In the United States, where poetry is a game played by youth, our finest living poets are, to put a fine if tactless point on it, old. Richard Wilbur, in print since before World War II, is ninety-one. Helen Pinkerton, a student of Yvor Winters who first published shortly after the war, is eighty-five. And David Ferry, whose first collection of poems came out in 1960, turned eighty-eight this year. With senior poets of such accomplishment, one thinks not of Yeats and his “monkey gland” surgery and occult claptrap but of Goethe, who as an octogenarian published the second part of Faust.
Ferry, best known as the translator of Horace, Virgil, and the Gilgamesh epic, is the master of poems as casually digressive meditations. Like Wordsworth, the subject of his first book (The Limits of Mortality, 1959), he often starts with a mundane premise and wanders around in it, mingling elements of narrative and essay, usually in a loosely conversational strain of blank verse.
Consider “Street Scene,” one of the best poems in his new collection, Bewilderment, which recently received a National Book Award. Typically for Ferry, it starts with an observer and a scene, an audience and a stage. The speaker looks out his window, watching the inconsequential happenings across the street—a man and a dog. There follows a free-floating fragment: “That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows.” A red truck joins the man and dog, so the solitary line seems to relate to these subsequent lines:
. . . all three of them have
Become, in common, elements of the scene
That I’m observing and so all three of them seem
To understand that they have a common purpose.
On the side of the truck is the suggestive word CHARETTE, French for “cart” and in English the name we give to a surge of collaborative effort on a design project, as the speaker seems to be collaborating with the scene outside his window in an effort to understand it (joined silently by the reader). A blue truck appears—perhaps the red truck with a new color, he thinks. The speaker suspects a master narrative, a plot in these random, unimportant events—“they have a common purpose,” “So giving no information about its purpose,” and this:
Magic. A trick of magic performed by me,
Something that I performed because I saw it.
Or the trick was performed by the unseen hand of the world.
There follows a second solitary fragment: “Whereon the stars in secret influence comment.” The unattached lines are, respectively, the third and fourth in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 15, which begins: “When I consider every thing that grows / Holds in perfection but a little moment.” But as best I can tell, Shakespeare’s and Ferry’s themes share little overlap. Ferry seems to have liked the “huge stage” metaphor and the sonneteer’s pose of philosophical bewilderment, but he leaves the botanical wordplay untouched.
Poets are opportunists, Ferry finding the selected lines useful in a new context. His concern is epistemology, what one person can claim to know with some degree of certainty, and his speaker may be quite mad, a Charles Kinbote of the mundane. He may be a solipsist, a psychotic or a radical idealist (or all of the above). His powers of perception are dangerously God-like:
And what became of Mr. Wrenn and his dog?
Hurled down to the Underworld, twisting and turning,
The two of them falling, the dog’s leash fluttering
In the eerie light down there through which they fall.
That which is no longer perceived is consigned to the Hell of nonexistence. Ferry is forever vigilant when it comes to the self and its bottomless capacity for flattering delusion. His skepticism is not savage but sad, often regretful, longing for something to believe in. His poems are built to live with, object lessons that don’t yield meaning like toothpaste squeezed from a tube. If a theme unifies the new book, it is suggested by the title: the poems here are often spoken by people bewildered to find themselves newly old, displaced from the world and their former selves. The voice in “Soul” asks “What am I doing inside this old man’s body?” “At the Bar” concludes: “My fellow, my self, my fool, / Ignorant of our natures.” One of the collection’s saddest and most successful poems is “Lake Water,” where, again, a speaker observes a scene. This time it is a lake in October on which light shimmers as though from the heat of summer, “a displaced out-of-season effect.” He writes:
The plane of the water is like a page on which
Phrases and even sentences are written,
But because of the breeze, and the turning of the year,
And the sense that this lake water, as it is being
Experienced on a particular day, comes from
Some source somewhere, beneath, within, itself
Or from somewhere else, nearby, a spring, a brook,
Its pure origination somewhere else,
It is like an idea for a poem not yet written
And maybe never to be completed, because
The surface of the page is like lake water,
That takes back what is written on its surface,
And all my language about the lake and its
Emotions or its sweet obliviousness,
Or even its being like an origination,
Is all erased with the changing of the breeze
Or because of the heedless passing of a cloud.
One thinks of Keats’ self-penned epitaph—“Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.” Judging from the lines that follow, the allusion may be intentional. Ferry published “Lake Water” in The New Yorker in July 2007. In February 2006, his wife of forty-eight years, the literary scholar Anne Ferry, had died of cancer. After a stanza break following “. . . passing of a cloud,” the poem concludes:
When, moments after she died, I looked into
Her face, it was as untelling as something natural,
A lake, say, the surface of it unreadable,
Its sources of meaning unfindable anymore.
Her mouth was open as if she had something to say;
But maybe my saying so is a figure of speech.
Again, bewilderment and ineffable sadness, buffered by a stoical acceptance of their inevitability. Ferry has not written a self-help manual in verse, nor is this old age burning and raging at close of day. Ferry’s voice suggests that all the options, all the philosophies and panaceas, have been weighed and found unconvincing. Old men are no wiser, no closer to understanding, than when they were young. There’s no New Age consolation, no glib closure, no easing of bewilderment, no redemption beyond a life well lived and the lifelong effort to articulate it. Ferry writes in “The Intention of Things”: “It’s still, alas, the same old story: to live / Long is to outlive many; and after all, / We don’t even know, then, what it is all about.”
Patrick Kurp is a writer living in Houston, Texas, and the author of the literary blog Anecdotal Evidence.
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