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Amherst Poets II: James Merrill '47 and David Ferry '46
Dan Chiasson ’93
Dan Chiasson ’93 is proceeding at a Merrillian pace: three books of poems and a critical study of post-World War II American poetry before age 40. He has edited poetry for The Paris Review; he teaches regularly – not as a “visiting writer” – at Wellesley; and he is emerging as one of the small handful of leading poet-critics in the country, appearing regularly as a reviewer in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. His criticism is unfailingly alert to the nuances of voice and tone; at the same time he has read so broadly in the poetry of the past that his judgments are to be trusted. His poems are at times challenging, in the mode of much recent verse, and the challenge is to be embraced, since a reader is always in the presence of notable wit, a high intelligence, and an evident address to the feelings. Jennifer Acker ’00 has a fine short essay on his work on the college website.
Dan Chiasson will read his poems as well as those of James Merrill in the Friday afternoon session.
David Ferry is “for many of us the truest American poet-translator of our time, as creative as ever in his mid-eighties,” to quote the British literary critic Christopher Ricks, whose opinion is to be listened to. Characteristically, David Ferry himself would deflect such praise, no doubt nominating Richard Wilbur for the honor. But there is no need to argue the matter, these alumni of the college being at the top of everyone’s list. Ricks’s remark, from The New York Review of Books (June 9, 20011), is apropos Ferry’s version of the Anglo-Saxon poem known as “Genesis A”; Ferry’s more extensive work in translation renders Horace and Virgil and the Epic of Gilgamesh into contemporary English. Ricks adds that the translator tells the story of the sacrifice of Isaac “with simplicity and mystery.” Those concise words describe most of Ferry’s poems, whether translations or original compositions. In a review of our Amherst Today text, Ferry’s 1999 Of No Country I Know: New and Selected Poems and Translations, Carmeal Ciruaru calls the poems “contemplative, humble, and keenly perceptive. Above all they are questioning,” adding that “his speakers are not at home in life; they are always on the outside looking in – to their own minds, their bodies, the places they call home.” Ferry’s new book, Bewilderment: New Poems, and Translations, will appear next year. It contains poems of love and loss that are among the most affecting creations of our time – love and loss and the deep, always complicated apprehensions of what may lie beyond love and loss.
David Ferry’s work is the subject of the Friday morning session of “Amherst Poets II.” That afternoon he will read from our text as well as Bewilderment, and from the poems of James Merrill.
James Merrill won all the prizes there are to win in his prolific career as a poet. His too-early death 16 years ago, at 69, ended a writing life in which he published a fresh book of poems – there are 11 in all, dubiously counting The Changing Light at Sandover as one book – almost before his wide audience had been able to come to terms with the last. From his precocious beginning Merrill’s poems were exceptionally accomplished: the editors of our collection summarize that accomplishment well when they write that the poems “are intelligent but not cerebral, allusive but rarely obscure. Their tone is darting and silvery, with long periodic sentences brought up sharply by fragments, and their diction a vivid blend of the eloquent and the colloquial . . . the depths of his poems may be found in their surfaces, where wit and wordplay carom.” They conclude by quoting Merrill: “I can’t imagine my life without poetry. It created me.” Given that he produced significant prose – criticism, a pair of novels, a memoir, and two plays – perhaps he might have said that language itself created him (as in a real sense it creates us all, as some of Merrill’s Amherst teachers were known to claim). It is a credit to those instructors that Merrill and Ferry, contemporaries at the college, are such different writers. Another product of those teachers and their successors, Dan Chiasson, writing in The New York Review of Books (June 9, 2011), rightly notes that Merrill’s “formal poems were gossipy, full of mental pivots and leaps, and deviously self-aware.” The poems repay the most attentive reading.
James Merrill’s work is the subject of the Thursday afternoon session of “Amherst Poets II.” Some of his poems will be read in the Friday afternoon session by Dan Chiasson, David Ferry, David Sofield, and Richard Wilbur.
David Sofield, Samuel Williston Professor of English, joined the Amherst English Department in 1965, the last year of the compulsory “New Curriculum.” He has taught the successor courses to English 1-2 and English 21-22 ever since. Trained at Stanford in early modern literature, he taught an Amherst course in 17th-century English poetry for 20 years, and he has taught courses on Shakespeare subsequently. In the last two decades he has also taught, in addition to the introductory “Reading Poetry,” courses in English and American poetry since 1950. More recently he has been teaching, often with Richard Wilbur, the writing of poetry. In the fall of 2011, he and Richard Wilbur will teach a seminar on Donne, Herbert, Wordsworth, and Frost. His book of poems, Light Disguise, was published in 2003. He co-edited, with Herbert F. Tucker (’71), Under Criticism: Essays for William H. Pritchard (1999), to which he contributed an essay on Richard Wilbur’s poem, “Lying.” An essay on Shakespeare’s Sonnets will be published in The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare’s Poetry, edited by Jonathan Post ’70.
Richard Wilbur is America’s most honored living poet. His latest book, Anterooms, was published at the end of 2010. Wilbur’s career has been in full, uninterrupted flight since his first collection, Ceremony, was published in 1947, just five years after he graduated from Amherst. He has long been recognized as a master of the lyric: in that central genre one may have to go back to Yeats to find his equal. His poems, which in recent decades have owed much to his predecessor as Simpson Lecturer at Amherst, Robert Frost, display the greatest technical mastery, a mastery so subtle, so unobtrusive, that one scarcely notices how skilled the poems are. Wilbur has published two books of criticism, numerous translations of the principal 17th-century French dramatists – he is the preeminent translator of French poetry and drama of the last half-century – and a number of books “for children and others.” Recently he and David Sofield have together been teaching, at Amherst, courses in the reading and writing of poetry. Wilbur was for decades a close friend, and Key West neighbor, of James Merrill, and he and David Ferry have been friends even longer, since they were at Harvard in the late 1940s. He is pleased to have an opportunity, thanks to “Amherst Today,” to address the poems of James Merrill and David Ferry.