If you want to learn how to write supple and expressive blank verse in a style that’s exquisitely attuned to contemporary life in all its bewildering complications, you should read David Ferry. No living poet plays the metrical instrument as skillfully as Ferry does, or writes more interesting sentences, or draws those sentences more imaginatively through and across the lines. What makes his sentences so remarkable is the way they embody or enact in their grammatical unfolding the psychological and emotional dynamics they describe. That is, his sentences are like mini-narratives whose parts are as significantly related to one another as the parts of sonnet or a story are. They arouse grammatical expectations that promise certain directions and outcomes which are then either realized or disappointed in wholly unexpected ways, and from which, in turn, new unexpected tensions spring.
About as useful as a pitch-black hall of mirrors,
or an iWatch in eternity, with Siri saying “Sorry,
I missed that” to no nobody in particular,
all the personal data dormant, moot, mute—
mornings, back when the work was new,
with my coffee and the white page, and the whole day
ahead of me without distraction, I’d play
my go-to pastime imagining the old man I would be
four decades later in the same chair
at the same desk imagining his younger self
imagining his older.
…………………………………O my blind deaf dumb
The canvas billowed and the guy wires swayed.
Up and down the long communal tables
first one and then another guest looked up,
stopped talking, silent for a moment, then
as if on cue, chairs falling back behind them,
everybody ran with wedding programs
held to bent heads through the downpour
through wet fields frantic, pressing keys to find
their cars among the rows of cars all flashing
Hey over here! No over here! No Here!
The canvas flapped and billowed and the poles bent.
You mornings in the white chair, bare legs draped
over chair arm, the other pillowing your back,
robe bunched up, thigh exposed, foot inching up
and down the arching instep of the other,
touching you as maybe you imagine
somebody (who? I wonder) would, or did
(how long ago, just how long has it been?)
in the right place, with the precise finesse
of pressure shifting at the pace you needed
to lift you from yourself the way heat teases
smoke signals from the cup between your hands
too far away faint tangled up to read.
The cell phone rang in the middle of a poetry workshop I was teaching at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. Charlie’s name popped up on the screen. I had heard just days before that his cancer treatment had been discontinued and he’d gone into hospice. I excused myself and went outside to take the call. Though his voice was weak, almost otherworldly with fatigue, Charlie got right down to business as he always did on the phone. He was dying, he said, matter-of-factly, without a trace of self-pity. He was calling to say goodbye. I tried to disguise my shock and sorrow by joking, “But you’re my reader, Charlie, my audient! Who am I going to show my poems to now?” He deadpanned, “Find a younger reader.”