Dickey, James 1923–
A National Book Award winner, Dickey is an American poet, novelist, and critic. He has served as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 11-12.)
The subject of Dickey's new poetry [Poems: 1957–1967] is being in extremity, being stretched to the outer—or inner—limits of joy and terror. Dickey, at his best, is now able to give us the radically new experience in poetry that D. H. Lawrence superbly demonstrated to be America's most singular contribution to world literature….
In Dickey's poetry, the phrase is the unit that draws attention to itself, cutting imperceptibly across the surging unstoppable rhythm; rarely does the word or line interrupt the poem's flow to create a surprising locus of interest. Dickey's sound accrues from the swift adding-up of memorable phrases in the reader's ear, phrases that multiply into a trance-like, massive sound-aggregate; the reader is often astonished to find that his ear has been able to assimilate so much vivid imagery so quickly. The momentum rolls through the poem, as in Dylan Thomas, but whereas in Thomas the rapidity of flow is often self-defeating because of the opacity of argument, in Dickey's best work, speed of reading enhances the delivery of meaning, since the poems are fantastically lively and crystalline on the surface.
Laurence Lieberman, in Yale Review (© 1968 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Winter, 1968, pp. 264-67.
Dickey has borrowed from no one. His style, his materials, and the transmutation produced by their meeting on the page, stand alone, giving an impression that each was created a long time ago, as if each poem in which we find them is a poem we have read before and now discover again, gladly recapturing a charged moment half-forgotten, but all the more precious for its unexpected retrieval. In a sense, hardly any single poem of Dickey's stands alone. Each seems to lead backward to something else, forward to something more….
James Dickey's poetry is as controlled as it is passionate. He does not require tricks or bombast. From what appear to be the slimmest of materials, in a language almost crystalline, unmarked by peculiarities of style or eccentricity of metaphor, Dickey produces an endless variety of insights which add up to what is currently referred to as "an individual voice." In the case of James Dickey, such a phrase becomes genuinely meaningful.
John William Corrington, "James Dickey's Poems: 1957–1967: A Personal Appraisal," in Georgia Review, Spring, 1968, pp. 12-23.
In his later work, Mr. Dickey is apparently experimenting with very long lines, broken on the printed page by extra spacing to indicate pauses or rhythm groupings. He is not attempting an alliterative revival as some reviewers have suggested, for no convention of Anglo-Saxon or Middle English verse with which we are familiar is observed. I suppose he is writing by phrases—wanting cadences that to him must be attractive—but to get cadences he employs a good many loose constructions, a weakness that leads to my next objection. Mr. Dickey writes verse so loosely that he may do anything in it, commit any dispersal, admit any discourse, follow any digression.
Harry Morris, in Sewanee Review (© 1969 by The University of the South), Spring, 1969, pp. 320-21.
James Dickey, Mensch, Ubermensch or Urmensch, talked this book [Self-Interviews] into a tape recorder with only skeletal suggestions from the editors about the direction it ought to take. It ends up as a few chapters of biography coupled in the later sections with explanations of some of the poems. The result tells us that for a man whose poems give the id free reign, Dickey is obsessed with technique and form: at one time he made a list of all the poems he could think of to write. He also admits to a curious lack of faith in the validity of his vision—which many have thought of as immoral or at least amoral—when he suggests that his poems are not about what happens but about what he hopes might happen. The extraordinary invention of poems like "The Heaven of Animals" and "The Firebombing" is, in short, talked of more as philosophical possibility than as poetic inspiration. But Dickey helps us with "The Firebombing" by explaining it is not about the joy of destroying but about guilt at the inability to feel guilt. If this is correct, in some small way it helps to qualify the common view of this poet as a kind of primitive savage. But the gee-whiz tone of the whole still leaves one wondering if the ecstatic bow and arrow manhunter of Dickey's novel Deliverance isn't after all the real James Dickey: how could anyone who is self-aware say "golly" about the darknesses Dickey's poems lead us into?
James Aronson, "Reservations" (© 1970 by The Antioch Review, Inc.; first published in The Antioch Review, Vol. XXX, Nos. 3 & 4; reprinted by permission of the editors), in Antioch Review, Fall-Winter, 1970–71, pp. 463-64.
Dickey's vision of life, at least as revealed in Deliverance, simply will not stand up to the intense scrutiny which the modern novel must undergo. Indeed, his vision of life cannot even exist except when it is confined to the animal world, to the world of sub-humans, or to stock outdoors characters borrowed from Jack London and James Oliver Curwood. His Deliverance is no deliverance at all.
Warren Eyster, in Sewanee Review (© 1971 by The University of the South), Summer, 1971, p. 472.
Not only is [Deliverance] more freshly and intensely alive than most of Dickey's poems; it is more wise. The poems are usually about sensational subjects—snake poisonings, rapists, bombings, accidents—heightened by fantasy and surreal imagery. Always present is a self-conscious reminder—explicit or implicit—that the experience is not routinely normal. The poems are not without reflection, but the emphasis is clearly on immediacy, on closeup identification with the action from the actor's point of view. The novel, however, attempts to assess the value of immediacy in man's life….
That the novel proposes a theme—the necessary freshening of perception by risking extreme conditions—is evidence that Dickey at least was after something more serious than a "horse opera played in canoes." The bad guys in this horse opera are not merely bad guys but a personification of mindless, random evil. Dickey has dealt with questions that certainly, from time to time, must haunt modern urban man, faced with increasing loss of self-sufficiency…. The novel is, in an obvious sense, a celebration of an anachronistic concept of manhood, a glorification of physical fitness, daring, cool-headedness, technical skill; but it does not propose that all men embark on canoe trips or undergo a regimen of weight lifting and archery in order to salvage their manhood. An interesting conversation between Medlock and the narrator prior to the outing reveals that masculine prowess is not the primary norm of the book.
Donald W. Markos, "Art and Immediacy: James Dickey's Deliverance," in The Southern Review, Vol. VII, No. 3, Summer, 1971, pp. 947-53.