The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Buckdancer’s Choice” is a short poem written in an anapestic meter. The poem’s narrator recalls that during his childhood, he would listen to his invalid mother whistle a song, which he now realizes represented the last assertions of her will and life force as she faced death. To highlight the human refusal to give in to death, the narrator develops an analogy between his mother’s whistling and the dance of the buck-and-wing men who performed in minstrel shows.

The poem begins with the narrator remembering how his bedridden mother would “split” the air into “nine levels,” as she continually whistled endless variations of the same song, “Buckdancer’s Choice.” The song originates from traveling minstrel shows, which were once popular but have almost died out since. Like the old minstrel shows, the narrator’s mother is nearing the point when she will no longer exist. Though the disease from which she suffers affects her breathing by stripping the air from her lungs, the dying woman continues to whistle. Her whistling makes a profound impression on her son, who recalls creeping up to the closed door of her bedroom and intently listening to the countless versions of “Buckdancer’s Choice” she could create. The narrator realizes that through her whistling, his mother was “Proclaiming what choices there are/ For the last dancers of their kind.” In other words, he comes to see that she was doing the only thing she could in order to show that she was still alive and not ready to give in to death. Though his mother was not conscious of his listening to her whistling, the song makes the narrator aware of the power of the human will to survive. This realization culminates in the narrator imagining that such efforts in the face of death possess an almost magical or transcendental dimension.

Buckdancer's Choice Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

James Dickey uses anapestic meter in “Buckdancer’s Choice,” giving the poem a strong rhythmic quality. Anapestic meter consists of three syllables, with two unaccented syllables followed by an accented one. The anapest’s strong melodic quality is especially appropriate for a poem that involves music.

Dickey uses point of view both to relate how the child is drawn to his mother’s whistling and to make a sophisticated assessment of the whistling’s significance. The poem is narrated by an individual who recalls that as a child he would listen to his mother whistle. This perspective lets the narrator reflect and comment on the importance of this occurrence, and allows him to suggest how as a child he was almost magically attracted to the song, which related a message whose significance would not be clear until years later.

The use of an older and more experienced narrator also allows Dickey to develop convincingly the poem’s central metaphor, which likens the mother’s whistling to former slaves’ performances in minstrel shows. The mother continues to whistle to herself, just as the minstrel show performers continue their acts despite the fact that their audience has practically disappeared. As the poem progresses, the narrator develops this metaphor, imagining the minstrel-show performers dancing to his mother’s whistling; finally, he draws an analogy between his mother, the performers, and all of humanity. The music his mother makes and the performances of the ex-slaves become reflective of the human need to express emotion and live, even if no one else fully appreciates the value of that effort. Dickey’s mature narrator is able to look back through time and develop the full implications of the analogy in a manner that he could not articulate or completely comprehend as a child.

Buckdancer's Choice Bibliography

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Bruccoli, Matthew J., and Judith S. Baughman, eds. Crux: The Letters of James Dickey. New York: Knopf, 1999.

Calhoun, Richard J., ed. James Dickey: The Expansive Imagination. Deland, Fla.: Everett/Edwards, 1973.

Calhoun, Richard J., and Robert W. Hill. James Dickey. Boston: Twayne, 1983.

Dickey, James. Classes on Modern Poets and the Art of Poetry. Edited by Donald J. Greiner. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004.

Dickey, James, Barbara Reiss, and James Reiss. Self-Interviews. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1970.

Heyen, William. “A Conversation with James Dickey.” Southern Review 9 (1973): 135-156.

Kirschten, Robert. James Dickey and the Gentle Ecstasy of Earth. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988.

Kirschten, Robert, ed. Critical Essays on James Dickey. New York: G. K. Hall, 1994.

Lieberman, Laurence. The Achievement of James Dickey: A Comprehensive Selection of His Poems with a Critical Introduction. Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1968.

Van Ness, Gordon. Outbelieving Existence: The Measured Motion of James Dickey. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1992.