In 2013, I corresponded with David Ferry by phone to conduct a wide-ranging interview on his poetry, translations, and literary life. He had just won the National Book Award for Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations and was still at work on Virgil’s Aeneid which he published in 2018.
Today, on the occasion of his 96th birthday, I revisit this correspondence to celebrate and honor David’s generosity as a teacher and friend. This interview, which was originally published in a longer version at Numéro Cinq, marks the beginning of our friendship in poetry. I treasure our conversations, and in particular recall with gratitude a phone call in which David—in his measured, careful, beautiful, mindful way—read one of my poems back to me line by line. The poem, of course, never sounded better, and beyond the shock of hearing my words in the mouth of someone as brilliant as David, in his reading I was able to experience each line for the first time as a singular entity, as a whole in and of itself. His way of reading taught me something; I was learning what to me is one of the most influential teachings I’ve encountered in my relationship to the artform, one that is echoed in the conversation that follows: that a line of poetry has a musical and meaningful integrity of its own, that a poem can be made up of such lines, and that close attention to the line as opposed to the sentences and, ultimately, the finished utterance bore a potential I’d never considered.
Maybe not so earth-shattering as I write it here, but David’s way of talking about poetry refocused my thinking to such a degree that it was as if I were reading and writing poetry for the first time. Now, attributed completely to him, I think of myself as “someone who writes lines”—which is just one of the understated, wise, and remarkable gems to be found in David Ferry’s responses below.
Peter Mishler: What poems first caught your attention when you were growing up?
David Ferry: Whitman most of all, in high school: so big-hearted and sexually waked-up and freeing; and the big rhythmical repetitions of those long lines, with so much room in them for variety and syntactical surprise––there’s lots going on inside the lines. And the nationalism, the sadness in Lilacs Last. Lots of other stuff, of course, just reading around in an anthology we had, the Oxford Book of American Verse. The Shakespeare lines encountered in high school classes––“books in running brooks, sermons in stones”––but I wasn’t in any sense a prodigal reader of poetry, as opposed to other reading.I’m too shy to say how I got “so good” at iambic pentameter, but it is true that I have a lot of experience writing in that meter. But I’m not a meter freak. I don’t have a police badge.
Nor was I a big time reader, by comparison. I was a reasonably smart high school kid, and had no idea of becoming a poet. Or becoming anything. Well, that’s not quite so. If I had to guess, at that time, I’d have guessed that I’d become a teacher of literature. These were the classes I liked best in middle school and high school. But I didn’t get hooked on poetry until I went to Amherst, then got drafted, and returned to Amherst. It was the teaching of Reuben Brower and C.L. Barber that did it to me and for me, vocationally. And, of course, Frost and Stevens.
PM: You mention in another interview that your teaching and writing were shaped by your early reading of specific lines from Frost. Could you elaborate on why the discovery of that writing was so important to you?
DF: I wrote a particular paper about a Frost poem, which now feels to me, in retrospect, like it was a big vocational experience. I actually remember saying to myself, inside my head, “This is what I want to do for good and all––teaching––and teaching about how things like this happen inside the lines of poems.” The poem was “Once by the Pacific,” which begins:
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.
The thing that really came home to me in those iambic pentameter lines was the way that second line was an iambic pentameter line, but “great” was so strong for the so-called weaker syllable in the first foot, and then “looked” was, too; and what was happening in those waves rising up and about to break was happening in the line itself. And then another instance in the poem, a little later:
The shore was lucky in being backed by cliff
In that line, for the first time in the poem, in the third foot, there’s an anapestic variation, and that felt so much like a kind of a panic in the way it is said, as if the voice saying that the line is experiencing this act that’s happening “once by the Pacific.” That way of thinking about lines: what happens in the lines coming as a surprise to the reader, and coming as a surprise, in a way, to the poem, itself––I knew I wanted to talk about this stuff for the rest of my life as a teacher. I wasn’t even thinking about being a poet or I never had that intention, anyway. At the beginning, I hadn’t started to write any poems. And as a teacher, I kept thinking at that time about the grammar of Frost’s great essay “The Figure a Poem Makes.” The grammar of that title in a sense suggests that the figure isn’t something laid down on a poem; the poem makes a figure and the poem is made by what happens––things that are unexpected by the intention at the beginning of the poem and unexpected by the poem itself.
PM: I read somewhere that you had corresponded with Wallace Stevens when you were an undergraduate. I’m really curious to hear about your exchange.
DF: “Corresponded,” no. Stevens, along with Frost, were my two biggest experiences, experiences for my listening ear at Amherst. I wrote my senior thesis about Stevens and I was elated about having done so. I wrote him a letter asking him about Whitman, even though I knew the answer, because I knew his lines about him. He wrote back and said something like, “Walt Whitman was the only writer back then whose writing wasn’t a book.” That is, he was what Stevens called “the latest freed man.” I wish I had the letter, but I lost it. I keep hearing all those lines of his that are entranced and entrancing: “Keep you, keep you, I am gone, O keep you as / My memory, is the mother of us all.”
PM: Do you remember when you first started writing poems?
DF: The first poem I ever wrote was “Embarkation to Cythera,” about Watteau’s great painting. And I can’t remember if before that I’d thought about writing poems or had tried it. Writing that poem was a lot of fun, trying to work out the lines, and I sent the poem off to the Kenyon Review which I’d been reading a lot––everybody was in those days––because the leading critics of the time wrote often for that magazine, and because I was admiring many of the poems of John Crowe Ransom. And he took the poem. So I guess I thought I was starting out as a poet because of that poem. It was also true that at that time I was reading a lot of Pound, and the way he was writing about poems, and I think maybe I was thinking about those things not as a student but as somebody who was getting started writing.
PM: Can you walk me through the process of how you compose a poem?
DF: The process of composing a poem for me comes from writing something in a journal or as lines of poetry, and trying to understand the possibilities of the insides of the lines of that poem. There’s a poem in Of No Country I Know, called “Of Rhyme.” That poem tells more of what I think about how a poem gets produced: “… the way each step of the way brings in / To play with one another in the game / Considerations hitherto unknown, / New differences discovering the same…” I don’t mean that I necessarily rhyme––I do in that poem––but starting and finding out how the form is being developed and learning from your attempts to write further inside the poems and seeing them become something with a shape and an identity.
I don’t start from a concept or a proposed subject, though of course, because of things I’ve been concerned with in my mind or my situation, the poem as it develops does usually show that it has––the language of the poem has––a subject or a conceptual concern, and it’s likely to have relationships with other poems I’ve been working on, the translations I’ve been working, say, or things that have been happening to me.
PM: AR Ammons has those great lines “I look for the forms / things want to come as.”
DF: That’s a wonderful pair of lines, and I love the language of it: “to come as”––the unwilled nature of it, leaving it up to the poem as it finds its way to having a form. Ammons wrote mainly in a free verse, I guess, and, at least in recent years, and maybe always, I write mainly in iambic pentameter, so I wasn’t leaving the form up to what he calls in that poem “black wells of possibility.” I don’t know whether Ammons would automatically exclude metrical poems, which might seem to him to impose on the poem forms the poem didn’t want to come as, but I regard metrical schemes as explorative, trying to find out what form, the completed poem, things want to come as.
PM: So you are highly attentive to the line when you are composing a poem.
DF: That, you might say, is all that I’m conscious of. That’s who I am: somebody who writes lines of verse, mainly in familiar iambic metrical schemes. Writing in a fixed meter––iambic pentameter mainly––with a highly conscious sense of the line ending, defines your experience of the line and defines your sense of the degrees of varying pressure on the weak and strong syllables and their relationship to each other. The way that those things happen in relation to the basic iambic pentameter music of the line is something that you observe when you’re writing the line and taking some pleasure in doing it, but it also means that there are times when you want to manipulate that line inside itself to make it sound even better. So that modifies the way I was just talking about how so much that happens in the poem is a surprise to the writer. A surprise? Yes and no. In a way, that’s all the writing verse means, to me: attention to what happens inside the lines and to the line-endings and the consequences of the line-endings.
PM: How did you get so good with this, the iambic pentameter line?
DF: I’m too shy to say how I got “so good” at iambic pentameter, but it is true that I have a lot of experience writing in that meter. But I’m not a meter freak. I don’t have a police badge. I write free verse poems. But for me the meter I use most often is iambic pentameter, a line long enough to make room for many syntactical events, many different pressures of strong and weak. And it’s so natural.I get a lot in the experience of reading poems that I think are wonderful, but I’m not sure that comfort is a word that would describe it.
The fragments my poems begin from are often prospective iambic pentameter lines, because that meter is so natural. We speak mainly in iambs and anapests, occasional trochees. You just said, “How did you get so good with this.” The first two syllables are trochaic (How did), the rest are iambic (you get so good with this). Natural, mainly iambic speech. The same is true in verse, except that the pentameter sets the music going, and governs it, and the regularity of that is part of the pleasure. The iambic pentameter music is playing all the while, and within that regularity we hear all the variations, the subtle differences of pressure and tone, and the activities of grammar, syntax and emotion that make our speech so rich.
PM: I want to know more of the particulars about how you make a poem. Do you write by hand?
DF: I don’t write by hand at all. And almost never did. I write stuff down on the computer or sometimes in a journal. I might have some expression that I’ve written down, and I go back to it and read it and see if something happens. And I think.
PM: There are some significant gaps between the collections that you’ve published. Is there an aesthetic reason for this slowness.
DF: I guess an aesthetic reason is in my poem to William Moran called “Brunswick, Maine, Early Winter, 2000.” I quote a wonderful quote that he sent to me from Nietzsche:
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;
Studying with delicate eyes and fingers.
It does not easily get anything done.
It’s the same thing as if he’d said “write slowly” because writing is a form of reading. Not only is one’s reading going into the writing, but the way you read your experience as you’re trying to write it down, and more particularly as you’re reading your own language in the lines as your developing. That’s a slow business because it takes a lot of considering, reconsidering, altering, re-altering. I don’t know how to make it faster, at all.
PM: How did your career in translation develop?
DF: I have in Dwelling Places, and my two subsequent books, poems that are about marginal people, street people in distressed and distressing conditions or situations, and I found or was directed to some wonderful poems that I translated: Rilke’s “Song of the Drunkard” and his “Song of the Dwarf”; Baudelaire’s “Blind People”; a really marvelous 13th-=century poem I call “When We Were Children.” Such poems and the poems “of my own” that I was writing about such situations, fed each other. In the end I was surprised that such a high percentage of Dwelling Places was half poems and half translations.
But I really felt, and still feel, that these translations are also poems of my own, because of the use I’ve made of them, what they became in my book, and because I wrote the lines in English, my lines became readings of those lines. The activity of writing those lines was not different in kind from writing lines in English, though the foreign texts supplied more data and data arranged more coherently than the undeveloped and often scrappy data of experience with which poems of my own began and which had less assistance in their development.
The new poems in my book, Of No Country I Know: New and Selected Poems, also had a high percentage of translations related to my own poems, often about such situations. And also, around the time of Dwelling Places I began to be a translator (or something like it) in another sense. Bill Moran, whom I mentioned earlier, assigned me his word-for-word translation of several passages from the Gilgamesh epic, to versify. I did this and got hooked and, under his guidance, working from other scholarly word-for-word translations, made a verse poem of the Gilgamesh material. People liked it a lot, and I loved it.
And then I really did want to translate big time and I got into the Odes of Horace under the guidance of Donald Carne-Ross, a great classicist at Boston University. Then I had the ambition to translate all of Horace which I haven’t finished yet. I translated all the Epistles and I am working on the Satires of Horace. I’m not a classicist or Latinist but I’ve been working under the guidance of several mentors at Harvard, especially Wendell Clausen and Richard Thomas and with lots of help from others, including Michael Putnam. The Horace work led to my translating the Eclogues of Virgil and, several years ago, the Georgics of Virgil. Now I’m at work on the Aeneid. Huge, huge experiences, line by line.
PM: What are your thoughts on modernized translations––translations that incorporate a contemporary idiom, etc. into an older poem?
DF: I don’t have many thoughts about this, because I don’t read much in other verse translations. I gather that there are translations which egregiously want to sound up to date. I don’t have such a motive. But you can’t avoid incorporating a contemporary idiom into your translation, because your translation is speaking English, and your English inevitably uses such idioms, without wanting too aggressively to sound “modern.” Of course there are places where, in my opinion, to get the tone right and characterize the feeling right, you have to take emergency action. For example, in my translation of Rilke’s “Song of the Drunkard,” the drunkard, in a bar room scene recounts his experience of drinking and says, “Ich Narr,” “I Fool” or “I’m a fool.”
I can’t hear in “I’m a fool,” the force of the self-disgust which I hear in “Ich Narr,” the very sound of it, but I do hear an equivalent when I translate it as “Asshole!,” and I think of that as a literal translation, true to the tone of self-disgust that the poem demands. But that’s not part of a general motive to “modernize.” It’s always an issue, though. You want your language to be alive, but you don’t want it to cheapen things by being too ambitiously up to date.
PM: Is there an ethics of translation that you believe in?
DF: I think the responsibility of the translator is to convey as much as possible his passionate and close reading of the meanings of the lines that he is translating, and (as much as it is possible for him in his language) to register his understanding of the sense, the tonalities of the original, the tone of voice; and to understand as much as possible about the implications of the particular figures of speech because he is using another language. And in my opinion, it’s not a part of the responsibility to reproduce––in most cases––as exactly as possible the meters of the translations, the demands of the two languages being so different. My translations of the Epistles, the Eclogues, the Georgics, and (what I’ve done so far) the Aeneid are all in iambic pentameter, which is a capacious line––a lot can happen inside of it, as is true of dactylic hexameter, the prevailing cadence in the Latin text.
PM: Right now you are translating the Aeneid. I remember reading the Robert Fitzgerald translation in high school. Is there something new about your translation that you want to point out that I might want to revisit?
DF: I’ve only read a few passages of Fitzgerald, and I see why they’re admirable. What’s new about my translation is that it’s mine, all of it, my reading of the great original, and the lines have never been written quite that way before. This is true of all translations, good bad, and indifferent. True also of all “original” poems which are so often, maybe always, like translations of earlier poems. That’s how we keep alive.
PM: Perhaps you will be able to say more when you are finished with the entire poem?
DF: The question implies that I’d know with some confidence what the poem is “about,” what the encapsulated summary meaning of it is; for example, “a triumphalist celebration of the establishment of Rome.” Certainly there’s that in it. But to say that radically simplifies the poem, thins it out, and so does every other summary reading, behaving like take-home pay. I don’t know what’s “new” in my reading of the poem, which is my translation of it. Maybe what comes up in my translation so far comes up in all the others. I’m sure it does, though I haven’t read them much.
How do bodies hurt when they’re atrociously violated; how do wives die; how vulnerable all cultures are and how it’s their fault and not; how the gods don’t get it and we don’t get it about the gods; how sons die. I think summarizing tends to kill the experience of reading the lines one after another. And what I think the poem is really about is the lines one after another––the experience that he gives to the reader and to the translator. There are many summary things one could say, but I don’t want to say them with any confidence. In my reading of these poems, though, I keep responding to the signs of vulnerability––individual and cultural––the tears of things. But that’s not all.
PM: How do you convey these small discoveries to the reader?
DF: It is the ambition of every little writer to be as good a reader as possible, as a translator reading the great text and reading his own developing experience of writing the lines. All you can do is to try to do as well as you can; and as you’re drafting a translation of it, find things that surprise you about what’s turning up in your own language, and then ask yourself if you are anywhere close to representing some of the effects of the original. And the answer is always, “No, of course not.” Every talk I’ve ever given on translation has been titled “What I Couldn’t Get” or “Getting it Wrong.” What I really like in my translation are also clear instances of what I didn’t get in the translation. But they came in the effort of getting it as right as possible.
PM: I’d love to know more about how your translations converse with your own poems.
DF: The biggest event since my last selected poems Of No Country I Know––the biggest, worst, event for me and my family––was the death of my wife. It is perfectly true that when she became ill, it was at the time I was translating the Georgics of Virgil, and when I came to Virgil’s account of Orpheus and Eurydice, the relation of that poem to some of the ways that I was writing that had to do with that event in my life were very, very direct and were directly referred to in that poem. Virgil’s Orpheus and Eurydice are referenced in the poem “Lake Water,” and quoted at the end of the poem about my father called “Resemblance.”Even when you are writing about something intensely painful, there is terrific pleasure in the act of writing.
And in other ways, there is a very conscious relationship. There is a poem called “That Now Are Wild and Do Not Remember” and its title comes from the Wyatt poem I was talking about earlier. And it talks about that poem as if it were a sexual and romantic bereavement, in a sense. And that poem also uses a passage from Book Six of the Aeneid––about the unburied dead seeking across the river. I don’t want to say that those connections were planned in any sense, but I just sporadically kept a kind of journal; those connections emerged, and it’s no surprise. When I was working on Bewilderment, I was writing poems that related to earlier poems of my own, just because it’s me. I am the same person who was writing those poems, and they relate to these events in my life in this period––and among those events was the death of my wife, but also the fact that my experience is full of translating Horace and Virgil. So it isn’t exactly an intention to use the one kind of material for the other, but the poems find out that they have had that intention.
PM: Were you and your wife artistic collaborators?
DF: She gave me the title for all of my books. She wrote several lines of mine. For example there is a poem of mine in Of No Country I Know called “Rereading Old Writing.” She wrote the line “Something not to be understood.” She was a terrific example for me about how to read poems. We read poems together very intensively––my poems and other people’s poems. Her writing, for example, in her last book, By Design: Intention in Poetry, published by Stanford after her death about the differences between Sydney’s way of rhyming in his sonnets and Shakespeare’s is just astonishing. She teaches everybody how to read, how the writer, or, you could say, the poem itself makes the telling decisions.
She worked in one part of our house in Cambridge on the 3rd floor, and I worked in a big study on the second floor in the back. And I’d bring a poem upstairs, and we would come up with a solution. In that sense it was a working relationship.
PM: Did your wife see any of the poems from Bewilderment?
DF: That book is post-1999, and she died in 2006. I think she knew all of my translations of the Georgics which included the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, and that book was published in 2005. By that time she would not have known the last stages of the work in that book, and she certainly would not know of the use I made of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in the poems about her. I am not sure if she knew any of the passages from the Aeneid that I put in Bewilderment. There are some other poems like “Willoughby Spit” that she certainly knew.
Before she died, we were editing the wonderful collection of her essays, By Design, and she participated in the editing up to a point, so it was partial. But it was certainly a big part of our relationship that we worked together. That was not all there was to it, but it was terrific. She was an amazing teacher.
PM: I’m thinking about the title of this collection. Can you talk more about how mystery, misunderstanding, or the inability to know has played a role in your work?
DF: It turns out in my writing, witnessed in the title of this book, that I keep finding out things about myself that I’m surprised at and that I can’t come to fixed conclusions about––that I live in this state of bewilderment. You do too. I discovered that something like that keeps coming up in my poems. It is not that I start out with some kind of subject matter or some intention to write on a topic. I let them write themselves.
I’ve got a poem of one-liners at the beginning of Bewilderment that I made sure, when it was published, was four words and not three: “Playing with My Self.” It’s what our language does all the time. I think every writer’s most recent book is some variant of that. And I don’t know whether I’m trying to find out more about myself. I don’t know if I’ve gotten anywhere in finding out more about myself. I don’t think I’ve got any further in that regard than when I wrote those lines.
PM: What are the big mysteries for you? What are the things you continue to be baffled or confused by?
DF: I think I’m just like everybody else, including you, I’m sure. I’m sort of baffled a lot. And I don’t have any expectation that there are going to be answers to what I’m baffled about. It’s like that poem in this last book called “Ancestral Lines”: my father says, “‘He called the piece Warum?’” He didn’t know, Schumann didn’t know, my father didn’t know. And I say in that poem “What are the wild waves saying? I don’t know.” But bewilderment isn’t my “subject.” It isn’t a topic; the word just seems appropriate for things that keep coming up in the poems.
PM: Is reading other poets a way of finding comfort?
DF: I read other poems for what I find in them, for the experience of reading them. I get a lot in the experience of reading poems that I think are wonderful, but I’m not sure that comfort is a word that would describe it.
PM: I ask because if we find ourselves baffled or bewildered often, is writing or reading a place where one can seek comfort?
DF: I don’t find that there is a therapeutic value in stuff that I read. And the better the stuff that I read the less that it delivers in a sort of one-on-one way, because it seems so full of conflicting attitudes, so it’s just itself. And in the act of reading when you read, say, Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych––all that pain––it’s such a pleasure, and so painful. Now I am beginning to sound sort of fancy. I don’t mean to sound highfalutin about this stuff. You just get sort of troubled by what the lines are saying, and I guess there is something that is sort of comforting because somebody else said them. But there is also such a pleasure that the lines are taking in themselves. Wordsworth said that the main thing that poetry does is to give pleasure. Some of the poems in Bewilderment are expressions of grief to be sure but there is also the exuberance of the writing that I think everyone experiences who is a writer.
I’m sure you know in your own writing that there’s a sense, even when you are writing about something intensely painful, there is terrific pleasure in the act of writing. I do think it’s therapeutic as long as one doesn’t think it provides easy answers to taking away the pain. A poem about a real life painful situation is therapeutic because it actually intensifies the pain by confronting it directly, but talks about it by, so to speak, singing about it, and therefore the pain is presented to oneself and to others as a kind of pleasure, not happy pleasure, but often a lamenting pleasure, often very dark, but transformed into art.
And then it also somehow makes connections in song, with all the songs that have been sung about bereavement and death in the past. This is true for good and bad poems, but it becomes exaltedly true in the great bereavement songs of the past, in liturgy, in folk music, country music, Bob Dylan, Henry King’s great “Exequy” for his wife. There’s comfort for the writer in that, but it’s the comfort of proving an alternative value. But it doesn’t really substitute for or compensate for the raw experience of somebody’s illness and death.
PM: Was there a poem in Bewilderment where you had that experience of “lamenting pleasure?”
DF: That’s everybody’s experience–people talking about themselves or writing poems about their situations. There is a pleasure in trying to make the feelings articulate that is always there, whether the poems are good or bad. But when you feel in a particular poem that you value the way you did it, as I do in Bewilderment, there’s that experience of pleasure in writing.
When I go back to Frost’s essay “The Figure a Poem Makes,” he talks in many ways about how your own language brings surprises to you. It doesn’t answer any questions that you have, but it is about the experience of getting it said. And it’s the experience of watching what’s happening in the lines as the experience of the sounds and rhythms and the experience of emotions and knowledge that’s gained. Of course, there’s the knowledge that you didn’t know you had, and that the poem line by line is sort of finding out itself.