Dickey, James 1923–
A National Book Award winner, Dickey is a poet, critic, and the author of Deliverance, a novel. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
[Dickey's poetic] subject matter comes largely from three areas of experience: country life, with its images of plants and animals and such activities as hunting and swimming; the Second World War, in which the poet participated in the Pacific war theater and learned how men behave in extreme situations; and family relations—incidents and feelings by means of which the poet examines his ties with his parents, on the one hand, and with his children, on the other, achieving ranges of understanding across and beyond time. Dickey handles this subject matter with great resourcefulness. He pursues an incident or a set of relations doggedly until he wrings every drop of meaning from it; he enjoys working up an almost metaphysical intricacy of metaphor, carrying it through until all the tensions of a poem are resolved. In this way he produces finished poems, and so it is not surprising that he is immensely popular with readers who fear discontinuity. Moreover, his values are sound, trust-worthy; there is no nonsense or wildness in his point of view; he isn't likely to startle the reader by sticking out his tongue at him.
Stephen Stepanchev, "James Dickey," in his American Poetry Since 1945 (copyright © 1965 by Stephen Stepanchev; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1965, pp. 190-92.
[In Buckdancer's Choice, James] Dickey is interested in exploring the possibility of dream worlds, situations in which the conventional patterns of relationship are replaced by others which may prove more meaningful. And to Dickey, memory too has something of the same comparing, releasing function that the dream may have: the worlds of past and present are regularly involved in a tensed relationship here.
William Dickey, in Hudson Review, Spring, 1966, p. 155.
[James Dickey] 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….
Wherever being is trapped in oneself or in others, the existential self must work, either through art or directly in life, to make lifesaving connections—all those connections which create the free interchange of spirit between being and being. The word connect is the central one in Dickey's new poetry. His spirit must connect with the world, with "all worlds the growing encounters." In the best poems, all the connections are good. "I am a man who turns on," and when he turns on, all worlds he connects with turn on, since wherever he connects, he creates personal intimacy, injects intensity….
If the worldly mystic spends a good portion of his day-to-day existence reconnecting with the world, at other times we find him searching for the pure moment in solitude, waiting to receive messages from the unseen beyond, and to answer the call. If he is receptive enough, he may pick up clues to learning his being from a wide range of sources: a rattlesnake, a blind old woman, a caged leopard. In all such poems, Dickey himself would seem to be the protagonist, the poem being a kind of reportage of an event from the author's life….
If ideas of rebirth and reincarnation are among the most compelling and pervasive in Dickey's art, the idea of resurrection by air—not water, earth, or fire—is the one that rises, finally, into apocalypse. A cursory glance at Dickey's biography might well support my hypothesis that, since the gravest spiritual losses to his manhood were incurred in air—via the incineration of women and children in the napalm bombings of Japan—he could be expected to seek compensatory gains to redeem himself, paradoxically, through that medium. In fact, he does achieve his most sustaining spiritual and poetic gains through the vision of air-genesis. It is my hope that in the years to come Dickey will return to the perplexing questions of war and race dealt with in "The Firebombing" and "Slave Quarters," and bring to his renewed treatment of those themes—surely the most troubling specters of our day—the larger generosity of spirit we find in the vision of "Falling" and "Power and Light." If there is a passion today that can counter balance all the hell in us, it is the ardor that fills these poems.
Laurence Lieberman, "The Worldly Mystic," in Hudson Review, Autumn, 1967, pp. 513-20.
An attempt to be guided by afflatus marks James Dickey's work. [His] poetry is alive with fugitive notes of compassion, fantasy, empathy with personalities that sometimes hold, sometimes flicker in a poem and then disappear. He seems capable of great compression, of an economy that could hold within deliberately contrived limits diverse elements working together. But language for Dickey is a form of energetic action that does not necessarily allow him to work his materials into achieved formal shape and meaning. The poems tend to grow more than to be shaped; their expansion is a necessary aspect of his discovery of what he wishes to say and to release through them. It is actually a method of letting the materials come to the surface.
M. L. Rosenthal, in his The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II (© 1967 by M. L. Rosenthal; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1967, pp. 325-27.
[Dickey is] the all-American poet, which is to say Yeats on crutches in his first two books, thereafter man of letters….
All actions [in his poems] are loaded with significance but resemble acts in the real world minimally. Everything is in the process of being converted to art, which leaves little room for people to enter with their concerns….
His Poems 1957–1967 is a repulsive book, complacent and unfeeling, unremittingly over-pitched, full of large promises….
The aplomb with which Dickey doles out his miracles which change nothing sums up what is most wrong with American verse today. Where it is good, it is very good—Lowell, Berryman, Bishop—but where it is not, a kind of professionalism has taken over, reproducing the outward tokens of what is now recognised to be excellent, but devoid of the concern with reality which in fact creates that excellence. Every image we meet in the first half of a poem by Dickey will turn up in the second half transmuted to symbol: and in this way, with a tip of the hat to Yeats, the poem is sealed off from our actual concerns, a self-consistent bauble of Literature, happily spurning the world of today and every day.
Martin Dodsworth, "Towards the Baseball Poem," in The Listener, June 27, 1968.
What is stunning about Dickey's poems is the imagination often evident in the sudden radiances of joy or tenderness or empathy felt amid such familiar situations as climbing stairs to say goodnight to his sons, hunting and camping in North Georgia or Virginia, visiting an ailing father in the hospital, observing caged animals at the zoo. Even more stunning is how joy and tenderness often mingle in the same poem with a vein of cruelty, malevolence or violence.
Paul Carroll, in his The Poem in Its Skin, Follett-Big Table, 1968, p. 211.
Dickey's canoe [in "Deliverance"] rides to the limit of dramatic tension. Perhaps he crosses that elusive boundary; it is hard to judge. If he has, his book will not be remembered next year by discriminating readers. If there is an important weakness to the novel, this probably is it. But you keep turning pages, regardless, to find out what happens next. There are higher compliments for an author, though not many….
Now and again some unbelievable dialogue extrudes; certain words are overused; motivation is not always convincing, particularly in the scene where three out of four sophisticated city dwellers decide they should conceal a murder; and there may be other points for quibbling. But all in a lump these do not weigh much because the story is absorbing, even when you are not quite persuaded Dickey has told the truth. He is effective and he is deft, with the fine hand of an archer. God knows what he might accomplish when he gets used to the form.
Evan S. Connell, Jr., in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 22, 1970, pp. 1, 23.
A fast and shapely adventure tale is a rare enough creation. Dickey has surely achieved that [with Deliverance]. Just as surely he has reached for something more, a small classic novel in which action and reflection are matched and a man's return to primitive struggle produces some lasting fragment of interior knowledge. Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Faulkner's The Bear come most easily to mind.
Up to a point, Deliverance can bear comparison with both books. Ultimately, it fails where they succeed. Dickey's spare narrative—leisurely at the start, then frantic—rushes the reader forward like the accelerating flow of the river. Whether he is describing the soft but fond suburban world that the four men leave at home, or evoking the impact of the plunging water, his language has a descriptive power not often matched in contemporary American writing….
Dickey's central failure is brief but crucial. It occurs at the heart of his narrative, when Gentry, after climbing a sheer cliff in the dark, shoots a potential ambusher from a tree and then sets out after the wounded enemy along a trail of blood in the forest. No single action is impossible to believe, but the accumulation—it eventually involves his singing a sort of victory song over the body and then lowering it from the edge of a cliff—is just a bit too much. Gentry's return to the atavistic past suddenly becomes not a part of a compelling story but a self-conscious exercise.
"Journey Into Self," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; © 1970 by Time Inc.), April 20, 1970, pp. 92-3.
It's been a big year for Superpoet; except for playing third base for the Baltimore Orioles, James Dickey has done it all. Deliverance was first, of course, putting a poet on the best-seller list for the first time since … who? Rod McKuen? Then a sixth volume of poetry, this one called, with characteristically determined lustiness, The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy. And now … Self-Interviews….
[Dickey] is our most public poet. Public, that is, in two senses: no poet since Frost has gotten more ink in the mass-circulation press, and no prominent poet of the day is more ardently self-celebrative.
Dickey's self-absorption has won him a good many enemies, notably among poetic competitors, and Self-Interviews is not going to convert them. In many respects, in point of fact, it is an irritating and frustrating book. But Dickey can never be dismissed; there is enough in Self-Interviews that is perceptive or arresting to make it, at the least, a useful tool for the study of James Dickey.
But not half as useful as it might have been. The frustration of Self-Interviews is that it does not really do what it promises to do: tell us about James Dickey. If anything, Dickey is less candid with the reader here than in his poems or, for that matter, Deliverance….
As much as anything else, Dickey's fascination is that he is a genuine original…. He may go overboard, but he tries always to be the poet of "the true passion." His intimacy with nature, which is not faked, leads him to the simplest and most durable themes—leads him, indeed, to an unexpected naivete and ingenuousness….
If Dickey is … a poet of the heart rather than the mind, he has nonetheless treated his plain themes with laudable consistency…. The basic images that run through his work—water, darkness and light, death and sleep, fathers and sons, worlds of magic and wonder—are treated with respect, understanding and tenderness. For all his extravagances Dickey is a very honest poet, and in that quite a bit more "relevant" than most movers and shakers of poetic fashion.
Jonathan Yardley, "More of Superpoet," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1970 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), December 5, 1970, pp. 26-7.
Roethke is clearly Dickey's principal model; this is the kind of poetry he wants to write. From other references it appears that D. H. Lawrence and Rilke, also great Empathizers and Awakeners, played a part, and probably Sir Herbert Read. What he values most is "the individually imaginative or visionary quality."… He decided against rhyme, but needed a strongly marked rhythm, which he finally identified as anapestic; with this he was able to produce "a strange, incantatory sound, a simplicity that was direct without being thin, and a sense of imaginative urgency that I had never been able to get into verse before." With a line usually of three beats, in simple declarative sentences, and in poems with narrative basis, fusing inner and outer states (dream, fantasy, and illusion), he arrived at the mode of his first two books. The third, Helmets (1964), was "less pronouncedly rhythmical and less hallucinatory."…
To make a radical simplification, the central impulse of Dickey's poetry may be said to be that of identifying with human or other creatures in moments of ultimate confrontation, of violence and truth. A good example is the last poem in his collected volume, "Falling," which imagines the thoughts and feelings of an airline stewardess, accidentally swept through an emergency door, as she falls thousands of feet to her death….
Dickey's poetry, while often openly personal and autobiographical, has a large element of impersonality in this way. He has a powerful sense of ritual and myth, which lies behind most of his poems: a sense of the action as embodying powers larger than life, forces beyond the will of the individual. Many poems show tranced, exalted figures, seen from a distance, engaging in ritual actions. The basic perception that lies behind the poetry is thus often Dionysian, more than human. Though his central concern is with vision, not form, he is aware that the problem of form is inescapable; and we have seen how carefully he evolves the kind of rhythmic structure that he needs. Dickey began as an extremely difficult and often obscure poet; his striving toward greater openness and accessibility may be regarded as an Apollonian quality.
Monroe K. Spears, in his Dionysus and the City: Modernism in Twentieth-Century Poetry (© 1970 by Monroe K. Spears; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1970, pp. 253-58.
There is no lack of energy in The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy. Here James Dickey offers us eighteen poems—rather a short book for so long a title. I have never been so specifically conscious of Dickey as a Southern poet as I was when reading this book. It is not a matter of his fascination with violence—that, I think, is not merely a Southern but an American obsession—it is a matter of his rhetoric. These are long-winded, loquacious poems, springing from a milieu of tall tales, yarns, leisurely long-summer-evening-front-porch stories. You have the feeling, reading some of them, that you are being tirelessly talked at, and that your lapel is being held onto. Dickey continues to use a style which augments this oral insistency: those lengthy or variable lines spaced out on the page with visible pauses. These internal spaces are a device for building tension, and they succeed—but only when the "plot" of the poem is strong enough to bear such a conscious manipulation. In a poem like Madness the last moments of a rabid dog are conveyed by the style in all their chaotic horror, while in The Eye-Beaters and a few other poems the same spacing device seems ludicrously close to a chronic stutter. Dickey ought to employ this tool a bit more discriminately….
I suppose these poems outweigh the turgid and clotted state of Victory, the bathos of Looking for the Buckhead Boys, and the moon-landing poems which read like feeble MacLeish, updated. I have been purposely specific and unindulgent in criticizing Dickey, for he has been written about sloppily, by both enemies and partisans, and in ways which do him little credit. He is neither the worst nor the greatest of poets; it should be sufficient to say that he is good enough…. He has an adequate talent, and he might develop it more seriously if he had a bit less publicity.
Robert B. Shaw, "Poets in Midstream," in Poetry (© 1971 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), July, 1971, pp. 228-33.
[Dickey]—who, in Sorties, reveals himself in a half-dozen essays and 150 pages of a journal he's been keeping—has written some of the best poems and some of the most readable criticism of our time.
William Heyen, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, March 11, 1970; used with permission), March 11, 1972, p. 70.