearing the voice of some crewman on the boat—the regional accent that he was speaking—did feel like, to me, like I had entered a foreign country. I’d been there before. My mother came from Norfolk, but in her speech she had ceased to have that amazing Tidewater accent and syntax. How every other sentence ends in “here.” And saying things like “right” for “very,” and things like that. And it seemed a big part of the experience was the foreignness and, in a way, the past-ness of it. My family’s past.

INTERVIEWER

Did leaving home bring you closer to poetry?

FERRY

I started at Amherst College in the summer of 1942. My freshman composition teacher was Reuben Brower, and I started talking to him. Later my wife, Anne, would be a colleague of his, and a co-author with him of a book on poetry. Brower’s course had a big effect on me, and my readings of “Spring Pools” and “Once By the Pacific” and a couple of other poems by Frost were particular vocational moments. In class we were talking particularly about things that happened, events that happened, in iambic pentameter lines, like

The shattered water made a misty din.
Great waves looked over others coming in,
And thought of doing something to the shore
That water never did to land before.

To be able to hear the difference between what was happening in the first line of the poem and what was happening in the second line, which is an iambic pentameter line, to be able to hear the sense of what was happening in the voice in the poem, the voice that was taking a picture of the scene—“Great waves looked over others coming in”—was to know that several things were happening in those lines. Suddenly, “Looked over others coming in” figures the waves as primordial beings threatening the shore, beings who thought of doing something to the shore, but were not sure of what they were going to do! I heard that moment being acted out by the way those lines were stressed at the same time that I was hearing the iambic music. Later on in the poem there is the couplet, “You could not tell, and yet it looked as if / The shore was lucky in being backed by cliff,” in which something happens suddenly, and I knew that nothing like that had happened in the lines before it in the poem, and I really think that it’s not a pretty simple line. I wasn’t at all thinking about being a writer yet in those days. But talking about it to somebody, talking about what was happening in those lines, that seemed it—for life. I wasn’t then and I never have been thinking a lot about big concepts, or theory. I just wanted to keep hearing things that way, and to talk about doing it. That seemed it.

INTERVIEWER

At Amherst, as your study of poetry accelerated, you started playing the piano. The piano is still your accompanist in poetry, isn’t it?

FERRY

I never got very good at it, but I got good enough to hear things in the music that I was playing. In reading music you are reading variations on measurable sequences—lines, if you will—and playing the piano is part of my interest in the line in poetry. I am thinking, particularly, of the simpler pieces of the Bach inventions or particular things in Beethoven sonatas or in Mozart sonatas, or in Chopin, where the line is very much like the metrical line in poetry, and you get a sort of heightened sense of how one line ends in terms of another by having that kind of musical experience in your head. Reading music is a lot like reading poems, and I knew when I was in Brower’s class, looking at those poems, and learning to play the piano, that I wanted to be a teacher. I’d already written to him to that effect, one of those gauche adolescent fan letters I wrote from the army.

INTERVIEWER

Did academic reading of poetry correspond to or conflict with your earlier childhood experiences of lines?

FERRY

The pleasure I was getting from reading poetry at Amherst is connected to the pleasure I had found in Bryant’s “So live that when thy summons comes to join / The innumerable caravan…” but it’s different, too, from those exalted majestic lines. I wrote a senior thesis on the poetry of Wallace Stevens, about a kind of symbolical category that he used in his poetry, but for me the real events were in the lines of poems. Particularly, “Sunday Morning” and “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle,” and the later poems like “The Auroras of Autumn” and “The Owl in the Sarcophagus” and so on. Stevens was much freer than Frost, say, in his versification, and I’m not necessarily using “freer” either as a positive or negative term. There are places in Stevens where he seems free in an absurd modernist way, free to give up on the iambic pentameter in a poem that’s dominantly that, and so on.  And yet he gets away with it, marvelously, I think.

INTERVIEWER 

Don’t all great poets depart from the measures they establish?

FERRY

For me, the value I attach to Stevens for his departures is different from the value that I attach to Frost, who, I think, never departed. So far as I know the only free verse poem of Frost’s is a piece of verse that he wrote to Pound about his mixed feelings about Pound’s early reviews of him. That and the great poem “The Lovely Shall Be Choosers.” But otherwise either tetrameter or iambic pentameter is preserved. Frost’s ideas about the line, and the way that the variations between and in the iambic tetrameter line or the iambic pentameter line could be so subtly, and with such variation, varied from one to another, were simply a revelation to me—it felt so like finding and being able to chart the aliveness in the human voice, and in a way that we all speak. But for me it’s not Frost’s correctness, or his obedience, in a sense, but how his capacity is increased because the measure is being maintained so consistently, so unvaryingly. The preservation of the measure builds Frost’s capacity for variation, his opportunities for variation and its thoroughness and excitement of its understanding of that medium. Again, I’m finding the poet’s use of the medium is opportunistic. Frost is not being tamed in order to be obedient but to maximize his abilities to find things out while lines are being written. And that’s also the case, I think, with Wordsworth, and his versification. But it’s also the case with the other poet that I was, in graduate school, most affected by—Alexander Pope. There, again, is the exploitation of the line.

INTERVIEWER

When did you start to experiment with writing lines and poems?

FERRY

As a graduate student, at Harvard. The first poem I ever wrote I think of as primarily a translation, a translation of a great painting, one of Watteau’s versions of “L’Embarquement pour Cythère.” I think I was very much affected by the in some ways eccentric, but really interesting versification of John Crowe Ransom. And that poem was accepted for publication in the Kenyon Review by John Crowe Ransom. Which came as a surprise to me, and I think that maybe that in a way made me start to feel maybe I could—that poetry was something I could do.

INTERVIEWER

That you could write new poems? Or that you could translate an older work of art into something new?

FERRY

Translations are poems. As I use translations, they are poems in connection with the other “original” poems beside them. They are meant to be read, as you turn the page, as new poems that are related to the poems you just read and related to the poems you’re going to read. And I want to fine-tune that, too.

INTERVIEWER

When did you start to have a “career” as a writer?

FERRY

My career as a writer started really late, after I retired from teaching at Wellesley. And it really got started for me as a translator, as somebody who had done a lot of books of translation. So I was “a translator,” in the sense that it was different from being a poet. But like every other translator of a poem, you get to feel that the long poem (or the long set of poems) by some writer that you’re translating, however ancient, is your poem. There’s a bizarre sense in which I am right now writing the Aeneid.

INTERVIEWER 

Virgil’s Latin poem notwithstanding.

FERRY 

It’s not as puffed up of a sentence as it sounds. I am haunted by this sense of past-ness in the ways that we talk and therefore in the ways that we write. And when you combine that with the fact that, like many other poets, my job at Wellesley College was to talk about poetry—other people’s poems, and to read a lot of poetry, and to like it a lot. My job was to be thrilled by the ways that one poem can be connected to somebody else’s poem. I was interested in the Eurydice story long before I’d ever read Virgil’s great version of that story, which enters into some of my more recent poems very directly.  In the late 70s I was writing a poem called “At the Bus Stop, Eurydice,” about seeing an old lady looking out of a bus at me as the bus was going off somewhere else, and that story was somehow involved in that poem. And it got involved in that poem because I wanted a certain tonality that’s appropriate to that story. What I’m saying doesn’t just apply to literary composition. It isn’t just tactical, it’s true of all words—not just poems. In our very speech we’re in touch with the past, other people’s past that’s in the language. Other people’s ways of saying things, their other situations in life—our uses of language interpret those. And there’s some motive of associating ourselves, in poems, with the past, when we choose expressions, and that is part of the pleasure of writing.

INTERVIEWER

Is the purview of the translator different from that of the poet who does not translate?

FERRY

Yes, but I think we find ourselves using, always, language that’s prior to the language that we’re using on any given present occasion. Even the hesitations in my voice, finding a way to talk about this and so on, has its sort of tradition, in ways of talking. There’s the past-ness in this kind of conversation that I think that all three of us recognize that we’re having right now, including its stops and starts. I was, by preparation for a career and so on, mainly a student of poetry. And by special inclination in that training I was especially concentrated on the way lines of poetry sound and the differences between them in different periods and the different ways that thinking about those other ways of speaking enter into the present.

INTERVIEWER

Yet your sourcing of the past hasn’t always drawn from literature. In “After Spotsylvania Courthouse,” for example, you are the speaker reading your grandfather’s letter, and you feel the almost ancient-ness of that brown writing, like the foreign-ness of the accents from the area where your mother’s family came from.

FERRY

That poem is made up from a nineteenth century kind of diction and a context of Methodist piety and good-intentions that I found in language which was spoken by my great-grandfather, who was going to Fredericksburg, Virginia. It has a fancy that a lot of my poems feature, which is thinking about the language that we’re using and about the likeness or difference to ways that it has gotten itself heard before. But I’m not trying to say that I’m somebody with a big, continuous subject-matter. It’s just that—like everybody else—I happen to have read some letters written by 19th century ancestors of mine. And I was both amused and chagrined by my difference, the differences between my sensibilities and the sensibilities in those letters, but also by my admiration of nineteenth century kind of diction and a context of Methodist piety and good-intentions that I found there.

I really mean it—we are all so often talking about the past, and finding that past in some way or other classical. We find beautiful language in the past to condescend to—it’s hard to be skeptical of it in any way—to admire, and in some ways to long for. It gets into everything. So I’m not surprised that I got interested in translating some ancient poetry. When I was making that poem, I was reading those old brown sentences as if—not even as if, but actually—looking into a brown photograph as old as his writing is. I was making a poem out of how I experienced sentences like ‘two innocent, naked young men, Methodists, bathe in the morning in the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg, Virginia, 1864,’ or ‘Brother Pearson and I went out and bathed in the Rappahannock, we turned to take our breakfast and coffee and bread,’ and so on. The poem is in some way my reading of those sentences, which is my hearing of those sentences, my respecting those sentences, my trying to understand them and to talk about differences between the me who was trying to understand them and the he who was speaking in those days and in that context. And that seems to me to get into, not just my poems but all poems in some way or other.

INTERVIEWER

Is poetry necessarily such an intellectual experience?

FERRY

I don’t think I’m talking about an intellectual experience. I don’t know how to make this clear, even to myself. What’s involved in that particular poem is the difference between my grandfather’s language and mine. Because his language comes into my poem, it gets to be also my language in some way or other. And I’m just so struck by that, not just in poetry but in the way we all speak. Our speech is always in some way studying past language.

INTERVIEWER

How does this dynamic alter what your sense of what poems are “about”?

FERRY

“After Spotsylvania Courthouse” is certainly a poem “about” a Civil War situation, and therefore “about” the Civil War, and “about” my great-grandfather’s life as a preacher, a Yankee, a noncombatant, and somewhere behind the poem, not expressed in it, it’s “about” my consciousness, as a child, that my Yankee ancestors weren’t in the fight, but my grandfather, my mother’s father, was, he was a Confederate soldier, 18 years old or so.  But I got into writing the poem by hearing differences between the way my great-grandfather spoke, and the way I speak: “The morning air seemed to take up the song of our praise.” It was that kind of difference that got me into writing the poem, and the experience of writing the poem is for me what the poem is primarily, or most essentially, “about.”

INTERVIEWER

When all language “reads” past language, what makes a poem “contemporary”?

FERRY

The atmosphere in which I was trained was an atmosphere in which the vocabulary of ‘Make it New’ modernism got into our habits of describing ourselves. We were talking as if there was always some kind of progress—this was what we meant when we used words like ‘contemporary.’ I think it’s still true of the atmosphere today, in many ways. But we make transactions between our language and the language that’s past—we don’t speak a language that’s altogether contemporary. We’d have to be pretty aggressive to do that. I’m crazy about the poetry of Williams Carlos Williams. In my introduction to my translations of the Georgics, I quote from an absolutely marvelous free-verse poem of Williams’. And I also love to think about Williams’ translation, or rendering, of Theocritus’ “The Cup,” and so on. And the vocabulary of making it new, and so on—it’s very exciting, and it has produced many exciting things. But the best writers were always involved in transactions with the past.

INTERVIEWER

Don’t such transactions risk loss? It was Frost who said that poetry is what’s lost in translation.

FERRY

I think he says “the poetry is lost in the translation.” And I think he means—how Frost hated to have people say “He means”!—that the detail, the particular linguistic and rhythmical acts that are performed, the ones that bring that poem to its fullest expressiveness, are what has to get lost, because you’re writing in another language, and you’re writing out of a different sensibility and so on. I don’t think he’s saying that it’s all lost at all. It doesn’t have that in it. The contempt for translation that Frost has been accused of because of that quotation isn’t justified at all, at least as I read it. The poetry of and in the verse, which isn’t quite the same thing as the substance, the meaning of that is lost. And there is some absolute sense in which I think it’s true that every translation erases the poem that it’s translating, and substitutes for it a new, usually inferior, version of it.

INTERVIEWER

In your first book, you published a translation from Ronsard alongside the French text. Were you unwilling to erase, at that point?

FERRY

I think I wanted erasure. But I’m glad that Farrar, Straus & Giroux has always published my translations from Latin with the Latin on the facing page. In part, that’s a part of arrogance of performance; it’s to say, Look at how much of this he got right!  In part, it’s to provide the reader with the experience of being a comparative judge. It’s an invitation for the reader to see, to say, ‘Look what he didn’t get!’ Partly it’s an acknowledgment that the poem that’s next to it in the book is testimony to what’s been erased by it.

INTERVIEWER

How was reading, and re-writing, Ronsard, in part a way to read English poetry?

FERRY

I hadn’t read very much Horace, even before I started translating. But those sixteenth and seventeenth century carpe diem poems have their own inheritance from previous literature. I think that part of the power they have is, of course, Horace’s power, and the power of his lamenting over the passing of duty and of sexual power is so ancient in literature and so fundamental in human experience. So in a sense the voice of Ronsard’s poem has come back from the grave—as a “fantôme sans os”—to speak of regret for lost opportunities. There’s a way in which every poem of this kind and every translation of this kind inherits from, and is able to have some of the power of, a previous time. And it has a kind of specialized power because this is such an ancient theme, concern, or distress signal over and over again. Donne, to give a specific example, has Horace and Ronsard in mind in his great “The Apparition.” But our speech, our vocabulary, our syntax always rises up as a wraith.  There is a past-ness in everything we say. We can say nothing to one another that has not been said before, though in the given instance it may find its individuality in the detail of its expressiveness and maybe by being said to a new music.  Ronsard’s extraordinary, boneless phantom rises up with that authority. This can be generalized further.

INTERVIEWER
Are we always translating?

FERRY

In all our experience, we’re always coming to terms with—or seeking to come to terms with—what has been experienced by others before us, as brought to us by language. In every sentence, we are but the latest witness to what it means or has meant. Our words are always phantoms. Even the sentences we are speaking to each other, and the form of the sentences in which we’re right now talking to each other—we didn’t make them up. As our conversation goes on and we each signal to each other our particular presence by the choices of the ways that we use these “themes” or “concerns” in whatever it is we’re saying. “Let’s have lunch” is ancient history. There is some sense that our speech itself is like the act of translation, the act of using what has been said before, in another form of our language, or in a foreign language, or in our own more particularly understood—that is, in order to make a form out of it, in order to understand it ourselves, and to declare to each other our individuality. This is me saying this to you. That’s in everything we say, like “Good morning.”

INTERVIEWER

Christopher Ricks made a beautiful point about your Ronsard and how the word “fright” is an anachronism, but that it’s to the point of the poem that the word “fright” comes from the future, for it’s in the future that the ravages of time will make this beauty into a “fright.”

FERRY

I was proud of “before I became this fright.” I said one time that there’s an aspect to translating that line “que j’etais belle” as “before I became a fright,” that it is a kind of smartass thing to do by a poetry graduate student who had just then been reading seventeenth poems, many of them descended from Horace. I had planned to write a PhD thesis on Congreve, because I was so crazy about The Way of the World in particular and Love for Love. So I turned Ronsard’s woman in the poem into Lady Wishfort in The Way of the World. I look like an old, peeled wall, she says, “before I became this fright.” The tonality of it, I think, works in my translation in its own terms, and it was fun to do that way, and I provided a rhyme when I needed it. But it has a different tonality from the kind of offended dignity of the old woman in the great Ronsard “que j’etais belle.” It takes that austere pride, that offended pride, out of it. So it’s a mistranslation. I wouldn’t change it for the world.

INTERVIEWER

How is it that a brief Montale poem you translated, “La Farandola dei Fanciulli,” in which kids are described as they dance, naked, there are no railroad tracks in the original Italian, yet they appear in your translation?

FERRY

At that time I was very slowly making my second next book, and I was actively seeking translations related to some things I was talking about in poems of my own, poems that would become translations in relation to those, in a sense. So for me there’s such a thing as yearning for things to translate that might have a particular function in a book. I was looking for a poem that was just totally happy, in contrast to the other poems in the work. Writing about being happy is a really hard thing to do, to do well. I was beginning to read Montale, mainly in the translations by William Arrowsmith, and I came across this marvelous little poem, and I just fell in love with it, and it happened to coincide with an experience of mine. Reading Montale’s poem, I also remembered a moment when, out the window of a train going from Rome to Tarquinia, I saw some beautiful, near-naked kids playing so gracefully they seemed to be dancing in the hot sun. There’s no railroad track in the original poem, but I defend my translation as one way to express the distance between the man speaking the poem and the kids.

How far back the ancient past seems now.
Those kids dancing around and playing,
By the railroad track, up back of the beach,
On the gravel and cinders of the railbed,

Weeds suddenly breaking into blossom
In the heat of the day, a flowering of thirst.
It’s as if being naked and nameless
Was being sunlight, flower, heat-shimmer.

The railroad track that was in the scene I saw through the train window. I think I shared with Montale’s poem the experience of the sight of those boys and girls playing as if dancing. My introducing into the poem an element, the railbed, the railroad tracks, you might say is a mistranslation. But it’s an act of faithful understanding of the poem. And therefore, truly, in my view, a genuine translation of the poem. Introducing the railbed—it’s just a sort of gretto, pebbles on the beach, a pebbly beach or whatever—was a literal translation of the Montale, and in a sense at least it got from me what I understood his poem to be saying about the distance between him and the golden age, and given his older age and these sexy kids, and their innocent sexuality, in some way the deflowering of thirst and so on, the poverty.

INTERVIEWER

So you were finding your own way to poems you wanted to translate, and other people were pointing you to poems and suggesting you translate them. But was anyone telling you not to translate? Was anyone saying to you, “Gee, you should be writing your own poems”?

FERRY

No, including me. Two things. One is that it’s a continuously humiliating experience to translate, especially a whole book by one of these guys, because, the more you do it, the more clearly you see and feel the distance between what you’ve done and what they’ve done. There’s a certain punishment there. Then there’s the old anxiety I think your question is experiencing. As much as I say—and I’m confident about meaning it the way I am saying it—that your translation is your own poem. And your use of a translation—such as the uses I put translations to in Dwelling Places—makes that translation even more your own.  There is still, of course, a sense that there’s a lot of this that I didn’t make up, that he made up!  Right? So there’s always some version of saying to myself that I’m taking an easy way out, when I’m translating, in the sense that the page that I’m looking at is not entirely a blank page (which, when you’re writing a poem of your own, you’re faced with, often, if not always). So there is that distinction you experience, but translation is so exhilarating, especially because these are such great things to work on, to experience while you are making the work. And it’s you making up the lines, and you figuring out, or producing, criticizing and working out how much your ear tells you whether this or that particular iambic pentameter line is working or not. One need not feel too guilty about translating.

INTERVIEWER

A strong thread of your work comes from being with, and listening to, and thinking about people on the margins of society, distressed people. How did this come to be?

FERRY

In my book Dwelling Places are a number of poems that come out of experiences that my wife Anne and I had working one day a week at a supper for indigent people at a church in Boston. My translation of the Rilke poem “Song of the Drunkard” is related to those. It’s like a story one might hear in that situation, or in one you might hear in a bar. There are some other poems of mine that have that common situation, and it’s true that I went deliberately looking for poems that had those situations in them. I forget how I knew about the Rilke poem, but I did. There’s no escaping the fact that I had a project and practices which were very much part of the book Dwelling Places, which is almost half-and-half translations and poems. I had started looking at a certain amount of material from the thirteenth century, which was also a period of peasant revolts. There was a lot of material on Wild men, lots of accounts of extremely marginal, distressed people who are in vivid disconnection with people looking at them.

INTERVIEWER

How did this interest lead, eventually, toward Gilgamesh?

FERRY

The same church that holds the supper for street people is where Anne and I met Bill Moran and his wife, Susie. Bill was the Akkadian (or Assyrianologist or Babylonianist or however you take it) head honcho at Harvard. He was a very distinguished, marvelous man, and he had written wonderfully about the Gilgamesh epic, and I had heard of it. So he gave me his word-for-word translation of the opening passage of Gilgamesh, and then of the passage in Tablet six, in which Ishtar hits on Gilgamesh because he’s so beautiful, and she’s the queen of War and other things that she’s queen of—I mean “goddess of”—in the poem. And he turns her down and gives a marvelous comic account (and list) of her divine and animal and human lovers in the past and what had happened to them. Bill got me to make verses out of his word-for-word translation—he obeyed every hole or gap in the text (you know, tablets are damaged by time and circumstance). Well then, of course, I got turned on by it, and he steered me to the then best available word-for-word, scholarly translations of the poem. It’s just the greatest story there ever was. And I just fell head over heels for it. I listened to conjectural transliterations of what the poem may have sounded like. And it sounded like some wonderful, wild free verse, alliterative beyond any possibility of recapturing in English. I tried working on it with unrhymed iambic pentameter, which I was beginning to realize was my home anyway. It took me a while, working at that length, using long passages of blank verse, to come up with the shape of the unrhymed couplets. And then I double-spaced the couplets, and that oxygenated the lines. I could see into them better.

INTERVIEWER

What is it about unrhymed iambic pentameter that makes it “home” for you, and so powerful for readers of English poetry?

FERRY

As a translator, it turned out that for the Aeneid, the Georgics, and the Eclogues of Virgil, and for many of the poems of Horace, unrhymed iambic pentameter was viable because I couldn’t imitate the dactylic hexameter of Virgil, or the Sapphic or Alcaic meters of Horace, because iambic hexameter in English is hard to handle at length. It tends to break in half for one thing, because it has an even number of feet, and for another thing its length makes it vulnerable to turning into a prose line. Yet unrhymed iambic pentameter is somewhat like dactylic hexameter and other classical Latin meters in that so much can happen within the line in terms of variations and so on—and yet it can be regularly controlled and is of a plausible length, line for line, and so I worked with it. It’s also true that iambic pentameter has such history inside it, there are so many ways to find—without looking for them—that you’re getting in your line what might be called allusions to the ways emotions get expressed or situations get described in previous literature. Your ear is able to borrow, inherit, or something, absorb, I don’t know what the words are that make it honest, but your ear can find some of the anger and the pity and the grandeur of the whole range of things that are possible.

This all fits with my experience with my own poems. For me, measuring a line—against the ones that preceded it, against the ones that are to follow it—is a way of finding out. So is our speech. In a way, any next sentence we say is characteristic of each of us, of the ways we talk. It has its own rhythm.  When meter is a heuristic, enabling thing, it’s like that. It establishes a usable identity. The aim of writing a poem is to take the materials of ordinary speech and to develop them as speech to the point of articulation as a pleasurable form. To write a poem is to develop speech to a point where it gives some pleasure to us, the pleasure of its working out of its own problems, descriptively, or emotionally, or both. And since life is difficult, there are problems we start talking about that turn out to have difficulties, and there is pleasure in the sense that we take pleasure in each other in our conversations and in our figuring out what to say to one another. Poems are the development of that—entertainment.

INTERVIEWER

Attending to pleasure in lines in this way sends a poet back toward the past, but always as a self in the present. Isn’t what you’re saying very different than the cliché of “finding your own voice”?

FERRY

Poets as teachers have to be suspicious of the idea that there is your own voice that gets invented by the poet. That’s not entirely the whole story. Our inventions turn out to be characteristic in some way. The experience of writing a poem is an attending to the lines as they find out where they’re going and define themselves more and more. And that means studying your words in relation to the words very like them that you have inherited. It follows from this that iambic lines in particular have to be attended to. I keep hearing metrical similarities between iambic lines and ordinary speech. It’s very, very hard to track in a given prose sentence a moment when there are more than two un-stressed syllables that are not followed by a stressed syllable.  These syllables come from your culture, your past, your history, and the very nature of the act of speaking. it just seems to me the nature of the things. By no means am I a neo-formalist zealot about metrical things and so on. Yes, there’s somebody, a you, there to begin with, and there’s some sense in which you find your own voice—I don’t talk exactly like you, and you don’t talk exactly like me. But to find a poetic voice is to find someway to speak that becomes common property, that is sort of sharable.

INTERVIEWER

How is your recent experience of translating Latin epic different from your other translations? Is it still a matter of being alive to the lines at every moment?

FERRY

For one thing, I haven’t ever read the whole of the Aeneid, so I’m finding out what it is, line by line. I’m deliberately proceeding in this way; I’m too lazy to have done that before. So I’m finding out larger structures because the poem is teaching me how to remember how one situation in a poem was talked about beforehand. For instance, in those marvelous lines when Aeneas, who, in Book One, had sailed away from Troy as the surviving remnant, comes to a place where Andromache is, and she’s married now to Helenus, one of those sons of Priam, who’s become a prophet, a seer. And Aeneas sees Andromache has built a sort of make-believe grave for Hector, whose body, to say the least, is not there. And she is calling up on his shade unavailingly. What’s the Latin there? She says “Verane te facies” and then she says—the speech is so immediate, with that –ne suffix, “Vivisne”—‘Are you living? Are you alive or not?’ And then she says, ‘Are you come back from the dead to give me a message?’ And then she say, ‘Hector, ubi est?’ ‘Where is Hector?’ As if Aeneas has come back from the Underworld so he must know where, down there, where Hector is, or know where is it he’s been lost, or gone to.

INTERVIEWER

Your translation, ‘Where is it that he is?’ gets at it beautifully.

FERRY

But Virgil’s better with that one phrase, ‘Hector ubi est?’ And the way I hear it, that “r” sound is always more like a vowel sound. It sort of collapses in the middle, there ‘Hector ubi est?’ And in it I hear anguish. Andromache is speaking in a language that you have to make to sound contemporary. ‘Where is Hector?’ and ‘Are you alive?’, ‘Can you be real?’  Boy! And Virgil is making you remember the last time she saw Hector. And he is making you remember the time when he saw Hector—which will come later in the poem, but was earlier in his life—when he saw Hector come back as a horribly mangled ghost. And with the Aeneid there is all that other vocabulary of war and carnage, and so on. Such transactions are going on all the time.

INTERVIEWER

In a lot of your poems, the speaker is somebody who doesn’t know, or can’t hear, or can’t quite understand, or is not sure, or is in doubt, or is pretty sure they’re wrong, or is certain that they’re wrong, or is walking through a hallway blind, feeling their way. I wonder, how has this played a part in your vocation, this sense of our not knowing?

FERRY

I don’t want to come across as an asshole, but we don’t know what’s up, lifelong. And this is built into the enterprise of writing of poems, especially short poems. For anybody, always, they are exercises in trying to find something out, and necessarily we don’t know where we are headed. I think this is also probably built into things like my cultural biography, being skeptical in religious terms, being a fuzzy-minded liberal instead of being an ideologue, and it could be built into my family history, built into the nature of experiences like the experience of my wife’s illness and death, and things that are inexplicable. It’s not that my subject is bewilderment, but that life as I experience it is full of bewildering circumstance and so is everybody else’s.

INTERVIEWER

In the poem “Ancestral Lines” being sort of right, being on the right track, is enough—and sometimes it’s glorious. Does that hold only for poets?

FERRY

Everybody is motivated by trying to understand what they’re saying, and to get other people to understand what they’re saying. That’s just speech. A writer is different and even more urgently motivated to try and bring that to some form that can feel like it’s completed—that is pleasurable to a degree of articulation.  Poems are only special cases of what’s always true.

But let me read the poem:

It’s as when following the others’ lines,
Which are the tracks of somebody gone before,
Leaving me mischievous clues, telling me who

They were and who it was they weren’t,
And who it is I am because of them,
Or, just for the moment, reading them, I am,

Although the next moment I’m back in myself, and lost.
My father at the piano saying to me,
“Listen to this, he called the piece “Warum”?”

And the nearest my father could come to saying what
He made of that was lamely to say he didn’t,
Schumann didn’t, my father didn’t, know why.

“What’s in a dog’s heart”? I once asked in a poem,
And Christopher Ricks when he read it said, “Search me.”
Of course he wasn’t just being funny, but right.

You can’t tell anything much about who you are
By exercising on the Romantic bars.
What are the wild waves saying? I don’t know.

And Shelley didn’t know, and knew he didn’t.
In his great poem, “Ode to the West Wind,” he
Said that the leaves of his pages were blowing away,

Dead leaves, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing.

When I talk about poems of my own that I have brought my parents into or something, I’m bound to say I don’t understand them. And it’s perfectly true.  My father, whom I loved, and who was very courteous to me, he wasn’t very expressive about these things. It always stuck with me, that he was really struck by that mysterious piece by Schumann, “Warum”—“Why”—and it’s true that he said that sentence to me. Things are incalculable.  What kind of talk was going on between my father and me, and what was it that was going on in my life that I was also hiding from my father, like any child does, and any grown up does, all those things are in the poem, I hope sort of comically, but also that line of Shelley’s at the end—I found a way to write that line!

INTERVIEWER

Gilgamesh’s quest is for certain knowledge, which he finds impossible to obtain to obtain. You took the epigraph for Strangers from the diary of Samuel Ward in 1595, “Think thou, how that this is not our home in the world, in which we are strangers, one not knowing the other’s speech or language.” It’s not a modern predicament, per se.

FERRY 

No, it’s not. Anne found that epigraph. And the last poem in Strangers—“Rereading Old Writing”—she supplied the last line of it, “Something not to be understood.” She had my number.  Anne knew what poems were.

INTERVIEWER

The middle passage of your elegy for Bill Moran is crowded with radiant elements from over five thousand years of human culture. Yet in a summary one might say the passage is pure autobiography.  How does this work?

FERRY

I’ll just read that passage:

Bill Moran at breakfast time, in the kitchen,
Bent double in his wheel chair, his chin almost

Touching the kitchen table, and his eyes
Intently studying a piece of toast,

A just discovered, as yet unreadable
Mesopotamian language, not related

To Akkadian or Sumerian, much older
Even than what he knew about already—

The great old man with his ferocity
Of tenderness and joy, his eyes intently

Studying the text. He sent me once
A passage copied from Nietzsche’s book Daybreak:

“It is a connoisseurship of the word;
Philology is that venerable art

That asks one thing above all other things:
Read slowly, slowly. It is a goldsmith’s art,

Looking before and after, cautiously;
Considering; reconsidering;

Studying with delicate eyes and fingers.
It does not easily get anything done.”

Bill looking for heaven on the tabletop.

One thing I like about this passage is that toast ends up being text, and the Mesopotamian language began in part as a tool with which merchants made records of selling stuff, selling bread and so on. The poem drives at the importance of my friendship, and Anne’s friendship, with Bill and his wife, and what it meant to me that he introduced me to Gilgamesh and the greatness of that poem, and how he wrote greatly about it himself. Bill had that passage from Nietzsche copied out. It describes reading, and I think it describes writing, too: “Read slowly, slowly. It is a goldsmith’s art.” It’s just breathtaking, when looking before and after becomes looking at a text, before and after. As a poet looks at what he’s writing and tries to work out, before, before and after, and it becomes the beginning of the world, and the end of the world, it begins to be…huge. And it’s comical, too. “It does not easily get anything done.” Bill had been a Jesuit priest, and he continued to be a believing Christian, in a very simple way. The sorts of things that are in this poem are important for me.  Bill looking for Heaven on a tabletop, the toast, the text, the solution. He was very far along at this point in his Parkinson’s disease. One of the relevant things is the way the poem is about writing, it’s about poetry, and working on writing. And writing is reading.

INTERVIEWER 

I can hear the silences in that kitchen. Wordsworth wrote about how the end of a line or a stanza, the determination of a musical unit, brings silence—and the silences in our work don’t mean anything, unless we make some of them mean something.

FERRY

Wordsworth says that at the end of the line, there’s always some kind of pause, that it’s heard—and that’s that. The way I always talk about this in teaching is that the decisions about the line ending are so crucially important for several reasons. (1) They define that the obligations of the meter have been successfully responded to. (2) By your experience of the end of the line, some kind of light is shone back on the internal structure of the line that it’s the completion of, and it’s shone forward into the different uses of the same meter in the next line.

INTERVIEWER 

We read each other, we read words on a page, and there’s always an inscrutable quality to our reading, which maybe brings us as close as we can be while at the same time keeping us apart. Moran’s relationship to his toast is our relationship to language, to the inscrutable. So what should one spend one’s time reading, if one wants to be a poet?

FERRY

I don’t know. Every book that you fall for.

INTERVIEWER

But when you’ve been in charge of creative writing courses, what sort of reading have you assigned?

FERRY

I didn’t teach creative writing courses at Wellesley. I did a couple of times, but I was mainly interested in getting people to read poetry and to read about writing poetry. I’m kind of alarmed that the demand for undergraduate creative writing courses is very high compared to the demand for courses where you’re actually reading other things. So when I’ve taught it, I’ve put a big emphasis on reading other poems, on reading great poems. As long as you’re also talking with the students, taking them outside of the classroom as much as you can, to talk about their writing.

INTERVIEWER

You called it ambitious, but there is a kind of doggedness in your focused  determination to finish things. You do all the Epistles, you do all the Odes, you do all the Georgics, you’re going to finish the Aeneid.

FERRY 

Well the poems are there to be translated. And I guess that in one sense it’s easier than writing one’s own poem in that the data are more nearly completely given in the poem that you’re translating. Or the picture that you’re looking at is given in a more complete way, in a sense, such that with some of that data you can make some kind of approximate, imitative shape of it. In that sense translation is easier. I know that. But maybe because it’s more fully there already, there’s a great deal to more to try to understand? I knew that in my versions of the Horace Odes, where there was a lot of stuff I was encountering that I was going to come to understand only later, and in part, the original was there to help me do that. And it was also there to tell me how defeated I am because of the difference. That’s just always going on at the same time. But I think that in writing your own poem or in writing a translation, the transactions are with yourself and your own past, as a reader, among other things, and they are also with the situations in your life, and so on, and that’s why a translation of a classical poem or a Romantic poem can never be contemporary and why it is always contemporary, too.

 

George Kalogeris’s most recent book of poems is Guide to Greece, (Louisiana State University, 2018). He is also the author of a book of paired poems in translation, Dialogos (Antilever, 2012), and of a book of poems based on the notebooks of Albert Camus, Camus: Carnets (Pressed Wafer, 2006). His poems and translations have been anthologized in Joining Music with Reason, chosen by Christopher Ricks (Waywiser, 2010).

Daniel Bosch was the very first winner of the Boston Review Poetry Prize. He is Lecturer in English at Emory University. His Octaves is legible at beardofbees.com

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