Crafting Verses Inspired by Greek Island Journeys

Ferry Poetry Crafting Verses Inspired by Greek Island Journeys

A winner of the National Book Award for Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations, Ferry remains an enduring figure in poetry. His provisional songs instruct, console, and distract.

He keeps a hectic schedule, reading for any audience, indoors or out. He eats lunch so often at Matt Murphy’s, an Irish pub in Brookline Village, that the place sees him as a bard-in-residence.

1. “Dwelling Places”

When he received the 2012 National Book Award for his collection Bewilderment, at age 88, Ferry quipped that it was “a preposterous pre-posthumous prize.” His modesty belies his intensity and commitment. He marches to the beat of his own drum, and he refuses to be pigeonholed into the schools, trends, and preoccupations that characterize much of contemporary poetry.

He began his career as a professor, but soon realized that the coursework and research mattered less than the students and colleagues who surrounded him. “You have to be willing to learn from the people around you,” he says, and he found that being a teacher allowed him the freedom to do so.

The same spirit guided his translations of classical poetry. After publishing Gilgamesh, he was approached by Lane Professor of Classics Donald Carne-Ross to translate Horace’s odes; after completing them, he turned his attention to Virgil’s Eclogues and then the Georgics. He brought out their patience and sensuality, countering a received notion among lay readers that the Roman poet was a bombastic epic bard.

2. “Soul”

Unlike many poets, Ferry uses meter—typically colloquial iambic pentameter leavened with anapests—to enhance clarity and access a vast range of feeling. While he admits a fondness for metrical precision and avoids frills, he insists, “I’m not some kind of neoformalist.” His poems have won many awards, including the 2012 National Book Award.

Forging elegant and unsettling conversations between past and present, Ferry poetry often juxtaposes translations with original poems in a gesture of influence and tradition. In “That Now are Wild and Do Not Remember,” the poem translates an image from ancient mythology: “The man has a nose but no mouth, lives on the scent of fruits and flowers blooming / Or the smell of faraway roasting meat.”

A renowned translator of Greek and Latin, Ferry has published several full-length translations, including the Epic of Gilgamesh. His 2012 collection, Bewilderment, won the National Book Award and was a finalist for the Lenore Marshall Prize, Bingham Poetry Prize from Boston Book Review, and Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Poetry Award. Yet he remains relatively unknown to casual readers, in part because he marches to the beat of his own drummer.

3. “Evenings”

In addition to his own verse, Ferry was also a translator, known for his acclaimed versions of the Babylonian epic Gilgamesh and Latin texts by Horace and Virgil. Lines from those works often appear in his own poetry, as they did in the poem “Bewilderment.” The late poet, who died in 2023 at age ninety-nine, was a master of the art of translation, and he is widely credited with introducing younger generations of American and British poets to some of the world’s most profound classical work.

When he won the National Book Award for Bewilderment at age eighty-three, he was still working on his translation of Virgil’s Aeneid. At lunch in a self-consciously Irish pub in Brookline Village, the lines of “Lake Water” are stenciled around Matt Murphy’s walls in a single continuous line, as if to imply that they were scribbled there by Ferry himself. The oblique, elliptical logic of that poem reflects Ferry’s own literary process: he writes as if he were constantly erasing and rediscovering the ineffable, even in his later years.

4. “Island”

The poems in this collection, a 2012 National Book Award winner, address life in all its complexity. Ferry’s poems are provisional songs that instruct, console, and distract. They are also poignantly self-critical, confronting the limits of our faulty equipment to grasp the world around us.

A well-known translator of Greek and Latin works, including the Epic of Gilgamesh and Horace’s Georgics, Ferry frequently juxtaposes translation with original poetry in an acknowledgment of tradition and influence. Elegance, clarity, and an avoidance of frills – all Horatian virtues – are important to his approach, as is a willingness to consult with classicists.

Born in Orange, New Jersey, Ferry served in the Air Force for three years before he went to Amherst and then Harvard for his PhD. He has taught at Wellesley for over fifty years. He is a Sophie Chantal Hart Professor Emeritus and has won several literary awards for his translations and his original work. Jonathan Galassi ’71, who arranged the recording and published this collection with Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG), describes Ferry as “a poet who marches to the beat of his own drum. He does not fit into the schools, trends and preoccupations of contemporary poetry.”

5. “Island”

While Ferry is well known for his exemplary translations of the works of Virgil and Horace, he has also written poems of his own. His collections like Bewilderment often juxtapose translations and original work, forging elegant conversations between past and present.

In his own poems, Ferry often establishes a “plain style” that, in its phrasing, diction, usage and rhythm, is modeled on plausibly ordinary human speech. This style, along with his refusal to indulge in the frills of rhetorical complexity and “upward” diction, is often seen as a response to the excesses of modern poetry.

Born in Orange, New Jersey, in 1924, he served as an Air Force sergeant for three years before earning his BA from Amherst College and his PhD from Harvard. During this time, he met his wife Anne Davidson, who, he said, “caught every metrical error I made.” He has taught at Wellesley for over fifty years and holds the Sophie Chantal Hart Professor Emeritus of English. His translations and poetry are widely praised. He has won a Ruth Lilly Prize and many other awards for his work.