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Poet David Ferry on Writing Verse, Reading Poems, Winning Awards at 88

March 4, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Jeffrey Brown profiles David Ferry, a poet concerned with making connections to classical literature. Ferry was recently honored with the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize as well as the National Book Award for poetry. At age 88, he is currently tackling a translation of Virgil's "Aeneid."
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: a poet still exploring his own deep connections to the past.

Jeffrey Brown has our story.

DAVID FERRY, Poet: In February, “It will be my snowman’s anniversary, with cake for him and soup for me.”

JEFFREY BROWN: The weekly poetry reading for 88-year-old David Ferry with his daughter and two grandsons, who live next door to his home in Brookline, Mass., today’s entry, Maurice Sendak’s “Chicken Soup With Rice.”

WOMAN: “Blowing once, blowing twice, blowing chicken soup with rice.”

JEFFREY BROWN: More often, Ferry is found here at his desk, filling in more lines and verses in a lifetime of writing. And, late in life, the honors keep coming. Recently, he was given the Ruth Lilly Lifetime Achievement Award. And his newest collection, titled “Bewilderment,” won the National Book Award for Poetry.

What does it turn you are bewildered by?

DAVID FERRY: Everything.

Everything.

But — every poem, as I — just as everything we say to one another, is an attempt to try to get something clear to the other person or to ourselves and so on. And that’s always a partial success and a partial failure. And the title acknowledges that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ferry grew up in New Jersey the son of a businessman, and spent most of his adult life teaching English at Wellesley College, chairing the department, raising a family, busy with all that entails.

And he has a simple answer for what some have seen as a hugely productive flowering late in life.

DAVID FERRY: One answer is retirement.

JEFFREY BROWN: Your retirement gave you more time?

DAVID FERRY: It gave me more time. It doesn’t feel like, you know, suddenly I have got a lot of energy I didn’t have in a sense. I don’t know whether I had it or not, just because I was doing other things.

JEFFREY BROWN: In addition to his own volumes of poetry, Ferry is renowned as a translator. He’s done acclaimed English versions of the Babylonian epic “Gilgamesh” and of Latin texts by Horace and Virgil.

And lines from works of the past will, in turn, show up in and become part of his own verse. In the “Bewilderment” collection, for example, a translation of a poem by Virgil is followed by a similarly themed poem by Ferry himself. This is a man clearly obsessed with connections and links.

I saw a review where someone referred to you with great admiration as a special kind of thief. So that’s all artists, you know, use, right?

DAVID FERRY: Yes. And I do, do that. One reason for doing that is what it says in my own poem, its usefulness for that poem. It also, I think, does mean that there’s a kind of motive to connect what you’re saying to the past of writing, that you want your own poem to be part of that kind of enterprise.

JEFFREY BROWN: There is a poem of yours called “Ancestral Lines” which goes to this question of connections to the past, right?

DAVID FERRY: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Can you read the beginning for us?

DAVID FERRY: It says: “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.”

JEFFREY BROWN: You have these lines of others telling me who they were, who they weren’t, and who I am.

DAVID FERRY: Yes. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s the kind of connective tissue you see.

DAVID FERRY: Yes.

When you read something, and especially when you’re reading compellingly great, that becomes part of your identity, at least while you’re reading it. You become changed by reading it. And then you’re finished with it. Then you’re lost again. Then you’re back to just who you are.

JEFFREY BROWN: After the death of his wife seven years ago, Ferry moved to be nearer his daughter and grandsons.

And in his new neighborhood, he now finds himself the unofficial poet laureate of Matt Murphy’s, a local Irish pub that has immortalized him with a photo on the wall and a passage from one of his poems painted around the bar.

He’s also working his way through a new translation of one of the famous poems in world literature, Virgil’s epic “The Aeneid,” hoping to finish in another two years.

The recognition is pleasing, he told me, though he had his own humorous take on the National Book Award victory.

DAVID FERRY: When I told I was a finalist, I told my daughter, and she said — she said, what do you think your chances are?

And I said, “One in five,” because there were five finalists. And I said, but my hope is maybe they’d give it — give it to me as a preposterous pre-posthumous award.

JEFFREY BROWN: Preposterous pre-posthumous award?

DAVID FERRY: Right, right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, David Ferry, I’m glad they gave you the award. Congratulations.

Nice to talk to you.

DAVID FERRY: Thank you. Very nice to talk to you.

GWEN IFILL: You can watch David Ferry reading his poem “Soul” on Art Beat.