David Ferry, poet of inquiry and doubt.Apr 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 31 • By DIANE SCHARPER
David Ferry’s latest poems look at the tantalizing possibility of life after death and the existence of God. But it’s a God that the poet doesn’t know and whose name escapes him. What he does know is that he feels a presence, and poems both hide and connect him to that presence. Or, as the 88-year-old Ferry so plaintively puts it:
The words are like a scrim upon a
page . . .
I can dimly see there’s something or
someone, there. . . .
Tell me your name. How was it that I
What happens when we die? The question not only informs “Scrim,” in which those lines appear, but it also infuses every poem in Bewilderment, which has won the National Book Award. If money brings happiness, Ferry, who received $100,000 for the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and $10,000 for the National Book Award for Poetry, should be overjoyed. But judging from his work, he’s anything but happy: His poems fuse metaphysical language with colloquialisms and exude a kind of freshness—but they tend to be melancholic.
The book’s epigraph, “In Memory of Anne Ferry” (his wife died in 2006), sets the elegiac tone which is repeated throughout with subtle variations:
You lie in our bed as if an orchard were
You are what’s fallen from those fatal
Where will we go when they send us
away from here?
The motif is picked up in several poems. In “Soul,” a contemporary sonnet, he asks:
What am I doing inside this old man’s
I feel like I’m the insides of a lobster . . .
Where is it that she I loved has gone
This cold sea water’s washing over
Most of the poems are difficult. Some are zen-like and consist of only a few words, with large white spaces and no punctuation; others are written in a stream-of-consciousness style. Many comment on the preceding poem, making the collection feel like a play. In addition, a few poems are written as two vertical lines which can be read separately or together, with the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.
Ferry searches through details: moments remembered, things said or left unsaid, a facial expression, a landscape whose features seem to resonate. He connects readers to the past, present, and (possible) future, to ancient Greek and Roman classics, and to the Hebrew Bible. (His rendition of the offering of Isaac is chilling.) Ferry’s territory covers everything from Flanders Field to the inside of the Trojan horse, from sitting with a friend who suffers from Parkinson’s disease to imagining the afterlife.
As he burrows into his subject, he depicts the world through the subject’s eyes. Take “ ‘Somebody in a Bar,’ After Edward Hopper,” in which a “slope-shouldered” patron stares into the mirror behind the bar, with its bare bulb’s black glare, and feels the existential loneliness which seems to pulse through this collection, and through Hopper’s work as well.
Addressing the separation that occurs at death and the survivor’s feelings of bewilderment, these poems try to find words for those who are, as Ferry puts it, “dislanguaged.” The collection also includes a section of poems by Ferry’s deceased friend Arthur Gold, with each of Gold’s poems followed by a poem from Ferry commenting on (and sometimes critiquing) the Gold poem.
Bewilderment also contains Ferry’s translations of poems (all dealing with the loss of a loved one) by Virgil, Cavafy, Catullus, Horace, Rilke, and others, as well as Ferry’s own poems, many of which are written in response to the translations. Ferry’s translations are likewise empowered by events from his own experience, as in his rendition of “Orpheus and Eurydice,” which is fueled by Ferry’s woe at the loss of his wife. The poem, which ends with Orpheus weeping and singing beside the river Strymon, is followed by “Lake Water,” in which Ferry sits beside a lake remembering his wife’s final moments.
From the darkness of her existence, Elizabeth Jennings comes to light.Feb 18, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 22 • By EDWARD SHORT
When John Betjeman was charged with helping find a proper recipient for the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1977, he contacted Philip Larkin and suggested Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001), who had befriended Larkin and Kingsley Amis when they were undergraduates together at Oxford.
T. S. Eliot on the threshold of eminence. Dec 31, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 16 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
'I don’t like reading other people’s private correspondence in print, and I do not want other people to read mine,” wrote T. S. Eliot to his mother in April 1927.
America’s coming-of-age in poetic form.
Dec 10, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 13 • By WYATT PRUNTY
The Open Door begins with Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” and zooms from there, highlighting 100 years of modern poetry, including that of Louise Bogan, Hart Crane, e. e. cummings, H. D., T. S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and William Butler Yeats.
Earthly delights in the shade of Robert Frost.
Nov 26, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 11 • By ANN STAPLETON
Lover he was, unlonely, yet alone—
Esteemed, belittled, nicknamed, and
The genius of the poet laureate of nonsense. Nov 19, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 10 • By SARA LODGE
Just as American children grow up with Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat, British children grow up with Edward Lear’s fantastical but touching poem “The Owl and the Pussycat.”
A brave new bard for the Internet age. May 7, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 32 • By ELI LEHRER
A complete understanding of Michael Robbins’s poetry requires, in roughly equal measures, knowledge of modern academic poetry, its Romantic-era predecessors, seventies and eighties pop music, recent death metal, and au courant literary criticism. Knowing more than a little about hip-hop and Star Wars helps, too. So does having an analytic mind that loves to puzzle over some of the most interesting, engaging, and rigorous poetry being written today. And access to Google.
Feb 27, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 23 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
Barack Obama is a careful politician and a disciplined man. But when he’s on the West Coast, perhaps a little tired because of the jet lag, at a fancy fundraiser with his most glamorous and credulous supporters, he tends to let his guard down. The mask slips.
8:44 AM, Feb 16, 2012 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
Here’s President Obama, at a fundraiser last night in Los Angeles: “[T]he American people, beneath all the pain and hurt and frustration … still want to believe that that change is possible, and there's still that hope there. … Mario Cuomo once said that campaigning is poetry and governance is prose. … [W]e’ve been slogging through ‘prose’ for the last three years, and sometimes that gets people discouraged. Because people, they like the poetry.”
The Keats brothers’ saga.Jan 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 18 • By SARA LODGE
John Keats was to Romantic poetry as James Dean was to cinema: young, gifted, and doomed. His charisma lies in the astonishing energy, humor, and inspiration that he packed into a small physical frame and an appallingly brief time frame: He died of tuberculosis aged barely 25. His eyes were always on the skies. He is the poet of the moon, of new planets and bright stars, of clouds, gold, grey, and dun, of mist, of snow, and Blue!—’Tis the life of heaven.
The remains (in prose) of the great Greek poet.Mar 21, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 26 • By JOHN SIMON
Selected Prose Works
by Constantine Cavafy
translated and annotated by Peter Jeffreys
Michigan, 184 pp., $24.95
Constantine Cavafy is a major figure in modern poetry, repeatedly translated into English. His prose, however, remained uncollected and unpublished in English—until now.
A reader's poem, after Andrew Marvell.9:15 AM, Mar 2, 2011 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
When I was in Cambridge yesterday, a mysterious dark lady approached me in Harvard Yard. She pressed a sheet of paper into my hand, said she was a poet and a WEEKLY STANDARD reader, and asked me to share this effort, apparently based on Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress," with our readers.
I'm happy to do so.
The leader of the free world is singing a rather depressing version of a rousing and familiar tune. 12:49 PM, Feb 24, 2011 • By ANONYMOUS
From the Halls of the West Wing
To the shores of Tripoli;
I shrink from our country's battles
In the air, on land, and sea;
No need to fight for right and freedom
And to keep our honor clean;
I am proud to claim the title
Of White House college dean.
Our flag's unfurled to every breeze
From dawn to setting sun;
We have fought in every clime and place
Where we could take a gun.
In the snow of far-off Northern lands
And in sunny tropic scene;
But I really don't think it is my job,
To say anything that might sound mean.
One writer’s effort to bring the poet of democracy to life.May 3, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 31 • By MARK BAUERLEIN
by C. K. Williams
Princeton, 208 pp., $19.95