Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Firebombing” became one of the most controversial poems by this controversial poet. The first issue is Dickey’s war record, a matter extrinsic to consideration of the poem’s merits but important in the larger context of the poet’s persona. Dickey’s biographer, Henry Hart, relentless in his debunking of the Dickey myth, claimed that Dickey “assumed the role of a battle-scarred pilot who had flown one hundred combat missions over the Philippines and Japan.” The truth is that Dickey washed out of flight school at Camden, South Carolina, and trained as a radar observer, a period in his life drawn on in his novel Alnilam (1987). Hart tells the whole story of Dickey’s war, both the reality and the self-aggrandizement, but Dickey was flying combat missions from Okinawa by July, 1945. Another poem, “The Eye of the Fire,” treats the same subject of firebombing, as does Dickey’s last novel, To the White Sea (1993). The vital critical concerns about the poem lie elsewhere, however, primarily in the intense attack on it—and by implication, on Dickey—mounted by Dickey’s fellow poet and critic Robert Bly.

Bly’s 1967 essay “The Collapse of James Dickey”—perhaps brought on by Bly’s anger at Dickey’s failure to unite with liberals against the Vietnam War—called Dickey’s volume Buckdancer’s Choice “repulsive,” citing a tone of “gloating about power over others.” “Slave Quarters” was...

(The entire section is 429 words.)