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Lives of a Poet

James Dickey: The Selected Poems

edited with an introduction by Robert Kirschten
Wesleyan University Press/University Press of New England, 183 pp., $15.95 (paper)

In November 1968 James Dickey told readers of the Atlantic Monthly that Theodore Roethke (1908-1963) was “in my opinion the greatest poet this country has yet produced.” He also took the opportunity to rebuke Beatrice Roethke for allegedly setting a limit on Allan Seager’s disclosures in The Glass House, his biography of her husband:

It may be that she has come to regard herself as the sole repository of the “truth” of Roethke, which is understandable as a human—particularly a wifely—attitude, but is not pardonable in one who commissions a biography from a serious writer.

In the December issue of the magazine several prominent poets and critics replied to Dickey’s essay. While they rejected his nomination of Roethke as the greatest American poet, none of them wondered aloud how he had disposed of Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, and Stevens before awarding the prize. Nor did any of them remark that Dickey seemed to be claiming Roethke for himself and fending off rival suitors, even the poet’s widow. That the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress should be handing out the grand rosette to Roethke or any other poet didn’t strike the poets and critics as inappropriate. In the December issue, too, Beatrice Roethke corrected Dickey’s factual errors and said that “with one exception, a matter in which I had no selfish interest, Seager was free to say anything he could substantiate with honest evidence.” There the matter ended, so far as I know.

It was a minor episode, but it marked a new, vulgar phase of Dickey’s career, the years in which, not content to be a mere poet, he turned himself by force of will into a public presence, a mythic figure, laureate of John Wayne’s America.

James Lafayette Dickey was born on February 2, 1923, to Eugene Dickey and Maibelle Swift Dickey in Buckhead, a neighborhood of Atlanta, Georgia. His mother came from an established and well-to-do family. His father was, as the poet’s son Christopher describes him in his memoir, a “dilettante lawyer and devoted gambler who took his son with him to cockfights, or to watch raccoons chained to floating logs fighting off packs of hounds, or to just about anything else where blood and death had money riding on them.”1 James Dickey read indiscriminately—pulp fiction, Southern novels, bits of philosophy—and gave his spare hours to weightlifting and bodybuilding, inspired by Mr. Universe, Charles Atlas. In 1942 he enrolled at Clemson Agricultural College, did pretty well in football there, and enlisted in the Army Air Corps. In February 1943 he started basic training as a pilot, but failed the course and had to settle for the smaller thrill of becoming a radar observer, an “intercept officer.”

After the war, he entered Vanderbilt University and started writing poems and critical essays, some of which were published in Sewanee Review. In 1950 he took a teaching job at Rice Institute in Houston, Texas, until he was called up during the Korean War and assigned to teach radar at bases in Mississippi and Texas. Returned to civilian life, he set about making a career in poetry, reviewing, and teaching, helped along by the novelist Andrew Nelson Lytle and the critic Monroe K. Spears.

Dickey’s early work in criticism, collected in The Suspect in Poetry (1964) and Babel to Byzantium (1968), was remarkably pugnacious. He was willing to praise a few English poets, especially dead ones—Christopher Smart, Blake, Hopkins—and with reservations a few living ones, including Dylan Thomas, W.S. Graham, Philip Larkin, Jon Silkin, and Geoffrey Hill. European poets sent him into hyperboles: Char, Supervielle (“the best poet of the twentieth century,” “my all-time favorite poet in any and all languages”), and Montale, “in my opinion the greatest living poet.” But he dismissed nearly every American poet who might appear to be a competitor. He derided “the overrefined, university-pale subtleties” of the genteel tradition of American poetry, which was content Ginsberg’s Howl as “the conventional maunderings of one type of American adolescent, who has discovered that machine civilization has no interest in his having read Blake.” William Carlos Williams was “a poet of no merit whatsoever.” Charles Olson was “congenitally unable to say one memorable thing.” Dickey deplored the influence of Wallace Stevens, “whose mannered artificiality and poetry-about-writing-poetry-about-poetry have driven large numbers of writers delightedly back into their shimmering, wordy sensibilities and buried them there.” He sympathized with Anne Sexton and other “confessional” poets in their tragic lives, but could not take their poems seriously. He told Donald Hall:

I want a poetry that illuminates my experience. I want a poetry that gives me some of my life, over again; that restores something to me, or creates a need for more life, more feeling; something that gets me closer to the world: that gets me inside the world, in a new way, or in a way older than the world.

Roethke and Robert Penn Warren were the American poets Dickey praised most consistently:

The powerful, almost somnambulistic statements of [Roethke’s] observations and accountings come to us as from the bottom of the “deep well of unconscious cerebration” itself, from a Delphic trance where everything one says is the right, undreamed-of, and known-by-the-gods-all-the-time thing that should be and never is said.

Warren was of the true visionary company, because his poetry was “so deeply and compellingly linked to man’s ageless, age-old drive toward self-discovery, self-determination.” “I think of you as the best of all of us,” Dickey told him.

But Warren was an exception in one respect. He was a visionary in the sense that his poems gave feelings and intimations every privilege over the authority of mere events, but he was also sane. Most of the writers Dickey cared about were post-Romantic figures, men ruined in their lives but recovered in their Orphic, Delphic words—Hart Crane, James Agee, Malcolm Lowry, Roethke. In a note on Smart’s “A Song to David,” Dickey asked:

How shall we deal with the mad in their perfect disguises? From the beginning we have suspected them of magic and have wanted what they have, the revelations. But how may we come by these and still retain our own sanity? What must we do in order to connect safely with the insane at their clairvoyant and dangerous levels?

What we have always wanted from the insane,” he said, is “the life-extending, life-deepening insight, the ultimate symbolic sanity.”

In this respect, Roethke was Dickey’s exemplar: he had manic phases, and then he could not write, but when he was sane, he remained at one with his visions, and spoke with their authority. Before and after the manic episodes, he was the strange, childlike poet whom Kenneth Burke described in “The Vegetal Radicalism of Theo-dore Roethke.” In an early notebook Dickey transcribed sentences from Burke’s essay. Examining Roethke’s The Lost Son and “The Visitant,” Burke said that this poet “goes as far as is humanly possible in quest of a speech wholly devoid of abstractions.” Using Kant’s distinction, in the Critique of Pure Reason, between the three phases of knowledge—intuitions of sensibility, concepts of the understanding, and ideas of reason—Burke asked:

Do not these distinctions of Kant’s indicate the direction which poetry might take, in looking for a notable purification of language? If one could avoid the terms for “ideas,” and could use “concepts” only insofar as they are needed to unify the manifold of “intuitions,” the resultant vocabulary would move toward childlike simplicity.

Roethke’s aesthetic, and Dickey’s to a degree, could then be summed up as a minimum of “ideas,” and a maximum of “intuitions,” “concepts” being admitted as a regrettable necessity. But Dickey was more willing than Roethke to add conceptual notes to his intuitions, as in “Power and Light” he refers to “the red-veined eyeball of a bulb,” and in “False Youth: Two Seasons” he writes of “the tight belt of time.” Roethke would have stopped at “eyeball” and “belt”; he would not have added the conceptual explanations.

In “The Visitant,” to stay with Burke’s instance, Roethke begins with a natural scene, conveyed as fully as possible by intuitions of sensibility:

A cloud moved close. The bulk of the wind shifted.
A tree swayed over water.
A voice said:
Stay. Stay by the slip-ooze. Stay.

Dearest tree, I said, may I rest here?
A ripple made a soft reply.
I waited, alert as a dog.
The leech clinging to a stone waited;
And the crab, the quiet breather.

It is “such a natural scene,” Burke said, “as would require a local deity, a genius loci, to make it complete.” Hence as the poem begins, “the place described is infused with a numen or pneuma, a concentration of spirit just on the verge of apparition.” Dickey’s note reads:

K. Burke: “begins with such a natural scene as would require a genius loci to make it complete.” Idea of a “completing” or “fulfilling” presence. “As would require” here the suggestive phrase. Scene which you set up during which the audience waits for an unknown inevitability to be fulfilled, to complete the scene which requires it. Sense of presence. Might be fruitful. Can be terribly hammed up.

It is a sensitive note, up to a point, indicating that Dickey started out as an artist, however careless he became in that capacity during the later years. The genius loci, the spirit of the place, is implicit in the way its different parts cohere; it has nothing to do with an audience waiting for something to happen. But Dickey saw in Roethke’s poems, and clearly in Burke’s account of them, a direction of energy eminently congenial to his own talent: to endow a landscape, a scene, with the spirit of the place, and to constitute himself as that spirit. Corresponding to the imagery of Roethke’s “vegetal radicalism,” which features roses, orchids, and weeds, Dickey had his own geological and animal images of riv-ers, mountains, forests, deer, snakes, wolves. He becomes the genius loci by being attentive to the peremptory radiance of the natural world.

One of the poems in Helmets (1964), “In the Marble Quarry,” has Dickey descending to a quarry in North Georgia and rising with a block of marble on a pulley:

To feel sadness fall off as though I myself Were rising from stone Held by a thread in midair,
Badly cut, local-looking, and totally uninspired, Not a masterwork Or even worth seeing at all
But the spirit of this place just the same, Felt here as joy.

As joy,” because if Dickey feels himself to be the spirit of the place, nothing more is needed to authenticate the experience. If he wants to round out the experience further, he appeals to astronomy, the largest natural perspective that displaces metaphysics as the grammar of Being.

This explains, I think, why Dickey’s poems take their bearings from the natural world to the extent of regarding the acculturated world as an aberration, however insistent. As a young man he read Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality and was impressed by Whitehead’s emphasis on “presentational immediacy”—“our perception of the contemporary world by means of the senses”—and on the assumption that “actual entities in the contemporary universe are causally independent of each other.” That seemed as close to the beginnings of knowledge as Dickey could come. Until forced by circumstances, he gave little credence to the world in its “later” cultural, domestic, social, political, and moral manifestations—the world in which each thing seems rigid to him and resists being transformed. “The natural world seems infinitely more important to me than the man-made world,” Dickey said. “There’s a part of me that has never heard of a telephone.” His chosen poetic place is the natural scene, mostly Georgia, the back woods, and South Carolina, where some terrain, even yet, is untamed, and therefore susceptible to his mythic desires, processes of transfiguration. In return for such attention, the natural world gives him the conviction that he is flying upon wings other than his own; it seems to take the harm out of dying by assimilating it to larger sequences and continuities.

But Dickey did not long remain content with the decorum of poetry and the genius loci. He got going as a writer after the war and started being noticed in 1954. He published his best poems in Into the Stone and Other Poems (1960), Drowning with Others (1962), Helmets (1964), and Buckdancer’s Choice (1965). When Roethke died on August 1, 1963, Dickey thought that he was now king of the cats and should step forward to claim the privilege. When he took up his appointment as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in September 1966 and moved to Washington, he entered on a period of his life and work that was to be personally and poetically disastrous, though it must have seemed, in a material sense, a triumph. Sounding off on the poetry circuit, money, fast cars, women, drunkenness—“I like it like Patton liked war,” he told Gordon Lish—added up to his becoming a star.

Crux: The Letters of James Dickey tells the wretched story, mainly because the editors decided to make the letters annotate Dickey’s career:

The letters assembled in this volume represent perhaps twenty percent of James Dickey’s located correspondence. The double rationale for selection was first to document the growth of a major writer—how a scarcely educated jock discovered that he possessed genius and that writing was the only thing that counted—then, second, to document the ways he fulfilled his genius and advanced his career. Jim was unabashedly a careerist. He had a clear understanding of the odds against any poet, no matter how gifted, and he recognized that his poetry did not exist if it was not read. He deliberately promoted and exaggerated his several reputations—genius, drinker, woodsman, athlete—until the legends took over after Deliverance.

Most of the letters were written to other writers, and there are memorable details, as in a letter to Robert Fagles:

Poetry makes plenty happen; it can change your life. My whole existence has proceeded from one word in a poem, which I read in an anthology on Okinawa during the last weeks of the second War.

The editors of Crux tell us that the word was “shivered,” in these lines from Trumbull Stickney’s “Live Blindly and Upon the Hour”:

Thou art divine, thou livest,—as of old
Apollo springing naked to the light,
And all his island shivered into flowers.

But what many of the letters reveal is Dickey’s myth-making vanity. The materials include true statements, bombast, improprieties, and lies. I suppose it is true that he hunted deer with bow and arrow and diamondbacks with a blowgun. He canoed the rapids of the Coosawattee River. Did he, at the age of eighteen, marry a woman in Australia, as he claimed, before he married Maxine Syerson? No. In a letter to John Berryman he referred to meeting someone in Waco, Texas, “where I was in the Air Force for the second time, and just back from Korea.” He was never in Korea. Nor was he a fighter pilot, though he allowed Bill Moyers to say on WNET on January 25, 1976, that he was, and he let the Atlantic Monthly call him “a former star athlete, fighter pilot with more than 100 missions on his record in World War II and the Korean conflict.” Did he really attend a lecture by Camus at the Sorbonne—“and he was talking about the Existentialist proposition that we no longer have any supernatural sanctions”? I don’t believe it.

The letters indicate that Dickey’s life from 1967 on belongs to the history of publicity and legend-making. “I am at a stage now,” he told Richard Wilbur on September 16, 1968, “where I can reach a really mass audience.” The only thing he could not do was stay quiet. He was so compulsively accessible that an editor at Esquire thought he would pose nude for the magazine. He had the grace to decline: “Please tell Jill Goldstein that I have decided not to pose nude; that, really, is not for me.” Deliverance appeared on March 23, 1970, and became a best seller, second to Erich Segal’s Love Story. The book was Dickey’s dream of immortality, man and the natural world, two forces nearly equal. His hero Lewis Medlock “could do with his life exactly what he wanted to,” challenging the river, the rocks and falls: “My God, those falls must have been something, back there,” Lewis says to Ed Gentry.

Dickey’s career was now a triumph of visibility. “I am shaking the great man’s throne,” Dickey said of Robert Lowell on November 19, 1970. Filming of Deliverance started in May 1971, and Dickey had a minor part as Sheriff Bullard. Meanwhile he abandoned scruple and delicacy. He was out of control. Sorties, a ragbag of critical pieces, was one of the ten books nominated in the Arts and Letters section of the National Book Award in 1971. In a string of calumnies, Dickey urged Stanley Burnshaw, one of the three judges for the award, not to give it to Edmund Wilson, “the most over-rated literary critic I have ever read”:

His work is one long tissue of self-indulgent clichés and self-aggrandizement. And when I read the Lowells in the New York Review of Books talk about what a “great writer” he is, I feel the sudden cold touch which indicates the prevalence of literary log-rolling in this country. Edmund Wilson is a great writer to the Lowells and to the New York Review of Books simply because he endorses Lowell as a poet.

The award went to Charles Rosen for The Classical Style.

The Selected Poems and The James Dickey Reader serve different purposes. The Reader gives samples of every phase of his work, good and bad. It is niggardly on the early poems, but it includes nine pages of The Zodiac (1976), a poem I could barely force myself to read. It is ostensibly the soliloquy of a drunken Dutch poet, Hendrik Marsman, forcing the stars to deliver the meaning of life:

   You son of a bitch, you! Don’t try to get away from yourself!
I won’t have it! You know God-damned well I mean you! And you too,
   Pythagoras! Put down that guitar, lyre, whatever it is!

The poems account for less than half of the Reader, the rest is taken up with excerpts from the novels Deliverance, Alnilam (1987), To the White Sea (1993), and Crux, an unpublished and indeed barely begun novel. (Crux is a constellation in the southern hemisphere near Centaurus and Musca; it is also called the Southern Cross.) The Reader also includes essays from Babel to Byzantium, Sorties (1971), and Night Hurdling (1983). The Selected Poems does not cover the scene; it intends to present the best of Dickey and to draw poems from all the books except The Zodiac. But again the early books, which contain his best work, get short measure; only three poems from Into the Stone, five from Drowning with Others, six from Helmets, and seven from Buckdancer’s Choice.

Comparing both books with The Whole Motion: Collected Poems 1945-1992,2 I find that the editors, while often disagreeing in their selections, are at one in emphasizing the social, domestic poems at the expense of the visionary or planetary ones. Most of the chosen poems are those in which an actual event has taken place and seized Dickey’s attention, and he makes the most of it. “The Hospital Window”—it’s in the Reader, not in The Selected Poems—begins, “I have just come down from my father,” and I assume it started from such a visit. It may be that the visionary poems have not attracted many readers, and that the circumstantial poems are easier to hold in mind. But it is unfortunate that the poems of natural magic, such as “Inside the River,” have not been selected from The Whole Motion. Only a determined reader will go to that book now that the Reader and The Selected Poems are available. Here is a passage from “Inside the River”:

Let flowing create
A new, inner being:
As the source in the mountain
Gives water in pulses,
These can be felt at
The heart of the current.
And here it is only
One wandering step
Forth, to the sea.
Your freed hair floating
Out of your brain.

Here, as throughout the poem, intuitions of sensibility survive their passage through the imperative phrases. The poem is unlikely to win as many readers as “The Hospital Visit,” “The Fiend,” and the celebrated piece of magical realism, “Falling,” do, but it embodies a distinctive part of Dickey’s talent, the neo-Roethkean part, which produced some of his finest and least flamboyant work.

  1. 1

    Christopher Dickey, Summer of Deliverance: A Memoir of Father and Son (Simon and Schuster, 1998), p. 30.

  2. 2

    Wesleyan University Press/University Press of New England, 1992.

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