Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Like many of Dickey’s poems, “Buckdancer’s Choice” addresses the theme of the human will to exist when confronted with the inevitability of death. By comparing the narrator’s mother to ex-slaves who continued to express themselves through their songs even as the minstrel-show tradition was nearing extinction, Dickey affirms the human will to celebrate life and shows how displays of the will to live provide people with a vital message.

In the final stanza, the narrator describes his mother’s ability to whistle as a “gift of tongues.” This description suggests the profound communication the mother’s song holds for the listening child. A person who possesses the ability to speak in tongues is often regarded as a conduit who relays some essential message that emanates from a supernatural source. Similarly, the mother’s message is not conveyed directly to the child but through a medium, the ex-slaves’ song. Moreover, the mother whistles to herself and is not conscious of the child’s presence, but the whistling enables the boy to gain greater insight into his mother’s plight and, more generally, into the process of life and death.

The mother’s whistling is also characterized as “The thousand variations of one song,” with each variation symbolizing another continuing effort to ward off death by asserting her existence. Since her illness confines her to bed, her whistling becomes a way to declare that she is still in...

(The entire section is 600 words.)