James Dickey Essay - Dickey, James (Poetry Criticism)

Dickey, James (Poetry Criticism)

Introduction

James Dickey 1923-1997

(Full name James Lafayette Dickey) American poet, novelist, critic, essayist, scriptwriter, and author of children's books.

A prominent figure in late twentieth-century American literature, Dickey is noted for his intense exploration of primal, irrational, and creative forces in poetry and prose. Often classified as a visionary Neo-Romantic in the tradition of Walt Whitman, Dylan Thomas, and Theodore Roethke, Dickey emphasized the primacy of imagination and examined the relationship between humanity and nature. He frequently described the confrontations of war, sports, and the natural world as a means of probing such issues as violence, mortality, artistic inspiration, and social values. In his poetry, Dickey rejected formalism, artifice, and confession, favoring instead a narrative mode featuring energetic rhythms and charged emotions. In addition to his verse, Dickey authored the acclaimed novel Deliverance (1970), a symbolic work that portrays extremes of human behavior outside the confines of contemporary civilization.

Biographical Information

Dickey was born in Buckhead, Georgia, to Eugene Dickey, a lawyer, and Maibelle Swift Dickey and was their second son, conceived after his older sibling, Eugene Jr., died of meningitis. Dickey attended North Fulton High School in Georgia, where he was a devoted member of the track and football teams. He later entered Clemson College in 1941, but enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps the following year, subsequently serving as a radar officer in the Pacific during World War II. (Biographers also note that during his lifetime Dickey maintained he was a U.S. fighter pilot who flew approximately 100 combat missions over Japan and Korea; however, these claims are unsubstantiated and likely false.) Returning to the United States after Japan's defeat, Dickey attended Vanderbilt University, graduating in 1949 with a B.A. and in 1950 with an M.A. in English. After teaching English at the Rice Institute in Houston, Texas, for only four months, Dickey was recalled to active duty by the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War. He returned to Rice for the period between 1952 to 1954 and later became an instructor at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Meanwhile, Dickey had begun compiling notes for his novel Alnilam (not completed and published until 1987) and continued writing and publishing poetry. The recipient of a Sewanee Review Fellowship in 1954, Dickey moved to Europe to focus on poetic composition. Having returned to the United States by 1955, he entered the advertising industry as a copywriter located first in New York City and later in Atlanta, Georgia. The well-received publication of his first collection of poetry, Into the Stone and Other Poems in 1960 marked the beginning of a period of dramatic growth in Dickey's literary career, which would shortly make him one of the most recognized writers on the American scene. A 1961–62 Guggenheim Fellowship took him to Positano, Italy, where he wrote the collection Drowning With Others (1962). As a poet in residence at a succession of colleges and universities during the 1960s, Dickey continued to produce esteemed volumes of poetry, including Buckdancer's Choice (1965). He later settled into a teaching position at the University of South Carolina in Columbia in 1969, which he maintained for the rest of his life. Dickey achieved national prominence in 1970 as the author of the novel Deliverance (he also wrote the script for the popular 1972 film adaptation and enacted a small part). While he continued to produce poetry, Dickey kept a high public profile through the 1970s and devoted more of his time to fiction, television and film scripts, literary criticism, journals, and children's books. Still, he considered himself foremost a poet, significantly reading his piece “The Strength of Fields” at U.S. President Jimmy Carter's 1977 inauguration. The 1980s and 1990s witnessed the publication of several more volumes of his verse, two novels, and some additions to his substantial body of critical writing. Dickey died on January 19, 1997, of complications related to lung disease.

Major Works

Throughout his writing career, Dickey drew upon crucial events in his life for subject matter, turning a tendency toward intense personal introspection into source material for his poetry and fiction. Notably, his early verse—featured in the three collections Into the Stone and Other Poems, Drowning With Others, and Helmets (1964)—draws on his feelings of guilt for his role in World War II and the Korean War, ruminations on his older brother's death, and reflections upon his Southern heritage. In these volumes, Dickey explores such topics as family, love, war, death, spiritual rebirth, nature, and survival—a range of themes that reappear in his subsequent body of work. Stylistically, Dickey's early verse relies upon traditional stanzaic units and generally manifests his expansive and affirmatory tone, even as it frequently depicts tragic or near-tragic circumstances. Additionally, these volumes contain several poems concerned with the wilderness in which Dickey stresses the importance of maintaining the primal physical and imaginative powers that he believed are suppressed by civilization. Dickey's next poetic collection, Buckdancer's Choice, signaled a shift toward more open and complex verse forms. Featuring internal monologues, varied spacing between words and phrases in place of punctuation, and subtle rhythms, Buckdancer's Choice probes human suffering in its myriad forms. A representative work from the collection, and one of his most-studied and controversial poems, “The Firebombing” demonstrates Dickey's ambivalence toward violence as it juxtaposes the thoughts of a fighter pilot as he flies over Japan and his memories twenty years later. In his poetry of the 1970s, Dickey began to employ what he termed “country surrealism,” a technique by which he obscures distinctions between dreams and reality to accommodate the irrational. Throughout his later poetry, Dickey laments the loss of youth, expresses a profound fear of mortality, and explores visionary qualities and creative energies. For example, “The Eye-Beaters,” published in The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy (1970), concerns blindness, artistic vision, and the pursuit of truth. A thorough reworking of a poem by the Dutch writer Hendrik Marsman, The Zodiac (1976), is a long, self-referential piece about an intensely visionary alcoholic poet and his tormented process of artistic creation. In the title poem of The Strength of Fields (1979), Dickey affirms his faith in humanity while addressing various moral dilemmas. Puella (1982) blends myth and reality to portray the imagined maturation of Dickey's young wife, Deborah, from adolescence to adulthood. A final collection of original verse, The Eagle's Mile (1990), reaffirms Dickey's exploration of imaginative vistas and symbolically evokes the liberating powers of flight. Among Dickey's fictional works, the novel Deliverance reiterates several themes prevalent in his poetry, primarily the rejuvenation of human life through interaction with nature. The work focuses on four suburban men who seek diversion from their unfulfilling lives by canoeing down a remote and dangerous river. The characters encounter human violence and natural threats, forcing them to rely on primordial instincts in order to survive. In his second novel, Alnilam (1987), an ambitious experimental work centering on a blind man's attempts to uncover the mysterious circumstances of his son's death, Dickey denounces corruption and abuse of power. A third novel, To The White Sea (1993), recounts in vivid detail a downed American airman's trek from Tokyo through Japan's northern wilderness during World War II. In addition to such works of fiction, Dickey was an esteemed poetry critic and produced several volumes of essays and journals, including The Suspect in Poetry (1964), Babel to Byzantium: Poets and Poetry Now (1968), and Sorties: Journals and New Essays (1971), in which he offers subjective viewpoints on poetry and asserts his preference for artistic intensity and intuition.

Critical Reception

While many of Dickey's individual poems had begun to appear in literary journals during the late 1940 and 1950s, the publication of Into the Stone and Other Poems in 1960 launched his swift rise to national literary prominence. The honoring of Buckdancer's Choice with a National Book Award for poetry in 1966 solidified Dickey's reputation as premier American poet. Indeed, Poems 1957-1967 (1967), which encapsulates the earliest phase of Dickey's poetic output, was well-received upon its appearance and, according to many, continues to be representative of his strongest work in verse. While the significance of The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy was outshined by the dramatic success of Dickey's novel Deliverance of the same year, commentators continue to value the collection for the complex and impassioned poetic expressions it contains. Dickey's twelve-part poem The Zodiac, however, elicited largely negative responses, and some have suggested that it indicates a general decline in the quality of his poetic efforts as the author concentrated his creative energies elsewhere. The lyrical reflections of Dickey's subsequent volume, Puella, while more favorably received than the poetry of The Zodiac, perplexed some critics by its dramatic departure in subject and style from the poet's earlier verse. And, although Dickey himself excised many of these poems from his retrospective volume The Whole Motion: Collected Poems, 1945-1992 (1992), the work has attracted the interest of critics for the insights it gives into Dickey's view and representation of women. A final offering of original poetic material, The Eagle's Mile made a relatively smaller impression on critics, though a few have since maintained that it includes some of his most visionary and creative verse. The release of The Whole Motion and the posthumously published James Dickey: The Selected Poems in 1998 presented commentators with the opportunity to reflect on Dickey's considerable literary talents and accomplishments, as well as his engaging poetic voice, one of the most noteworthy and distinct in contemporary American literature.

Principal Works

Into the Stone and Other Poems 1960

Drowning With Others 1962

Helmets 1964

Two Poems of the Air 1964

Buckdancer's Choice 1965

Poems 1957-1967 1967

The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy 1970

The Zodiac [based on Hendrik Marsman's poem of the same title] 1976

Tucky the Hunter [illustrations by Marie Angel] (children's poetry) 1978

Veteran Birth: The Gadfly Poems 1947-1949 1978

The Strength of Fields 1979

Scion 1980...

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Criticism

Howard Nemerov (review date 1963)

SOURCE: Nemerov, Howard. “Poems of Darkness and a Specialized Light.” Sewanee Review 71, no. 1 (winter 1963): 99-104.

[In the following review of Drowning With Others, Nemerov offers an impressionistic, then critical, assessment of Dickey's second volume of poetry.]

Coming to know an unfamiliar poetry is an odd and not so simple experience. Reviewing it—conducting one's education in public, as usual—helps, by concentrating the attention; perhaps, though it is a gloomy thought, we understand nothing, respond to nothing, until we are forced to return it actively in teaching or writing. It is so fatally easy to have opinions, and if we stop here we never...

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Laurence Lieberman (review date 1967)

SOURCE: Lieberman, Laurence. “James Dickey: The Worldly Mystic.” In Beyond the Muse of Memory: Essays on Contemporary American Poets, pp. 73-82. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995.

[In the following review of Dickey's Poems: 1957-1967, originally published in 1967, Lieberman remarks on Dickey's poetic vision and its mixture of the comic and the serious.]

The persona in James Dickey's new poems, those that appear in the final section, “Falling,” of his book Poems: 1957-1967, is a unique human personality. He is a worldly mystic. On the one hand, a joyous, expansive personality—all candor, laughter, and charm—in love with his fully...

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Ralph J. Mills Jr. (review date 1968)

SOURCE: Mills, Ralph J., Jr. Review of Poems 1957-1967, by James Dickey. TriQuarterly, no. 11 (winter 1968): 231-42.

[In the following review, Mills explores Dickey's almost mystical poetic process and his characteristic themes—including the spiritual interpenetration of the living and the dead—but criticizes his lack of imagination in works like “The Firebombing,” and observes a diminishing intensity in his later poems.]

As various poets and critics have been remarking over the past few years, both the mood and the means of much of the important new American poetry has been noticeably changing. While it is difficult in the midst of such movement to...

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Laurence Lieberman (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Lieberman, Laurence. “Notes on James Dickey's Style.” In James Dickey: The Expansive Imagination, edited by Richard J. Calhoun, pp. 195-201. DeLand, FL: Everett/Edwards, Inc., 1973.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1968, Lieberman presents commentary on Dickey's innovative and varied use of poetic symbolism and form.]

In The Suspect in Poetry, a first collection of James Dickey's criticism, he eliminates from his canon of taste, one by one, those writers of reputation he finds suspect. Similarly, the development of his art, from book to book, is a conscious stripping away of those techniques of style and mental strategies which have...

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Raymond Smith (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: Smith, Raymond. “The Poetic Faith of James Dickey.” Modern Poetry Studies 2, no. 1 (1972): 259-72.

[In the following essay, Smith describes Dickey's “poetic faith” as a sense of belief in nature illustrated most clearly in his hunting poems and in the mystic visions of his 1970 volume Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy.]

Dissociating himself from the contemporary mode of cultivated cynicism, James Dickey refers to himself in Self-Interviews (1970) as a “born believer.” It is this capacity for belief that is a dominant characteristic of his poetry. It is a poetry of acceptance and celebration in the manner of Whitman....

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Robert W. Hill (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: Hill, Robert W. “James Dickey: Comic Poet.” In James Dickey: The Expansive Imagination, edited by Richard J. Calhoun, pp. 143-55. DeLand, FL: Everett/Edwards, Inc., 1973.

[In the following essay, Hill highlights Dickey's comic poetic vision, even as it frequently manifests amidst tragic circumstances.]

Sometimes James Dickey talks too much, as in “May Day Sermon” or “Looking for the Buckhead Boys,” but this fault comes directly out of what is good in him. For Dickey, life is moving and absolutely uncapturable; stasis is tragedy. One thinks of the copius and flowing Falstaff, whose life goes on forever in the power of effusive relationships; and when...

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Joan Bobbitt (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Bobbitt, Joan. “Unnatural Order in the Poetry of James Dickey.” Concerning Poetry 11, no. 1 (spring 1978): 39-44.

[In the following essay, Bobbitt focuses on Dickey's often grotesque poetic juxtaposition of the world of nature and the world of man.]

Neither James Dickey's reverence for nature nor his fear that “we have lost the cosmos” while constructing our technological society marks him as unique. Yet, by his own admission, Dickey is no ordinary “stick and stone” pantheist. His avowed interest in the relationship between the “man-made world” and the “universe-made world” may bear some resemblance to Wordsworth, Emerson, or even Lawrence,...

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James M. French (review date 1978)

SOURCE: French, James M. Review of The Zodiac, by James Dickey. Prairie Schooner 52, no. 1 (spring 1978): 113-15.

[In the following review of The Zodiac, French notes that Dickey's ambitious poem is deeply flawed and improperly realized.]

James Dickey's reputation as a writer has grown in the past ten years. In fact, Dickey has lately become a highly visible public figure as well. Within the past two years his poetic productivity and presence has not diminished. In that period he has published The Zodiac, written the text to In God's Image, and graced the ritual occasion of Jimmy Carter's inauguration. As a poet, James Dickey is not...

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Richard J. Calhoun and Robert W. Hill (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Calhoun, Richard J., and Robert W. Hill. “Reaching Out to Others.” In James Dickey, pp. 25-53. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983.

[In the following essay, Calhoun and Hill undertake a thematic and stylistic survey of the poetry in Dickey's second collection, Drowning With Others, occasionally comparing the volume with his earlier Into the Stone.]

To speak of the poet's stance, his personality, in the second book is perhaps abstract and inexact, but Dickey becomes a more self-accepted, assertive actor instead of the relatively passive observer. Repeatedly, in Into the Stone, with poems like “The Call,” “The Vegetable King,” “The...

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Joyce Carol Oates (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Oates, Joyce Carol. “Out of Stone, into Flesh: The Imagination of James Dickey, 1960-1970.” In The Imagination as Glory: The Poetry of James Dickey, edited by Bruce Weigl and T. R. Hummer, pp. 64-107. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984.

[In the following essay, Oates studies Dickey's collections from Into the Stone, to Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy, addressing his development and principal poetic themes, and highlighting Dickey's unique expression of man's instinctual savagery.]

Despair and exultation
Lie down together and thrash
In the hot grass, no blade moving. …

Dickey, “Turning...

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Harold Bloom (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Bloom, Harold. “James Dickey: From ‘The Other’ through the The Early Motion.Southern Review 21, no. 1 (winter 1985): 63-78.

[In the following essay, Bloom assesses Dickey's pre-1965 poetry, commenting on such pieces as “The Other,” “Drowning With Others,” “In the Mountain Tent,” “Approaching Prayer,” and “Drinking from a Helmet.”]

I first read James Dickey's early poem, “The Other,” some twenty years ago. Having admired his recently published book, Drowning With Others, I went back to his first book, Into the Stone, at the recommendation of a close friend, the poet Alvin Feinman. Though very moved by...

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James Applewhite (review date 1985)

SOURCE: Applewhite, James. “Reflections on Puella.Southern Review 21, no. 1 (winter 1985): 214-19.

[In the following review of Puella, Applewhite admires the diversity and taut clarity of this poetic collection.]

In considering the relation between these poems from the point of view of a girl growing into a woman, and those poems of adventurous experience from a masculine point of view which make up the bulk of the poet's work, we should remember that the nature of the speaker, of his or her status in the poem, has always been a crucial issue in the work of James Dickey. Dickey helped resurrect the poetic persona from the crippling self-directed...

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Ronald Baughman (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Baughman, Ronald. “Buckdancer's Choice.” In Understanding James Dickey, pp. 62-77. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, Baughman examines the principal poems of Buckdancer's Choice, illuminating significant themes and mentioning Dickey's sustained evocation of human ambivalence and equivocation.]

In Buckdancer's Choice Dickey achieves full maturity as a poet. These are exciting poems, many of them discernibly longer, less constricted in form, more “open” than his previous works. In his essay “The Poet Turns on Himself,” Dickey defines his concept of the “un-well-made” or “open”...

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Paul Christensen (review date 1986)

SOURCE: Christensen, Paul. “Toward the Abyss: James Dickey at Middle Age.” Parnassus 13, no. 2 (spring-summer 1986): 202-19.

[In the following review of The Central Motion: Poems, 1968-1979, Christensen considers Dickey's Southerness and evaluates his poetry of middle age from the collections Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy (1970), The Zodiac (1976), and The Strength of Fields (1979).]

“The secret is that on whiteness you can release
The blackness …”

—The Zodiac,

The psychological geography of America is familiar by now: the East and West form a significant polarity...

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Gordon Van Ness (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Van Ness, Gordon. “‘Stand Waiting, My Love, Where You Are’: Women in James Dickey's Early Poetry.” James Dickey Newsletter 6, no. 1 (fall 1989): 2-11.

[In the following essay, Van Ness traces Dickey's use of the mythic archetype of the “Queen Goddess” and idealization of women in such works as “Adultery,” “The Fiend,” Puella, and other less well known poems.]

In assessing James Dickey's poetry, critics have often focused on his wide-ranging variety of thematic concerns, recognizing the interrelation of the topics themselves and their often biographical connection to the artist. Ronald Baughman, for example, states that as Dickey...

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Richard Tillinghast (review date 1992)

SOURCE: Tillinghast, Richard. “James Dickey: The Whole Motion.” Southern Review 28, no. 4 (autumn 1992): 971-80.

[In the following review, Tillinghast provides a laudatory overview of Dickey's poetic career.]

The publication this summer of James Dickey's The Whole Motion finally makes available under one cover the poems he has published during a career that has spanned more than four decades. The extravagant imagination of the man who has given us such titles as The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy couldn't be content with something as drab as “collected poems,” though the book's subtitle identifies it as such. Dickey came...

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Gordon Van Ness (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Van Ness, Gordon. “The Children's Poetry.” In Outbelieving Existence: The Measured Motion of James Dickey, pp. 71-74. Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1992.

[In the following essay, Van Ness summarizes the critical reception of Dickey's two volumes of children's poetry.]

Dickey's two children's books, Tucky the Hunter (1978) and Bronwen, the Traw, and the Shape-Shifter (1986), have received almost no critical study, perhaps because he has devoted so little published effort in this regard compared to other major twentieth-century poets like Randall Jarrell and Anne Sexton. Reviews are sparse, mostly superficial, and generally mixed. Both books...

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Patricia Laurence (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Laurence, Patricia. “James Dickey's Puella in Flight.” South Carolina Review 26, no. 2 (spring 1994): 61-71.

[In the following essay, Laurence analyzes the volume Puella, emphasizing a movement toward the aesthetic “possession” of its female subject and a balancing stylistic quality of “lightness” in the poems.]

James Dickey's collection of poems, Puella, begins with the dedication, “To Deborah—her girlhood, male-imagined.” The nineteen difficult poems published in only one edition by Doubleday in 1982, and a small private printing by Pyracantha Press in 1985, limn a poet's changing imaginings of his young wife as a girl...

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Robert Kirschten (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Kirschten, Robert. “The Momentum of Word-Magic in James Dickey's The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy.Contemporary Literature 36, no. 1 (spring 1995): 130-63.

[In the following essay, Kirschten expresses the magical, mythopoeic mode of Dickey's verse.]

In the late sixties, when he collected his first five books of poetry into one volume, James Dickey had reached such a considerable level of literary success that Louis Untermeyer claimed that Poems 1957-1967 “is the poetry book of the year, and I have little doubt that it will prove to be the outstanding collection of one man's poems to appear in this decade.”...

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Susanna Rich (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Rich, Susanna. “Dickey's ‘The Firebombing’.” Explicator 54, no. 2 (winter 1996): 110-13.

[In the following essay, Rich construes Dickey's poem “The Firebombing” as implicating the reader in its speaker's guilt.]

Jacques-Louis David originally displayed his painting The Sabines facing a cartouched oval mirror. When patrons turned their backs to the painting to look into the mirror, they saw themselves flattened two-dimensionally into the midst of the battle of the Sabines against the Romans—either imprinted over the central figure of the woman with arms outstretched as if on a crucifix, or standing under her arms, as if under protective...

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Russell Fraser (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Fraser, Russell. “James Dickey's Dear God of the Wildness of Poetry.” Southern Review 34, no. 1 (winter 1998): 112-24.

[In the following essay, Fraser records his impressions of Dickey's poetic voice and style.]

Dickey invokes this “Dear God of the wildness of poetry” in a poem of the '60s, “For the Last Wolverine.” He liked poems about animals, the wilder the better. Doomed to extinction, the wolverine gnaws its prey and looks straight at eternity, dimly aware of being the last of its kind. The poet doesn't mind if the reader thinks of him. Omnivorous and insatiable, he is like Thoreau devouring the woodchuck, all of it, hooves, hair, and hide....

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R. S. Gwynn (review date 1999)

SOURCE: Gwynn, R. S. Review of The Selected Poems, by James Dickey. Hudson Review 52 (summer 1999): 323-28.

[In the following excerpted review of Dickey's The Selected Poems, Gwynn acknowledges the energy of the poet's early verse, unfortunately underrepresented in this collection.]

If James Dickey, whose selected poems1 have recently appeared, is to have any lasting legacy, it strikes me that it will lie in the way he was able to infuse our suburban humdrum with an energy that is well nigh sacramental. Rereading early poems like “Sleeping Out on Easter,” “The Vegetable King” or “The Mountain Tent,” I know that this is just...

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Denis Donoghue (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Donoghue, Denis. “Lives of a Poet.” New York Review of Books 46 (18 November 1999): 55-57.

[In the following essay, Donoghue chronicles Dickey's life and career, his poetic development and influences, and his popular success combined with literary decline.]

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...

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