David Ferry: Poet of Vagueness, Poet of Exactitude

“The poet of vagueness can only be the poet of exactitude, who is able to grasp the subtlest sensations with eyes and ears and quick, unerring hands.” —Italo Calvino

To read David Ferry’s poetry is to enter a maze of uncertainty: unreadable scenes, texts, photos, and faces; vague pronouns; second—or third or fourth—guesses; acknowledged gaps in memory; multiple versions of events; conditional phrases (often initiated by an “as if,” a tic picked up from Stevens); statements hedged with “maybe” or “somehow” or “perhaps.” This perplexing prosody, along with the titles of his collections—Strangers; Of No Country I Know; and, most recently, Bewilderment—suggests that this is poetry bent on demonstrating, again and again, the illegibility of everything and everyone—even of ourselves to ourselves:


It is always among sleepers we walk.
We walk in their dreams. None of us
Knows what he is as he walks
In the dream of another. Tell me my name
Your tongue is blurred, honeyed with error,
Your sleep’s truth murmurs its secret.

Tell me your name. Out at the edge,
Out in the cold, out in the cold
That came into the house in your clothes
The wind’s hands hold onto nothing,
Moaning, over the edge of the cliff
The wind babble unintelligible.

So it may seem odd to characterize such “blurred”—one of Ferry’s favorite words—poetry as having “a classical impulse toward clarity and restraint,” as Christian Wiman describes it in Poetry.

Yet I don’t think Wiman is incorrect. Ferry is clear and precise—with respect to vagueness. In other words, this is not hyperrealism, where things are rendered with more precision than any eye/mind is capable of. Call it a “clear vagueness,” a phrase I’m lifting from physicist Haim Harari.

Consider this example—a description of someone listening to the noise of the day—with its hazy “someone,” “something” and “somewhere” (x2):

Someone hammering something somewhere outside;
The sound of the plumbing faithfully dying away
Somewhere in the building; the ocean noises of cars
From blocks beyond, like the quiet breathing of waves…
—from “The Waiting”

Or this one, where he describes listening to a Mozart Rondo and the conflicting memories and emotions it provokes:

At least four different melodies, or fragments
Of melodies, together and apart,
Resolving themselves, or unresolving themselves,
With enigmatic sweetness, or melancholy;
Or distant memories of victories,
Personal, royal, or mythic over demons
Or sophisticated talking about ideas;
Or moments of social or sexual concord; or
Of parting though with mutual regret;
Or differences and likenesses of natures;
It was what you said last night, whoever you are,
That told me what your nature is, and didn’t;
It was the way that you said the things you said;
Grammar and syntax, agents of our fate… .
—from “Measure 100”

All those “or"s! As the poem continues, he begins to sort out these complicated feelings. When clarity begins to emerge, he worries:

The clarity and poise of the arrangement,

The confidence in the very writing of it
Fosters the erroneous impression that

There’s all the truth there is, in the little nexus,
Encapsulated here in narratives

Diminutive in form, perfectly told,
As far as they are willing to be told… .

This digression is a defense of Ferry’s poetics: the clarity some crave in poetry only “fosters the erroneous impression that / There’s all the truth there is.” Ferry, however, offers a different kind of “truth,” one that does not pretend things are any clearer than they actually are; that respects vagueness, shadows, and silence:

The rose reserves the sweetness that it yields,
Petal on petal, telling its own silence,

Her beauty saying from its thorny stalk
That what it is is kept as it is given.
—from "The Crippled Girl, The Rose”

Read more David Ferry at the Poetry Foundation website.

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