“He’d rather speak impersonally: `I’m always trying—as in poems—to say things that are true for everybody insofar as I can.’”
David Ferry’s bluffness here, a mingling of Johnsonian modesty and Johnsonian authority, is refreshing. Perhaps he’s merely being modest during an interview, though Ferry has never impressed me as a know-it-all channeling the Voice of Mankind – an occupational hazard among poets. In fact, I think he’s being rather old-fashioned, respecting both truth and human commonality. Rather than indulge in identity politics and speak for some favored demographic group, or simply shoot off his mouth, Ferry would probably agree with Johnson in his “Life of Dryden,” who defined poetry as “the art of uniting pleasure with truth.” Human truths are knowable and oblige us to express them. As I’ve noted before, Ferry returns to Johnson with some regularity, having long ago internalized his words. In “That Evening at Dinner” (Of No Country I Know, 1999) he writes:
In one of the books Dr. Johnson told the story:
`In the scale of being, wherever it begins,
Or ends, there are chasms infinitely deep;
Infinite vacuities. . .For surely,
Nothing can so disturb the passions, or
Perplex the intellects of man so much,
As the disruption of this union with
Visible nature, separation from all
That has delighted or engaged him, a change
Not only of the place but of the manner
Of his being, an entrance into a state
Not simply which he knows not, but perhaps
A state he has not faculties to know.'”
Some of the passage is drawn from Johnson’s review of Soame Jenyn’s A Free Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil (1759), and the balance from one of his most acute essays, The Rambler #78 (1750). In the latter Johnson articulates a truth few of us would argue with: “Events, of which we confess the importance, excite little sensibility, unless they affect us more nearly than as sharers in the common interest of mankind; that desire which every man feels of being remembered and lamented, is often mortified when we remark how little concern is caused by the eternal departure even of those who have passed their lives with publick honours, and been distinguished by extraordinary performances. It is not possible to be regarded with tenderness except by a few.”
One of my favorite poems by C.H. Sisson is the ninth section of a sequence titled “Tristia” (Collected Poems, 1998). Sisson’s sensibility is grimmer than Ferry’s, though his dark skepticism is invigorating:
“Speech cannot be betrayed, for speech betrays,
And what we say reveals the men we are.
But, once come to a land where no-one is,
We long for conversation, and a voice
Which answers what we say when we succeed
In saying for a moment that which is.
O careless world, which covers what is there
With what it hopes, or what best cheats and pays,
But speech with others needs another tongue.
For a to speak to b, and b to a,
A stream of commonalty must be found,
Rippling at times, at times in even flow,
And yet it turns to Lethe in the end.”
Sisson doesn’t shy away from saying things that are, in Ferry’s words, “true for everybody.” He’s free with the first-person plural: “We long for conversation.” And he declares a truth-seeker’s imperative, as Johnson would: “A stream of commonalty must be found.” And then oblivion.