The Strength of Fields

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

The Strength of Fields represents continuity with Dickey’s previous collections as well as a significant extension of his range. While never a poet of the strictly private or personal experience, Dickey has never been a particularly public poet either. With this volume, however, he assumes the role—however unofficially or temporarily—of the American poet laureate. Like the priest or shaman who enters trances and has dreams and visions for the whole tribe, Dickey deals ambitiously here with public events and figures, with national possibilities and purpose.

Dickey established himself as a major American voice in the 1960’s. In a remarkable outburst of poetic energy, he published four substantial volumes in quick succession: Into the Stone and Other Poems (1960), Drowning with Others (1962), Helmets (1964), and Buckdancer’s Choice (1965). He received the National Book Award for Poetry in 1966. These collections were followed by Poems, 1957-67 (1967), The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buck-head, and Mercy, (1970), Sorties (1971), and The Zodiac (1976).

This body of poetry has gained Dickey a reputation as a poet of the empathetic imagination (as suggested by the title Drowning with Others). His poems are attempts to transcend the limits of personal experience by entering into and identifying with the other—with the dying and dead, with animals. Through imaginative acts Dickey establishes connections between the human world and forms and forces in nature. In “The Sheep Child,” a single act of the empathetic imagination connects with both the dead and the animal world. “The Heaven of Animals” is both remarkable and representative of the simultaneous transcendence of the limited personal and human sphere and entry through the imagination into another mode of existence. Dickey tends to favor powerful and dynamic natural forces—what he has called “big basic forms”—such as the ocean, mountains, woods. His “Shark Parlor” is a memorable example of the empathetic imagination establishing connection, through the shark, with a powerful natural force.

In The Strength of Fields, Dickey’s empathetic imagination seeks to transcend the limited world of personal experience by connecting private deeds with public events and national purposes and concerns. Two of the poems collected here were written for public occasions. “The Strength of Fields,” the title poem, was written for and read at the 1977 Presidential Inauguration; “Exchanges” was the Harvard Phi Beta Kappa poem for 1970. Other poems dealing with public figures, events, and concerns are “For the Death of Lombardi,” “Remnant Water,” and “For the Running of the New York City Marathon.”

Dickey’s poems typically embody a motion which involves entering into some other element, state, or form (water, sleep, death, the body of a hero or animal) or encountering the numinous or archetypal, followed by reentry into the mundane world, rejuvenated or transfigured. The individual poems in this collection, and the entire collection, trace the shape of this motion. “Root-light, or the Lawyer’s Daughter” discovers the structure of myth in an otherwise trivial incident. An eight-year-old boy glimpses the naked lawyer’s daughter as she plunges past him, underwater, in the St. Mary’s River. Her body becomes the archetypal image of woman which will remain with the boy all his life. In “Haunting the Maneuvers,” the speaker is “killed” in war games but returns as a spirit to address the living. Here, and in “Two Poems of Flight-Sleep,” Dickey continues to make use of his military experience. In the latter pair of poems the other element...

(The entire section is 1546 words.)