David Ferry’s Beautiful Thefts

by Dan Chiasson

David_FerryPoetry is innately related to theft. The lyre was invented, the Greeks tell us, by Hermes, who then gave the instrument to Apollo as compensation for stealing cattle. One reason people’s aversion to poetry sometimes passes over into strong annoyance, or even resentment, is that poems steal our very language out from under us and return it malformed, misshapen, hardly recognizable. Poetry carries us to odd places, almost like the prank, allegedly popular a few years ago, in which somebody steals your garden gnome and sends you postcards of it from points spanning the globe—the Blarney Stone, the Pont-Neuf.

David Ferry, who, at the age of eighty-eight, has just won the National Book Award for poetry, is a special kind of thief. He carries us to places we can’t possibly visit, from the Mesopotamia of Gilgamesh to Horace and Virgil’s Rome. No American poet has translated better the greatest classical authors; Ferry’s translations of Horace are among the predominant texts in contemporary American poetry, teaching American poets (I’m one of them) the Horatian tones—the modesty, civility, and gossip; the swift, fly-by urbanity—that went missing from much of the best American poetry of the seventies and eighties. How strange to have the American vernacular put back in our mouths by this roundabout method. I can remember reading these lines of Horace—of Ferry’s Horace—with amazement at their simple, unprepossessing ecstasy:

Because the muses favor me and love me,
As far as I’m concerned let the wild winds carry
All sadness and trepidation far away
. (Odes, I.26)

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