Dickey, James (Poetry Criticism)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Into the Stone and Other Poems 1960
Drowning With Others 1962
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
The Early Motion 1981
Falling, May Day Sermon, and Other Poems 1981
The Central Motion: Poems, 1968-1979 1983
Bronwen, the Traw, and the Shape-Shifter [illustrations by Richard Jesse Watson] (children's poetry) 1986
The Eagle's Mile 1990
The Whole Motion: Collected Poems, 1945-1992 1992
James Dickey: The Selected Poems 1998
The Suspect in Poetry (criticism) 1964
Babel to Byzantium: Poets and Poetry Now (criticism) 1968
Deliverance (novel) 1970
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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 reach the more problematic, hence more interesting, point of examining our sensations in the presence of the new object.
The following notes have to do with coming to know, with the parallel development of sympathy and knowledge. Undoubtedly they raise more questions than they can answer; and they may strike the reader not only as tentative but as fumbling and disorganized also, for the intention is to record not only what happened but something as well of how such things happen.
The situation of reviewing is a special case, narrower than merely reading, and nastier, certainly at first, where one's response is automatically that of a jealous cruelty. Hmm, one says, and again, Hmm. The meaning of that is:...
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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 conscious gestures, the grace and surety of moves of his body. An outgoing man. An extrovert. On the other hand, a chosen man. A man who has been picked by some mysterious, intelligent agent in the universe to act out a secret destiny:
… something was given a life- mission to say to me hungrily over
And over and over your moves are exactly right For a few things in this world: we know you When you come, Green Eyes, Green Eyes.
from “Encounter in the Cage Country”
How does a man reconnect with common, unchosen humanity when he has just returned from the abyss of nonhuman, chosen otherness? That is the chief problem to which the final volume...
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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 predict with anything like accuracy the final course of contemporary poetry's drift and flow, there are certain characteristics which have become rather evident. In a recent essay, “Dead Horses and Live Issues,” (The Nation, April 24, 1967), the poet Louis Simpson discusses some of them and also indicates the kind of poetry which is currently being rejected. “There is,” he says, “an accelerating movement away from rationalistic verse toward poetry that releases the unconscious, the irrational, or, if your mind runs that way, magic. Surrealism was buried by the critics of the thirties and forties as somehow irrelevant; today it is one of the most commonly used techniques of verse.” Simpson goes on to specify some of the likely...
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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 grown suspect after repeated use. In the poems themselves he may leave the explicit record of steps in a willed metamorphosis of style; moreover, each conversion of manner bolsters a corresponding conversion of imagination.
To begin, Dickey's handling of figurative language suggests a basic distrust of the remoteness from human experience of traditional figures of speech. In the early war poem, “The Performance,” the speech figures are so closely wedded, annexed, to the human events, it would be a mistake to think of them as being metaphors or figurative at all, in the usual sense. They are elements of style and expression which are an extension of meaning that is felt to have been already inherent in the experience...
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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. Dickey's faith is rooted in nature: nature is teacher and life-giver, and his reverence for nature is manifest in a primitive, almost totemic treatment of animals. The poet finds a brother in the owl, the deer, the bull. Hunting, once necessary for human survival, has become for him a ritual, a means of entering into a kind of communion with the hunted animal. Yet, while his faith is rooted in nature, it flowers in myth.
A good introduction to the poetic faith of Dickey is his “The Heaven of Animals.” This paradoxically entitled poem evinces a latitudinarian attitude, accepting in the realm of immortality these soullness, mindless creatures: “Having no souls, they have come, / Anyway, beyond their knowing.” It is not...
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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 his love is abruptly fronted by rigid confinement of it, he dies, tragically. The comic Wife of Bath is pathetic in her declining years, but the going on, her pilgrimaging and wiving forever, is comic. In Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye says that comic fortune often results in a new society precipitated by the comic hero and formed around him. Constance Rourke's American Humor suggests that the integration of cultures into a single culture is what is seen and recorded by comic writers. I suggest that comedy is more that which promises to go on; marriages are made, and fruitful continuance is implied.
Tragedies are about fatal containment. Despite such future-oriented resolutions as the establishment of...
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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, but his expression of it is hardly typical.1 Throughout his poetry, Dickey employs shockingly bizarre or ludicrous images to communicate the alien position of nature in the “civilized” world. Indeed, the juxtaposition of the world of nature and the world of man often leads to grotesque incongruities. Things seem severely twisted by comparison. In the sea, the shark finds a natural home: in the parlor, its presence becomes unnatural. The poet sees civilization as so far removed from nature, its primal antecedent, that only such aberrations can aptly depict their relationship and, as he implies, possibly restore them to harmony and order.
Dickey makes it clear, however, that what seems to be unnatural is only...
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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 undeserving of the recognition he has now achieved. Yet at least one of Dickey's latest offerings, The Zodiac, does not demonstrate the strength of much of the earlier verse.
The Zodiac is by far Dickey's most ambitious effort to compose a long and major poem. In the headnote he describes Zodiac as a poem “based on another by the same title” (p. 7) by the Dutch poet, Hendrik Marsman. Dickey discounts his work as translation; instead, “it is a story of a drunken and perhaps dying Dutch poet who returns to his home … and tries desperately to relate himself to the universe.” It is in this mode that Dickey presents Marsman and transforms him into a symbolic vehicle. One is not surprised, then, to see...
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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 Sprinter's Sleep,” and “The Other,” Dickey's narrator is overwhelmed by Something Out Yonder. Drowning with Others (1962) proceeds with more confidence, less mincing (probably too strong a word) than that first book. It is as though the poet found his calling, to transliterate the experiences of the physical world into the physical symbols of poetry.
THE SOLITARY SELF IS NOT ENOUGH
In Drowning with Others, Dickey extends and develops the themes of Into the Stone, but one consideration emerges with particular emphasis: social interconnection. With the first poem of the book, “The Lifeguard,” mutual responsibility is made clear: the familiar guilt motif is made a social...
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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 Away”
A man cannot pay as much attention to himself as I do without living in Hell all the time.
The remarkable poetic achievement of James Dickey is characterized by a restless concern with the poet's “personality” in its relationships to the worlds of nature and of experience. His work is rarely confessional in the sense of the term as we have come to know it, yet it is always personal—at times contemplative, at times dramatic. Because Dickey has become so controversial in recent years, his incredible lyric and dramatic talent has not been adequately recognized, and his ceaseless, often monomaniacal questioning of identity, of the self, of that mysterious and...
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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 several of the earlier poems, I was affected most strongly by the one called “The Other.” It has taken me twenty years to understand why the poem still will not let me go, and so I begin with it here. I don't think of Dickey as a poet primarily of otherness, but rather as a heroic celebrator of what Emerson called “the great and crescive self,” indeed of the American self proper, which demands victory and disdains even great defeats. Dickey, as I read him, is like what Vico called the Magic Formalists or Blake named the Giant Forms. He is a throwback to those mythic hypotheses out of which strong poetry first broke forth, the bards of divination whose heroic vitalism demanded a literal immortality for themselves as poets. But even a Magic...
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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 irony of Modernism. His macho stance was not itself a problem except insofar as it may have seemed to make Hemingwayesque claims reaching outside the poems to a base in some grandiosely daring lifestyle. The point lies in how often, from the beginning, Dickey avoided this danger, gave one the impression of universal experiences encountered by a set of eyes and ears and muscles representative of everyone capable of being excited by the climb, the hunt, the stream. There was not so much the exposition of known abilities and manly accomplishments, as of surprised discovery, as the speaker of the poem encountered again a part of personality which had already somehow fused with a like current in the surround of woodland or war situation or crowded...
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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” poem: “It would have none of the neatness of most of those poems we call ‘works of art’ but would have the capacity to involve the reader in it, in all its imperfections and impurities, rather than offering him a (supposedly) perfected and perfect work for contemplation, judgment, and evaluation.”1 The “open,” or more conclusionless, poem not only creates the visual excitement of unexpected spatial arrangement upon the page but also invites psychological complexity, narrative power.
The poet in Buckdancer's Choice strips away the protecting and concealing masks employed in Helmets and openly addresses the questions haunting him throughout his work. In “The Firebombing,” the war poem...
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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 psychological geography of America is familiar by now: the East and West form a significant polarity in culture—the one old and resolute, fixed by time; the other fluid and novel, sending back its innovations which ruffle and reconstitute American identity. East and West make up a sort of tectonic plate of crumbling and emerging reality. The Midwest is that drab emptiness no one can fill except with a certain malevolence of humor: it is the only place in America that never tempered its reality with a threatening frontier. As in the case of Indiana, the heartland of America until the 1950s, where no Indians (despite its name!) confronted the whites who settled it. Almost at the moment it was occupied, there ensued in the Midwest its tedious image of a placid, almost rancid domesticity, from which artists and thinkers of each generation...
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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 “treats his major subjects—war, family, love, social man, and nature—the writer is working out his constantly evolving perspective as a survivor” (8). Richard Calhoun and Robert Hill have written of his “emotional primitivism,” which Dickey himself defines only as that “condition where we can connect with whatever draws us” (136). Critics have felt, in other words, that attempts to confront narrow aspects within Dickey's poetry invariably risk distortion and oversimplification. As Robert Kirschten in the most recently published book on the poetry admits: “Indeed, his subject matter is as mixed as his emotional effects,” a realization which necessitates four “hypotheses” to scrutinize Dickey's “lyric universe” (3)....
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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 of age during a cultural moment when poets' reputations were often founded as much on the excesses of their personal lives as on the quality of their work. When one surveys the lives of Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Allen Ginsberg, Randall Jarrell, Elizabeth Bishop, Theodore Roethke, and Anne Sexton, one gets the impression that mid-century American poetry somehow, with great difficulty, managed to get written between gin-fueled one-night stands in motel rooms and recovery periods in mental hospitals and drying-out spas, in an atmosphere of extreme emotional and mental states and strikingly unconventional behavior.
In the lifestyle arena, James Dickey has not disappointed. Stories about the man have become a...
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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 concern the exploits of a family member, the former involving Dickey's grandson, James Bayard Tuckerman Dickey, and the latter, his daughter Bronwen Elaine. In addition, both works mythologize the adventure the protagonist undergoes, a larger-than-life confrontation with real or imagined creatures.
Good children's poetry possesses a singing quality, a melody and motion. If the poem is mysterious, meditative, or nostalgic, the lines move slowly and the words become subtle. Language is exact and descriptive as well as sensory and connotative. While such poetry displays a strong emotional resonance, its foundation lies in ideas; therefore, it also appeals to the intellect, often taking everyday facts of life and giving them new...
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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 coming of age. The poems illumine Dickey's epigraph:
I lived in thee, and dreamed, and waked Twice what I had been.
T. Sturge Moore
Coming to these poems from the masculine wilds of Dickey's novel, Deliverance, the work that looms largest in the American imagination, we veer in this collection into another kind of male voyage, this time into womanhood. Male imaginings of women have been under review since Virginia Woolf in her graceful polemic, A Room of One's Own, attempted to explain, in part, the imaginative necessity that women so often are to men. She describes “the looking glass vision,” how “women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the...
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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.” While Peter Davison and James Tulip ranked Dickey and Robert Lowell as the two major poets in the country, John Simon was even more enthusiastic when he declared, “I place Dickey squarely above Lowell.” However, in 1968, with the appearance of Dickey's very next book, The Eye-Beaters, Bloos, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy, critics seemed annoyed, even dismayed, at the new direction of his highly experimental collection of verse. Herbert Leibowitz noted that the “balance of pure abandon and meticulous observation breaks apart in Dickey's latest volume,” and further, that a “stagy, unpleasant hysteria enters the poems.” Benjamin DeMott charged that the “poet runs on unrestrainedly,” giving “no shapely object to...
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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 wings. With a slight shift, the viewer became imprinted over the figure of the naked invading Roman who has his back to us, a round shield covering him. David's unusual orchestration made a political statement at the time of the French Revolution: We are all involved and implicated in the struggle over freedom. The spectator may turn a back to it only to find herself or himself more fully reflected in it.
What David did with The Sabines, James Dickey does with his perhaps most controversial poem “The Firebombing.” This poem, written sympathetically from the point of view of an ex-bomber pilot in World War II, has been described by Robert Bly as “gloating over power over others.” He calls Dickey a “Georgia...
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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.
When Dickey died at the beginning of 1997, he had dwindled, said his friend Lance Morrow, to a seventy-three-year-old ruin, “his flesh slack over the armature of bone, the lungs and liver a disaster.” Life magazine, introducing the pop icon thirty years before, didn't script an ending like this. The “bare-chested bard” it celebrated “looks, acts and often talks exactly like a professional football coach.” Standing six feet three inches and weighing 205 pounds, he has a paunch and huge biceps, incidentally a fresh literary voice. The biceps, etcetera, get into the voice in an elegy “For the Death of Lombardi,” the Green Bay Packers coach who thought winning was “the only thing.” In the poem he is...
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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 Everyguy camping out in a state park on the fringes of urban Atlanta, but a palpable shiver still comes with lines like:
I am hearing the shape of the rain Take the shape of the tent and believe it, Laying down all around where I lie A profound, unspeakable law.
Those incantatory trimeters contribute to the effect, true, but I can never hear them without feeling a little smaller and weaker, without wishing my inadequate sleeping bag could hide me completely. As stagey and predictable as many of Dickey's performances seem when we revisit them, they were, and are, capable of generating an awe that none of his contemporaries ever quite managed. If I am not quite struck with it on reading “Falling” for...
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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 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...
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Glancy, Eileen. James Dickey, The Critic as Poet: An Annotated Bibliography With An Introductory Essay. Troy, NY: Whitston Publishing Company, 1971, 107 p.
Compilation of primary and secondary sources until 1971, preceded by a summary introduction to Dickey's literary career.
Berry, David C. “Harmony with the Dead: James Dickey's Descent into the Underworld.” Southern Quarterly 12, no. 3 (April 1974): 233-44.
Probes Dickey's theme of the connection between the living and the dead and the possibilities it offers for renewal.
Cassity, Turner. Reviews of The Strength of Fields and The Zodiac, by James Dickey. Parnassus 8, no. 2 (summer 1980): 177-93.
Derisive reviews of The Strength of Fields and The Zodiac that generally deprecate the former, while calling the latter Dickey's magnum opus.
Corrington, John William. “James Dickey's Poems 1957-1967: A Personal Appraisal.” Georgia Review 22, no. 1 (spring 1968): 12-23.
Review of Dickey's Poems 1957-1967 that sees the work as a record of “the growth of the poet's mind.” Includes readings of the poems “Adultery” and “A Folk-Singer of the Thirties” as representative works.
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