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Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations

By David Ferry

Publisher: The University of Chicago Press 

Jean Valentine writes:

David Ferry, in a lifetime of making his ardent poems and translations, has given us a kind of light and energy, and what we hope for most from art: experience.  And often—especially in Ferry's most recent collection, Bewilderment—a sense of companionship.

Richard Wilbur calls David Ferry's major theme human loneliness; and sometimes the reader's own loneliness can be, if not lightened, at least recognized in another. Accompanied so.

Sometimes the author's voice can summon what, like Beckett's, might seem like scorn, but may be agony, otherness.

     I don't know who it is I am sitting next to.
     I can hear some notes tried out about the song
     That they are trying to sing, but I don't know

     What song it is, it's not exactly mine.

In this poem (“The Birds”), and I think all through Bewilderment, you can feel this otherness, and I think you can hear also the heartbreaking voice in Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape: "Let me in."


This poet moves between two worlds, the ancient past and his own present, with a natural warmth, and the familiarity of long study:  he brings the same passionate interest and attachment to Gilgamesh and Horace as he brings to the poems of Arthur Gold and to the guest Ellen at the supper for street people.

All his writing becomes translation, and all his translation simply experience.

His books often move somewhat like novels, following narratives drawn from his earlier work (his earlier life), and from world literature's earlier life, and from friends' lives (his wife Anne, Bill Moran, Arthur Gold). He often seems to follow Robert Lowell's drift, "Why not say what happened?" as he also follows his own life in quotations from Goethe, Virgil, Horace, his own father, Schumann, Edward Hopper, Cavafy. Except for Anne, there is an absence of women, but Bewilderment holds her in its pages by naming or sensing her, as does all his work.


The great scholar and teacher Reuben Brower had been David Ferry's mentor at Amherst, and Anne Ferry was later Brower's colleague at Harvard.  Professor Brower said he wanted written on his tombstone, "He loved tone." Once I sat in on a very small class on the reading of poetry with Professor Brower, and I remember from it that it didn't matter if you loved the same poems he loved or not, you came away loving tone.

Ferry's own work ranges in tone from jokes to conversational description to slang to dream to elegy to agony:  the steadiness is himself, the intelligent watcher of his own lifetime, and of the reach of time from Gilgamesh to the street people and climate change. In Bewilderment he has become free to do whatever he wants.

He is like a guest leaving an ordinary social evening, one who stands by the door first and asks if he can read the remaining couple of people a new poem. He pulls it out of his pocket, where it has been sitting newly all evening, and reads his great poem on anger, ONE TWO THREE FOUR FIVE.


He is like an author who has just read from his Gilgamesh translation in a large hall, and answered many difficult adult questions about it, who is then asked an intelligent question from the back of the hall by a boy of about ten, and answers it as carefully as he would answer Sir Thomas Wyatt, or the guest Ellen, or Goethe, or Elizabeth Bishop.


His great subject I think, too, as Wilbur has said, is the human agony of separation: "What is your name that I can call you by?" Sometimes this is written in elegies for dead friends, sometimes in estrangement from the living: "I don't know who it is I'm sitting next to."

Sometimes it is closest longing:

Where is it that she I loved has gone to, as
This cold sea water's washing over my back?


In Lloyd Schwartz's true words, "...he has become our Horace.  And even better, in the process he has also become more deeply and indispensably himself." Here is a poet who has never stopped his walking & talking with his earthly and his godly teachers through the layers of existence, no matter what. And who has never stopped translating for us what he hears there.

Jean Valentine won the Yale Younger Poets Award for her first book, Dream Barker, in 1965. Her eleventh book of poetry is Break the Glass (Copper Canyon Press, 2010). Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems 1965–2003 was the winner of the 2004 National Book Award for Poetry. The recipient of the 2009 Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets, Valentine has taught at Sarah Lawrence, New York University, and Columbia.


Poetry Finalists That Year:

Poetry Judges That Year: Laura Kasischke, Dana Levin, Maurice Manning, Patrick Rosal, Tracy K. Smith

The Year in Literature: Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Other Information:

  • David Ferry (1924- ) was born in Orange, New Jersey.
  • Ferry taught at Wellesley College for many years and is now the Sophie Chantal Hart Professor Emeritus of English there.
  • Fellow National Book Award-winning poet W.S. Merwin said that Ferry’s work communicates “complexities of feeling with unfailing proportion and grace.”

Suggested Links:

Ferry receives the National Book Award for Poetry

Ferry reads from Bewilderment at the National Book Awards Finalists Reading

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