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)

James Dickey
James Dickey; drawing by David Levine

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…

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