James Dickey

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Howard Nemerov (review date 1963)

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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: How dare anyone else have a vision! One picks out odds and ends, with the object of making remarks that will guarantee one is A Critic. Little hairs rise on the back of the neck. One is nothing if not critical. For instance:

I spooned out light
Upon a candle thread …

Triumphant sneer. Surely this is too ingenious by far? Has he no self-control?

But already I have suspicions of my behavior. I am afraid that a great deal of literary criticism amounts to saying that mobled queen is good, or bad.

Despite myself, I observe that I quite like Mr. Dickey's characteristic way of going: a line usually of three beats, the unaccented syllables not reckoned, or not very closely reckoned; it offers an order definite but not rigidly coercive, allowing an easy flexibility and variation. Although the line so measured will tend to the anapest often, it doesn't lollop along as that measure usually does, maybe because the poet is shrewd enough not to insist on it by riming:

The beast in the water, in love
With the palest and gentlest of children,
Whom the years have turned deadly with knowledge …

All the same—give a little, take a little—an indulgence in riming makes hash of this procedure. Mr. Dickey once indulges, in (mostly) couplets:

With the sun on their faces through sand
And the polyps a-building the land …

And so on. Awful. Enough about that.


At a second stage, perhaps a trifle less superficial, I find myself thinking how very strange is the poetry of meditation musing on inwardness, where the images of the world are spells whose repetition designs to invoke—sometimes, alas, only in the poet—a state of extraordinary perceptions, of dreaming lucidities sometimes too relaxed. This poetry has not much to do with the clean-cut, muscular, metaphysical way of coming to conclusions; probably in English Wordsworth is the inventor of those landscapes most closely corresponding to certain withdrawn states of the mind, reveries, day-dreams—the style that Keats, with a sarcasm in which there seems all the same a proper respect, calls the Wordsworthian, or Egotistical Sublime.

One of the qualities of such a poetry—or of Mr. Dickey's poetry, to come off the high horse—is a slight...

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over-insistence on the mysteriousness of everything, especially itself:

A perfect, irrelevant music
In which we profoundly moved,
I in the innermost shining
Of my blazing, invented eyes,
And he in the total of dark. …

This is the language of a willed mysticism, and it is hard to see any of the words I have underlined as performing a more than atmospheric function—the poet wants the experience to be like profound, perfect, innermost, etc., and incants accordingly.

Another quality, which I take to be related also to the tonal intention of a grave continuousness, is the often proceeding by participles, as though nothing in the world of the poem ever quite happened but just went on happening, e.g. (from the same poem):

With my claws growing deep into wood
And my sight going slowly out
Inch by inch, as into a stone,
Disclosing the rabbits running
Beneath my bent, growing throne,
And the foxes lighting their hair,
And the serpent taking the shape
Of the stream of life as it slept.

The objections of this stage have a perfectly reasonable air of being right: you describe a characteristic, and present evidence to show that this characteristic is in the poetry. Surely this is How To Do Literary Criticism? All the same, I am still suspicious, and even beginning to get annoyed, because by this time, in order to say what I have said, I have had to read many of the poems a number of times, and have realized that I care for some of them a good deal. In particular, “The Owl King,” from which I have quoted the two passages, looks to me like a moving and thoroughly accomplished performance. Even more in particular, the two passages themselves, when read in their places, look appropriate to what is going forward. I have a residual feeling of being cantankerously right in my objection to the first passage quoted, but would incline to say now that the passage is a weak place in the poet's process, but not destructive of the poem.


There does come a further stage, where one begins to understand something of the poet's individuality and what it decrees for him in the way of necessities, his own way of putting together the bones and oceans of this world.

Mr. Dickey's materials have a noble simplicity, a constancy extending through many poems. Merely to catalogue them is no use; to project in a single relation their somewhat delicate developments is perhaps impossible, but I shall have to make some more or less compromised try at it.

My impression of the process of his poetry is that it runs something like this: water—stone—the life of animals—of children—of the hunter, who is also the poet. It is rarely or never so simple as this, yet the intention seems often enough this, a feeling one's way down the chain of being, a becoming the voice which shall make dumb things respond, sometimes to their hurt or death; a sensing of alien modes of experience, mostly in darkness or in an unfamiliar light; reason accepting its animality; a poetry whose transcendences come of its reconciliations. Salvation is this: apprehending the continuousness of forms, the flowing of one energy through everything. There is one other persistently dramatized relation, that of the child to his father; and one that is more autobiographical, that of the poet to a brother who died before he was born. And now to particularize this matter.

These are poems of darkness, darkness and a specialized light. Practically everything in them happens at night, by moonlight, starlight, firelight; or else in other conditions that will make ordinary daytime perception impossible: underwater, in thick fog, in a dream—I note especially a dream of being in a suit of armor—, inside a tent, in a salt marsh where because of the height of the grass you “no longer know where you are.”

Another term for this situation is blindness: the blind child whose totem, or Other, is the owl king who cannot see by day but for whom, at night, “the still wood glowed like a brain.” In another poem the owl's gaze “most slowly begins to create / Its sight from the death of the sun.” For this power of creation from within, and for being a hunter, the owl is the magician-poet of an intellectual and “holy” song; in “The Owl King” it is he who for the lost, blind child incarnates the mighty powers of sight, growth, belief, resulting in reconciliation and understanding:

Far off, the owl king
Sings like my father, growing
In power. Father, I touch
Your face. I have not seen
My own, but it is yours.
I come, I advance,
I believe everything, I am here.

The power of poetry, which is to perceive all the facts of the world as relation, belongs in these poems equally to both parties: to the hunter and his victim; to the child and the father he is trying to become; to the father and the child he was, whom he has lost and is trying to find again. The paradoxical continuousness of all disparate forms one with another, in this generated world, is what Mr. Dickey's poems concentrate on representing, often by the traditional lore of the four elements, as in “Facing Africa,” where the speaker and his son look out over the ocean from stone jetties (hence “the buttressed water”), where:

The harbor mouth opens
Much as you might believe
A human mouth would open
To say that all things are a darkness.

Thence they look toward an Africa imagined to “bloom,” to be “like a lamp” glowing with flashes “like glimpses of lightning,” giving off through the darkness “a green and glowing light.” In the crisis of the poem this serial relation of the elements is fused in the imagined perception of the other continent, the alien life:

What life have we entered by this?
Here, where our bodies are,
With a green and gold light on his face,
My staring child's hand is in mine,
And in the stone
Fear like a dancing of peoples.

Perhaps it is central to Mr. Dickey's vision that stone and water are one, the reflected form of one another.

Possible to continue for a long time describing these complex articulations of simple things. Very little use, though, to a reader who has not the poems to hand. Besides, it must be about time for someone to ask, Well, is it great poetry or isn't it? and someone else to ask, What about objective, universal standards for judging poetry?

About all that I shall say to the reader: If you believe you care for poetry you should read these poems with a deep attention. They may not work for you, probably they cannot work for you in just the way that they do for me, but I quite fail to see how you are going to find out by listening to me.

Probably the reviewer's job goes no further than that. Not to be thought of as malingering, though, I shall make a couple of other remarks.

I have attended to Mr. Dickey's poems, and they have brought me round from the normal resentment of any new experience, through a stage of high-literary snippishness with all its fiddle about “technique,” to a condition of sympathetic interest and, largely, assent. There are some brilliant accomplishments here: among them, apart from the ones I have partly described, “Armor,” “The Lifeguard,” “The Summons.” There are also some that sound dead, or (what is effectively the same thing) that I do not much respond to, including some that I don't understand. Where his poems fail for me, it is most often because he rises, reconciles, transcends, a touch too easily, so that his conclusions fail of being altogether decisive; that near irresistibly beautiful gesture, “I believe everything, I am here,” may represent a species of resolution that comes to his aid more often than it should. Perhaps he is so much at home among the figures I sort out with such difficulty that he now and then assumes the effect is made when it isn't, quite.

There is this major virtue in Mr. Dickey's poetry, that it responds to attention; the trying to understand does actually produce harmonious resonances from the poems; it seems as though his voyage of exploration is actually going somewhere not yet filled with tourists: may he prosper on the way.


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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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Laurence Lieberman (review date 1967)

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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 addresses itself. How to be a man who feels perfectly at home, and at his ease, in both worlds—inner and outer. A man who can make of himself and his art a medium, a perfect conductor, through which the opposed worlds—both charged with intensity—can meet and connect, flow into each other. The worldly mystic. It is the vision of a man who for years has been just as committed to developing his potential for creative existence as for creative art. All discoveries and earnings, spiritual or worldly, must carry over from one universe to the other.

In the best poems of the previous volume, Buckdancer's Choice, the self is frustrated, paralyzed, helplessly unable to establish liberating connections with the world. The chief obstacle to self-liberation is a sense of moral guilt. In “The Firebombing,” “The Fiend,” and “Slave Quarters,” the self is pitilessly subjected to encounters with life that induce feelings of criminality. Clearly, the writer has deliberately trapped the persona in predicaments of contemporary American life that automatically create an aura of grave moral jeopardy. In all three poems, the conflict between the worldly-mindedness of modern life and the inner life of the spirit is dramatized. Materialism of a kind that blocks the persona in its struggle to connect with the world is embodied in the indulgences of suburban middle-class home life of “The Firebombing”; in the businesslike exterior of “The Fiend,” his guise of normalcy and ordinariness; and in the catalog of inferior occupational stereotypes, earmarked for African Americans by our society, in “Slave Quarters.”

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 that 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: “People are calling each other weeping with a hundred thousand / Volts.”

The one poem that perfectly reconciles the contradictions between worldliness and the inner life of the spirit is “Power and Light.” The happiness of power and light heals all broken connections, “even the one / With my wife.” For the artist, the hardest connections to “turn good” may be the home connections, the ones thorny with daily ritual and sameness: “Thorns! Thorns! I am bursting / Into the kitchen, into the sad way station / Of my home. …” But if the connections are good, all worlds flow into each other, the good healing, cleansing the bad. There is woe in the worldly side of marriage, but it is good in its spiritual and sexual dimensions, in the “deep sway of underground.”

“Power and Light” dramatizes the secret life of a pole climber, a technician who works for the power company. Through the disguise of the persona, Dickey explores symbolically the ideal relationship between the artist and his audience, the poet and his readers:

                                                            … I feel the wires running
Like the life-force along the limed rafters          and all connections
With poles          with the tarred naked belly-buckled black
Trees I hook to my heels          with the shrill phone calls leaping
Long distance          long distances through my hands          all connections
Even the one
With my wife, turn good … Never think I don't know my profession
Will lift me: why, all over hell the lights burn in your eyes,
People are calling each other          weeping with a hundred thousand
Volts          making deals          pleading          laughing like fate,
Far off, invulnerable          or with the right word pierced
To the heart
By wires I held, shooting off their ghosty mouths,
In my gloves.

The pole climber's spirit raises the spirits of the dead and damned from Hell—marriage, too, being a kind of hell. The “ghostly mouths” of the spirits can all reconnect through the power lines—lines of the poem—and save themselves. The poet is blessed with such an access, a surplus, of lifesaving joy, that he can afford to let it—the flood of power and light—overflow into the grave, into Hell. He doesn't so much give life to the damned as open them up to hidden resources of life, newly accessible in themselves, by making connections. “Long distance,” an eerie experience to begin with, becomes more haunting still when Dickey extends it to include connections between living and dead spirits.

Dickey proceeds in his vision to a point “far under the grass of my grave.” No matter how deep he travels, even to Hell, in the fuller mastery of his art he is confident that “my profession / Will lift me,” and in lifting him, it will lift thousands of others from Hell, his readers all over the world, symbolically making long-distance phone calls all night, connecting, all the connections good. He feels the same power, whether in the basement of his home, “or flung up on towers walking / Over mountains my charged hair standing on end.” The spirit that pervades and dominates this poem, finally, can be identified as the spirit of laughter, a laughter closely akin to that of Malachi the stilt jack in Yeats's “High Talk,” or the mad dancer of “A Drunken Man's Praise of Sobriety.” Like these poems, “Power and Light” verges on self-parody in its hyperbolic imagery and rhetoric: “And I laugh / Like my own fate watching over me night and day.”

The comic spirit of “Power and Light” recovers the ground lost by the tragic spirit in the moral dilemmas of “The Firebombing” and “Slave Quarters.” If modern man feels helpless before the massive political nightmare of his time, he finds he can retreat into “pure fires of the Self” for spiritual sustenance. This is the artist's escape and salvation. If he can't connect with the tragic people of this world's hell in daylight, by direct political action, he must reach them in “the dark, / deep sway of underground.” The artist's night is the “night before Resurrection Day.” He will resurrect the imagination, the spiritual life, of his age. He performs these wonders, ironically, drunk in his suburban basement. A general in disguise. An unacknowledged legislator of the world. Regrettably, the philosophy if I turn on everyone turns on with me may offer small comfort in the political world.

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, in contrast with poems such as “Power and Light” and “Falling,” in which the persona and the author are completely separate, on the surface level.

“The Flash” is a weak poem, hardly more than a fragment of verse, but it gives the key to understanding the revelatory moments in the other poems in the group:

Something far off          buried deep and free
In the country          can always strike you dead
Center of the brain. There is never anything
It could be          but you go dazzled …

You can't explain the flash logically, or fasten hold of it with your senses, but what is felt when “you go dazzled” is instantly recognizable, and can be distinguished, unerringly, from other events of the spirit. The flash is a spiritual fact that registers in the poet's intelligence with the same cold, tough certainty as a snakebite. It is a guarantee of the inner life, but also insists on the inner life of the Other, of others “far off buried deep and free.”

In “Snakebite,” the encounter with the Other seems fated. “The one chosen” finds “there is no way not / To be me.” There is no way out, or through the experience, except saving oneself:

                                        … It is the role
I have been cast in;
                    It calls for blood.
Act it out before the wind
Blows: unspilt blood
Will kill you. Open
The new-footed tingling. Cut.
Cut deep, as a brother would.
Cut to save it. Me.

One must act out the roles that are thrust upon one by the Other, inescapably, as by the rattlesnake's poison. Art must invade those moments in life when failure to perform the correct self-saving gesture is to die. Art is a strange kind of intimacy, a blood brotherhood, between the artist and himself. The poem must be an act of bloodletting. In saving the poem, as in saving one's life from snakebite, a man must be his own brother. No one else can help.

Midway through the action, the speaker shifts from the mortal necessity of lancing the wound to a moment of comic staging. At this point in Dickey's art, it seems appropriate and convincing for the comic spirit to interrupt the most serious human act of self-preservation. The laughter of self-dramatization parallels similar moments in “Encounter in the Cage Country,” in which comic relief enhances the seriousness of the exchange between man and leopard:

                              … at one brilliant move
I made as though drawing a gun from my hip-
bone, the bite-sized children broke
Up          changing their concept of laughter,
But none of this changed his eyes, or changed
My green glasses. Alert, attentive,
He waited for what I could give him;
My moves          my throat my wildest love,
The eyes behind my eyes.

In “False Youth II,” the blind grandmother's message, like the word of an oracle, is delivered with absolute certitude: “You must laugh a lot / Or be in the sun.” Her advice strikes a reader as being a deeply personal and literal truth in the author's life at the time he wrote the poem, and this hunch is borne out by the relevance her words have to many of the best poems of the new volume. A comic spirit pervades poems such as “Power and Light,” “Encounter in the Cage Country,” and “Sun” that one had not met or foreseen in Dickey's earlier work.

Dickey presents an experience from life in “False Youth II” that taught him to see deeply into the shifting sands of his own personality as he slid, imperceptibly, from youth into middle age. Youth is a “lifetime search” for the human role, or roles, that, when acted out, will serve as a spiritual passport of entry into middle age. The necessary role may take the form of a physical gesture that perfectly corresponds to deep moves of the spirit: “My face froze … in a smile / That has never left me since my thirty-eighth year.”

The old blind woman unknowingly assumes the role of a fortuneteller. She has developed a superhumanly receptive sense of touch. Her life is contracted intensely into her hands, her fingertips having grown fantastically sensitive and alive. As she runs her fingers over his eyes and forehead, the poetic images envision a scientific and quasi-scientific composite of data linking electromagnetism, finger painting, astronomy, genetics, and fortune-telling:

… I closed my eyes as she put her fingertips lightly
On them          and saw, behind sight          something in me          fire
Swirl in a great shape like a fingerprint          like none other
In the history of the earth          looping          holding its wild lines
Of human force. Her forefinger          then her keen nail
Went all the way along the deep middle line of my brow
Not guessing but knowing          quivering          deepening
Whatever I showed by it.

The wisdom of the old woman has a primeval quality about it. Her acutely sharpened instincts and sense of touch precede the scientific age and surpass recorded modern science in a revelation of human personality that draws on the learning of many sciences, but goes beyond each in its ability to connect them all, which is not to say this literally happens in life. It happens, rather, in the images of the poem's vision.

She leads him to discover that he has come to a crossroads in his life and art. He must learn his life, as his art, and each stage of existence—in both worlds—concludes with a search for the blueprint to the next stage. The blueprint cannot simply be willed into existence. It is contained as a deeply true, hidden map of possibility within his developing self. If there are alternative paths latent and waiting to be journeyed in the self at any particular spiritual crossroads (as in Frost's poem “The Road Not Taken”), there is one best route available at each crucial juncture. It is discoverable, and, once discovered, it has an unmistakable ring of truth: “Not guessing but knowing quivering deepening.” Although the answer waits inside him to be released, he cannot find his way to it by himself. He arrives in himself through a deep conjunction with another being, in faith, “some kind of song may have passed / Between our closed mouths as I headed into the ice.” There must be communion with the Other. Connection.

If one of the major new themes in Dickey's fifth volume is comic dramatization of his own personality, another is sexual realism. In both, he parallels the later Yeats. If we compare the vision in “The Fiend” with that in “Falling” and “The Sheep Child,” we can get an idea of how far Dickey's art has traveled between the first major poem dealing with the theme of sexual realism and the last. In “The Fiend,” the free-flowing form and the split line are fully exploited. This technique is well suited to sustained psychological realism. Also, the fiend is a thoroughly convincing persona. The encounter between him and life experience, though voyeuristic and “abnormal,” is presented as final, incisive, fulfilling.

But somehow, the center of the poem's vision is too far from tragedy and believable danger: the poem lacks risk, the emotional pitch of a cosmos of love/beauty stretching to contain and transform a brutal agony of being. The sexual transcendence the persona unknowingly achieves is almost too evident, preordained. Equipoise is not felt to be the outcome of a fierce yoking together of oppositely charged beings, as in the act of coitus between the farm boy and the mother ewe of “The Sheep Child”:

                              … It was something like love
From another world that seized her
From behind, and she gave, not lifting her head
Out of dew, without ever looking, her best
Self to that great need. …

The stench of evil in “The Fiend” is smothered under the catalogs of domestic inanities. There is no trace of the searing terror of “The Sheep Child,” the terror of our settled scheme of things being ripped apart. It is too easy to dismiss the fiend as a genial saint—spiritually, if not bodily, harmless. “The Sheep Child” and “Falling” threaten us with glimpses into a world of becoming that is grimly near to us, a mere hand's reach away from those extensions of being into the beyond that we all easily attain in moments of emotional intensity. And yet, that farther reach somehow eludes us, staying just out of our ken. The secret of uncompromised being is just a spiritual stone's throw away, but we are cut off. These poems soar into that further beyond with a sense of effortlessness and inevitability.

“The Fiend” was a breakthrough into the hinterland of sexual transcendence, but what begins as a reader's sympathetic identification ends as a comfortably removed appreciation of the poem's novelities. “The Sheep Child” and “Falling” trap the reader in a haunting, if inexpressible, certainty that a much larger, grander, demonic world—compounded of Heaven and Hell—lies just the other side of the limits of his known, calculable existence. And it waits, like the dead, for him to step inside:

                    I woke, dying,
In the summer sun of the hillside, with my eyes
Far more than human. I saw for a blazing moment
The great grassy world from both sides,
Man and beast in the round of their need,
And the hill wind stirred in my wool,
My hoof and my hand clasped each other,
I ate my one meal
Of milk, and died
Staring …

The reader must be willing to drown, fly, burn with a flame that sets all dreams on fire, and be the fire.

From “The Fiend” to “Falling,” Dickey has been trying to find a medium that would enable him to use the maximum of his creative intelligence in poetry. To this end, he has chosen in “Falling” exactly the right subject and form. Both are moving toward a rhythm of experience that can sweep away all obstacles to realizing the fullest human potential:

“One cannot just fall          just tumble screaming all that time          one must use / It.”

When a woman's life space has suddenly contracted into a few seconds, the necessity to conquer mental waste, to salvage every hidden but discoverable shred of mental possibility, becomes absolute.

The opening sections of the poem stress the extent to which the girl's will, intention, participates in her experience. Her body and mind are both forced initially into reactions of powerful self-protective resistance, a mere reflex response to shock. But her will and creative imagination take on a larger and larger quotient of control. The female style of control is mixed with passivity, but the dynamic passivity of girding the body, sensually, as she “waits for something great to take / Control of her.” The beauty of healthy, fulfilled physical life is Dickey's momentary stay against the chaos of the poem's life-crushing void. Within a moment of perfectly fulfilled physical being, her spirit lives an eternity.

The girl is strangely mated to air. The first half of her long, erotic air embrace is a turning inward. She is learning how to be, to be “in her / Self.” She masters “one after another of all the positions for love / Making,” and each position corresponds to a new tone or motion of being. The second half of her adventure is a going outward. She is no longer waiting to be taken hold of, but now she is the aggressor, who “must take up her body / And fly.” The shifts in her body cycle—falling, floating, flying, falling—stand for consecutive stages in a being cycle, rising, as she falls to her death, to a pinnacle of total self-realization. It is a movement from extreme self-love to extreme beyond-self love, a movement from being to becoming, from becoming to going beyond. Although her fall concludes with an autoerotic orgasm, she connects, at the moment of climax, with the spirits of farm boys and girls below; there is a profound flow of being between them. This unobstructable river of feeling between the self and the world is the life process to which Dickey ascribes ultimacy in his vision.

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 bombing 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 counterbalance all the hell in us, it is the ardor that fills these poems.

Principal Works

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Into the Stone and Other Poems 1960

Drowning With Others 1962

Helmets 1964

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

Scion 1980

The Early Motion 1981

Falling, May Day Sermon, and Other Poems 1981

Puella 1982

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

Self-Interviews (conversations) 1970

Sorties: Journals and New Essays (essays) 1971

Night Hurdling: Poems, Essays, Conversations, Commencements, and Afterwords (poetry and prose) 1983

Alnilam (novel) 1987

To the White Sea (novel) 1993

Striking In: The Early Notebooks of James Dickey (notebooks) 1996

Ralph J. Mills Jr. (review date 1968)

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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 influences to come into play under these circumstances and the dangers of particular sorts of Surrealism, especially the dogmatic irrationalism of André Breton. Then he adds, affirmatively: “Contrary to Breton, poetry represents not unreason but the total mind, including both reason and unreason … Poetic creation has been described by some poets—Wordsworth and Keats come to mind—as a heightened state of consciousness brought about, curiously, by an infusion of the unconscious … The images are connected in a dream; and the deeper the dream, the stronger, the more logical, are the connections.”

If these excerpts from Simpson's essay will not do to describe all the tendencies apparent in American poetry at present (and they were not intended to do so), they have a genuine applicability to Simpson's own recent work, to the poetry of Robert Bly, James Wright, W. S. Merwin, Donald Hall, and James Dickey—though one must say at once that these poets differ distinctly from one another too. Open this new volume of Dickey's poems [Poems 1957-1967] (which gathers together the larger part of his four previous books and concludes with a book-length section of recent pieces) at any page and you find the artistic realization of Simpson's statement: a poetry which indeed seems composed of “images … connected in a dream.” Night and sleep, dominated by moonlight (as in Wallace Stevens), moreover, take a prominent place in many of the poems, from “Sleeping Out at Easter” from Into the Stone (his first book) to “The Birthday Dream” from the new section entitled Falling. But even when he is not directly treating sleep Dickey has a power of imagination that fulfills itself in dreamlike effects. Take, for instance, the initial stanza of “A Screened Porch in the Country.” The situation is so ordinary—a group of people sitting inside a lighted porch on a summer night, their enlarged, distended shadows cast outward onto the surrounding grass—and the imaginative rendering of its implications so extraordinary that the reader's habitual way of looking at things, as with Rilke's “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” is profoundly shaken. Here, too, one must “change [his] life,” or at least his conception of it:

All of them are sitting
Inside a lamp of coarse wire
And being in all directions
Shed upon darkness,
Their bodies softening to shadow, until
They come to rest out in the yard
In a kind of blurred golden country
In which they more deeply lie
Than if they were being created
Of Heavenly light.

Dickey's imaginative processes free the body of its earthly ties and permit it a kind of infinite capacity for extension. In the passage above a transformation occurs within the poet's vision which locates human bodies in an entirely different dimension; their shadows come to possess their spiritual being or constitute its reflection. The ingredients of the external occasion, as already noted, are commonplace, but Dickey's sudden intense visualization stuns us with the revelation of a hidden metaphysical or religious insight. For the poem proceeds to describe a species of metempsychosis—although, of course, no literal death is involved and the inhabitants of the screened porch are not even consciously aware of the curious spiritual transmigration in which they are participating with their shadow selves—that brings the “souls” of these people into communion with the world of small night creatures and insects who come only to the edge of “the golden shadow / Where the people are lying.” The reader finally gets the haunting feeling of having shared deeply in the life of creation and so loosened the boundaries of the selfish ego. Here are the other three stanzas that complete the poem.

Where they are floating beyond
Themselves, in peace,
Where they have laid down
Their souls and not known it,
The smallest creatures,
As every night they do,
Come to the edge of them
And sing, if they can,
Or, if they can't, simply shine
Their eyes back, sitting on haunches,
Pulsating and thinking of music.
Occasionally, something weightless
Touches the screen
With its body, dies,
Or is unmurmuringly hurt,
But mainly nothing happens
Except that a family continues
To be laid down
In the midst of its nightly creatures,
Not one of which openly comes
Into the golden shadow
Where the people are lying,
Emitted by their own house
So humanly that they become
More than human, and enter the place
Of small, blindly singing things,
Seeming to rejoice
Perpetually, without effort,
Without knowing why
Or how they do it.

This poem provides merely one example—and that not so obvious as might be—of what H. L. Weatherby has called “the way of exchange” and Robert Bly terms “spiritual struggle” in Dickey's poems.1 Most evident at first in his pieces about animals and hunting, where the poet almost miraculously divides his intuitive powers so as to depict his own inner state in the role of human perceiver or hunter and the sensations of the animal who knows he is pursued, the notion of exchange has far-reaching effects, which include an interpenetration of the worlds of the living and the dead in such poems as “In the Tree House at Night,” “The Owl King,” “Hunting Civil War Relics at Nimblewill Creek,” “Drinking from a Helmet,” “Reincarnation (I),” and “Sled Burial, Dream Ceremony.” It also, more generally, encompasses the imaginative devices of bodily and spiritual extension, metamorphosis, and metempsychosis of which I have spoken. All of these characteristics, and in addition a preoccupation (strong in his first three books and still present in more recent work) with ritual and archetypal modes of experience, confirm Dickey as a poet who possesses an imagination of a primitive, magical type. Obviously, he is at the same time a modern man of considerable sophistication; but the fact that he hunts with bow and arrow and that he has been a decorated fighter pilot in both World War II and the Korean War indicates something of the broad spectrum of his experience.

The themes of Dickey's best poetry, however, have a timeless aura about them; and while contemporary material and various objects of modern technology necessarily appear in places in his writing, they are simply appropriated and subordinated to the larger concerns at hand. (At any rate, this seems a fair account until we come to some of the poems from Buckdancer's Choice—“The Firebombing,” for example.) Thus in “Hunting Civil War Relics at Nimblewill Creek” the poet and his brother, who has a mine detector to locate buried metal, “mess tin or bullet,” find that this mechanical instrument becomes the means for entering into a state of near-mystical communion with the soldiers who died on this battle ground. As his brother listens through the ear-phones of the detector, Dickey sees his face transformed by a new awareness, strange and awesome, of the way of communication he has unwittingly opened up with the past and the dead; and the brother's expression, in turn, communicates that awareness in all its uncanny force to the poet until he, too, has been captured by the same experience:

We climb the bank;
A faint light glows
On my brother's mouth.
I listen, as two birds fight
For a single voice, but he
Must be hearing the grave,
In pieces, all singing
To his clamped head,
For he smiles as if
He rose from the dead within
Green Nimblewill
And stood in his grandson's shape.

Here we are close to the idea of exchange between the dead and the living or a transmigration of souls, though it is viewed in this instance not as a literal fact but an unforgettable moment of perception among the living—the poet and his brother. The end of the poem finds Dickey arrived at the threshold of a profoundly moving recovery of his (and our) human ancestry:

I choke the handle
Of the pick, and fall to my knees
To dig wherever he points,
To bring up mess tin or bullet,
To go underground
Still singing, myself,
Without a sound,
Like a man who renounces war,
Or one who shall lift up the past,
Not breathing “Father,”
At Nimblewill,
But saying, “Fathers! Fathers!”

The details of this passage are enormously evocative. His kneeling posture and his careful excavation of relics imply a reverential attitude towards the dead, who are resurrected, as it were, in the poet's inwardness, in feeling and imagination, to enlarge his own humanity so that it knows no limits but flows outward to merge with the being of every creature and thing, and, beyond them, to touch at times the realm of the supernatural. The act of digging, as the stanza discloses, takes on the aspect of a descent into the kingdom of the dead, and the poet returns with his new knowledge upon him: the revelation which becomes his poem. In his well-known study The Poetic Image C. Day Lewis notes that a whole poem may be an image composed of smaller contributing images; and of that larger image he offers a general definition which is surely applicable to the poem we have been discussing and also to a fundamental impulse running through Dickey's finest pieces. “The poetic image,” he remarks, “is the human mind claiming kinship with everything that lives or has lived, and making good its claim.”

A little further on, to stay with Day Lewis, he says that the poet is “in the world … to bear witness to the principle of love, since love is as good a word as any for that human reaching-out of hands towards the warmth in all things, which is the source and passion of his song.” Plainly enough, this statement elaborates what its author said about the poetic image, only in this instance he looks behind the work for its underlying (whether conscious or not) intention. James Dickey's poems are truly remarkable in just this respect. “The Owl King,” which is too long for discussion here, can be read as a mythic poem of initiation and exchange between human life and the rest of creation basic to Dickey's imaginative sympathies. In “The Salt Marsh” and “Inside the River” the poet submits himself to two different experiences in which his own being is altered by elements of the natural world. The concluding lines of “Inside the River” have again the ritual symbolic significance we grow familiar with in Dickey's work:

Move with the world
As the deep dead move,
Opposed to nothing.
Release. Enter the sea
Like a winding wind.
No. Rise. Draw breath.
Sing. See no one.

The beautiful poem “Drinking from a Helmet” describes the incredible changes that occur when a soldier on some Pacific island (presumably some version of the poet himself, as most of Dickey's speakers appear to be) picks up the helmet of a dead countryman to hold his water ration. First, he sees his own reflection on the water's surface framed by the helmet's edges, so he seems to be wearing, in this mirror-image, with safety what another was killed in. As he continues to drink and then to contemplate what remains of the water, his own reflection is replaced by other sorts of details which in their suggestiveness point the direction the speaker's experience now takes:

At the middle of water
Bright circles dawned inward and outward
Like oak rings surviving the tree
As its soul, or like
The concentric gold spirit of time.
I kept trembling forward through something
Just born of me.

The next two stanzas are devoted to an evocation of the dead (“I fought with a word in the water / To call on the dead to strain / Their muscles and get up …”), but we are told that “the dead cannot rise up” though “their last thought hovers somewhere / For whoever finds it.” Dickey does find it; and in the eight stanzas that follow there is an elaboration and intensification of the kind of experience rendered in “Hunting Civil War Relics at Nimblewill Creek.” The speaker feels himself “possessed,” filled out from within by something “swallowed whole” from the helmet, and attains to a sense of rebirth and immortality: he has absorbed and revivified in some mystical fashion the person of the dead soldier and has obviously been transformed himself in the process. Subsequently, he discards his own helmet and puts on the one he has found:

Warmed water ran over my face.
My last thought changed, and I knew
I inherited one of the dead.

That is to say, the speaker's own thoughts die with his cast-off helmet; he assumes the dead soldier's final thought with his headgear and seems to be baptized with the last of the water into a new life. The inherited thought is really a vision drawn from the deceased's past, apparently the final flash of memory across his dying mind, and shows two boys talking in a forest of gigantic redwood trees. The two closing sections of the poem envisage the speaker's destiny: he will survive the war and journey afterwards in search of the dead soldier's brother to carry to him the experience of possession and the life-concluding memory which the helmet has conveyed:


I would survive and go there,
Stepping off the train in a helmet
That held a man's last thought,
Which showed him his older brother
Showing him trees.
I would ride through all
California upon two wheels
Until I came to the white
Dirt road where they had been,
Hoping to meet his blond brother,
And to walk with him into the wood
Until we were lost,
Then take off the helmet
And tell him where I had stood,
What poured, what spilled, what swallowed:


And tell him I was the man.

The claim of kinship mentioned by C. Day Lewis is powerfully realized in this poem, and the speaker provides a link between the dead and the living, between the lost soldier and his brother, that lengthens out the pattern of relations beyond those of “Hunting Civil War Relics at Nimblewill Creek” by reaching from time past toward time future. (The conditional tense of the final portion, like the significance of the poem's last line, makes for a certain ambiguity with regard to the speaker's actual location in time and his identity, but such indefiniteness does not detract from the reader's impression of temporal movement.) Yet the very strength of the human bonds Dickey creates in this poem leads one to wonder all the more at the moral abyss which separates it from the piece that begins his next volume, Buckdancer's Choice.

“The Firebombing,” clearly based on the poet's experiences as a night-fighter pilot on bombing missions in Asia during World War II, starts off with nocturnal recollections, entertained years later in the seemingly secure American suburbs, of what he has done to others—burned them alive with napalm, destroyed their property, killed their animals—and the attempt (not very strenuous, I fear, at least in the context of the poem) to project himself into their place, to suffer and understand, and so in part at any rate to expiate his actions. But in spite of an epigraph from the Book of Job (“Or has thou an arm like God?”) and another one from the contemporary German poet Günter Eich (untranslated as epigraph, but in Vernon Watkins' version from Michael Hamburger and Christopher Middleton's Modern German Poetry 1910-1960 it reads: “Think of this, after the great destructions / Everyone will prove that he was innocent”), some lines near the beginning already imply that the effort to awaken such emotions is doomed to failure:

All families lie together, though some are burned alive.
The others try to feel
For them. Some can, it is often said.

The flat, impersonal tone of that last sentence is rather indicative of the results of Dickey's attempt—which purportedly comprises the substance of the poem—to “feel for” his deeds, his victims, because close to the end he can tell us that he is “still unable / To get down there or see / What really happened.” We cannot quarrel with the apparent honesty of this statement. If the poet is incapable of entering the experience of his victims, there is little to be done about it—though we may recall, with a start, his amazing imaginative sympathies with the animals he hunts. Yet in a bizarre, contradictory way the bulk of the poem concentrates on the re-creation of its author's feelings and perceptions during a night raid with napalm bombs on Japanese civilian, rather than military, objectives. Again, as in some of the hunting poems, we see the poet dividing himself in imagination between his own consciousness and a simultaneous intuition of the existence of the hunted; but it is here precisely in “The Firebombing” that Dickey's imaginative gift collapses at the moral level. While he offers us dramatic impressions of his flight and weaponry (the headiness of power becomes quite plain—and terrifying) and of the imagined horror and destruction wrought upon the land below and its inhabitants by his attack, he expends poetic energy on the creation of images through which these events and details are dramatized without ever arousing a commensurate moral—which is to say, human—awareness. In other words, the poet would appear to be re-living this segment of his past more for aesthetic than for any other reasons, for the pain and terror of his victims are dwelt on and vividly presented (though without sympathy) even when we are going to be told at the conclusion that he “can imagine / At the threshold nothing / With its ears crackling off / Like powdery leaves, / Nothing with children of ashes …” Perhaps I am misjudging Dickey's underlying impulse, but if I am the poem still holds puzzling inconsistencies. Robert Bly, who has written a second essay on Dickey's work, a sharp but not quite just criticism of Buckdancer's Choice,2 notes some instances of rather weak irony and self-criticism in the poem, of “complaint” about the pilot-speaker who can feel no remorse for his actions, but certainly such qualifications are almost unnoticeable. Here is a passage which describes the moment the pilot releases his napalm and the holocaust that follows (something Dickey has no difficulty in imagining). References to “anti-morale” raids, “Chicago” fire, and “all American” fire, while they may be intended to serve an ironical-critical function in their context, are feeble by comparison with the overall effect of a fascinated exulting in destructive force, in the superiority of flight and the malevolent artistry of bombing:

The ship shakes bucks
Fire hangs not yet fire
In the air above Beppu
For I am fulfilling
An “anti-morale” raid upon it.
All leashes of dogs
Break under the first bomb, around those
In bed, or late in the public baths: around those
Who inch forward on their hands
Into medicinal waters.
Their heads come up with a roar
Of Chicago fire:
Come up with the carp pond showing
The bathouse upside down,
Standing stiller to show it more
As I sail artistically over
The resort town followed by farms,
Singing and twisting all the handles in heaven kicking
The small cattle off their feet
In a red costly blast
Flinging jelly over the walls
As in a chemical war-
fare field demonstration.
With fire of mine like a cat
Holding onto another man's walls,
My hat should crawl on my head
In streetcars, thinking of it,
The fat on my body should pale.

The self-reproach of the last stanza above is hollow and meaningless next to the fierce delight of re-living that period of godlike superiority. Perhaps Dickey will not try to prove himself innocent, as Günter Eich's poem suggests men do, and that is fine. But Dickey also departs sharply from the spirit of Eich's conclusion, which states: “Think of this, that you are responsible for every atrocity / Enacted far from you.” Further on, he makes other gestures aimed toward compassion and feeling; he remarks that “detachment” and “the greatest sense of power in one's life” should be “shed” (apparently by either one or the other odd means of getting drunk or adopting a severe diet), though in the course of the poem these statements again amount to very little. What is strong, vivid, and passionate in “The Firebombing” springs directly from the occasion which gave the poem its title and from the poet's participation in it; any real concern for the terrible fate imposed upon others seems secondary.

A similar failing is evident in such poems as “The Fiend” and “Slave Quarters,” both of which employ speakers whose chief desire is the fulfillment, through a warped masculine sexual power, of their own sick fantasies. The knife-carrying, middle-aged voyeur of the first poem and the lustful slave-owner (whose ghostly body the poet enters and joins with) of the second are victims of their private delusions: neither can escape from his diseased view and both are determined to realize their fantasies as fact, though the realization must inevitably do violence to others. In these poems, then, one finds a sort of lyricism of the perverse with little else to be said for it. But Dickey demonstrates here, as in “The Firebombing,” an obsession with power and the imposition of will—and a total insensitivity to the persons who are the objects of its indulgence. Admittedly, “Slave Quarters” is the more ambitious poem and attempts in some ways a more difficult feat of understanding; still it is, for me, imaginatively deficient.

Among the recent poems from the lengthy section entitled Falling, I believe we must find notable instances of a diminishing of Dickey's poetic intensity, though such a comment does not everywhere apply. Nonetheless, a regrettable straining after material and effect—perhaps really after novelty—seems to me fatally injurious to most of the longer pieces: “May Day Sermon …” “Falling,” “Sun,” “Reincarnation (II),” and “Coming Back to America.” Faults frequently pointed out by Dickey's critics are painfully evident in “Falling” and “May Day Sermon …”: these poems are drawn out, repetitive, overwritten, blurred, and diffuse; the ‘ideas’ behind them are contrived, and in the case of “Falling,” cannot be sustained even by Coleridge's “willing suspension of disbelief.” Finally, except for striking passages or images, these poems become boring.

This verdict should not be taken as wholly negative, however, for Dickey can still write poems with the energy and imagination which distinguishes his finest work from Drowning with Others and Helmets (by far his best books). “The Birthday Dream,” “The Leap,” “Snakebite,” “Sustainment,” “The Head-Aim,” and “Deer Among Cattle,” as well as others, are examples of good Dickey poems. I quote “Deer Among Cattle”:

Here and there in the searing beam
Of my hand going through the night meadow
They all are grazing
With pins of human light in their eyes.
A wild one also is eating
The human grass,
Slender, graceful, domesticated
By darkness, among the bred-
Having bounded their paralyzed fence
And inclined his branched forehead onto
Their green frosted table,
The only live thing in this flashlight
Who can leave whenever he wishes,
Turn grass into forest,
Foreclose inhuman brightness from his eyes
But stands here still, unperturbed,
In their wide-open country,
The sparks from my hand in his pupils
Unmatched anywhere among cattle,
Grazing with them the night of the hammer
As one of their own who shall rise.

At the top of his form Dickey does reveal a large capacity for feeling, for steeping his spirit in the being of others and in the very life of creation; and we think of the poets with whom his most authentic poems have their affinity: Whitman, Lawrence, Roethke; and among the younger: James Wright, Jon Silkin, Robert Bly, Donald Hall, W. S. Merwin; perhaps some European poets as well. But these affinities are broken in the poems which are morally insensate.

Dickey is a prolific writer, to judge from the size of a decade's production, and he has won sudden fame and publicity. Large reputations—we know it as a commonplace—can be exceedingly dangerous in the pressures they bring always to be new and inventive (the blight of the contemporary painter and sculptor) in order to maintain one's laurels, especially in a culture dedicated to the modish and to consumer consumption of artistic goods; and a poet of Dickey's strengths can be damaged as easily as can a lesser one. I hope that will not happen, for he is, defects aside, a very gifted, truly imaginative poet who has already given us excellent pieces. No doubt his work must alter and grow toward full maturity,3 but its developments need to derive from inner necessity and not in answer to the external demands of reputation or public role. In any event, this collection of Dickey's poetry is an important book; it merits attentive reading—and its readers will be far from unrewarded.


  1. “The Way of Exchange in James Dickey's Poetry,” Sewanee Review, Summer 1966, and “The Poetry of James Dickey,” The Sixties, Winter 1964, respectively. Readers should also see Norman Friedman: “The Wesleyan Poets, II” Chicago Review, 19, 1, 1966; and Michael Goldman: “Inventing the American Heart,” The Nation, April 24, 1967.

  2. In The Sixties, 9, 1967.

  3. Dickey has written an interesting account of his history and aims as a poet in “The Poet Turns on Himself,” included in Poets on Poetry, edited by Howard Nemerov (New York: Basic Books, 1966), which I had not seen at the time of writing this essay. He offers there some important comments on his more recent poetry.

Laurence Lieberman (essay date 1968)

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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 itself, waiting to be released, or to emerge from the living receptacle as a photo emerges from a negative. The phrases have all the mystery and suggestiveness of metaphor, but reduce decorative and artificial qualities to a minimum: “blood turned his face inside out,” “he toppled his head off,” “the head rolled over upon its wide-eyed face,” “sun poured up from the sea.” Style takes the reader deeply into the experience, intensifying the being in the poem without literary self-consciousness. The poet is telling a story, and if the way he tells the story is as remarkable as the story itself, the way of telling remains dutifully subordinate to what is told—imparts urgency and intensity to the story.

In the later war poem “Drinking From a Helmet,” as in “The Performance,” metaphor and personification are so well anchored to harrowing sense impressions that they heighten physical realism:

(1) I climbed out, tired of waiting
                    For my foxhole to turn in the earth
                    On its side or its back for a grave.
(2) In the middle of combat, a graveyard
                    Was advancing after the troops …
(3) Where somebody else may have come
                    Loose from the steel of his head.
(4) Keeping the foxhole doubled
                    In my body and begging …
(5) I drew water out of the truckside
                    As if dreaming the helmet full.

So far are these images from creating the usual remove, the abstracting from literal experience, we expect from figures of speech, these figures seem to carry us into a more intense and immediate literal-ness than literal description could possibly afford. The figures suggest a mind stretching its natural limits of perception to assimilate experience of pain and anguish that can only be apprehended accurately through hallucination. Excruciating mental experience is translated into exact physical correlatives. There is no question of a straining after clever or original images—rather, these queer transpositions of qualities between beings and things are the mind's last resort to keep a hold on its sanity, to stay in touch with its physical environs.

Dickey's use of symbolism is as innovatory as his language. Quite often, the least fully realized poems reveal, in a raw lucidness, ideas and symbols that become the subtly hidden mainstay in the best poems. He draws on the arcane system of thought and symbology in these poems, much as Yeats drew on A Vision, in crystallizing the structure of ideas in his most achieved art. We can turn to these poems, as to a skeleton key, for clues that can often be found nowhere else.

Perhaps the first poem of this type is “Dust.” In Whitman's vision of reincarnation, traditional worms feed on corpses and bring them back to life through the soil and grassroots. In Helmets, Dickey's third volume of poems, his vision is largely confined to that view. However, in “Dust”—a poem in the fourth volume Buckdancer's Choice—he moves toward a new vision of reincarnation through worm-like dust motes, “spirochetes boring into the very body of light,” a rebirth through sunlight and air. He conceives dust as a middle condition, a mediating form between organic and inorganic matter, life and death, much as scientists conceive the virus as a sort of intermediate limbo—a twilight zone—between plant and animal life. Dust motes seem to embody a partial being, or intelligence, as they wait in air and sunlight for spirits just arisen from the newly dead to whirl through them, changing them into “forms of fire,” into “incandescent worms,” and finally, amassing them into a shape, “a cone of sunlight.” That shape of dust is pervaded by being, and becomes a human. The left-overs, “extra motes,” are unable to get into a human form at this time, but ready. They wait.

In “Dust,” as in many poems of the later volume Falling, Dickey seems to be formulating his symbology into a coherent system of thought, a metaphysics of being. A formal theosophy begins to take shape, if these poems are read conjointly. Subsequently, to trace the development of these symbols in Dickey's cosmos is to find that he has been consistent and scrupulous in carrying them through successive stages of his art. Though particular symbols deepen in meaning and intensity in poems which treat them as primary subjects—“Dust,” “The Flash,” “Snakebite,” “Sun”—their basic identity is consistent with their meanings in other poems. Dickey seems to have deliberately extracted recurring components of his art for specialized treatment, each in a separate poem. Partly, he seems to be trying to find out for the first time why each of these symbols, or symbolic events, has such a powerful hold over his poetic imagination. Also, he is codifying the symbols into a systematized philosophy.

To turn from symbolism to a discussion of the management of line and form, in Dickey's early work the long sentence, often extended over several stanzas, is the chief unit of measure. This type of verse movement served Dickey well for three volumes of work, though in some poems the line falls into artificiality and rhythmic straining when the technique becomes self-imitative, and lacks complete absorption in the subject (“The Island” and “The Scratch”).

In “Drinking From a Helmet,” Dickey breaks away from the line and stanza units he has grown so attached to. But he stays confined to many of the old sentence rhythms until he begins to evolve the split line of Buckdancer's Choice. The form in “Drinking From a Helmet” operates like a film strip. Each frame/stanza focuses on an event, physical or spiritual, separate in time from the others. The movement is that of a film strip, rather than a motion picture, since the pauses or silences between frames are as functional in the poem's rhythmic structure as are the stanzas themselves. This form is an extremely important development for Dickey, since it readily achieves effects exactly opposite to the unbroken flow and rhythmic sweep of most of the previous work. Any such innovation in Dickey's form is accompanied by equivalent modifications in the handling of line and pacing of action.

In the poems of Buckdancer's Choice and Falling, the chief unit of measure is the phrase, a breath unit (or breathing unit), as opposed to a grammatical unit. The sentence, as a unit of measure, is all but lost, though occasionally a sentence beginning or ending does seem to punctuate a larger compartment of verse, and more important, a reader usually keeps the illusion that he is moving within the extremeties of a rather free-floating sentence (an illusion that is completely lost, say, in parts of the stream-of-consciousness flow of Joyce and Faulkner). This form adapts perfectly to a welter of experience in flux. The rhetoric keeps drawing more and more live matter into the poem, as from a boundless supply. The entire poem maintains a single unbroken flow of motion. In this respect, the medium owes more to the moving picture, to film technique, than to other poetry. The verse paragraph break is never a true interruption to the rhythmic sweep of the phrase-chain. It merely suggests a shift in perspective, a slowing down and speeding up of the unstoppable momentum, an occasional amplification of the breath-spaces that already separate every phrase from phrase.

Dickey's new form, incorporating the split line, is most successfully managed in the poem “Falling.” The triumph of the split line technique in “Falling” is principally the net result of the ingenious variety of effects Dickey is able to achieve by playing off the phrase-unit against the hexameter line unit. The length of the breath-phrases ranges from a single word to a couple of lines. A single line frequently affords as many as five separate phrases:

Do something with water          fly to it          fall in it
                                                                                drink it          rise
From it          but there is none left upon earth          the clouds have
                                                                                drunk it back
The plants have sucked it down          there are standing
                                                                                toward her only
The common fields of death          she comes back from
                                                                                flying to falling

The enjambments between lines are nearly always consciously functional, whether they interrupt a single breath unit and break up the phrase, or connect breath units:

                                                                                … My God it is good
And evil          lying in one after another
                                                            of all the positions for love
Making          dancing          sleeping …

The astonishing variety of rhythms is mainly induced by balancing caesuras within the line, and varying the patterns of balance in successive lines:

She is watching her country lose its evoked master shape
                                                                      watching it lose
And gain          get back its houses and people          watching
                                                            it bring up
Its local lights          single homes          lamps on barn roofs
                                                                                if she fell
Into the water she might live          like a diver          cleaving
                                                                      perfect          plunge
Into another          heavy silver          unbreathable          slowing
Element: there is water          there is time to perfect
                                                                      all the fine
Points of diving …

The new form makes available to Dickey avenues of sensibility and resources of language and subject that were not accessible in earlier poems. For the poet, what it is possible to say is mainly a matter of versatility of technique. In many of the best poems of Dickey's most recent collection, he is moving toward a more direct engagement with life-experience than ever before. In “Power and Light” and “Encounter in the Cage Country,” the art is less in the writing than in the uniquely comic personality of the persona, who treats his life as a medium for realizing hidden possibilities for creative existence. There is a strange new departure here in Dickey's work. The poem hardly seems like literature. “Encounter” is perhaps the most personally explicit of all his poems. Usually, Dickey's poems reporting true personal experience combine explicit concrete reportage with a revelation of meaning, as in “The Hospital Window” and “Cherrylog Road.” A reader senses that the poem's discovery is a dimension of the experience that came to the poet as an imagined afterthought, even though the symbolic language and imagery of the poem suggest the experience and the meaning that informs it occurred simultaneously in life. But then, it is the business of poetic art to create that illusion.

“Encounter in the Cage Country” drops the usual barriers between Dickey's life and art. It is as though the writer has reached that stage of his life when the skills of his artistry—comic staging, search for identity, haunting intensification of being—must spill over into his life-experience:

… I knew the stage was set, and I began
To perform          first saunt'ring          then stalking
Back and forth like a sentry          faked
As if to run …

Life itself becomes the instrument for creative becoming. It is no longer necessary for the poem to add the dimension of mystery to the experience through consciously willed art, since the personal event itself contains more magic, a sharper ring of truth, than the most subtly imagined poems can afford. The poem creates the illusion, if illusion it is, of being merely a sort of heightened reportage, and it may well stand in the same relation to Dickey's poetic art as The Sacred Fount assumes in the canon of Henry James' fictive art. It is a poem that will probably be examined by critics as a key to understanding the fascinating relation between Dickey's art and life. In “Encounter in the Cage Country,” Dickey holds up a mirror to himself.

Further Reading

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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.

Davis, Will. “James Dickey: An Interview.” In James Dickey: Splintered Sunlight: Interviews, Essays, and Bibliography, edited by Patricia De La Fuente, pp. 6-23. Edinburg, TX: Pan American University School of Humanities, 1979.

Dickey explains his views on poetic form and expression, comments on numerous American writers, and makes observations on the necessity and future of poetry.

Davison, Peter. “The Great Grassy World from Both Sides: The Poetry of Robert Lowell and James Dickey.” In James Dickey: The Expansive Imagination, edited by Richard J. Calhoun, pp. 35-51. DeLand, FL: Everett/Edwards, Inc., 1973.

Comments on the searching quality of Dickey's verse, its thematic complexity, the poet's skilled use of narrative, and his “explosive” poetic development between the years 1957 and 1967.

Friedman, Peggy, and Betty Bedell. “A Conversation with James Dickey.” Kalliope 1 (February 1979): 30-35.

Dickey discusses his thoughts on narrative, poetic revision, and contemporary American poetry.

Korges, James. Review of Drowning With Others, by James Dickey. Minnesota Review 3, no. 4 (summer 1963): 473-491.

Includes a highly laudatory assessment of Drowning With Others, which only takes exception to Dickey's seemingly arbitrary use of poetic form in his second collection of verse.

Lensing, George S. “The Neo-Romanticism of James Dickey.” South Carolina Review 10, no. 2 (April 1978): 20-32.

Interprets Dickey's writing in terms of an emergent tradition of American neo-romanticism, while concentrating on his “poetry of the unrepressed ego” and use of “audacious metaphor.”

Morris, Harry. Review of Poems 1957-1967, by James Dickey. Sewanee Review 77, no. 2 (spring 1969): 318-25.

Criticizes Dickey's logic, prosody, lack of precision, and limited poetic development in his Poems 1957-1967.

Plumly, Stanley. Review of The Zodiac, by James Dickey. American Poetry Review 6, no. 4 (July-August 1977): 42-43.

Calls Dickey's twelve-part poem The Zodiac “a mistake in conception and execution.”

Silverstein, Norman. “James Dickey's Muscular Eschatology.” Salmagundi, nos. 22-23 (spring-summer 1973): 258-68.

Reverential sketch of Dickey's life, poetic vision, and technique.

Wright, James. Review of Into the Stone and Other Poems, by James Dickey. Poetry 99, no. 3 (December 1961): 178-83.

Praises the clear and evocative poems of Dickey's Into the Stone and Other Poems, commenting briefly on a representative piece, “The Performance.”

Additional coverage of Dickey's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 4; Authors in the News, Vols. 1, 2; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 1; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1968-1988; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9–12R, 156; Contemporary Authors Bibliographical Series, Vol. 2; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 10, 48, 61; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 7, 10, 15, 47, 109; Contemporary Poets; Contemporary Popular Writers; Contemporary Southern Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 5, 193; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1982, 1993, 1996, 1997, 1998; DISCovering Authors Modules: Novelists, Poets, Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vol. 9; Poetry for Students, Vols. 6, 11; and Reference Guide to American Literature.

Raymond Smith (essay date 1972)

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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 the knowledge of the animals but their instinct, a natural force which he subscribes to wholeheartedly, that raises them into heaven; this state of life after death appears as the ultimate flowering of the instinct: “Their instincts wholly bloom / And they rise. / The soft eyes open.” The animal heaven does not exclude the violence of the hunt. Rather than tamper with the instinct of the carnivore, the poet perfects its tooth and claw:

For some of these,
It could not be the place
It is, without blood.
These hunt, as they have done,
But with claws and teeth grown perfect,
More deadly than they can believe.

“The lion would not really be a lion,” Dickey explains in Self Interviews, “if, as the Bible says, the lion lies down with the lamb. It would be the form of the lion but not the spirit.” In heaven, the carnivore's instinctual spring, its most characteristic and fulfilling action, is blissfully extended: “their descent / Upon the bright backs of their prey / May take years / In a sovereign floating of joy.” The victims in Dickey's animal heaven fulfill themselves as victims. The poet does modify nature here to the extent that he eliminates the fear and pain that earthly prey would feel:

And those that are hunted
Know this as their life,
Their reward: to walk
Under such trees in full knowledge
Of what is in glory above them,
And to feel no fear,
But acceptance, compliance.
Fulfilling themselves without pain
At the cycle's center,
They tremble, they walk
Under the tree,
They fall, they are torn,
They rise, they walk again.

Calling upon the cyclical nature of life, the poet is able to maintain his vision. The poem ends with an emphasis upon nature's unceasing movement toward renewal.

The relationship between nature and faith is better illustrated by the poem “Trees and Cattle,” in which Dickey successfully attempts to integrate man with nature to achieve that precious “feeling of wholeness” referred to in Self Interviews. “What I want more than anything else,” he explains, “is to have a feeling of wholeness. Specialization has produced some extremely important things, like penicillin and heart transplants. But I don't know how much they compensate for the loss of a sense of intimacy with the natural process. I think you would be very hard-put, for example, to find a more harmonious relationship to an environment than the American Indians had. We can't return to a primitive society; surely this is obvious. But there is a property of the mind which, if encouraged, could have this personally animistic relationship to things.” In the dreamlike “Trees and Cattle,” the poet finds himself standing in a sun-soaked autumn pasture, where he realizes his bond with other living things; in a scene shimmering with potential, he is suddenly aware of immortality.

The poem opens with a view of the trees, emphasizing unshaded sunlight and golden leaves—an image so intense that it threatens to evaporate:

Many trees can stand unshaded
In this place where the sun is alone,
But some may break out.
They may be taken to Heaven,
So gold is my only sight.

A sense of wonder, of infinite value, of potentiality has been introduced into the poem. Identifying with the trees, the poet lets two slowly moving cows step into the picture: “Through me, two red cows walk; / From a crowning glory / Of slowness they are not taken.” The red cows share the potentiality of the golden trees in that the ambling cattle may paradoxically turn the dried-up field into a conflagration: “Let one hoof knock on a stone, / And off it a spark jump quickly, / And fire may sweep these fields, / And all outburn the blind sun.” There is a potential brilliance here akin to that of Hopkins' embers that “gash gold-vermilion.”

The light imagery, with light as a metaphor for life, is continued in terms of a briefly burning flame. The poet, caught up in the same cyclic process as the trees, identifies with them as he suggests the sacred nature of the life-death cycle:

Like a new light I enter my life,
And hover, not yet consumed,
With the trees in holy alliance,
About to be offered up,
About to get wings where we stand.

The introduction of “wings,” prepared for in the first stanza, transforms an idea of imminent death into one of imminent rebirth. The potentiality of the autumn scene is emphasized further before it is actualized in the form of a bull emerging from the sunlight. Identifying with the bull, the poet has a new sense of the immediacy of existence:

The whole field stammers with gold,
No leaf but is actively still;
There is no quiet or noise;
Continually out of a fire
A bull walks forth,
And makes of my mind a red beast
At each step feeling how
The sun more deeply is burning
Because trees and cattle exist.

The poet is more aware of the sun, more aware of his own vitality, because he is aware of the trees and the cattle, because he has identified his light with theirs.

The poem concludes with the poet leaving the field of light and losing his potency, his vision, his very life; for he was given his heart “in some earthly way”: “I go away, in the end. / In the shade, my bull's horns die / From my head; in some earthly way / I have been given my heart.” But there is a sudden reversal in the final stanza as the poet proceeds to amplify the statement about his “earthly” nature:

Behind my back, a tree leaps up
On wings that could save me from death.
Its branches dance over my head.
Its flight strikes a root in me.
A cow beneath it lies down.

The image of the tree rising up with life suggests, as it did earlier in the poem, the idea of rebirth. The imminent renewal of the tree will save the poet who is of the same earth. The fact of renewal “strikes a root” in him as he identifies once more with the trees and cattle.

Dickey's identification with the life-renewing bull in “Trees and Cattle” looks forward to his hunting poems, where the primitive, totemic relationship between man and animal emerges more clearly. Hunting, for Dickey, is a way of achieving “rapport with the animal.” In Self-Interviews, he explains: “the main thing is to re-enter the cycle of the man who hunts for his food. Now this may be playacting at being a primitive man, but it's better than not having any rapport with the animal at all. … I have a great sense of renewal when I am able to go into the woods and hunt with a bow and arrow, to enter into the animal's world in this way.” In “Springer Mountain,” the hunter not only goes into the woods but also rids himself of civilization in the form of his clothing to run naked with a deer, which has moved down the mountain “in step with the sun.” When the hunter removes his clothes, “the world catches fire.” With the “green of excess” upon him, he moves with the buck toward the stream of renewal—“Winding down to the waters of life / Where they stand petrified in a creek bed / Yet melt and flow from the hills / At the touch of an animal visage.” The nature of the renewal is suggested when the hunter speaks of being “For a few steps deep in the dance / Of what I most am and should be / And can be only once in this life.”

In “Approaching Prayer,” the poet carries his identification with the hunted animal to the point of taking upon himself the consciousness of a boar, fatally wounded by the hunter's arrow. The projection begins on a literal level, as the poet covers his head with a hollow boar's head, donning the trophy like a primitive priest. The poet advances to a more spiritual level of projection as he imagines the last sensations of the hog:

The man is still; he is stiller; still
.....Something comes out of him
Like a shaft of sunlight or starlight.
I go forward toward him.
.....With light standing through me,
Covered with dogs, but the water
Tilts to the sound of the bowstring
.....The sound from his fingers,
Like a plucked word, quickly pierces
Me again, the trees try to dance
Clumsily out of the wood.

(An interesting note to this poem is unintentionally provided by Geoffrey Norman in “The Stuff of Poetry” (Playboy, 1971). Commenting on Dickey's “fine mimetic flair,” Norman writes that “his crowd stopper is … a razorback hog. He can draw his big shoulders into a tight droop, thrust his broad forehead out and begin bobbing and snorting until he actually does resemble an old razorback.”)

Another one of Dickey's “totems” is the owl, winged hunter and seer, which dominates the forest of the night. The owl looms larger than life in Dickey's recent novel, Deliverance (1970), where it perches on the tent of the canoeists during their first night in the woods. An omen of the man-hunting to come, the owl spends the night seeking out prey. The narrator hunts with him in his imagination: “I imagined what he was doing while he was gone, floating through the trees, seeing everything. I hunted with him as well as I could, there in my weightlessness. The woods burned in my head. Toward morning I could reach up and touch the claw without turning on the light.” In the poem “The Owl King,” there is another, more obviously ritualistic encounter between man and owl in the dark woods: an owl teaches a blind child to see.

The first part of this long, three-part poem is from the point of view of the blind child's father. The child has been lost in the woods and, as Dickey explains in Self-Interviews, the father is “trying to furnish his blind son with an audible point of reference toward which the child can come, some kind of continuous sound.” The father describes his call as “a sound I cannot remember. / It whispers like straw in my ear, / And shakes like a stone under water. / My bones stand on tiptoe inside it.” Drifting into the forest, the sound forms a kind of magical ring “Round a child with a bird gravely dancing.” The father's cry is echoed by the owl king's song, which comes back out of the woods “touching every tree upon the hill.” Entranced by the strange music that he has produced, the father instructs the blind child: “Come, son, and find me here, / In love with the sound of my voice. / Come calling the same soft song, / And touching every tree upon the hill.” The child will be led out of the forest to the father by ritualistically touching each tree as the song did.

In the second part of the poem, the point of view shifts from the father to the totemic owl. In Self-Interviews, Dickey describes the bird as “the quintessential owl, the immortal owl … kind of a Nietzschean owl who is able to see in the dark by an act of will over a long period of time. … He eventually controls the night forest completely because he's the only one who can see and fly.” The owl king's story begins:

I swore to myself I would see
When all but my seeing had failed.
Every light was too feeble to show
My world as I knew it must be.
At the top of the staring night
I sat on the oak in my shape
With my claws growing deep into wood
And my sight going slowly out
Inch by inch, as into a stone …

The owl's vision is similar to that set forth in “The Heaven of Animals”; it juxtaposes the hunter-victim ecology with the idea of the continuity of life. The owl sees “rabbits running / Beneath my bent growing throne, / And the foxes lighting their hair, / And the serpent taking the shape / Of the stream of life as it slept.” The interior nature of the vision, similar in its archetypal aspect to that of “The Eye-Beaters”—another poem about blind children—is emphasized as the speaker elaborates upon his act of will: “That night I parted my lids / … and saw dark burn / Greater than sunlight or moonlight, / For it burned from deep within me.” This return to the primitive, instinctual past is emphasized later when the child, having regained his sight, utters the Roethke-like paradox: “I see as the owl kings sees, / By going in deeper than darkness.”

The encounter between the owl king and the blind child, touched upon in the first part of the poem, is elaborated here from the owl's point of view:

Through trees at his light touch trembling
The blind child drifted to meet me,
His blue eyes shining like mine.
In a ragged clearing he stopped,
And I circled, beating above him,
Then fell to the ground and hopped
Forward, taking his hand in my claw.
Every tree's life lived in his fingers.

Life moves from the trees through the child's fingers into the claw of the owl. The unitary character of life, apparent in these lines, is made even more explicit in the dance of the creatures that follows: “Gravely we trod with each other / As beasts at their own wedding, dance.” The music to which they dance is the song of the father, described “As though the one voice of us both.” The ritual-like dance performed, the owl teaches the blind boy to see; the child's vision is similar to that of his teacher: “The mouse in its bundle of terror, / The fox in the flame of its hair, / And the snake in the form of all life.” Part two concludes with the expression of the speaker's will that “All dark shall come to light.”

The action of the poem is given its fullest and most exquisite expression in the third and final part—the child's story. It begins with the child's movement into the forest, a journey beautifully expressed in terms of motor and tactile perceptions:

I am playing going down
In my weight lightly,
Down, down the hill.
.....A leaf falls on me,
It must be a leaf I hear it
Be thin against me, and now
The ground is level
It moves it is not ground,
My feet flow cold
And wet, and water rushes
Past as I climb out.

Having crossed the barrier between the human and animal worlds, the child enters the forest. He is suddenly aware of the presence of the owl in the tree overhead before it floats to the earth to take him by the hand. To the music of the sighing father, the dance begins:

The huge bird bows and returns,
For I, too, have done the same
As he leads me, rustling,
A pile of leaves in my hands;
The dry feathers shuffle like cards
On his dusty shoulders.

Like the brothers in Dickey's poem “In the Tree House at Night,” the owl and the child climb into the branches of a living tree, where in the light of the moon the child will learn to see: “I learn from the master of sight / What to do when the sun is dead, / How to make the great darkness work / As it wants of itself to work.” The boy's eyes open to nature—to the coiled snake, to the hunting fox:

A creature is burning itself
In a smoke of hair through the bushes.
The fox moves; a small thing
Being caught, cries out,
And I understand
How beings and sounds go together;
I understand
The voice of my singing father.
I shall be king of the wood.

The vision leads to understanding; understanding, to power—control. Crossing the symbolic creek again (“a religious fire / Streaming my ankles away”), the child returns to his home. His father, under the spell of “the endless beauty / Of his grief-stricken singing and calling” is baying to the moon: “He is singing simply to moonlight, / Like a dog howling, / And it is holy song / Out of his mouth.” The father's singing has become a mindless, instinctive, natural act—in Dickey's view “holy.” The poem concludes with the son identifying with his father and confessing his faith:

                                                                                Father, I touch
Your face. I have not seen
My own, but it is yours.
I come, I advance,
I believe everything, I am here.

The conclusion of the poem, as Dickey put it in Self-Interviews, is “an act of total acceptance of the world through the figure of the child.” The child, like Dickey, is a “born believer.”

Dickey's statement of faith in “The Owl King” has a certain mythic quality. The poem resembles the medieval dream vision, where a bird or animal often acts as a guide for the dreamer. There is a cyclical pattern involved, with the child moving away from his father, into the woods, and back to his father again. The child's experience can be seen, on one level at least, as a form of renewal in the manner of “Springer Mountain.” The father, involved with loss and expression, can be seen as the poet. Dickey is clearly not dealing with any of the traditional myths as he was in “The Vegetable King,” which treats the theme of renewal in terms of the death and resurrection of a sacrificial king. He is working with something new. As Joseph Campbell has observed, with the decay of the traditional myths or religions, it is the creative artist who must provide us with a new mythology. In “Man & Myth” (Psychology Today, 1971) Campbell explains: “In traditional societies the symbols and myths that were the vehicles of social values were presented in socially maintained rites that the individual was required to experience. All the meaning was in the group, none in the self expressive individual. The creative mythology of the modern artist arises when the individual has an experience of his own—of order, or horror, or beauty—that he tries to communicate by creating a private mythology. So it is the creative individual who must give us a totally new type of nontheological revelation, who must be the new spiritual guide.” Although Campbell did not have him in mind, Dickey is one of those modern artists who is creating a new mythology.

The first of the title poems of Dickey's latest collection of poems, The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy (1970) is another, ultimately more successful mythic vision. Confronted by the horror of blindness among children, the poet creates a mitigating fiction: the children in their darkness tap the collective unconscious, the repository of vital images of the primitive past. The poem opens with an account of an arrival at a children's home, where the visitor is met by a group of young people who have gone blind. The children, whose arms are tied to their sides, fight to free themselves: “they holler howl till they can shred / Their gentle ropes whirl and come loose.” Their arms free, the blind children “smash their eyeballs” with their fists to generate the only light available to them—“sparks.” With the help of the visitor's imagination, these sparks are transformed into images from the collective unconscious: “In the asylum, children turn to go back / Into the race: turn their heads without comment into the black magic / Migraine of caves.” Returning to the cave of their Stone Age fathers, the blind children watch a primitive artist draw:

                                                                                          There, quiet children stand watching
A man striped and heavy with pigment, lift his hand with color coming
From him. Bestial, working like God, he moves on stone he is drawing
A half-cloud of beasts on the wall. They crane closer, helping, beating
Harder, light blazing inward from their fists and see see leap
From the shocked head-nerves, great herds of deer …

Opening his eyes for a moment to the afternoon sun, the visitor sees it as a “painfully blazing fist of a ball of fire / God struck from His one eye.” The outer world is immediately negated by the inner, which is presented in lines that wonderfully suggest the desperate frenzy of creativity:

                                                                                          No; you see only dead beasts playing
In the bloody handprint on the stone where God gropes like a man
Like a child, for animals where the artist hunts and slashes, glowing
Like entrail-blood, tracking the wounded game across the limestone
As it is conceived. The spoor leads          his hand changes          grows
Hair like a bison horns like an elk unshapes in a deer-leap emerges
From the spear-pitted rock, becoming what it can make unrolling
Not sparing itself clenching re-forming rising          beating
For life.

God striking the sun becomes the cave man drawing in blood becomes the blind child beating its eyes. All are engaged in a desperate magic.

The visitor is interrupted at this point by his reason, which tells him that what he sees “in the half-inner sight / Of squinting, are only … children whose hands are tied away / From them for their own good children waiting to smash their dead / Eyes, live faces, to see nothing.” Admitting to his fiction, the visitor explains that he is trying to “Re-invent the vision of the race knowing the blind must see / By magic or nothing.” He admits further that the fiction is necessary for his own survival:

                                                                                          … it helps me to think
That they can give themselves, like God from their scabby fists, the original
Images of mankind: that when they beat their eyes, I witness how
I survive in my sun-blinded mind: that the beasts are calling to God
And man for art, when the blind open wide and strike their incurable eyes.

The visitor's predicament is that of modern man: rationalism (the sun) has blinded him to the art, or myths, of his ancestors; to survive, he needs new art.

Reason, interrupting, insists that there is “For the blind nothing but blackness forever nothing but a new bruise / Risen upon the old.” The visitor stresses again the indispensable nature of vision: “In the palm of the hand the color red is calling / For blood the forest-fire roars on the cook-stone, smoke smothered and lightning- / born and the race hangs on meat and illusion hangs on nothing / But a magical art.” Creating a myth to secure psychological sustenance, the visitor is working with magic as the Stone Age artist worked with magic in painting pictures of animals on the cave wall to secure success in the hunt.

The poem ends as the visitor, deliberately rejecting reality for illusion, enters the cave to assume the persona of the Stone Age hunter-artist. The vague “you” of the preceding part of the poem is now “I”:

                                                                                          It is time for the night
Hunt, and the wild meat of survival. The wall glimmers that God and man
Never forgot. I have put history out. An innocent eye, it is closed
Off, outside in the sun. Wind moans like an artist. The tribal children lie
On their rocks in their animal skins seeing in spurts of eye-beating
Dream, the deer, still wet with creation, open its image to the heart's
Blood, as I step forward, as I move through the beast-paint of the stone,
Taken over, submitting, brain-weeping.

Not stopping here, the visitor steps back further into darkness as he projects into the animals that he is creating as hunter-artist. It is the totemic deer of “Springer Mountain” that he identifies with specifically:

                                                                                          Beast, get in
My way. Your body opens onto the plain. Deer, take me into your life-
lined form. I merge, I pass beyond in secret in perversity and the sheer
Despair of invention          my double-clear bifocals off          my reason gone
Like eyes … Give me my spear.

With the call for a spear, the magical identification with the primitive hunter-artist is completed—and in a daringly literal way as usual.

On a certain level of abstraction, “The Eye-Beaters” can be read as a statement about art, or more specifically poetry. The poet-visitor himself is the “eye-beater”; blinded by the sun, he beats his eyes for the chance spark that may leap through his brain. Modern rationalism has cut him off from the healing, life-sustaining roots of his past. His only salvation is a journey down the years, into the darkness of the collective unconscious, the cave—to enter into the “life- / lined form” of the deer “still wet with creation.” Dickey's stance is directly opposed to any art for-art's-sake aesthetic; art for him is a bloody business—“the artist hunts and slashes” in “the sheer / Despair of invention.” Art is as vital to life as eating. The poem is a wonderful statement of Dickey's faith in the primitive, mythmaking power of man.

An important constant, then, in Dickey's work is his poetic faith, which is manifest throughout—from Into the Stone (1957) to The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy (1970). This faith, however, has not prevented the emergence of a growing sense of man's mortality, which is particularly evident in the latest collection of poems. This darkening of Dickey's vision is especially evident when “The Owl King” is compared to “The Eye-Beaters.” The blind child who blesses the trees as he moves with confidence through the forest is replaced by the institutionalized child who has to be restrained from striking his blind eyes. The singing of the one poem is reduced to the moaning of the other. The vision comes easily, naturally in “The Owl King”; painfully in “The Eye-Beaters.” Despite these differences, both poems reflect a fundamental trust in the basic instincts of man. The most important of these natural forces, which man shares with other living things, is the power of self-renewal. “There is a wing-growing motion / Half-alive in every creature,” Dickey has written in “Reincarnation (II),” and it is this motion that is dealt with in one way or another in many of his poems.

Robert W. Hill (essay date 1973)

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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 Fortinbras at the end of Hamlet, that play is about Hamlet and the royal family's disaster, the disaster of the state in them. But it is a unique thing ended with them. There may be other tragedies, as those implied to come after the death of Beowulf, for example, but they are themselves. It is the sense of finality, delimitation of human activity, not just the matter of declining fortune, that is tragedy; it may not even concern society as a whole. Comedy is optimistic, openly affirming, not necessarily taking place within the societal framework noted by Frye, but within the individual. Thus we may talk of tragic poetry and comic poetry apart from their dramatic or moral qualities, or their societal relationships. Dickey is primarily a comic poet because he affirms copious and on-going life.

Paradoxically, Dickey has three poems about death that may be useful in trying to understand his comic vision: “The Lifeguard” (p. 51),1 “The Performance” (p. 30), and “Falling” (p. 293). The first of these is about a lifeguard who tried but failed to save a drowning child. Late at night, solitary in a boathouse, he speaks of the other children who trusted him as they watched him dive again and again. The poem ends with a vision of the dead child out of the killing lake:

He is one I do not remember
Having ever seen in his life. …
I wash the black mud from my hands.
On a light given off by the grave
I kneel in the quick of the moon
At the heart of a distant forest
And hold in my arms a child
Of water, water, water.

This poem offers no expansive vision for its persona. One might claim that the lifeguard's life-sense has expanded in his new consciousness of death and guilt, but that would be to overlook the finality of the last two lines of the poem. The lifeguard is forever caught in that death-guilty moment, and the poem is tragic for its stasis in futility.

The other two death poems are of a different thematic order; they move in the direction of comic vision rather than tragic. “The Performance” tells the story of an amateur gymnast, a pilot in World War II's Pacific, who was captured by the Japanese and beheaded. Before his death, however, he “amazed” his “small captors” with “all his lean tricks.” The climax of his performance was:

… the stand on his hands,
Perfect, with his feet together,
His head down, evenly breathing,
As the sun poured up from the sea
And the headsman broke down
In a blaze of tears, in that light
Of the thin, long human frame
Upside down in its own strange joy,
And, if some other one had not told him,
Would have cut off the feet
Instead of the head,
And if Armstrong had not presently risen
In kingly, round-shouldered attendance,
And then knelt down in himself
Beside his hacked, glittering grave, having done
All things in this life that he could.

This is a poem about a man of good-will and free spirit who is decapitated. Yet I have had students to laugh, albeit nervously, when it was read aloud to them. Something of the finality of death is negated by Donald Armstrong's comic vision. His life is cut short, shall we pun, and we care very much that he is lost; but his story is one of abundant life, the excess that makes laughter and art. For Dickey it is particularly significant that Armstrong's affirmation is in terms of physical acts, and that by inverting his own body he inverts the fears of death into joys of life and the tragic into the comic.

From all that we know of him, Donald Armstrong always had the comic vision which allowed him to perform for his executioners, but this is not the case with the stewardess in “Falling.” The process of her fortune might be graphed like this: (1) She is in relatively good fortune, alive and functioning in her tightly uniformed way; (2) her fortune suddenly collapses as she is blown out the door of the airplane; (3) she gradually, then more rapidly, grows aware of life, encompassing everything of her human world in recollection and hope—love, T.V.'s, lakes, skydiving, fields, fertility, mystery—rising infinitely beyond whatever “life” she had known before; and (4) she dies as a poetic fertility sacrifice and goddess, a tragic downturn which nonetheless maintains the girl on a higher plane of fortune than her former stiff existence: she becomes a life symbol.

“Falling” is an especially important poem because it exemplifies the integrative consciousness that Dickey identifies as good, and that we have designated as comic. In the epigraph we read that the stewardess is twenty-nine, the cruelest loss-of-youth age, and the poem plays on her being bound up, lacking the freedom and effusiveness of youth. She “moves in her slim tailored / Uniform,” and when she falls, “Still neat lipsticked stockinged girdled by regulation her hat / Still on …,” we are set up by the poet for the loosening of garments that indicates her return to good natural things later in the poem. She soon finds that her body is “maneuverable,” and we are told of “her / Self in low body-whistling wrapped intensely in all her dark dance-weight / Coming down from a marvellous leap. …” But the acute physical sense of her falling quickly fuses with the symbolic structuring of the theme of fertility. She falls “with the delaying, dumfounding ease / Of a dream of being drawn like endless moonlight to the harvest soil. …” As she hurtles toward the death that earth holds for her, her mind fills with life images: birds, woods, fields, water. She even comes to believe that if she could soar to a lake and hit it just right (“there is time to perfect all the fine / Points of diving”), she would emerge “healthily dripping / And be handed a Coca-Cola. …” She has already been linked symbolically with the crescent fertility moon, and this slant reference to Coca-Cola's exploitation of Astarte foreshadows the sacrifice to the fields that the stewardess will become.

By the time she must face death without hope, the stewardess has attained a sense of life's breadth that would make her an integrative, comic visionary, if she were to live. But she cannot, and in her new knowledge of nature she escapes the unassailable single terror of hysteria; she chooses the ritual of her death:

Do something with water fly to it fall in it drink it rise
From it but there is none left upon earth the clouds have drunk it back
The plants have sucked it down there are standing toward her only
The common fields of death she comes back from flying to falling
Returns to a powerful cry the silent scream with which she blew down
The coupled door of the airliner nearly nearly losing hold
Of what she has done remembers remembers the shape at the heart
Of cloud fashionably swirling remembers she still has time to die
Beyond explanation. …

She removes her clothes, desiring to strike the earth with as much of its naturalness as she can will to herself. The poem reverberates with the union of her, the earth, and the blood-mystical farmers on the ground who await “the greatest thing that ever came to Kansas”:

Her last superhuman act the last slow careful passing of her hands
All over her unharmed body desired by every sleeper in his dream:
Boys finding for the first time their loins filled with heart's blood
Widowed farmers whose hands float under light covers to find themselves
Arisen at sunrise the splendid position of blood unearthly drawn
Toward clouds. …

She is almost apotheosized at this moment, the falling goddess of fertility come to astound her cult with her death:

                                                            … All those who find her impressed
In the soft loam gone down driven well into the image of her body
The furrows for miles flowing in upon her where she lies very deep
In her mortal outline in the earth as it is in cloud can tell nothing
But that she is there inexplicable unquestionable and remember
That something broke in them as well and began to live and die more
When they walked for no reason into their fields to where the whole earth
Caught her. …

Obviously, “Falling” is not a completely comic poem, but in the stewardess' expansive vision—her creative identity with the natural world—we can see Dickey's comic impulse at work. In this poem he counterposes an inherently tragic narrative and the comic sense of fertile continuance. The stewardess is ultimately important to us, not because she dies so strangely, but because she comes alive as she falls.

Up to this point, we have not discussed the essential quality—joy—that distinguishes Dickey's unadulteratedly comic poems. Works like “The Heaven of Animals” (p. 59), “Encounter in the Cage Country” (p. 274), “Cherrylog Road” (p. 134), and “Power and Light” (p. 256) are fully optimistic, effusive with natural potentials, joyous.

The Dantean comic end, a heaven for people, does not enter into Dickey's poetry. It might be that it carries for him (out of a Southern Bible Belt culture) connotations of spiritual fixedness—a tragedy for human creatures. Besides, what he has called his “religion of sticks and stones” would be antithetical to any traditional Christian notions of immortality and divine reward. So he writes of “The Heaven of Animals,” a cyclical living and dying that allows ideal participation of the living individual in the most profound processes of nature. Joy for the physical creature is to fulfill his sensuous natural self:

Here they are. The soft eyes open.
If they have lived in a wood
It is a wood.
If they have lived on plains
It is grass rolling
Under their feet forever. …

One suspects that Dickey is much more sensitive to the savage bliss of the predatory cats in this poem than to the fearless acquiescence of the hunted. But because of the restrictions of the tour de force, he does portrary a kind of saintly victimage at the end:

Their reward: to walk
Under such trees in full knowledge
Of what is in glory above them,
And to feel no fear,
But acceptance, compliance.
Fulfilling themselves without pain
At the cycle's center,
They tremble, they walk
Under the tree,
They fall, they are torn,
They rise, they walk again.

There is, nonetheless a fakery about this poem that seems to come from Dickey's discomfort in the presence of the Ideal. He is a poet of process, of the imperfection of human and non-human nature; he believes in an ongoing life force that “seems to promise immortality to life, but destruction to beings,” as Melville has put it (Mardi, LXIX). Dickey sees joy in the animals' heaven, and he wants the poem to show his belief in integrative nature; but he deserts his position on the side of nature when he removes pain from the prey's experience. This is a very neat poem; however, in straining after its point it misses the profundity of real experience.

A much more real thing happens in “Encounter in the Cage Country.”2 Dickey (it is difficult to speak of “the persona,” since it is so plainly Dickey himself) explores a very complex set of responses. At one level he is egocentric, asserting his human superiority over this beast:

Among the crowd, he found me
Out and dropped his bloody snack. …
… we saw he was watching only
Me. I knew the stage was set, and I began
To perform. …

He is playing a role, but not so much for the cat as for the spectators who have gathered for his display of American tourism: “… at one brilliant move / I made as though drawing a gun from my hip- / bone. …” He imagines having great power over the crowd as well as over the panther: “… the bite-sized children broke / Up changing their concept of laughter. …” At another level, however, he believes that he is communicating with the animal, thus affirming their kinship. Unlike the “sophisticated,” superior human being before him, the black panther is not fooling:

But none of this changed his eyes, or changed
My green glasses. Alert, attentive,
He waited for what I could give him:
My moves my throat my wildest love,
The eyes behind my eyes. …

The man has found confirmation for his instinctual life in the eyes of a caged beast; he has drawn power that is deeply known and inexplicably communicable: “… the crowd / Quailed from me and I was inside and out / of myself. …”

The poem is comic in two ways: it asserts the natural union of human beings and other animals, and it is funny. Laurence Lieberman makes reference to the latter, saying, “While the humor enhances the seriousness of the exchange between man and beast, it also balances the terror as the poem rises to a peak of spiritual transcendence.” With regard to the former, he notes a shift in attitude from Dickey's earlier animal poems: “… he no longer transforms into a new, wholly other being; instead, he intensifies and deepens the human self by adding animal powers to it.”3 These two observations are of the essence of Dickey's comic vision. It cannot merely exclude the terrible; an expansive vision must have room for the sprawling human potential and the fatal constrictions of circumstance. And it all must end in affirmation—joy at being alive. “Encounter in the Cage Country” ends with the poet's knowing that he is uniquely human, separate, and yet not unknown to the almost mystical life force:

… 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.

“Cherrylog Road” and “Power and Light” are more exclusively human poems. Especially in “Cherrylog Road,” Dickey relies on the vitality of common people to approach the comic vision. The nature-force that he writes about is the sexual urge of youngsters from the country. The occasion of the plot is a lovers' tryst in a junkyard. The girl has to slip away from her frightening father on the pretext of stealing parts off the junked cars:

I popped with sweat as I thought
I heard Doris Holbrook scrape
Like a mouse in the southern-state sun
That was eating the paint in blisters
From a hundred car tops and hoods.
She was tapping like code,
Loosening the screws,
Carrying off headlights,
Sparkplugs, bumpers
Cracked mirrors and gear-knobs,
Getting ready, already,
To go back with something to show
Other than her lips' new trembling. …

The quality of Dickey's humor here is not strained; the funny things in this poem come from exuberance—extravagant images that might very well have occurred to a boy who could rendezvous in such a wildly imaginative place. His fear of Doris' father is funny with the fears of youth, although there is no reason to doubt that the red-haired man might wait:

In a bootlegger's roasting car
With a string-triggered 12-gauge shotgun
To blast the breath from the air. …

The scene intrudes upon the youthfully serious passion with an irreverence that does not slow the two lovers at all:

… we clung, glued together,
With the hooks of the seat springs
Working through to catch us red-handed
Amidst the gray breathless batting
That burst from the seat at our backs. …

When the sexual experience is over, the boy, parted from his girl and flushed with success, goes to his motorcycle. Dickey's description reproduces perfectly the happy haste of kinds who got away with it:

… she down Cherrylog Road
And I to my motorcycle
Parked like the soul of the junkyard
Restored, a bicycle fleshed
With power, and tore off
Up Highway 106, continually
Drunk on the wind in my mouth,
Wringing the handlebar for speed,
Wild to be wreckage forever.

This poem's greatest accomplishment is in its depiction of youthful passion and resourcefulness, not in its portrait of true love. Doris Holbrook is never as important as an individual woman as she is as the catalyst for the boy's excitement. In this poem we are not confronted with moral sensitivity and complex psychology. Nor is there mystical interaction of the human with the non-human, although Dickey does make some gestures in the direction of pathetic fallacy in order to tie the young lovers symbolically to natural processes:

So the blacksnake, stiff
With inaction, curved back
Into life, and hunted the mouse
With deadly overexcitement. …

This is a story of the finding and fulfilling of humanity in natural instincts without regret. These young do not ponder consequences; they act from their energies, and they affirm the wild freedom of having done what was wanted and having freely joined with another human being. There is only a distant fear of reprisal, and that vanishes from the moment “I held her and held her and held her. …” The poem is comic partly because the reader believes that this rendezvous might very well take place again, equally without guilt, equally breathlessly, with the young motorcyclist tearing off again, drunk again on the wind.

The repetition of experience implied in “Power and Light” is, from one point of view, tragic. It is a poem about a telephone lineman who feels fully alive only in terms of his work. His wife and children are trouble to him, and at the beginning of the poem he has gone away from them into the basement to drink after work. For most of the poem he is drunk, and he tells how his personal power and light come from his work and his liquor: one satisfies him when he is away from home, and the other lifts him out of the darkness of the basement into the light of his upper house, inured to his unpleasant domestic situation. Insofar as he is trapped by an unchangingly bad home life, the man is tragic; but insofar as he is able to find renewal within himself, and new optimism, he is comic.

This man loves the work of his hands; he is optimistic in turning to physical action for his inspiration, and when that work time is done, he turns inward with drink, to find the “pure fires of the Self.” He has comic vitality in seeing the extensions of himself multiplied and spreading world-wide into expression, nothing blocked, everything reaching out and fulfilling the needs of language and emotion:

                                                                                          … all connections
Even the one
With my wife, turn good turn better than good turn good
Not quite, but in the deep sway of underground among the roots
That bend like branches all things connect and stream
Toward light and speech. …

He talks like a ring-tailed roarer, and his courage rises until he cannot simply talk anymore:

                                        … I strap crampons to my shoes
To climb the basement stairs, sinking my heels in the tree-
life of the boards. Thorns! Thorns! I am bursting
Into the kitchen, into the sad way-station
Of my home, holding a double handful of wires
Spitting like sparklers
On the Fourth of July. …

This kind of going ahead with bluster and stomp makes the lineman one of a long line of comic extroverts: miles gloriosus, Falstaff, Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, etc. Constance Rourke calls this type the frontiersman, or backwoodsman, but Dickey's interest is not so much in the lineman's word-flinging comic forebears. He sees the man as one who is profoundly conscious of fate and the grave in the midst of his imaginative palaver:

And I laugh
Like my own fate watching over me night and day at home
Underground or flung up on towers walking
Over mountains my charged hair standing on end crossing
The sickled, slaughtered alleys of timber
Where the lines loop and crackle on their gallows.
Far under the grass of my grave, I drink like a man
The night before
Resurrection Day. …

For Dickey, the comic vision is essentially inclusive of all life—people and things, terror and exaltation. One of the differences between Dickey and that other great garrulous includer, Walt Whitman, is that Dickey is more consistent in keeping both the good and evil in mind—unblended, intrinsic—throughout his poetry. The comic vision is a balanced one, enabling men to go on despite deaths and nagging wives, but the deaths and wives are not forgotten. To tramp through the kitchen with Thor's bolts in hand and terrible spikes at heel is not to forget that there is opposition, but it is to say to that opposition, “… I am a man / Who turns on. I am a man.”


  1. Poems 1957-1967 (Middletown, Connecticut, 1967). All page references will be to this edition.

  2. At public readings, Dickey likes to tell of how he actually met the black panther at the London Zoo; the experience is obviously dear to him.

  3. Laurence Lieberman, intro. The Achievement of James Dickey (Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman, 1968), p. 21.

Joan Bobbitt (essay date 1978)

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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 so because of its context in a civilized world, and that these deviations actually possess a vitality which modern man has lost. In “Kudzu,” for example, nature's power flows from the plant to the speaker, who needs its strength even though his civilized character dictates that he must destroy the giver. As early as the first line, kudzu is associated with something alien and menacing. A “far Eastern vine,” it refuses to stay within the bounds set for it by man, “the clay banks it is supposed to keep from eroding” (11. 2-3). Ironically, man has acknowledged his dependency by introducing it to the land himself. He cannot control nature alone; he must use nature to control nature. Yet nature is not easily harnessed to do man's bidding. Instead, the kudzu grows past the artificial limits imposed on it. In line 6, the vines crawl up telephone poles, which take on human characteristics as they shriek to avoid being smothered. As nature twisted and distorted by man, they resist these “ghosts,” reminders of what they once were, who have come now to reclaim them.

Nature's uncanny power becomes even more evident in the second section of the poem, lines 9-31. Here the kudzu seems to be endowed with an almost super-human strength of will. With determination it encroaches upon the domain of man, casting a spell over all it touches. As the tendrils crawl snake-like across the fields and toward the windows, “you sleep like the dead” (1. 15). In this “silence,” grown “Oriental” (1. 16), civilized man has no place. He cannot step upon this parody of a hallowed ground for his leg will plunge even deeper into a mystery where “it should not, it never should be” (1. 19). Nature is denying man even as man is denying nature. Though the speaker recognizes rationally that the movement of the kudzu is mindless, not purposive, he nonetheless stands in awe of and fears its power. Indeed, it is this very mindlessness, so alien to anything he knows, which frightens him most. The danger which he fears, moreover, is not imaginary, but quite real. Through some mysterious transformation, the vines appear almost to have become serpents, the traditional symbol of evil. Regardless of how they came to be there, the snakes which twine themselves among the kudzu pose a definite threat. They seem to grow “in earthly power” because they cannot safely be contained by man. Under the “huge circumstance of concealment,” they are ready to destroy. The cows, products of man's paltry attempts to domesticate nature, prove no match for them. So pervasive is their power that all nature seems to respond: even the dead wood of the stalls “strain[s] to break into leaf” (1. 31), as the dying cows look on.

When the kudzu taps, Raven-like, at the window, civilized man realizes that he must stop cowering in fear and assume control of nature. To do so, he once again relies on nature to fight nature. Though he failed before, this time he employs the aid, not of an alien plant which may easily become uncontrolable, but of a domestic animal, the hog. With the fat which diminishes their vulnerability, these “meaty troops” thrash out the snakes. Just as the snakes are linked to the kudzu, the hogs are likened to their owners. In the leaves, “the sound is intense, nearly human with purposive rage” (1. 45). The animals seem to absorb the will of their masters as they trample and destroy the enemy. Appropriately, it is the hog that can most successfully do man's bidding and fight his battles. Alone, he proves inadequate to the task of confronting and subduing nature. With the death of the snakes, the kudzu loses its power and withers away “Leaving a mass of brown strings / Like the wires of a gigantic switchboard” (1. 59). Like the telephone pole, it is but a ghost of what it once was and bears more resemblance to a man-made thing than to its true nature. Yet the telephone poles and the stalls still exist, though admittedly in a different state, while the kudzu, robbed of its power, ceases to live. In “restoring the lightning to the sky” (1. 61), man has put nature in its place and can sleep safely.

Still, civilized man seems diminished by his own victory. In his “frail” house, he muses on “the surface of things and its terrors” (1. 65) and comes to the recognition that his own nature has indeed been enhanced by the kudzu and that its loss is also his. Just as the vines send “great powers” into the bodies of the snakes, “energy also flowed / … from the knee-high meadow” (11. 72-3) to him. The kudzu provides a kind of transfusion of nature's power into a human body that is somehow deficient, what H. L. Weatherby terms “the way of exchange,” a mysterious regenerative process which may take place between man and his opposites.”2 With the “green sword twined among / the veins” (11. 75-6) the arm grows and takes on new strength. Such vigor does not come from “proper shaved fields” or “safe cows” (11. 75-6), nature which has been tampered with by man, but only from nature which refuses to be harnessed by man. While he sleeps, the power comes to him despite the closed windows, and in him it prospers. His waking self, however, finds it necessary to root the invader out or risk destruction by an irrational force. Yet the alien plant has made an impact on the civilized world, and in remembering, man is acknowledging his own need of a power which only nature can provide.

In “The Sheep Child,” Dickey once again depicts the relationship between rational man and irrational nature through a bizarre image. Though Georgia farm boys admit the masturbatory function of nature in their wild need “to couple with anything” (1. 12), their fear of the product of complete irrationality in man, the sheep child, forces them to be civilized. Like the legend of the kudzu, the story of the “woolly baby pickled in alcohol” (11. 17-18) in an Atlanta museum serves as a grim reminder of what happens when the irrational takes control. Such “things can't live” (1. 13) because man and nature pose two extremes which are seemingly irreconcilable. Yet Dickey frequently “focuses on the earth's beasts as a means to the angels.”3 Though the creature's eyes are open, no one is able to face that vacant stare. To do so would be to acknowledge the possibility of the animal in man. Such demonstrations of irrationality, however imaginary, are best left to dusty corners. In fact, the civilized urban society momentarily forgets as the boys take “their own true wives in the city” (1. 19). But the poet remembers and wonders if the story is merely fiction.

In the figure of the sheep child, Dickey credits himself with having created the most unique persona in literature.4 This grotesque combination of two worlds, the world of nature and the world of man, speaks “merely with his eyes” (1. 25), perhaps a Platonic reference to the dwelling place of the soul. In describing his conception and birth, the sheep child stresses harmony in nature. His mother stands “like moonlight” in the pasture, an image which implies union among all things. Indeed, Dickey calls the female sheep a heroine “who accepts the monstrous conjunction and bears the monstrous child because in some animal way she recognizes the need it is born from.”5 Despite its mindlessness and irrationality, nature willingly serves man. When she is seized from behind, the sheep child's mother gives “her best / self to that great need” (11. 34-5). Having conceived, she assumes human qualities and sobs “at what she must do” (1. 38).

In the dying moments of his birth, the sheep child looks with “eyes more than human” (11. 40-1). A part of both worlds, he can momentarily know their truths, and in viewing “man and beast in the round of their need” (1. 43), he senses a fullness, an overall completeness not apparent to the merely human. According to George Lensing, Dickey actually believes “that animal life, in its natural and instinctive wisdom, is one to which humans may aspire and in which they may find their own heightened identity.”6 Yet, despite his knowledge, the sheep child cannot live, and with his death, those truths become only faintly detectible behind staring eyes.

From the harmony of the pasture, the dead sheep child is brought to his “father's house” (1. 49), a dusty, unvisited museum. In contrast with the world of nature, the world of man seems empty and sterile. Pickled in his “immortal waters” (1. 52) the sheep child's eyes confide his truths to the “sun's grains,” the only visitors to his “hellish-mild corner” (1. 51). Unlike a two-headed kitten or some other freak of nature, he does not attract the curious for whom his existence would bear testimony that man is also fallible. Such unnatural creatures seem to parody a world which, in his delusion, man believes he controls rationally and absolutely. Consequently, the lesson which the sheep child teaches is resisted. Like the kudzu, however, he is remembered and in the memory there is an admission of need. Dickey uses the imaginary sheep child to represent nature denied and man diminished as a consequence: “What I intended was that this contra naturum creature born from this monstrous clandestine marriage between a human being and an animal is not contra naturum but very much naturum.7 The fear which keeps farm boys from coupling with animals and forces them “deep into their known right hands” (1. 60) is civilized man's rejection of the irrational within himself. The memory of the sheep child drives man to marry and to raise his kind, and, in doing so, it becomes a civilizing tool. Yet as Laurence Liberman points out in “The Worldly Mystic,” he is now ever-conscious, caught “in a haunting, if inexpressible certainty that a much larger, grander, demonic world—compounded of Heaven and Hell—lies just the other side of the limits of his known, calculable existence.”8

In “The Fiend,” Dickey employs the unnatural in the same manner and for the same purpose as in “Kudzu” and “The Sheep Child,” bringing the power of nature to the civilized, normal world. The fiend specifically embodies the sexual power in nature which becomes grotesque when concentrated in this one unlikely man. A Jekyll and Hyde figure, by day he is the most ordinary of people, a worried accountant who somehow epitomizes the tedium and mediocrity of civilized existence. At night, however, he transcends this dreary state, though he never quite discards its trappings, the straightened tie and pocketful of pens given him by salesmen. When he assumes the role of voyeur, the accountant loses many of his human characteristics and as a consequence becomes in harmony with nature. As fiend, he is able to “swarm” and “glide up the underside light of leaves” (1. 3). When he masturbates, all nature seems to be moving with him. At such moments “he holds in his awkward, subtle limbs / the limbs of a hundred understanding trees” (11. 39-40). In providing him with cover and protection, nature seems to give approval. Indeed, in his lust it is nature in the form of the wind that sets him in motion. Through the fiend, Dickey stresses this inter-dependence between man and nature. When he coughs, “the smallest root responds” (1. 86). When he sees a naked girl, the wind “quits in mid-tree” and “birds / freeze to their perches” (11. 21-2). In no instance does nature oppose him. Even watchdogs are quieted by his hand which, like Christ's could “calm sparrows and rivers” (1. 63). Instinctively, they sense in him a kindred spirit. Like the sheep child, the fiend views the truths of both worlds, and his eyes and the dogs' are “the same pure beast's / Comprehending the same essentials” (11. 65-6). Lieberman rightly observes that the “encounter between him and life-experience, though voyeuristic and ‘abnormal,’ is presented as final, incisive, fulfilling.”9

Against this natural harmony, Dickey poses the sterility of civilized existence. What the fiend witnesses is a form of death in life symbolized by the soundless TV shows. “Gesturing savagely” (1. 48) the actors act out their parts. Yet reading their lips is like “reading the lips of the dead” (1. 49). Sound isn't even necessary, for nothing is being said. This same lifelessness is a reflection of the lives of the apartment dwellers. The effect of watching them through closed windows is much the same as watching a meaningless TV show. Without even the pretense of vitality, “indifferent men drift in or out of the rooms” (11. 70-1) or doze over the newspaper. Almost omniscient, the fiend is always “near them when they are weeping without sound” (1. 95). From his vantage point in the trees, he watches as “doctors, looking oddly / Like himself worm a medical arm up under the cringing covers” (11. 100-102). No-where does he see any evidence of happiness or contentment: civilization seems to be synonymous with impotence.

The fiend, however, is a mediator between man and nature, and its power is invested in him. A grotesque parody of the saviour, he can transform even a “sullen shopgirl” (1. 19) into something more than human. His watching affects man-made things: the TV screen sputters with wormy static as though it senses an alien presence. Similarly, the girl herself changes. The fiend sends his power to her in a ray of light, and she no longer moves herself, but is moved by an invisible force, “some all-seeing eye of God” (11. 27-28). Even her “stressed nipples” have a life of their own as they “rise like things about to crawl off her” (1. 25). As she is carried by “some hand come up out of roots” (1. 28) to the shower, she shares with the fiend the distinction of being one with the natural world. Time seems to stop. Civilization itself passes away as the other apartments sink to ground level, “burying their sleepers in the soil” (1. 18). In this isolation, the “sullen shopgirl” takes on mythological characteristics. The steamed shower becomes her “cloud chamber,” and she sings as if “come up from river-fog” (11. 31-32, 34). With her hair in “rigid curlers” (1. 20), she seems an unlikely goddess. Yet even apartment-dwellers can be transfigured by the fiend's light and become “saints” (1. 24).

In his role as saviour, the fiend fulfills a definite, though only faintly acknowledged, need in man. The unhappy women whom he views are especially aware of their emptiness. Because they are women, they are instinctively close to nature. Their bodies respond with “moon-summoned blood” (1. 84) and are nature's receptacles in the sexual act. Sensing the impotence of the civilized world, they fill their beds with teddy bears and “overstuffed beasts” (1. 99) in a vain attempt to capture some of nature's vitality: “for what / women want / Dwells in bushes and trees” (11. 72-3). Lacking this sexual power, they “must save their lives / By taking off their clothes” (11. 53-4). Only by returning, at least spiritually, to his natural state can man find fulfillment. In his abnormality, the fiend saves by his “beholding” (1. 54) and thereby confers on deficient man a type of “immortality” (1. 68).

Like the kudzu, however, the “worried accountant” poses a potential threat to the civilized world. In denying the natural or irrational in himself, man has forced its power into concealment. For the apartment-dwellers, natural instincts are relegated to their proper place under cringing covers. The work of the fiend too must be done by stealth in the night. Such denial though can never be a permanent state. Already, the fiend has difficulty uncurling his toes from branches; his bird movements die hard. The “solid citizen” (1. 62) is little more than a figment of the imagination. Too many pulled shades have undermined his solidity. Ultimately, nature will assert itself, perhaps, as Dickey implies, violently. When the fiend comes down from his tree to make a “final declaration” (1. 118), the irrational which has been denied will make an irrecoverable intrusion into the civilized world.

In these representative poems, Dickey attempts to fulfill his professed poetic aim of charging “the world with vitality, with the vitality that it already has, if we could rise to it.”10 The kudzu is a product of the natural world introduced into the world of man, while the fiend is a product of the civilized world that seeks to return to nature. Though unable to live in either, the sheep child is the offspring of both worlds. In all instances, these aberrations function by either the consent or action of man who acknowledges a need for nature's power, if only at the unconscious level. Indeed Dickey seems to be suggesting here, as in his novel, Deliverance, that “survival might depend upon an ability to shed the veneer of civilization and call forth the monster within us, to meet our buried selves face to face. …”11 In his poetry, the unnatural provides a means of satisfying this need and establishing order between man and nature.


  1. James Dickey, Self-Interviews (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970), p. 67.

  2. H. L. Weatherby, “The Way of Exchange in James Dickey's Poetry,” in James Dickey: The Expansive Imagination, ed. Richard J. Calhoun (Deland, Fla.: Everett/Edwards, 1973), p. 54.

  3. Eileen Glancy, James Dickey: The Critic as Poet (Troy, NY: Whitson, 1971), p. 24.

  4. Lecture delivered at Loyola University in New Orleans, 1967.

  5. Dickey, p. 165.

  6. George Lensing, “James Dickey and the Movements of Imagination,” in James Dickey: The Expansive Imagination, p. 164.

  7. Dickey, p. 165.

  8. Laurence Lieberman, “The Worldly Mystic,” in James Dickey: The Expansive Imagination, p. 74.

  9. Lieberman, p. 73.

  10. James Dickey, Sorties (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971), p. 5.

  11. Donald J. Greiner, “The Harmony of Bestiality in James Dickey's Deliverance,South Carolina Review, 5, No. 1 (December 1972), 44.

James M. French (review date 1978)

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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 Marsman's tragic life in terms of a self-conscious examination of the poetic process.

The Zodiac ends with a proclamation that the generative “tuning fork” of the universe:

                    shall vibrate through the western world
So long as the hand can hold its island
                    Of blazing paper, and bleed for its images:
                    Make what it can of what is:
                              So long as the spirit hurls on space
                    The star-beasts of intellect and madness.

[P. 62]

For a poem that rarely breaks free of the tortured syntax of Dickey's insane and drunken protagonist, these last lines are amazingly coherent. It seems to be Dickey's point that while “bleeding … for images” one can gain eloquence as well as grace. The basic concept is a familiar one—the poet is akin to outcast, madman, or prophet. Ever since Coleridge, the literary world has seen an array of sensitive and suffering wanderers. Dickey maintains the image of the Mariner through Marsman, substitutes a “tuning fork” for the animating force of the Aeolian Harp, and an ambiguous sexual tragedy in Marsman's past takes the place of the murdered albatross (sec. 9). It would be unfair to condemn Dickey for the display of what may indeed be central mythic elements, but his use of Romantic themes and images is often cloyingly obvious. For example, Dickey represents Marsman's alcoholism and obsession with death in a descent motif. While Marsman is suffering from delirium tremens, the narrator states:

                                                  —god-damn it, he can't quit,
But—listen to me—how can he rise
                                                  When he's digging? Digging through the smoke
Of distance, throwing columns around to find …
He's drunk again.

[P. 40]

This passage demonstrates the extent to which the “bleeding” poet can be reduced to cliché. For Dickey, Marsman's message was that one shouldn't “shack up with the intellect,” yet to “conceive with meat / Alone” is to doom the “child” (p. 47). Thus the struggle for the marriage of heaven and hell, mind and heart continues. This modern sense of alienation is brought to a climax when, in the face of the “expanding Universe,” Marsman “can't tell Europe / From his own Death” (p. 39). Like these examples, the language repeatedly strikes one as banal and unimaginative.

Obviously, Dickey had great ambitions in the creation of the poem. But for this reviewer the goals of the poem are never successfully realized. One is never sure whether the erratic syntax and abrupt alterations in speaker, time, and voice simply parallel and reflect the mental state of Marsman. There is the temptation to judge Dickey's verse as haphazardly constructed or flawed. It is also difficult to determine the correlation between the Zodiac and the structure of the poem. The poem's twelve sections seem more convenient than functional. As a type, The Zodiac does have precedents. Don Finkel's Adequate Earth, Warren's Audubon: A Vision, and Berryman's Homage to Mistress Bradstreet are all examples of successful mixtures of the historical, psychological, and mythic. Dickey's predicament in The Zodiac, though, may be a result of his own poetic theorizing. In Babel to Byzantium, Dickey wrote that he was gaining interest “in the conclusionless poem, the open or ungeneralizing poem, the un-well-made poem.” While The Zodiac is neither “conclusionless” or “ungeneralizing,” it is certainly “un-well-made.”

If Dickey is now at the popular zenith of his career, his audience can expect his publishers to capitalize on the marketability of his name. I hope, though, that our unofficial poet laureate does not allow more works like The Zodiac to reach the public in third-rate condition.

Richard J. Calhoun and Robert W. Hill (essay date 1983)

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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.


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 affair. Having lost a child to the dark lake, the fallen hero retreats from the silent accusation of the children who once saw him as godlike and who consequently felt utterly safe while he was on duty. Like the protagonist in a later poem, “Power and Light,” this lifeguard feels that he must escape from people and try to recover in solitude when things have gone wrong. His self-esteem prior to his failure seems to have depended much upon his responsibility to society. During his retreat, at night, he envisions a mystical child arising from the lake, smiling. At the end, however, reality asserts itself, and the lifeguard is left hopelessly to “hold in my arms a child / Of water, water, water.”

Dickey pursues his nature theme in the society of hunters in “Listening to Foxhounds,” which begins in the full fellowship of the hunt. The men sit around campfires, listening to their “brothers,” the hounds. Then the focus draws down to one man whose dog has made his own remarkable sound. The omniscient-seeming point of view is unusual for Dickey, but the voice gradually shifts to the second person: “You know which chosen man has heard.” The poem's most wondrous effect is in merging the social group of fox-hunters with the singular narrator (who obfuscates himself in the second person) and with the almost spiritual identity of men with hounds, who, in their pursuit, have their own identity with the foxes. The men strain emotionally together, competitively hoping to recognize their own hounds even as they try to conceal unmanly enthusiasm. This reticent single-mindedness about one's own dog redoubles the tension when, “if one should do so,” the narrator “might” imagine the fox. Fully aware of his comrades' social pressure, the speaker must be even more self-contained than in awaiting public joy over his dog: “Who runs with the fox / Must sit here like his own image, / Giving nothing of himself. …” He imagines that his private musings are more energized, more intense, and more mysterious than those of the other hunters; but their society is essential to his imaginative experience.

“Between Two Prisoners” allows for a social connection like the hunter's with the victimized fox, but its ambiguity as to who the prisoners are plays out Dickey's preference for narration that intermingles what is inside with what is outside the speaker of the poem. As with “The Performance,” the narrator takes into account not only the American prisoners and their feelings but also the condition (and eventual death) of at least one of the Japanese guards. The schoolroom setting is significant as the prisoners and their captors are separated by force in a building where society normally teaches how to connect through civilized traditions. With prisoners immobilized, “A belief in words grew upon them / That the unbound, who walk, cannot know.” Once, in this place, children communicated by “deep, hacked hieroglyphics” in their school desks, or through “the luminous chalks of all colors” with which they adorned the classroom; but now “The guard … leaned close / … To hear in a foreign tongue, / All things which cannot be said.” Later, as the small guard is hanged “In a closed horse stall in Manila … / No one knows what language he spoke / As his face changed into all colors.” The villain, as in “The Enclosure,” is war itself, whose villainy includes the perversion of the high social virtue of language: “Speaking words that can never be spoken / Except in a foreign tongue, / In the end, at the end of a war.”

“A View of Fujiyama After the War” also depicts unanticipated connections among military enemies. The poem shows, with only moderate success, the ambiguities inherent in defeat and victory. Foreshadowing “The Firebombing,” Dickey's social theme here is ironic, since the poem tells what the poet has not had to suffer—the indignity of being (figuratively) alive again only because the enemy lives and can write poems on foreign soil. The poet's guilt is partly for his cannibalism of his and others' lives.


Although its role is much reduced, Dickey's brother-ghost persists in Drowning with Others. “In the Tree House at Night” deals both with Dickey's older, deceased brother, Eugene, and with his younger, surviving one; while “Armor” concentrates on the brother-ghost, so vividly construed earlier in “The Underground Stream,” “The String,” and “The Other.”

In portraying the brother-guilt, “Armor” comes to more mature resolution than some earlier poems. Its main image—the speaker's donning armor—corresponds to Dickey's putting on a boar's head in “Approaching Prayer” (1964), to having a life-mask made and suffering eye-burn and temporary blindness just prior to writing the “Cahill Is Blind” section of Alnilam (Dickey's novel in progress), and perhaps even to playing helmeted football in high school and college. Dickey is a willful mind-mover: he likes imposing environmental (or apparel) changes to enhance his imagination. In “Falling,” the stewardess, thrown suddenly out of a plane's door, removes her clothes as she descends, thus intentionally to alter herself “beyond explanation” before she hits the ground. Conversely altering himself by putting armor on—which normally makes a person less vulnerable—Dickey's speaker becomes strangely more vulnerable. He imagines the shell as having “the power of the crab and the insect,” suggesting that he is better able to survive certain physical onslaughts. But he chiefly turns the armor into a self-reflexive mirror. It forces him inward and causes him to call up the encompassing spirit of his dead brother, “whose features I knew // By the feel of their strength on my face / And whose limbs by the shining of mine.” It is the brother again, but with a somewhat different mission than before. In this poem he merges spiritually with the narrator, becoming a sort of infused sponsor for his entry into Heaven. There is no guilt, only opportunity. When this poem is done, the speaker no longer feels that his life will be constantly enthralled by the memory or spirit of his brother. Now, by abandoning the armor to stand by itself in the woods as a symbol of his brother, waiting separate and apart from the speaker, this more reconciled man comes to the place in his life where he is able to imagine meeting his brother, taking on his shell again as a glowing energy-field in the woods—but only after death, only at the time of eternal union. Enabled by this armorial vision, the narrator can put the brother aside, live his own life to its end, rejoin his brother (if their immortality should prove to commingle), and investigate the mystical armor to see “What man is within to live with me / When I begin living forever.”

“In the Tree House at Night” is an effort to expunge brother-guilt by acting out the spirit's commands, of playfully indulging useful, constructive energies. But the play confirms serious relations both with the ghostly dead and with nature. It calls for the poet to make full contact with society other than the wandering spirits. The poet's preoccupation with mere survivorship has here been much diverted, and the poem's almost blatant sexuality (stanzas 6-8) would indicate that the poet is less guilt-ridden than gratified by his brother.

The narrator assumes sensual but vegetative traits:

My green graceful bones fill the air
With sleeping birds. Alone, alone
And with them I move gently.
I move at the heart of the world.

As in “The Vegetable King,” Dickey keeps his plant imagery vague, thus leaving himself free to use his trees as media for sporadic returns. Dickey appears to want his trees primarily to bear a message rather than to be specific, real things. As in “Fog Envelops the Animals,” trees are subject to transformation, whereas animals in early poems are rarely so altered. Later, in “The Sheep Child,” “Madness” (1969), “For the Last Wolverine,” and the two “Reincarnation” poems, as he stretches for extraordinary insights, his creatures also become extraordinary, even to the limit of creating a delirium tremens lobster for The Zodiac (1976).

In resorting to images of trees rather than people, or even animals, Dickey runs a risk of losing contact with his readers, but his formidable rhetoric compensates. To begin with “And” solicits the reader's assent that he was already somehow with the poet before he began. But even with a solicitous beginning, Dickey's first line draws the reader up short: “And now the green household is dark.” Having been enticed into the a priori narrative, then brought abruptly to a halt by a one-line opening sentence, the subjugated reader is chastened to accept a deliberate, meditative description, as though the reader himself had rustled about and settled in to spend the night in a tree house. Dickey attends closely to the details of nature (“The half-moon completely is shining / On the earth-lighted tops of the trees”), and the reader is seduced to the narrator's physical perspective, there to accept the speaker's isolation even as the brothers are paradoxically also present:

We lie here like angels in bodies,
My brothers and I, one dead,
The other asleep from much living,
In mid-air huddled beside me.

“Hunting Civil War Relics at Nimblewill Creek” also portrays a brother-companion, but this one is alive and helping the narrator search old battlefields with a metal-detector. Both youngsters are descendants and therefore survivors of the men in the terrible war almost a century before. Their closeness is important because it is partly through seeing his brother's face transmit the influence of the dead that the speaker gains insight into the battleground. The spirits rise from within the dormant things buried in the earth and integrate with living society. The speaker feels communion with his “one brother,” but he also senses that the brother is a spiritual conduit, a human analogue to the metal-detector: the machine identifies and reveals the lost “mess tin or bullet” while the living instrument—the brother—rears up the ancestral spirits.


There are many more poems about father-child than about sibling relationships in Drowning with Others: “The Owl King,” “Dover: Believing in Kings,” “To His Children in Darkness,” “The Hospital Window,” “The Magus,” “Antipolis,” and “Facing Africa.” The trend represents a broadening, if not a maturing, of the poet's concerns. The responsibility of a parent for his or her child is highly significant to Dickey's growing social concerns.

“The Call,” of Into the Stone, builds upon three major images: the father—who speaks these lines—the blind son, and the owl king. Obviously unsatisfied with his treatment of the subject in one poem, Dickey came later to include “The Call” as Part I of “The Owl King,” in Drowning with Others. The poem is technically interesting for its dislocation of everyday reality and its entry into a mythical, magical world not seen in Dickey's work anywhere else. With the father calling after his son, who is lost in the woods of the owl king, Dickey misdirects the reader not so much to castigate the father's wrongheadedness as to indicate the vastness and difficulty of mystical knowledge. The reader is in awe of what surrounds the speaker, not pitying or condescending. The father's (and the reader's) inklings here are of the see-through-a-glass-darkly sort, later to be fully known through the owl and the son. “The Call” moves like a question, with the father wondering as to the source and composition of his own calling sound. Dickey could not let such ambiguities rest, later enlisting the owl king and finally the son for substantial clarification in two additional sections to the poem.

However it might first have begun to stir in his mind as an exploration of parental responsibility, “The Owl King” is one of Dickey's most completely spiritualistic and animistic poems. Although its finished three parts are specifically assigned to father, son, and owl king (echoes of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are deafening), the poem is actually about the interlocking—even the interchangeability—of the myriad spirits of the world. Seeking the blind child, the father is not only immersed in his own sounds but also attuned to nature. He knows that true knowledge proceeds from feeling: “I feel the deep dead turn / My blind child round toward my calling.”

Dickey sets reader and father on a mystical journey by the illogicality of the setting: “Through the trees, with the moon underfoot, / More soft than I can, I call.” The search for something spiritual, in artistic terms, is nearly allegorical, a mode Dickey returns to later, with “The Eye-Beaters” (1968) and The Zodiac (1976). And so the owl king, no regular bird, is somewhat like Plato's philosopher who has left the cave to peer painfully at the sun and then to return with unimagined truths to persuade his benighted (and hostile) fellows. But this excursion into sunlight has a different effect:

At last I opened my eyes
In the sun, and saw nothing there.
That night I parted my lids
Once more, and saw dark burn
Greater than sunlight or moonlight,
For it burned from deep within me.

With claws tight upon the limbs, embedded and needing to be “prised up,” the owl king is plugged into nature, empowered by it from within.

More than the human father, the owl king is an active creator: “I swore to myself,” he says, and “Every light was too feeble to show / My world as I knew it must be.” He must make the world according to his own vision: “I heard what I listened to hear.” Since the owl is not human, his voice, creative though it be, is inadequate to the clear expression of his own insights. But his vision (“all but my seeing had failed”) leads him to the child, who, when found, becomes unified with the owl in their response to the father's searching call. The blind child learns, by some mystical apprehension, the action of the owl's “blazing, invented eyes.” He learns to constitute—or reconstitute—each living thing by its own special quality, “Each waiting alive in its own / Peculiar light to be found.”

Part II signals that Dickey has no illusions that it is better to be an owl. The blind son is described by the owl himself as possessing great powers: “Every tree's life lived in his fingers.” But the owl king at the end of Part II asserts his superiority as the creative fulcrum of the poem, while the human beings play off the steady center of the owl. The father calls for the son; the owl king mediates; and the son assimilates it all. The conclusion of Part II makes it clear that the child's mind is imaginatively bound and directed by the owl king, but it is compelled to the end of regaining his father. The owl king is a dream, however much he may be the willful and “ruling passion.”

Part III, “The Blind Child's Story,” is consistently different in diction and rhythm from Parts I and II, which more closely resemble each other. Part III opens with emphasis on the youth of the speaker: “I am playing going down / In my weight lightly, / Down, down the hill.” Here Dickey is able to reexperience the senses in a way that we often associate with a child's startlingly fresh outlook: “A leaf falls on me, / It must be a leaf I hear it / Be thin against me.” The lines rush on, as if the poet were to imagine the constant flow of sensual messages through the body of a blind child; and the unconventional syntax, comma-spliced, fused, and enjambed, helps to convey the image movement.

… and now
The ground is level,
It moves it is not ground,
My feet flow cold
And wet, and water rushes
Past as I climb out.

When the first stanza concludes, “I own the entire world,” the reader's assent is virtually assured because the child is not able to visualize the limits and demarcations in which sighted persons continuously acquiesce: “It closes a little: the sky / Must be cold, must be giving off / Creatures that stand here.” The child senses the constellations which so entice Dickey's interest in other poems, the celestial influences that generate things in this fleshly world; and the boy becomes assertive: “I say they shine one way.” He confirms the phenomenological substance of the things he can sense: “Trees they are trees around me, / Leaves branch and bark.” But the child's apprehension of himself is more than as a receptor of sensations to confirm worldly objects. He is said by “someone,” he tells us, to “seem to be blessing them.”

As the boy recounts his claw-in-hand greeting of the owl, he says what perhaps only a child might believably say in such extraordinary circumstances: “Nothing is strange where we are.” That is, as the child is deprived of his “highest” sense—sight—he is also set loose from many adult limitations as to how the world impinges upon him. Touch and hearing, for instance, are more immediate, primitive, less mediated avenues between the Me and the Not-Me.

The owl is acknowledged as Mentor: “I learn from the master of sight / What to do when the sun is dead.” But the real energies originate within the things perceived: “… to make the great darkness work / As it wants of itself to work.” The child envisions a fox and a shining serpent, earlier described by the owl as “the snake in the form of all life.” Another lesson comes as the fox strikes, and “a small thing / Being caught, cries out. …” This sudden shock of violent death in the woods enables the child to make another essential connection: “How beings and sounds go together; / I understand / The voice of my singing father.” The mortal cry of the “small thing” is enough for the boy to grasp the grief of his father, too. The human child's assimilative mind prevails, and he descends to regain the real world, now transformed to some extent by his new insights. After such transcendence and descent, some residual insight remains: “The wood comes back in a light / It did not know it withheld.” The boy's understanding has deepened; he has perceived the source of perception to be within the things perceived. He has learned to interact with the real world by practicing the imaginative dream-magic of the owl king. The child is able to connect at last with his father, caught up now in that natural world newly and brilliantly seen by the blind son. Even the owl, now, has been assimilated by the child to some degree of identity with the father: “Far off, the owl king / Sings like my father, growing / In power.” And the child, newfound—but mostly to and by himself—closes the poem affirmatively, confidently, having inherited some energies of the father as well as the owl king.

“To His Children in Darkness” foreshadows another projection of Dickey's imagination into the dark: “The Eye-Beaters.” In both poems, the narrator imagines what someone else knows in darkness: in the early poem, his children's dreams are invented; in “The Eye-Beaters,” the institutionalized blind children's primordial visions are imagined. The blind children (in their kind of darkness) strike and bruise their faces in hopes of rendering some sensation of light, some optic glimmer by the force of blows. It is the adults—the father and the visitor—who create the images and attribute them to the children. From their inspiration, each adult narrator then can probe his own imagination to make sense of the finite human condition and thus can extend its limits through imaginative effort.

The father and the son in “Facing Africa” have no such high aesthetic or archetypally loaded experience together. The poem is somewhat like “A Dog Sleeping on My Feet” as the speaker draws some natural, connective energy from the ocean near his feet. Not even physically touching the water or the boats lying “at rest,” the man and his son are linked to them by the “long, / Warm, dangling shadows” of their legs as they are seated on the “stone jetties.” The son's presence is important in this poem because it provides a handle of social and familial behavior to allow the narrator a check on his poetic enthusiasm, his seeking after knowledge without the brake of social scrutiny. The son also gives the father social affirmation, a necessary balance here as it is in “A Dog Sleeping on My Feet” and, later, in “Slave Quarters.” Responsibility and true hopefulness are embodied in the offspring, and, in this case, the son has even come to participate in the imagining, the new knowing, of the father.

“Antipolis” is of an almost equally exotic context as Africa, for this American poet. The poem is of the “Guggenheim” variety, de rigueur for those who have traveled expressly for the purpose of becoming authors. The Greek city, the “powder-blue ocean,” the son reading Greek, and the poet's self-image as multi-spirited, all are elements to play on the foreignness of the scene to jar the naive American loose to hold more sophisticated concepts and imagery: “I hear in my voice two children, / My son and my soul, / Sing to each other through ages.” The poem delves briefly into the theme of potentiality when, at the beginning, the poet feels himself looked “clear through” by the things around him, particularly the market-place squids, hanging for purchase, whose eyes “deepen” and “hold me brightly.” The poet is surrounded by perceptions and perceivers, by the ancient dead and the living son, all focused upon and invigorated by his own singing self. His sense of potentiality is incorporated in the son with him: his hope of continuance is at least in part embodied in that vibrant son of his flesh.

A much longer work than most of Dickey's early poems, “Dover: Believing in Kings,” uses the persons of father and mother; but the mother is yet only pregnant, and the son is imagined as the son of a king, the father a king, all participating in the mythically accoutred place imagined by the narrator at Dover Beach. This elaborate poem, a glowing rather than a blazing thing, allows, by its length and its simply beautiful tones, the poet to draw together several of his major themes.

The first line sets us hard upon the earth with the speaker and his wife driving off the boat to settle firmly upon land after having crossed the English Channel. The minor mythology of greased swimmers, a mythology particularly fondly held after the exploits of the World War II underwater demolition teams, clamoring like lemmings through the waters, sets the tone for exploring other, more profound myths. As with many of Dickey's speakers, this one's recollection of, or longing for, the marathon swimmer points up a kind of deficiency in himself, a recognition by the person who had crossed in a car on a boat, very unheroically. But such is only a hint, for the speaker learns that his own strengths are more in his sensitive intelligence (Dickey says, “If my poetry has done anything, it has resulted in an increase of both sensitivity and drama in American poetry,” S, 90) than in his physical stamina and courage: “Within a wind, a wind sprang slowly up.”

Dickey's speaker ultimately turns to tell of himself as a king. The weathering gray of Dover merges with the birds and sea, shifting at last to royal images. The grandeur and majesty of the scene produce associations of the stern, gray effort of birds casting themselves (like Hopkins's windhover) against the “airstream of the cliffs,” their breasts bearing the gray assault, and then, almost miraculously, the king emerges to the overwhelming awe even of the birds: “In a moment you cannot imagine / Of air, the gulls fall, shaken.” With this imagery of royalty and his wife pregnant with a son imagined to be Arthur, the narrator makes a poem to be a call to high intellectual and spiritual refinement, to displace the clunking tourism of the opening lines. As birds move along the line of the cliffs, the people below follow along, feeling majestic enough to comprehend “the balancement of light / The king wears newly, in singing.” The poem is much of joy but also of solemnity; its measured, alternating iambs and anapests recall the rhythms of high-eloquent speech, of oratory without bombast.

As finely tuned as “Dover: Believing in Kings” is, its solemnity strikes the serious pose of the poet whose skills are there but whose idea of poetry has not yet matured to the unforced idiosyncrasy of the distinctive James Dickey. “The Magus,” published two years after “Dover,” invokes by its very title those austere magi-makers of the twentieth century—T. S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats. But Dickey's poem wants to work in two directions at once: to dispel the conventional magi-mystery and to call up the natural mystery of all human life. “This child,” he concludes, “is no more than a child.” But by this twentieth and last line, the poem has practiced an hypnotic two-line stanza form whose lines are almost all heavily end-stopped, and whose parallel structures of various kinds all work to the benefit of ritual sounds, of almost liturgical pace, and of the puzzlement that any parent may feel at the claim of one Holy Child to be more holy than one's own. The “two / long-lost other men [who] shall be drawn / Slowly up to the brink of the house,” recall, of course, the two other magi. But they also, in this poem, reintroduce the ghostly dead imagery, our shadowy close and infinitely distant ancestors. The poem is less powerful than it seems to want to be, and its cautious understatement, even with the late peak of three rhetorical questions, succumbs to paralysis. It is just not enough for the poet to say to himself, “An event more miraculous yet // Is the thing I am shining to tell you.” The shining is never bright enough to break the shell of controlled intellect in this poem: the child never quite ascends to his own glory. So the father's allegations are hollow.

As much as he accomplishes by projecting imagined dreams into children, by symbolically journeying with his son over shadowy seas to Africa, by drinking and roaring his way through Antipolis for his son's enrichment, by meditating through a verbal symphony at Dover, or by starkly undercutting the high religious ambience of the magi, Dickey comes in these poems about fathers and children to speak most plainly and most effectively in “The Hospital Window.” An anomaly like “The Performance” among the war poems of Into the Stone, “The Hospital Window” reiterates the theme of survivorship—not, as with Donald Armstrong, through some heroic gesture—this time to survive, with a mixture of grief and joy, one's own father. As is common in early Dickey poems, this one begins with a momentarily puzzling dislocation. The speaker's descent in an elevator is deliberately obscured to assure the author the purest sort of control over the reader's expectations and observations: “I have just come down from my father. / Higher and higher he lies / Above me. …” The second stanza begins with the repetition, “Still feeling my father ascend,” and thus the poet creates the illusion of the father's impending death, his rising away, as into heaven, as the son sinks away from him.

With all the exterior windows glazed by sunlight for the son's view from out in the street, he moves around to catch sight of his father and thus moves almost obliviously into the automobile traffic. The clamorous near-death of the street, the horn-blowing and the outrage, serve to emphasize the vitality of the son, who has only the hope of a silent fatherly wave from a hospital window, a wave punctuated and accentuated by the visible “grinning” of the father, whom the son judges to be “not afraid for my life, either, / As the wild engines stand at my knees.” To recognize imminent death—upward in the person of his father, downward in the descent of the son, and all around in the ferocious traffic—is one of the chief lessons of poetry. Except for the somewhat overdone concluding stanza, with an exact repetition of the poem's first line, “The Hospital Window” is a “pin-tingling hand” of a poem. Its life is in its perception and imagination of death, and the grown son here is in control of the meaning of his father's mortal precedent for his own human life.


“The Hospital Window” sets forth in gentler terms than “The String” or some of the war poems Dickey's preoccupation with survivorship. The idea seems on the surface to be a selfish one, but in fact it turns on the point of the poet's recognition of his part in the human race; he sees and fully comprehends the interrelationship of all people, especially when it comes to mortality. “Drowning with Others” functions for Dickey to pluralize his recurrent ghostly brother-figure.

The elements of water and light are enough to transform the physical appearance, the mass, the weight, of the people involved in swimming for their lives; and the poet himself is led to drifting syntax and mystic-sounding images. Hanging on the edge of willful obscurity, Dickey allows just enough hard detail to seduce us back into the pursuit of the poem's meanings. The figures in the water reach and touch and appear to fly with wingbones of the shoulderblades. The people become participants in the elements: “If I opened my arms, I could hear // Every shell in the sea find the word / It has tried to put into my mouth.” The sea's overwhelming power has translated into the speaker's belief that the sea is trying to communicate. As much as its title suggests a communion of humanity, this poem is actually more self-indulgent, more falsely sensation-seeking, than most of Dickey's more mature works. Like “Into the Stone” for its mysticism and its singular, abstracted vision, “Drowning with Others” might have gone well in Dickey's first book, whose “The Underground Stream” it also recalls. Dickey himself somewhat derogates the poem in Self-Interviews: “I wanted to call the book Drowning with Others, so I decided I'd better write a poem by the same title to give some status to the book's title. I don't think it's a very strong poem; it seems awfully obscure to me” (SI, 116).

Perhaps the strongest case for the poem's value is in its representation of the survivorship theme, with a bizarre turn of mind given by the narrator, who, whether he actually, finally drowns or not, is a survivor for a long enough time that he may tell the experience. Additionally, with the reference to the merging of meaning with the elements of nature, the poet emphasizes his theme from “The Owl King” and elsewhere that things have the power to emanate meaning and energy from themselves, not entirely to be the inventions—the fictions—of the human observers, and yet those emanations become incorporated with and help to define the personality of the participants in those experiences.

Part of this survivorship effect is to come to the edge of mortal mergence, to enter a region of potential oblivion and the most intense self-awareness. In “The Lifeguard,” the young man who has failed at his job feels guilt which is heightened by his own approximation to death. He has been submerged, with the frenzy of feeling his breath waste away, in the cold, lightless lake where he feels the black mud in his hands. To have failed in his responsibility is one thing, but to have lived instead of his ward, to have been left unable even for that futile cry, “Let me die in his place!” is to multiply the mortal despair. The child comes to the lifeguard alone, after dark, in the moonlight, after all have gone to bed; and even though the lifeguard has for a moment the bright moon-child from the heart of the forest in his arms, the final despair is devastating—the illusion is insistently illusory. Despite all signs of recognition and regeneration, the lifeguard's own survival comes to the terrible futility of water spilling through his helpless fingers. The comfort Dickey sometimes perceives in nature is absent, as in general “The Lifeguard” is less overt in calling for powers to come from nature. The images are more naturally blended in the consciousness of the lifeguard. It is not as though he pursues meanings so much as he is tragically caught by them. The natural images—moon, water, forest, mud, human faces—reinforce and embody the experience he has had during the fateful day.

One consequence of being a survivor is to have perspective upon destruction no one else can have. One of Dickey's most unusual survivor poems is “The Dream Flood,” in which the narrator has achieved to such a state of detachment as to gain the perspective of the Deluge, the destroyer of biblical proportions, which gives the poet the occasion to imagine truly overwhelming force. Distance can become, in poems, a dream; thus the poet can reach into his psyche in ways that so-called realism will not allow.

“The Dream Flood” begins with the speaker's invocation, oddly, to “ask and receive / The secret of falling unharmed / Forty nights from the darkness of Heaven.” Conspicuously, Dickey alludes to the forty days' rain of Noah's Flood, but he also (perhaps unwittingly) calls to mind the fall of the angels. The poem, being a “dream flood” by designation, sets about immediately to dislocate somewhat surrealistically the actual cosmography: “descend to the moon / Where it lies on the ground.” Dickey, of course, is using a phenomenon he often employs, the appearance of the moon in some reflecting surface, usually, and in this case, in water. Earlier, in the first poem of Drowning with Others, “The Lifeguard,” Dickey uses the floating moon as a prefiguration of the lifeguard's imagined ability to walk on the water. In “The Dream Flood,” the reality of the moon's light, as it is indeed “sunlight transmitted by stone,” is eerily accurate even as it sets our reason on edge—but no more than the concept of world-wide flood would do. Once on the earth, however, the rainwaters (now personified and accommodated with poetic intelligence) move more realistically, building and seeping with mind-boggling dimensions, but without the arch diversion of sense and common sense that the poet practices upon us in the first two stanzas.

Dickey's skillful selectivity in the catastrophe—he talks repetitively of the horses and trees—allows the readers to supply to such understatement their own intensity for the truest comprehension of disaster. The dreamlike floating of things is as eerie as the moon's inversion. The horses float contained in their stalls: “Their bodies in cell blocks of wood / Hang like a dust that has taken / Their shape without knowing of horses.”

Later, the Flood-Poet says, “I withdraw, in feeling the cloud / Of Heaven call dazzlingly to me / To drop off my horses and forests,” and the poem turns its attention from “grasses and fence wire of glory / That have burned together like a coral with depth” to the effect of the Flood upon human beings. But the Flood recalls only women, no men, as its victim-lovers—no surprise, after closely reading “The Enclosure.” When the last three stanzas lean so heavily upon the female victims, the reader is justifiably driven back to see that the rain, flood, and sun images are standard images of maleness, of the dominating, fructifying principles that can turn destructive, as Coleridge's Ancient Mariner testifies. The male principle is almost omnipotent, until the time comes at the end to bring life again to the dead. The poem conveys an immense sadness at such paradox, and one wonders why Dickey chose to exclude this imperfect but affecting poem from Poems 1957-1967. The Flood-Poet is called “impotent waters,” and the evaporating “sunlight / Straining in vain / With her lost, dead weight” cannot restore life. The last line (“Lift. I am dreaming. Lift.”) is what each woman “shall implore,” but the chief impact of this dream flood is one of more general destruction for the world and terrible enlightenment for the Flood-Poet, who is the ultimate survivor, the destroyer of all things besides itself.


While “The Dream Flood” represents an extreme effort by the poet to distance himself from the physical action of his poem, “The Scratch” drives the poet back into the body. But, like “The War Wound” (1964) and earlier war poems, it functions as an emblem. The poet speculates that the scratch on his wrist was “once hid in a fiery twist / Of brier,” evoking the theme of potentiality seen in “The Owl King.” But intellect dominates the poem, not the thing-ness of things: “I watchfully sit down / to lift it wisely, and see / Blood come, as at play.” The intellectual speculation does not allow us to accept passionately the Victorian resolve and quasi-heroic posture at the end: “I shall dream of a crown till I do.”

For all its aesthetic straining, “The Scratch” reiterates Dickey's interest in beginning his poems with images that stick in the mind. His poem-making generally proceeds directly out of the things of the natural world. “A Birth” shows how the poet makes life within his own imagination and then gives it free rein. Art is thus an illusion in the service of perceiving the most independent, vital conditions, the most natural: “Inventing a story with grass,” says Dickey, “I find a young horse deep inside it.”

With its particular attention to mother and child, “A Birth” signifies the creation of things in art which then generate other, seemingly independent things—like one's own children. The four-stanza poem breaks cleanly midway, with the narrator's contemplation of his “inventing a story” in the first half; and, his “mind freed of its own creature,” he turns “to find [himself] deep in [his] life.” The interlocking of life-forces and art is directly reminiscent of “A Dog Sleeping on My Feet” and “Trees and Cattle,” as well as the family-conscious poems of Into the Stone. “A Birth” clearly identifies the poet as the central figure, not the other subjects (or objects) in it. The poet is, of course, in charge of the poem—the whole thing is an act of his imagination. But within the third stanza, the language is notably passive (in fact, it is relatively passive from line two, after “Inventing a story”). The speaker's creative effort immediately gives way to the story's own almost magical volition: “I find a young horse deep inside it.” The second stanza begins, “And he is free, strangely, without me,” so the poet's story turns over to become “his story”—the horse's—which then melds with the sun in the story. At the end, when the poet has presumably returned to his own real world, with his child and his mother in the room, the return of the real-world sun generates yet another horse, another story.

The affirmation of art in the poem is that it has a reality that lies beyond the conscious control of the artist. The imagination is able to construct images and stories that take off in whatever direction they “naturally” go, rather than following some line that the artist feels he may absolutely manipulate. “A Birth” begins as a pastoral emblem-poem, but it begins to breathe without the conscious volition of the poet. As is often the case in later Dickey poems, the landscape is taken over, given vitality, specifically by an animal. Dickey does not normally write poems about art—his best aesthetic statements are in his poems as poems and in his prose criticism—but these earlier works of aesthetic intention do foreshadow such extensive explorations of the subject as “The Eye-Beaters” and The Zodiac.

“In the Lupanar at Pompeii” is made with style and diction more like later Dickey poems (or like those early exceptions, “The Performance” and “The Hospital Window”), with their force of simple declarative sentences, without, for the most part, poetical rhetoric and sententiousness. The tourist-poet is loose among the ruins of a glorious past civilization, seeking significance and longing for some universality by virtue of the references to other cultures in other, faraway places. But here Dickey has elected to write about the destruction of Pompeii from the point of view of a man who wants mainly to know about the ancient whorehouses.

The poem's specific lesson, however, given out of the mouths of the “painted, unchanging women” and those of “the desperate dead,” is “Passion. Before we die / Let us hope for no longer / But truly know it.” The lesson is easily said, and one receives it with a touch of humor; but, as with “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” told by Keats's Grecian Urn, a suspect orator, the final utterance of Dickey's poem is equally suspect, with the dusty, incinerated dead, mouthing of passion, where theirs was found in the heat of their deaths, more than in the carnal heat of whores. Perhaps the strongest section of the poem is in Dickey's statement about the nature of lust:

I think of the marvel of lust
Which can always, at any moment,
Become more than it believed,
And almost always is less:
I think of its possible passing
Beyond, into tender awareness,
Into helplessness, weeping, and death:
It must be like the first
Soft floating of ash. …

Almost nowhere until he gets to “Sun” and “Adultery,” both in the “Falling” section of Poems 1957-1967, does Dickey touch so sensitively upon the frayed nerves of human sexuality.

“In the Lupanar at Pompeii” is a good poem but not a great one. It combines Dickey's emblematic technique, taking the figures fixed in stone to devise meaning from them, as well as from Dickey's continuing interest in the ghostly dead. Here, though, the dead are less truly immanent. They function as mere voices of the petrified emblems; their passion is only wispily evoked, and the poet himself is left as a half-humorous, mildly nervous man intelligent enough to take the serious occasion of Pompeii to think on things as important as lust and death. Like “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” it reminds us of the terrible gap between the dead and their stony immortality in art.

“Snow on a Southern State” is another of those poems that begins with physical dislocation, with the poet purposefully disrupting the readers' expectations of geography, balance, and direction. Using the word “labor” to indicate in the first line how his effort is conscious, the poet describes his movement on a train. The sense of reflection, the ghostlike apprehension of himself as some floating creature outside the self, the feeling of odd directions and inverted expectations, all contribute to the poem's efforts to create the otherworldliness so often conjured up by snowfall. The alteration and concealment of familiar physical forms, the muffling of sounds, the tactile gray of the cold snowy days help the poet bring his narrator to new insights about himself and the world around him. The poignancy of one's return to home country is more to be adjusted for the speaker's coming to unfamiliar sights now that the snow, so infrequent in the South, is visiting at the same time. In a manner recalling “A Screened Porch in the Country,” the chief early impact of the snow leads the narrator “dumbly” to address the denizens outside the train beyond his voice, to tell them comfortingly of the snow's transience, that it is clearly passing, as he is, through their town like a harmless ghost of themselves.

The most peculiar effect of the snow comes later to the speaker. As memory alters the past and thus renews it, this snow alters the place, all its sensuousness, and obscures but also renews its covered land for the narrator. The poem turns in its later stanzas to speak ominously of “weddings opposed by the world,” “A dead cotton field,” and “the equilibrium / Of bones … falling, falling.” Such retreat into vague, even obscurantist, incidents, away from the long, relatively secure description of the scene, somewhat dislocated but secure, is perhaps too much for the poem to bear. Mostly it suggests the power of the mind in art to alter the past and the present, as snow can alter even the familiar scenes of our homes.

As Dickey's effort to deal in poems about the poetic enterprise may be seen to dwindle away (neither “Snow on a Southern State” nor “To Landrum Guy, Beginning to Write at Sixty” saw publication before Drowning with Others, and Dickey omitted both from Poems 1957-1967), it is exciting to look once again at “A Dog Sleeping on My Feet,” which follows as though the poet has burst out to acknowledge what he so intensely held within himself in “Listening to Foxhounds.” He abandons the consideration of the group's judgment upon a man who would imagine himself in union with the quarry—the fox. He openly writes of himself as a writer, in close physical contact with his dog, who in turn has been dreaming (the poet imagines) of chasing the fox.

The poem strains somewhat in lines that discourse upon the problem of verbalizing natural, spiritual experiences:

… my hand, which speaks in a daze
The hypnotized language of beasts,
Shall falter, and fail
Back into the human tongue. …

But it is a plain statement of Dickey's view that the truest power of language is sensual and the truest source of inspiration is a physical apprehension of nature. The poem ends with a return to reality, wife and sons: “From the dream of an animal.” Like Frost's “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” Dickey's poem resumes the world of social necessity (“Assembling the self I must wake to”) with all the residue he can sustain of “the scent of the fox” upon his waking. He must sleep “to grow back [his] legs,” to return fully to the human world; but there is a certain amount of duplicity in the poet's speaking throughout as a poet, a writer who is conscious of using his material. Nonetheless, it is instructive as to Dickey's attitudes toward nature and art. It reemphasizes the importance to Dickey's art of animals—dog and fox—as the best guides to human participation in nature.


It is unusual for Dickey to conclude in so palpably didactic a manner as the final three lines of “The Movement of Fish”: “One must think of this to understand / The instinct of fear and trembling, / And, of its one movement, the depth.” In a direct line of fish-in-the-stream images from Faulkner and Hemingway, Dickey displays a minor turn of Kierkegaardian existentialism. The image is memorable, if not entirely original, and the poem begins with a startlingly simple truth: “No water is still, on top. / Without wind, even, it is full / Of a chill, superficial agitation.” Dickey equates, one supposes, the surface of everyday human things with “The trivial, quivering / Surface,” under which the fish have True Being. The implications are (1) that the human being who makes his feeble breaths and sounds, barely rippling the water, is not in touch with the profundity of the waters or of the fish's experience; (2) that fish are instinctually attuned since they are literally immersed in the medium of their sustenance; (3) that fish are threatened from above (the people in boats) and from below (whatever fatal pursuers are out of sight in the dark depths), a nameless threat that is also connected, at least for the poet, with the fact that fish swim suddenly, as in terror, “picking up speed, still shooting // Through half-gold, / Going nowhere.” The emptiness of that observation is most unusual in Dickey's work, as it implies that nothing really can be done to save our souls. Tragic experience is deep, but mere survival is of dubious value since meaning and direction are left void at the end of this poem. Such starkness in Dickey's poems, as rarely as it occurs, stands as a challenge to the discovery of meaning in the simple vitality of living things.

Richard Howard has said of Drowning with Others, “James Dickey is still a poet of process rather than of particular presences, and of presences rather than persons, in his apprehension of nature as of selfhood.”1 Surely one of Dickey's finest poems is “The Heaven of Animals,” a work that glorifies process and, at the same time, as Howard calls it, “pure recurrence.”2

“The Heaven of Animals” resembles “The Performance” in its clean, persuasive narrative line, as though pure description is not the real point. Temporal flow in the timeless setting of heaven is the paradoxical focus of our experience through the poem. “The Performance” echoes again in the depiction of stoic necessity relieved by an oddly unexpected joy, a curious sense of ecstasy in the midst of sanctioned carnage. The carnage is necessary in this Heaven; it is the course of heavenly order. But there is also relief that one might feel in knowing—absolutely knowing—what one's role is, even if one is the victim. It is the animal world's version of Plato's Republic, in which justice is defined as each man's doing his job. The astonishment of the animals is emphasized, perhaps to avoid suspicion of their being bored with eternal certainty: “… claws and teeth grown perfect, / More deadly than they can believe.” (It is like lust in Pompeii.)

The poet seems to want heaven's perfection to extend to all the animals, but his own sympathies—his best satisfactions—lie clearly with the predators (who are not themselves portrayed as prey of other predators). The passive prey are “fulfilling themselves without pain,” but “They tremble.” The poet's effort to make a heaven of (for?) animals is not nearly so democratic as it may at first appear. The pleasantest of all worlds is one in which the strong have willing (and trembling) prey; it is the fulfillment of the predator's sadistic desire for fear in his quarry that we see most of. The poem is about the perfection of the law of the jungle, without the horrid cycle at its fullest—no vultures to rip away the flesh of lions and leopards. That would be too disquieting for a poet who seizes the opportunity to make a world in which the strong prevail without guilt, without compunction, only to savor joy and flight, the savagery of killing without the obligations of consequence.

Such a poem would not be possible without a fallen world; as Richard Howard says, “when this world is called a fallen world, what is meant is that our soul, our aspirations, our hungers have collapsed into our present body, our present landscape, and that the instruments of our transcendence are at the same time the tools of undoing: resurrection for a little while, as Dickey laments and exults.”3 Survivorship subsides as a theme, for here all survive. if that is the ultimate goal. But what of the emptiness of purpose? The prospect of heaven is shaky enough in terms of Dickey's poems; such perfect order and conditions are beyond comprehension, even aspiration, in such poems as “The Performance,” “The Owl King,” “Dover: Believing in Kings,” and, later, “The Eye-Beaters,” “May Day Sermon,” and The Zodiac. “The Heaven of Animals” is a chilling poem, however perfected and articulated; it is of a world entirely different from the humane vision of “The Sheep Child” or “Madness,” in which the poet writes of animal aberrations but has not abandoned his basic compassion for some cold dream of domination.

Perhaps the fixed and predictable carnage of “The Heaven of Animals” is one way of Dickey's handling metaphysically based fear. Earlier in his life, prior to the influence of his Vanderbilt University astronomy professor, Carl Siefert, Dickey “had always been like Pascal, frightened by the silence of the infinite spaces” (SI, 37). But later, as a poet, his fears in nature are most often when animals are present or are thought to be. With “Fog Envelops the Animals” fear is a major emotion, especially as it is unmanageable, unaccountably exuded as a vibration or overtone of the natural world as a whole. In this respect, the poem is like “The Shark's Parlor,” “Pursuit from Under,” and other late Dickey poems. The imagery associated with fog is also something that recurs later, particularly in “May Day Sermon.” However, the fear Dickey's narrators feel has less to do with the fog than with what might come or go in it. No doubt the fog-enshrouded creatures are symbolic of some more fearful thing—death itself, probably—but the beasts are there, waiting as images of the dreadful abstraction. (It is in this aspect that, once again, “The Heaven of Animals” proves the exception. Heaven is where death and sensation are present but fear is not. However much the prey may tremble, oblivion is abjured, and fear is therefore abated.) To the narrator of “Fog Envelops the Animals,” the fog is not only a monolithic threat, but he also personifies it at the same time as he discriminates among his own “selves”: “Soundlessly whiteness is eating / My visible self alive.” Then the speaker moves suppositiously into some version of foggish ecstasy:

I shall enter this world like the dead,
Floating through tree trunks on currents
And streams of untouchable pureness
That shine without thinking of light.

Even as he takes on qualities of the fog, he comes to feel that some of those were originally his: “I feel my own long-hidden, / Long-sought invisibility / Come forth from my solid body.”


“Fog Envelops the Animals” deals with an important poetic act for Dickey—not the same as an aesthetic act—that is, the assimilation of some profound emotional insight by willfully imagining oneself in extraordinary relation with the ordinary. The speaker of this poem is present—the hunter—and he is actively imagining the experience of being foglike. For instance, he not only envelops animals; he also penetrates and interfuses with trees: “Floating through tree trunks” and “Through the hearts of the curdling oak trees.” It is this additional aspect of transcendence at which Dickey is boldest, and perhaps most vulnerable: “… I don't think you can get to sublimity without courting the ridiculous. Therefore, a good many of my poems deal with farfetched situations. … [Critics] give you the impression that we belong to a generation whose catch-word is ‘Aw, come off it! You don't really feel anything like that!’ I don't want to come off it! I want to go with it! … I think that cynicism is probably the easiest, least profitable, and least valuable human emotion. … I'm a born believer and not a disbeliever. This doubtless has its dangers. But such as it is, there it is” (SI, 65-66). He is willing to accept the insights of the human creature who has imagined himself one with nature, and then he improves on nature. He reapplies the human ability to imagine and experience vicariously things that no one, no creature human or nonhuman, has ever experienced, thus probing further the limits of the human mind and body.

More specifically, by imagining the extraordinary condition, by this stretching the limits of conscious human experience, Dickey is able to probe—as poets should, as great poets do—the areas of human experience laid over by familiarity or dullness or timidity. Especially as Dickey reaches deep to examine fear, as in “Fog Envelops the Animals,” do we find him most pressurized, most persuasive, not, as with many other poets, when he is faced with tragic circumstances, with pity. Dickey responds to terror. The Melvillean strain of “Silence. Whiteness. Hunting,” with which Dickey ends this poem, is homiletic only in its paraphrase. For the poet, it is experiential. In his best poems, the reader is also allowed. It is mythic activity, to reimagine the world in terms that move humankind even without their quite knowing why. And the process is infinitely variable: “If sensations turn into soul—into an ineffable quality that can never be accounted for by the sensations themselves—it is because the sensations reach an ever-changing mind that transforms them, as a merely passive receiver, the sort of mind Locke likens to blank paper, could not.”4

Sometimes the action of the mind upon nature is morally unsettling, as in “The Summons,” in which the narrator raises a call which is truly evil. Unlike “The Call,” of Into the Stone, which is made by a desperate father who seeks his son lost in the woods, “The Summons” presents a speaker who is almost morally condescending to himself. There are even signs that the speaker is deceiving himself. At the very outset he says, “For something out of sight, / I cup a grass-blade in my hands, / Tasting the root, and blow.” It seems obvious, although at least three other times the poet speaks too generally of the “beast” he hunts (“some being,” “something”), that the true-life hunter would certainly know what beast he called and what sort of fairly specific response to expect. What is most curious, and most directly incriminating, is that the hunter uses a love-call to draw the beast to death at the same time as he tries to preempt moral censure by alluding to his lost innocence as the poem closes:

… I pluck my longbow off the limb
Where it shines with a musical light,
And crouch within death, awaiting
The beast in water, in love
With the palest and gentlest of children,
Whom the years have turned deadly with knowledge:
Who summons him forth, and now
Pulls wide the great, thoughtful arrow.

The duplicity of the act, of the quarry's being enticed by a self-consciously ironic human being, is emphasized by the self-satisfied coldness of the hunter's “great, thoughtful arrow.” It is prefigurative of “The Firebombing,” in which the aesthetic distance of a bomber-pilot allows him to feel both aware and absolved. Even though the word “beast” is used to denominate the hunter's target, not enough can be done to exonerate the poet for his “summons” to death of the natural creature who seeks love. Whereas “Fog Envelops the Animals” insists upon the presence of fear as a crucial ingredient to meaningful hunting, this poem is entirely fearless—a strike from ambush—entirely invulnerable to the compassionating influences of nature, entirely demonstrative of the poet whose human reason has allowed him to seduce and kill with impunity some grand beast who comes to the call of love. Unlike the kind of love Dickey shows in “Madness” (1969), whose frenetic passion also leads to death, there is no threat here to the hunter, no true participation or identification.

A similar distance from nature is evident in “For the Nightly Ascent of the Hunter Orion Over a Forest Clearing,” which foreshadows The Zodiac and raises the question of why Dickey is so taken with the far-distant constellations. He has been a pilot-navigator in wartime, and he has studied astronomy as a college student and as an amateur astronomer; but it seems especially pertinent that these constellations, as they are named for earth-forms, imaginings of poets and artists, stand as projections outward of the human intellect and imagination.

“For the Nightly Ascent” ends with the speaker, after “ambiguous undulations” (to crib from Wallace Stevens's “Sunday Morning”), finding himself somehow not only a mortal hunter who might want to be a tree even as he wants stealthy mobility, but also “a man of stars.” In the final lines a paradox emerges. Dickey's narrator has consciously sought the cosmic, unconscious knowledge of the heavens. Granted, the transformation of the mortal man into the starry Orion is only by analogy (“Unless he rises // As does the hunter Orion”), but the effort is real. The man is aware that he stands with one foot “longing to tiptoe / And the other to take the live / Stand of a tree that belongs here.” In some ways it recalls the curious mixture of vegetation and animal-spirits in “The Other,” or the beast and angel figures in “To His Children in Darkness,” but this poem signals an even more expansive Dickey aspiration, to contact and to use the powers of infinite, starry space.

Dickey's transcendent leap in this poem, however, does not allow him to fly utterly away. The speaker begins, “Now secretness dies of the open,” and the reader recalls those occasional experiences of openness and exaltation from which the closed-off human creature more often than not has prevented himself. But this poem is strange in its human-nonhuman straddling; the beasts and birds of the night awaken, gain power from their various nocturnal sources—“the owl's gaze // Most slowly begins to create / Its sight from the death of the sun”; the mouse is invigorated by knowing of the owl; and the fox comes out of the ground as though recharged by earth's magnetism or something equally vibrant—and the speaker, moving through the creaturely activity, emerges into openness and then aspires upward, away from the magnetic living in which he is immersed. The paradox is extended as Orion (and the man, one presumes) is illuminated by his own self-light, perhaps as each night creature has its own special illumination and source of vitality (as “The Owl King” also depicts). In “Fog Envelops the Animals” the speaker's invisibility comes from within to help him identify with the fog: in “For the Nightly Ascent” what is left behind is invisibility, and what is come to is “the light / Of himself.”

In “The Rib,” Dickey alludes slightly to Adam and Eve, as one might anticipate from the title, but mainly the poet uses his own body as meaningful object, as emblem, through which he may perceive and empower himself anew. Somewhat as he does in “The Summons,” Dickey begins with an effort to mystify by using the general “Something.” The mysterious thing in this case is quickly shown to be the decayed carcass of an indistinguishable animal. Dickey captures squarely the feeling of threat which surrounds such discoveries (survivorship may sometimes result in sudden paranoia): a casual walker never knows exactly how such deaths happened, if the bones are the only remains. Then the person may well grow apprehensive that the unknown killer—be it disease, enemy, or simply amorphous death—still lurks about. The rib in hand causes the speaker to attribute death to all his surroundings.

As the hunter contemplates “the wounds of beasts,” he is forced to consider his own fleshly package of mortality: “A rib in my right side speaks / To me more softly // Than Eve. …” This reaching into the self because of having touched some external emblem is reminiscent of the poems in Into the Stone, especially the “War” section, but the embodiment of the narrator's mortal condition into himself is more persuasive than the lurking presence of the dead brother in “The Underground Stream” and other poems.

Unhappily, “The Rib” suffers from weak language and a trite-sounding ending: “I rise, going moonward toward better / And better sleep.” But Dickey's decision to exclude “The Rib” from Poems 1957-1967 seems less defensible than most of his other such decisions. The most justifiable reason may be that a reversion to “love” as a purportedly major part of the poem, after only one casual reference to Eve in the final three stanzas, suggests that Dickey is trying for more universal significance than this poem will bear. Perhaps more interestingly, this poem speaks of a conjunction of violence and love which comes to have more emphasis as Dickey's career progresses.

However much Dickey strives for transcendent experience in them, emblematic poems such as “The Rib” allow him to get in and out of meanings with minimal emotional stress; they stand ultimately as clever foci of considerations. Sometimes the poet's efforts at empowering vision extend to images of his family. “A Screened Porch in the Country” stands more daringly on the edge of family and nature, waiting there for glowing insights, if not sparks to fly. It is notable for the poet's detachment from the objects—family, in this case—of his contemplation, a detachment similar to that in “The Hospital Window” and “The Celebration,” also family poems.

When Dickey describes the people on the porch by calling them “bodies softening to shadow,” he summons the reader to accept something of what Conrad meant when he wrote in Heart of Darkness that, to Marlow, “the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.”5 Dickey's people are seen only as projections of themselves, their own shadows from their lamplike house:

… until
They come to rest out in the yard
In a kind of blurred golden country
In which they more deeply lie
Than if they were being created
Of Heavenly light.

The distinction that Dickey makes is important, for in most of his poems, it is clear that human beings are superior. Here, though, he elevates some nonspecific, nonrational essence of the people to absolute prominence. The second stanza explicitly relegates “The smallest creatures”—animals—to unconsciousness, or at least wordlessness, although their own essence is somehow accessible to the poet, if not to the people on the porch. In this aspect—the primacy of the poetic act—this poem is like “Listening to Foxhounds.” Dickey allows to these mysterious edge-of-night-light creatures the experience of music: “Sing, if they can, / Or, if they can't, simply shine …, / Pulsating and thinking of music.” The claim for humanity, though, is that it can

… become
More than human, and enter the place
Of small, blindly singing things,
Seeming to rejoice
Perpetually, without effort,
Without knowing why
Or how they do it.

The natural creatures are fine, and people are fine; but the best is when people turn almost passive, “Emitted by their own house,” projected into nature by their very humanness. The poem is notably romantic in its depiction of the excellence of nonrational knowledge, the highway to transcendence it provides. But Dickey's firm hold on physical reality, the actual scene, allows the reader to stop short of the loosest, flabbiest magico-mystical qualities of such poetry. Perhaps the deftest touch is that Dickey draws up the reins of supposition right at the end of the poem: “Seeming to rejoice,” only “seeming,” he says. The human encounter with nonhuman nature must always be slightly suspect, slightly tenuous, for the connection is always susceptible to peculiarly human rationality and imagination.

“The Change” reiterates Dickey's interest in the primordial essence of all natural things, thus the essence of humanity. Here he finds it in a hammerhead shark, a brother who can never evolve, as the poet says, “No millions of years shall yet turn him // From himself to a man in love.” Yet the poet finds in the creature the living spark that has somehow persisted and produced humankind over those same eons. The poet speculates what he would be if he could somehow embody both the shark and the person, to become:

… what I would make of myself
In ten millions years, if I could,
And arise from my brute of a body
To a thing the world never thought of
In a place as apparent as Heaven.

This poet's pursuit is for something at “the heart of [his] brain,” not to discount what the human intellect perceives and constructs, but to include with those powers something of the brute force and the instinctual knowing of creatures so mysteriously long-existing as the shark.

“The Change” also recalls more obliquely the theme of brotherhood, the unknown companion of Dickey's youth and of his prebirth. The sense of brotherhood that Dickey feels with the natural world, especially with beasts of prey, is tied intimately with his sense of survivorship in a predominantly hostile universe, a place in which such a brotherhood and such combinations of power as he aspires to in this poem are the prerequisites for immortality.

Nonetheless, in the searching for transcendent power, as risky as it may be, the poet does not forget the needs of beauty and gentleness, the fine perceptions and creations of people:

… the heart of my brain has spoken …
Gently of ends and beginnings,
Gently of sources and outcomes,
Impossible, brighter than sunlight.

The words of the poet have been subsumed in the radiant knowledge of suprarational powers of insight, of ways to know that only the universe as a whole may possess but which Dickey desires. The shark is to remain one of his most potent images of essence, most conspicuously in “The Shark's Parlor” (1965). Ironically, as he calls the poem “The Change,” Dickey's overwhelming sense of the unchangingness of the shark over the centuries is the major source of interest of the poem. It is only his speculation, his wild imaginative flight, not even very convincing, that suggests that any change is possible in people, much less in the shark.

In most of his poems, though, Dickey believes firmly in the efficacy of thinking, in the power of the human imagination to penetrate the physical world to perceive and even to affect the spiritual world, even to affect the creatures of the nonhuman natural world. In “Autumn” the poet infers that trees somehow tune into the capacity of human beings, that they may think themselves through the fall changes, to turn leaves, perhaps, then, even to prepare for their own mortal conclusions: “I see the tree think it will turn / Brown, and tomorrow at dawn / It will change as it thinks it will change.”

The subtlety of Dickey's poem goes beyond easy personification. The poet observes that the changes will come faster than the trees believe; even as human beings, even those who become aware of their mortality, always come to death sooner than they know and almost certainly sooner than they wish. The trees come to their deaths, their falls, as they recall the glorious greens of their fruitful time, just as a dying man may recall something of his own rich life.

The apparition of an angel allows the poet cheaply to reestablish the religious concerns that run throughout the poem, but it also raises doubts about the integrity of the poet's vision, as though he changes key and departs his original nature imagery as the burden of his song.

The last poem in the book, “In the Mountain Tent,” allows the narrator access to both animate and inanimate nature. He gives in to the “profound, unspeakable law” which then allows him the state of mind which admits him into the natural arena, the world of the essences of things, the world of the truest light on nature, the best insights of human and nonhuman nature. The spirit of creation appears to be intelligent and purposeful, as Dickey describes the “thought-out leaves of the wood,” suggesting that the leaves are the manifestations of the thought-creation of trees and ultimately of some spirit-force behind and beyond them. The minds of animals, then, become the ground for the poet's contemplations, the power source as well as the subject matter of his spiritual exercises. And the ultimate word for the man seems to be poetry which emerges as though from the mind and quality of nature's creatures, not something that could merely be manufactured by the rational, distilled creature—man: “I am there like the dead, or the beast / Itself, which thinks of a poem.” But a poem is a made thing, the creation-again of the spirit of the natural world:

Czeslaw Milosz, the 1980 Nobel laureate, writes in “Ars Poetica?”—

… poetry is rightly said to be dictated by a daimonion,
though it's an exaggeration to maintain that he must be an angel …
… poems should be written rarely and reluctantly,
under unbearable duress and only with the hope
that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instruments.(6)

Dickey's American rather than East European mentality, buoyed with some senseless optimism in a hard world, almost invariably leads him to believe that no matter what comes as poetry, the spirit must be good. He does not seem so much to screen out as to expect that to let oneself have “free-falling” access to the minds of the beasts is to have access to the immanent spirit of creation and therefore of good—not evil—daimonions.

It is fitting that the last poem in Dickey's second book so wholly and enthusiastically embrace the natural world and exclaim its present right of poetry, but one must remember that the voice of the poet here is only as mediator: “From holes in the ground comes my voice / In the God-silenced tongue of the beasts. / ‘I shall rise from the dead,’ I am saying.” These last lines recall “To His Children in Darkness,” in which the poet sees himself in forms both beastly and angelic, his voice somehow miraculous, in dreamlike authority, to tell the truths of the human soul by synthesizing (in that earlier case, for his sons) the forces of the natural and supranatural world as it comes to glory in a human being's self-consciousness and his ability to be conscious of the external world as well. It is a risky, threatening business, this transcendence. We must be bold.


  1. Richard Howard, Alone with America (New York: Atheneum, 1980), p. 99.

  2. Ibid., p. 102.

  3. Ibid., p. 119.

  4. Robert Langbaum, The Modern Spirit: Essays on the Continuity of Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 19.

  5. Joseph Conrad, The Heart of Darkness, ed. Robert Kimbrough (New York: W. W. Norton, 1963), p. 5.

  6. Czeslaw Milosz, “Ars Poetica?” Antaeus 30/31 (Spring 1978): 148-49.

Joyce Carol Oates (essay date 1984)

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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.

Dickey, Sorties

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 elusive concept we call the personality, has not been investigated.

Yet this is only natural: it is always the fate of individuals who give voice to an era's hidden, atavistic desires, its “taboos,” to be controversial and therefore misunderstood. Dickey's poetry is important not only because it is so skillful, but because it expresses, at times unintentionally, a great deal about the American imagination in its response to an increasingly complex and “unnatural” phase of civilization. (To Dickey mental processes have come to seem “unnatural” in contrast to physical acts: hence the “Hell” of the quote from his journal, Sorties.) He has said, quite seriously, that “the world, the human mind, is dying of subtlety. What it needs is force” (Sorties, Garden City, New York, 1971; p. 85). His imagination requires the heroic. But the world cannot and will not always accommodate the hero, no matter how passionately he believes he has identified himself with the fundamental, secret rhythms of nature itself. One comes to loathe the very self that voices its hopeless demands, the “I” that will not be satisfied and will never be silent. I myself am hell is a philosophical statement, though it is expressed in the poetic language of personal emotion.

The volumes of poetry Dickey has published so far—Into the Stone (1960), Drowning with Others (1962), Helmets (1964), Buckdancer's Choice (1965), The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy (1970)—present a number of hypothetical or experimental personae, each a kind of reincarnation of an earlier consciousness through which the “self” of the poet endures. He moves, he grows, he suffers, he changes, yet he is still the same—the voice is a singular one, unmistakable. It asks why, knowing the soul heroic, the man himself is so trapped, so helpless? Dickey's central theme is the frustration that characterizes modern man, confronted with an increasingly depersonalized and intellectualized society—the frustration and its necessary corollary, murderous rage. Dickey is not popular with liberals. Yet one can learn from him, as from no other serious writer, what it is like to have been born into one world and to have survived into another. It might be argued that Dickey is our era's Whitman, but a Whitman subdued, no longer innocent, baptized by American violence into the role of a “killer/victim” who cannot locate within his society any standards by which his actions may be judged. A personality eager to identify itself with the collective, whether nature or other men, can survive only when the exterior world supports that mystical union of subject and object. Dickey speaks from the inside of our fallen, contaminated, guilt-obsessed era, and he speaks its language.

This was not always so: his earliest poems are lyric and meditative. They present a near-anonymous sensitivity, one hypnotized by forms, by Being in which dramatic and ostensibly intolerable truths are resolved by a formal, ritualistic—essentially magical—imagination into coherent and well-defined unities; his later poems submit this sensitivity to a broken, overheated, emotionally and intellectually turbulent world. The “stoneness” of the first volume undergoes an astonishing variety of metamorphoses until, in “The Eye-Beaters” and “Turning Away: Variations on Estrangement,” it emerges as stark, isolated, combative self-consciousness, in which “A deadly, dramatic compression / Is made of the normal brow. …” The poet begins as Prospero, knowing all and forgiving all, and, through a series of sharply tested modes of perception, comes to seem like Hamlet of the great, tragic soliloquies.

Who can tell us more about ourselves?—about our “American,” “masculine,” most dangerous selves? Even more than Whitman, Dickey contains multitudes; he cannot be reproached for the fact that some of these aspects of a vast, complex self are at war with the others. He experiments with the art of poetry and with the external world and the relationships it offers him (will he be lover?—murderer?—observer?), but what is most moving about his work is his relentless honesty in regard to his own evolving perception of himself, the mystery of his “personality.” He refuses to remain in any explored or conquered territory, either in his art or in his personality. Obsessed with the need to seek and to define, he speaks for those who know that the universe is rich with meaning but are not always able to relate the intellectual, conscious aspect of their natures to it. Thus, the need to reject the “conscious” mind and its public expression, civilization itself, which is so disturbing in Dickey. Indeed, Sorties is very nearly a confession of despair—the poet seems unable to integrate the various aspects of his nature, conceiving of the world of the intellect and art as “Hell.” “Believe me, it is better to be stupid and ordinary,” Dickey tells us early in the book. What such a temperament requires, however, is not less intelligence, but more.

Dickey has not always expressed himself in such extreme terms, and he has been, all along, a careful craftsman, knowing that meaning in poetry must be expressed through language, through a system of mental constructs. In fact, it must be invented anew with each poem; it must be rigorously contracted, abbreviated, made less explosive and less primitive. In an excellent essay in The Suspect in Poetry he cautions young poets against abandoning themselves to their unconscious “song,” which he defines as “only a kind of monstrousness that has to be understood and ordered according to some principle to be meaningful.”1 The unrestrained and unimagined self must be related syntactically to the external world in order to achieve meaning.

Yet the phenomenal world changes; language shifts, evolves, breaks free of its referents; and the human ego, mysteriously linked to both, is forced to undergo continuous alterations in order simply to survive. In the poem “Snakebite” (1967) the “stage of pine logs” and the “role / I have been cast in” give way suddenly and horribly to the dramatic transition from the pronoun “it” to the pronoun “me” as the poet realizes he is confined in his living, breathing, existential body: he is not playing a role after all. If he wants to survive he will have to drain that poison out of his blood stream. Therefore, one of the burdens of the poet's higher awareness is to discover if there is any metamorphosis, any possible reincarnation, that is ultimately more than a mode of perception, a way of arranging words. Otherwise we begin to imagine ourselves as totally “estranged.” To deny that estrangement we must deny our very framework of perception—language and sanity and logic—as if, by annihilating the mental construct of incarnation, we might somehow experience it on a level far below consciousness. Certainly Dickey has emphasized the poem as physical experience; he has set up opposing pseudocategories of the poetry of “participation” and the poetry of “reflection” (Sorties, p. 59). Such an estrangement rests, however, upon the metaphysical assumption that man's intellect is an intruder in the universe and that the language systems he has devised are not utterly natural, natural to his species. Surely the human invention or creation of language is our species' highest achievement; some psycholinguists speculate that human beings are born with a genetic endowment for recognizing and formulating language, that they “possess genes for all kinds of information, with strands of special, peculiarly human DNA for the discernment of meaning in syntax.”2 Failing to accept the intellect as triumphantly human, rather than somehow unnatural, the poet is doomed to endless struggles with the self. The “variations on estrangement” at the end of The Eye-Beaters deal with countless battles and meadows strewn “with inner lives,” concluding with the hope that the poet's life may be seen “as a thing / That can be learned, / As those earnest young heroes learned theirs, / Later, much later on.”

An objective assessment of one's situation must be experienced apart from life itself, then. And only “much later on.” To use a critical term Dickey appropriated from Wordsworth, he is a poet of the “Second Birth,” not one who, like Rimbaud or Dylan Thomas, possessed a natural instrument for poetry but one who eventually reduces the distinction between “born” and “made” poets only by hard work, by the “ultimate moral habit of trying each poem, each line, each word, against the shifting but finally constant standards of inner necessity” (The Suspect in Poetry, pp. 55-57). Contrary to his instinct for direct, undiluted self-expression, the poet has tried to define and develop his own personality as a “writing instrument”; he has pared back, reduced, restrained the chaotic “monstrousness” of raw emotion in order to relate his unique experience to common experience. He contradicts Eliot's ideal of an impersonal poetry, yet paradoxically refuses to endorse what he would call the monstrousness of confessional verse: “The belief in the value of one's personality has all but disappeared. …”

But what is personality, that a belief in it might save us?

Not a multileveled phenomenon, Dickey's sense of “personality,” but rather a series of imagined dramas, sometimes no more than flashes of rapport, kinships with beasts or ancient ancestors—as in the apocalyptic “The Eye-Beaters,” in which personality is gained only when “Reason” is rejected in favor of primitive action. The process of increasing self-consciousness, as image after image is explored, held up like a mask to the poet's face,3 absorbed, and finally discarded, comes to seem a tragic movement, as every existential role in the universe must ultimately be abandoned.


Dickey has said that the century's greatest phrase is Albert Schweitzer's “reverence for life.” This conviction runs through his work but is strongest in the earliest volumes. Into the Stone consists of contemplative, almost dreamlike poems that investigate the poet's many forms of love: beginning with the mythical, incantatory dissolution of the individual personality into both “dark” and “light” and concluding with the book's title poem, which emphasizes the poet's confident “knowing” and his being “known” through his relationship with a woman.

“Sleeping Out at Easter” is terse, restrained, as the “Word rising out of darkness” seems to act without the deliberate involvement of the poet. As dawn arrives in the forest, the “Presences” of night turn into trees and “One eye opens slowly without me.” Everything moves in its own placid, nonpersonalized pattern, out of darkness and into the sunlight, and the world is “made good” by the springing together of wood and sun. The metamorphosis of Presences into daytime trees is one that could occur without the poet's song, yet the poet voices a total acceptance, as if he knew himself uniquely absorbed in the cycle of night/day, his “magical shepherd's cloak … not yet alive on [his] flesh.” In other, similarly incantatory poems, the poet lies at the edge of a well, contemplating himself and his smile and the “grave face” of his dead brother, or lies “in ritual down” in a small unconsecrated grove of suburban pines—trying to get back, to get down, beneath both gods and animals, to “being part of the acclaimed rebirth” of spring (“The Vegetable King”). (Years later, when his poetry has undergone tremendous changes, Dickey will deal again with the transformation of a human being into a tree, in “The Fiend,” one of his most eccentric poems).

Into the Stone contains a number of war poems, but in spite of their subject they absorb the poet's personality much as the nature poems do, locating in confusion and panic certain centers of imagination, of decision, that the poet is able to recall years later, when “at peace.” “The Enclosure” is the first of Dickey's many poems that “enclose” and idealize women: a group of war nurses on a Philippine island are protected by a compound with a wire fence, but the poet imagines them whispering to the soldiers outside “to deliver them out / Of the circle of impotence. …” In lines of curious, ceremonial calm the poet declares how, after the war, this vision led him to “fall / On the enemy's women / With intact and incredible love.” Of the war poems, the most vivid is “The Performance,” which celebrates the paradox of pain and triumph in the memory of David Armstrong, executed by the Japanese; Dickey remembers Armstrong doing a handstand against the sun, and his death by decapitation is seen as another kind of “performance.” Even here there is a sense of acquiescence, finality, as if the cycle of nature could absorb this violent death as easily as it could absorb the shapes of trees back into primordial Presences.

The reverential awe of “Trees and Cattle” places the poet's consciousness in a “holy alliance” with trees, cattle, and sunlight, making his mind a “red beast”—his head gifted with ghostly bull's horns by the same magic that allowed Lawrence to imagine his head “hard-balanced, antlered” in “A Doe at Evening”; the sun itself burns more deeply because trees and cattle exist. A miracle of some kind has occurred, though it cannot be explained, and the poet half believes he may be saved from death; as, in a later poem, “Fog Envelops the Animals,” the poet-hunter is somehow transformed into the “long-sought invisibility” of pure things or events or processes: “Silence. Whiteness. Hunting.” But Into the Stone is characterized by passivity and no hint of the guilty, pleasurable agitation of physical life, whether hunting or love; the title poem describes the poet “on the way to a woman,” preoccupied with a mystical absorption into the “stone” of the moon. The woman is outside the concern of the poem, undefined, not even mythologized; the poet is not vividly portrayed, as in “Cherrylog Road”; he could be any man, any lover, believing that “the dead have their chance in my body.” All is still, mysterious, calm. The poet “knows” his place and his love, quite unlike the moon-drawn men of a later poem, “Apollo,” who are seen as floating “on nothing / But procedure alone” and who symbolize “all humanity in the name / Of a new life. …” This later poem makes the “stone” of the moon into “stones,” breaks up a seamless cosmology into a universe of “craters” and “mountains the animal / Eye has not seen since the earth split” (the earth-moon split an ancient and honored moon theory, of obvious symbolic, if not scientific, value)—not the Platonic oneness of stone, but stones:

                                                            … We stare into the moon
dust, the earth-blazing ground. We laugh, with the beautiful craze
                                                  Of Static. We bend, we pick up stones.


A more dramatic sense of self is evident in Dickey's second book, Drowning with Others. Here he imagines the torturous memories of a lifeguard who failed to save a drowning child; he imagines himself inside the hunting dream of a dog sleeping on his feet; he contemplates fish in “The Movement of Fish” with the alert, awed scrutiny of Lawrence himself, making a judgment, like Lawrence's, that arises from the distant Otherness of the fish's world, where its sudden movement has the power to “convulse the whole ocean” and teach man the Kierkegaardian terror of the leap, the “fear and trembling” of great depths that are totally still, far beneath the superficial agitation that men see or float upon in their boats.

Yet the hunted/hunting animals of “The Heaven of Animals” are poetic constructions, Platonic essences of beasts wholly absorbed in a mythical cycle of life-death-rebirth: at the very center of nature these beasts “tremble,” “fall,” “are torn,” “rise,” and “walk again,” like Emerson's red slayer and his perpetual victim. “The Heaven of Animals” is all but unique in Dickey's poetry because the poet himself has no clear position in it, as if its unity of Being somehow excluded an active intellectual consciousness; if we look back at the poem from “Fog Envelops the Animals” and other hunting poems and from Dickey's statements in Self-Interviews (Garden City, New York, 1970) about the mysterious “renewal” he experiences when hunting, we can assume that his deepest sympathies are with the predators, but this is not evident from the poem itself, which is one of his finest, most delicate achievements. The owl of “The Owl King” is another poetic (and not naturalistic) creature, a form of the poet himself who sits “in my shape / With my claws growing deep into wood / And my sight going slowly out, / Inch by inch. …” Superior forces belong to those who, like the owl, can see in the dark; or to those who, like Dickey himself, possess extraordinary powers of vision4 that set them apart from other, average men. But the forces are benevolent, godly, and restrained—the owl king participates in a mysterious ceremony with the blind child “as beasts at their own wedding, dance” and is not the symbol of cold, savage violence of the owl perched upon the tent in Deliverance, just as the poet-narrator of the volume Drowning with Others is not the helplessly eager murderer of Deliverance. Here, in the owl king's Roethkian kingdom, all nature is transformed by mind, its brutal contingencies and dreams suppressed, the possible “monstrousness” of its song made into a childlike lyric. Its final stanzas link it to earlier poems of Dickey's in which tension has been resolved by an act of impersonal, godly will:

Far off, the owl king
Sings like my father, growing
In power. Father, I touch
Your face. I have not seen
My own, but it is yours.
I come, I advance,
I believe everything, I am here.

Through the child's (blind) acceptance, Dickey accepts the world; just as, in the anguished “The Eye-Beaters,” he rejects the world of normal, rational vision, having been shaken by the experience of seeing blind children beat at their eyes in order to “see.” In “The Owl King” the transcendent, paternal bird withdraws into the darkness of his own vision, while the lost child's father emerges, “In love with the sound of my voice,” to claim his child; both aspects of the poetic consciousness are required if the child is to be saved, cherished, and yet both are dependent upon the child's acquiescence. (Just as, for the hunter, the imagined “acquiescence” of the hunted—the slain—is a ritualistic necessity; see Dickey's attempted justification of his love of hunting in Self-Interviews). This poem is a “song of innocence” whose unearthly simplicity—the child moves from tree to tree as if blessing them—will be transformed, years later, into the nightmarish “song of experience” of the crazed blind children in “The Eye-Beaters.” Then, the objects of the poet's pity being, in themselves, hopeless, not even human children, beyond all love or language, the poet himself will narrowly escape madness. But this is years later, years deeper into flesh.


In his third book, Helmets, Dickey begins to move out of the perfected world of eternal recurrence, no longer the awed, alert, but essentially passive observer, now ready to experience history. It is clear that Dickey desires to take on “his” own personal history as an analogue to or a microcosmic exploration of twentieth-century American history, which is one of the reasons he is so important a poet. In his inspired, witty, and ingeniously balanced essay on Randall Jarrell in The Suspect in Poetry, Dickey says he can discover in Jarrell's poetry very little excellence of technique, but he insists that Jarrell's contribution—“that of writing about real things, rather than playing games with words”—is a valuable one. Dickey indicates implicitly that he will take on both the challenge of being an artist and a historian of our era, which he has, applying a superior poetic talent to Jarrell's “realm … of pity and terror … a kind of non-understanding understanding, and above all of helplessness.”5

Once he is released from the sacred but bloodless cycle of nature, Dickey is concerned with giving life to this “non-understanding understanding” of creatures simpler than himself, or of an earlier form of himself, as in the beautiful, perfect poem, “Drinking from a Helmet.” In “The Dusk of Horses” the emphasis has shifted from acceptance to a sharper awareness of distinctions between self and object, the need for the human participant in an action to judge it:

No beast ever lived who understood
What happened among the sun's fields,
Or cared why the color of grass
Fled over the hill while he stumbled,
Led by the halter to sleep
On his four taxed, worthy legs. …

(“The Dusk of Horses”)

In this and similar poems in Helmets the graceful fluidity of the lines is like the fluidity of the earlier poems: the god's-eye vision set to music. As the theme of “helplessness” grows, however, Dickey loses interest in well-made and sweetly sounding poetry and pours his remarkable energies into such extravaganzas of shouts and shrieks as “May Day Sermon.” And where death might once have been resolved by a mystical affirmation of unity, in the recent poem “Diabetes” it is resolved by a surreptitious drink of beer; in “The Cancer Match,” by whiskey.

Throughout Helmets there is an increasing growth, as if the subjects long loved by the poet are now shifting out of the hypnosis of love itself, beginning to elude his incantatory powers: coming alive and separate. In a poem reminiscent of Wallace Stevens' “Anecdote of the Jar,” Dickey stands by a fence with his palm on the top wire and experiences a vision or a nervous hallucination of the disorder that would result if the tension of the wire were broken:

If the wire were cut anywhere
All his blood would fall to the ground
And leave him standing and staring
With a face as white as a Hereford's. …

(“Fence Wire”)

The “top tense strand” is like a guitar string “tuned to an E,” whose humming sound arranges the acres of the farm and holds them “highstrung and enthralled.” Suddenly the poet in his human role must accept a position in nature which is superior to that of trees and cattle, an intellectual responsibility that will involve both exultation and the risk of despair. But because of Dickey's hand on this fence wire,

The dead corn is more
Balanced in death than it was,
The animals more aware
Within the huge human embrace
Held up and borne out of sight
Upon short, unbreakable poles
Where through the ruled land intones
Like a psalm. …

Because of the sensational aspects of some of his later poems, Dickey is not usually known to have concerned himself so seriously, and so perceptively, with the metaphysics behind aesthetic action; it is characteristic of his energy and his pursuit of new challenges that a very few poems about “poetry” are enough for him. If read in its proper chronological place in Dickey's work, “Fence Wire” is a moving as well as a significant poem; it is the first clear statement of the poet's sense of himself as involved responsibly in history. In his most powerful poems the tension between that “top thread tuned to an E” and the abandonment to one's own possible, probable “monstrousness” provides a dramatic excitement generally lacking in these early, though entirely admirable poems, and less content with lyric verse itself, Dickey will experiment with wildly imaginative monologues in which words float and leap all over the page.

In Helmets there is also a new sense of exploration into an “Otherness,” not a declaring of unities, analogues, “correspondences” between all phenomena in nature: Dickey stands “At Darien Bridge” and muses upon the chain-gang workers who built the bridge many years ago, when he was a child; he hopes to see a bird, the one bird “no one has looked for,” and the scratched wedding band on his finger recalls the convicts' chains—like them, he longs for freedom, or even death, or at least the ability to believe again in “the unchanging, hopeless look / Out of which all miracles leap.” (In contrast to the miraculous vision of “Trees and Cattle.”) In “Chenille” he encounters another kind of poet, an old woman who darns quilts endlessly, not ordinary bedspreads of the kind made by machine and sold in the normal world but quilts decorated with red whales, unicorns, winged elephants, crowned ants—“Beasts that cannot be thought of / By the wholly sane.” Increasingly, the surreal intrudes into what should be the real, or sane; in “On the Cosawattee” Dickey and his companion on a canoeing trip are shocked to see how the water has been defiled by a poultry-processing plant upstream:

All morning we floated on feathers
Among the drawn heads which appeared
Everywhere, from under the logs
Of feathers, from upstream behind us,
Lounging back to us from ahead,
Until we believed ourselves doomed
And the planet corrupted forever. …

Though the two men shoot the rapids and finally escape this horror, the canoeists of Deliverance return to experience the river's mysterious dangers and the unhuman ground-bass of sound that becomes “deeper and more massively frantic and authoritative” as they continue—and this time not all will survive, and none will get back to civilization with anything like this poem's triumphant declaration of the human ability to escape other human defilement. In the blaze of noon the canoeists on the Coosawattee River feel:

The quickening pulse of the rapids
And entered upon it like men
Who sense that the world can be cleansed
Among rocks pallid only with water,
And plunged there like the unborn
Who see earthly streams without taint
Flow beneath them. …

“Cherrylog Road” is the first of the unmistakable Dickeyesque poems: nostalgic and comic simultaneously, demystifying the love so laboriously mystified elsewhere, even naming names (“Doris Holbrook”) and giving directions:

Off Highway 106
At Cherrylog Road I entered
The '34 Ford without wheels,
Smothered in kudzu,
With a seat pulled out to run
Corn whiskey down from the hills. …

And in this automobile graveyard the boy moves from car to car, delighted to be naming, placing, experiencing, without the need to make anything sacred or even essentially important: from the Ford to an Essex to a blue Chevrolet to a Pierce-Arrow, “as in a wild stock-car race / In the parking lot of the dead. …” He hopes his girl friend will come to him from her father's farm “And … get back there / With no trace of me on her face”; when she does arrive and they embrace, their love-making takes place in the same “stalled, dreaming traffic” as the hunting of mice by blacksnakes, and beetles soon reclaim the field of the car's seat springs. The narrator leaves on his motorcycle, which is unglamorized, “Like the soul of the junkyard / Restored, a bicycle fleshed / With power”—an earlier, more convincing version of the spectacular “May Day Sermon.”

“The Poisoned Man” deals with the same situation explored in a later poem, “Snakebite” (from Falling, in Poems 1957-1967) in which the victim of a poisonous snake is forced to cut himself with a knife in order to drain out the poison. In the earlier poem a formal, almost allegorical meaning evolves from the terrifying experience; the poet has a kind of vision, feeling that his heart's blood could flow “Unendingly out of the mountain. …” “Snakebite” reduces this visionary abstraction to “I have a problem with / My right foot and my life.” Aging, the poet is urgently concerned with survival itself; he has called himself a poet of “survival.” In another poem about snakes, “Goodbye to Serpents,” Dickey and his son observe snakes in a Parisian zoo, and Dickey tries to concentrate on them as he never has in the past. His meditation is so complete that he seems to pass into them, seeing the human world of towers and churches and streets “All old, all cold with my gaze. …” and he longs to believe that he has somehow retained, at the same time, his own human presence, the human miracles of “self” and “love.” But it is a failure:

And I know I have not been moved
Enough by the things I have moved through,
And I have seen what I have seen
Unchanged, hypnotized, and perceptive. …

Unchanged, hypnotized, and perceptive: a strange combination of words. But in the first of Dickey's “reincarnation” poems in a later volume, Buckdancer's Choice, he becomes a snake with head “poisonous and poised.” Perhaps he is suggesting that the very awe of nature that mesmerized him has prevented his being “moved” humanly by the things he has experienced. The mystic's world of total acceptance has always contrasted sharply with the world of human suffering.

Helmets concludes with one of Dickey's most remarkable poems, the little-discussed “Drinking from a Helmet.” The young narrator, in wartime, drinks from a helmet he picked up near his foxhole and sways “as if kissed in the brain,” standing

… as though I possessed
A cool, trembling man
Exactly my size, swallowed whole.

He throws down his own helmet and puts on the one he has found, an inheritance from the dead. Then he seems to “see” in his own brain the dying man's last thought—a memory of two boys, the soldier and his older brother in a setting of tremendous trees “That would grow on the sun if they could. …” Where “Approaching Prayer” traced what seemed to be the poet's conscious effort to imagine a dying hog's experience, “Drinking from a Helmet” seems sheer unwilled vision:

                                                                      I saw a fence
And two boys facing each other,
Quietly talking,
Looking in at the gigantic redwoods,
The rings in the trunks turning slowly
To raise up stupendous green.
I would survive and go there,
Stepping off the train in a helmet
That held a man's last thought,
Which showed him his older brother
Showing him trees.
I would ride through all
California upon two wheels
Until I came to the white
Dirt road where they had been,
Hoping to meet his blond brother,
And to walk with him into the wood
Until we were lost,
Then take off the helmet
And tell him where I had stood,
What poured, what spilled, what swallowed:
And tell him I was the man.

The relationship between the two brothers is interesting, because it reverses the relationship of Dickey and his own older brother, who evidently died before Dickey was born. (See “The Underground Stream,” “The String,” and other poems in which the “tall cadaver” of the brother is summoned up by the poet, who believes himself conceived by his parents “out of grief” and brought to life “To replace the incredible child” who had died. The psychologically disastrous results of such a belief, if sincere, hardly need to be examined; one is always a “survivor,” always “guilty,” and always conscious of being an inferior substitute for some superior being.) Here, the younger brother has died and Dickey himself will go to visit the surviving older brother, as if, somehow, both he and his older brother were living and able to speak to each other; a life-affirming magic, in spite of a young soldier's death.


After Helmets Dickey's poetry changes considerably. The colloquial tone and unserious rhythms of “Cherrylog Road” are used for deadly serious purposes as Dickey explores hypothetical selves and the possibility of values outside the human sphere. Where in an early poem like “The Performance” a mystical placidity rendered even a brutal execution into something observed, now most actions, most states of being, are examined bluntly, brutally, emotionally, as the poet subjects himself to raw life without the sustaining rituals of Being.

Dickey has many extraordinary poems, fusions of “genius” and “art,” but the central poem of his work seems to be “The Firebombing,” from Buckdancer's Choice. No reader, adjusted to the high, measured art of Dickey's first three volumes, can be ready for this particular poem; it is unforgettable, and seems to me an important achievement in our contemporary literature, a masterpiece that could only have been written by an American, and only by Dickey.

“The Firebombing” is an eight-page poem of irregular lines, abrupt transitions and leaps, stanzas of varying length, connected by suburban-surreal images, a terrifying visionary experience endured in a “well-stocked pantry.” Its effort is to realize, to feel, what the poet did twenty years before as a participant in an “anti-morale raid” over Japan during the closing months of World War II. Its larger effort is to feel guilt and finally to feel anything. One of the epigraphs to the poem is from the Book of Job: “Or hast thou an arm like God?” This is Dickey's ironic self-directed question, for it is he, Dickey, the homeowner / killer, the Job / God, who has tried on the strength of vast powers and has not been able to survive them. Irony is something altogether new in Dickey:

Homeowners unite.
All families lie together, though some are burned alive.
The others try to feel
For them. Some can, it is often said.

The detachment is not godly, but despairing. Though he is now Job, he was at one time the “arm of God,” and being both man and God is an impossibility. Dickey's earlier war poems always show him a survivor, grateful to survive, rather boyish and stunned by the mystery of a strange rightness beneath disorder; it seems to have taken him many years to get to this particular poem, though its meaning in his life must have been central. Now the survivor is also a killer. What of this, what of killing?—What is a release from the sin of killing? Confession, but, most of all, guilt; if the poet cannot make himself feel guilt even for the deaths of children, how will it be possible for him to feel anything human at all?—

… some technical-minded stranger with my hands
Is sitting in a glass treasure-hole of blue light,
Having potential fire under the undeodorized arms
Of his wings, on thin bomb-shackles,
The “tear-drop-shaped” 300-gallon drop-tanks
Filled with napalm and gasoline.

This stranger is, or was, Dickey himself, who flew one hundred combat missions through the South Pacific, the Philippines, and Okinawa and participated in B-29 raids over Japan; but he is only a memory now, an eerily aesthetic memory. He exists in the mind of a suburban husband and father, worrying about his weight and the half-paid-for pantry that is part of his homeowning and his present “treasure-hole”:

Where the lawn mower rests on its laurels
Where the diet exists
For my own good          where I try to drop
Twenty years. …

So many years after the event, what remains? He is now a civilian, a citizen, an American who understands himself in ironic, secret charge of all the necessary trivia of unaesthetic life—the purchasing of golf carts and tennis shoes, new automobiles, Christmas decorations—that he knows as the “glue inspired / By love of country,” the means by which the possibly atomistic or death-bound ego is held fast in its identity. Though the wonder remains, he is far from the moon-hypnotized, somnambulistic rhythms of the past; “The Firebombing” is what Dickey would call an “open poem,” one in which a certain compulsiveness in the presentation of the subject matter precludes or makes peripheral an aesthetic response,6 and the poet's own recollection of his action is mocked, if it must be assessed in stylized terms:

As I sail artistically over
The resort town followed by farms,
Singing and twisting
All the handles in heaven          kicking
The small cattle off their feet
In a red costly blast
Flinging jelly over the walls
As in a chemical war-
fare field demonstration.

Remembering this, he knows that “my hat should crawl on my head” and “the fat on my body should pale”—but one of the horrors of this bombing raid is that it has somehow destroyed a normal human response, as if the “arm of God” the pilot had assumed had also annihilated him. Having shown us so convincingly in his poetry how natural, how inevitable, is man's love for all things, Dickey now shows us what happens when man is forced to destroy, forced to step down into history and be an American (“and proud of it”). In so doing he enters a tragic dimension in which few poets indeed have operated. Could Whitman's affirmation hold out if he were forced to affirm not just the violence of others, but his own? If war is necessary, warriors are necessary; someone must sacrifice his cosmic love; and not only is the traditional life-praising song of the poet savagely mocked by his performance as a patriot in wartime, but the poet cannot even experience his own deeds, for he has acted as a machine inside a machine. In “The Firebombing” everything must remain remote and abstract, not experienced in any vital way. The Machine Age splits man irreparably from his instinctive need to see, to feel, to know through the senses. The Whitmanesque affirmation of man is difficult to sustain if the poet can see the objects of his love only from a great height, through an intellectual telescope. When Whitman feels he is “on the verge of a usual mistake” (“Song of Myself,” stanza 38), it is only an emotional mistake; he could never have considered the nihilism of a self without emotions, in which his inventiveness could really attach itself to nothing because it could experience nothing.

After this dreamlike unleashing of “all American fire,” the poet states flatly that death will not be what it should—a counterstatement, perhaps, to Schweitzer's reverence for life. This is the poet's unique vision:

                                                                      Ah, under one's dark arms
Something strange-scented falls—when those on earth
Die, there is not even sound;
One is cool and enthralled in the cockpit,
Turned blue by the power of beauty,
In a pale treasure-hole of soft light
Deep in aesthetic contemplation,
Seeing the ponds catch fire
And cast it through ring after ring
Of land. …
.....It is this detachment,
The honored aesthetic evil,
The greatest sense of power in one's life,
That must be shed in bars, or by whatever
Means, by starvation
Visions in well-stocked pantries. …

These “visions” will inspire in the poet wilder and wilder imaginings in his own creative life and an abandonment of the ego as “homeowner” in favor of the ego as “hunter” or “primitive.” The mechanized State tempts one to an aesthetic evil, and so perhaps salvation may be found in a pre-aesthetic, prehistorical animality that will seize upon possible rites (the structural basis of Deliverance) in order to exorcise the despairing and suicidal violence of the animal self. Whether Dickey's themes are explorative rather than absolute, whether his work traces an autobiographical query or a record, the function of his poetry seems to be the demonstration of the failure of such a vision. And yet it is certainly tempting to take on the viciousness—and the innocence—of the animal, to take for our totems owls, snakes, foxes, wolverines, and to reject forever the possibilities of detachment and evil that are inherent in civilization.

Like Dostoyevsky, Dickey considers the helplessness of the killer. But, unlike Dostoyevsky, he cannot imagine a transformation of the killer into a higher form of himself: the mysterious process by which Raskolnikov grows and by which Smerdyakov can be seen as a rudimentary form of Father Zossima. But Dickey cannot operate through metaphor, as Dostoyevsky did, for he was the man, he did these things, he and no one else. Though his poetry charts a process of wonders, a changing of selves, finally he is only himself, a particular man, trapped in a finite and aging body with memories that belong to him and not to the rest of us, not to any liberalized concept of the guilt we all “share.” (Like Marcuse, Dickey could probably feel no more than scorn for the “repressive tolerance” of some aspects of liberalism.) If made general and universal, in order to be shared, is guilt itself not made an aesthetic event?—a luxury?—a perversion?

But the narrator of the poem cannot concern himself with such abstractions:

All this, and I am still hungry,
Still twenty years overweight, still unable
To get down there or see
What really happened.
.....                                                                                          … It is that I can imagine
At the threshold nothing
With its ears crackling off
Like powdery leaves,
Nothing with children of ashes, nothing not
Amiable, gentle, well-meaning. …

A poetry of Being can move to perfect resolutions, but this poetry of anguished Becoming cannot. (“Some can, it is often said,” Dickey has remarked, ironically and sadly.) The narrative and confessional elements of “The Firebombing” demand a totally different aesthetic: the aesthetic-denying open form. No reconciliation of opposites is possible here because the poet cannot reconcile himself to his earlier self. And so what of “Absolution? Sentence?” These do not matter for “The thing itself is in that.”

“The Firebombing” is central to an understanding of Dickey's work. It could not have been prophesied on the basis of the earlier, Roethke-inspired poems; but once it appears, unsuppressed, it is so powerful an illumination that it helps to explain a great deal that might remain mysterious and puzzling. Buckdancer's Choice,Falling, and, above all, The Eye-Beaters deal with mortality, decay, disease, perhaps attributable in part to the poet's actual aging, but only in part, for the descent into a physically combative and increasingly unaesthetic world is not the usual pattern our finest poets follow, as both Roethke and Yeats, and other poets of the “Second Birth,” suggest. Yet the emphasis Dickey places upon mortality, his self-consciousness about it, is a motif that begins to appear even in his literary criticism. How is it possible that the man who believes in nature—in natural processes—should feel uneasy about the natural process of aging? It is a paradox in Hemingway also, but perhaps it is to be understood in Rilke's terms: our fear is not of death, but of life unlived. In an introduction to Paul Carroll's The Young American Poets (Chicago, 1968), Dickey makes a statement that totally contradicts the contemplative, balanced criticism of The Suspect in Poetry of only four years previous:

The aging process almost always brings to the poet the secret conviction that he has settled for far too little. … The nearer he gets to his end the more he yearns for the caves: for a wild, shaggy, all-out, all-involving way of speaking where language and he (or, now, someone: some new poet) engage each other at primitive levels, on ground where the issues are not those of literary fashion but are quite literally those of life and death. All his lifelong struggle with “craft” seems a tragic and ludicrous waste of time. …

(p. 7)

One would imagine, from such remarks, that the speaker is far older than forty-five; “the nearer he gets to his end …” is a visionary statement that might be comprehensible in the Yeats of Last Poems, but astonishing in a poet who is the same age as the Yeats of The Green Helmet. But if a denial of “craft” (or civilization) is needed in order to release spontaneous energy, then one can see why, for Dickey, it must be attempted.


Buckdancer's Choice received the National Book Award in 1965, and in 1967 Dickey put together his Poems 1957-1967 for Wesleyan University Press. The Poems do not observe strict chronological order, however, beginning with the demonic “May Day Sermon to the Women of Gilmer County, Georgia, by a Woman Preacher Leaving the Baptist Church,” one of Dickey's most flamboyant poems. Clearly, Dickey does not want the reader to enter the world of Into the Stone with the innocence he himself had entered it; that celebration of forms is all but outshouted by the eleven-page sermon, which is about violence done to and by a young girl in Georgia, and about her escape with her motorcycle-riding lover, “stoned out of their minds on the white / Lightning of fog”—

                                        singing          the saddlebags full of her clothes
Flying          snagging          shoes hurling away          stockings grabbed-off
Unwinding and furling on twigs: all we know          all we could follow
Them by was her underwear          was stocking after stocking where it tore
Away, and a long slip stretched on a thorn          all these few gave
Out. Children, you know it: that place was where they took
Off into the air          died          disappeared          entered my mouth your mind

It is an incredible achievement, with the intonations of a mad, inspired sermon, the flesh elevated beyond the spirit, but both elevated into myth. It is a myth that transforms everything into it: everything turns into everything else, through passion. The intellect exercises very little control in this “wild, shaggy, all-out, all-involving” work, and though Dickey has expressed doubt over the value of Allen Ginsberg's poetry,7 one is forced to think of certain works of Ginsberg's and of how, under ether sniffing or morphine injection, Ginsberg wrote all of Ankor Wat and that extravaganza “Aether,” in which a preaching voice proclaims certain truths to us: “we are the sweeping of the moon / we're what's left over from perfection”—“(my) Madness is intelligible reactions to / Unintelligible phenomena”—


What can be possible
in a minor universe
in which you can see
God by sniffing the
gas in a cotton?

(“Aether,” in Reality Sandwiches)

Dickey is much more violent, more heartless than Ginsberg, of course, since he is driven by energies more archaic than is Ginsberg, who is a philosopher with a respect for the syntax of the imagination if not of superficial grammar; the “May Day Sermon” is at once revenge for and repetition of the helplessness of the bomber pilot, a mythic annihilation of a punishing, near-invisible father, and an escape off into space, the girl's clothing cast off behind her like the airline stewardess' clothing in “Falling.” In all the exuberant spurts of language there is violence, but especially here:

                    And she comes down          putting her back into
The hatchet          often          often          he is brought down          laid out
Lashing          smoking          sucking wind: Children, each year at this time
A girl will tend to take an ice pick in both hands          a long pine
Needle          will hover          hover: Children, each year at this time
Things happen quickly          and it is easy for a needle to pass
Through the eye of a man bound for Heaven          she leaves it naked goes
Without further sin through the house

After countless readings, “May Day Sermon” still has the power to shock: consider the “needle-eye-Heaven” joke. The maniacal repetitions make one wince (“get up … up in your socks and rise”), and the Dylan Thomas-surreal touches sometimes seem forced (“Dancing with God in a mule's eye”), but the poem's shrieking transmutation of murder, nakedness, eroticism, fertility, and poetry into a single event has an irresistible strength: “everything is more more More.” Nature itself becomes active in the process of transmutation as even “peanuts and beans exchange / Shells in joy,” and in a poetic sleight of hand reminiscent of Thomas's Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait at its apocalyptic conclusion, “the barn falls in / Like Jericho.” The countryside itself is speaking through the woman preacher “as beasts speak to themselves / Of holiness learned in the barn.” It is mysticism, but existential and ribald, noisy, filled with the humming of gnats and strange prophecies:

                              Each May you will crouch like a sawhorse to make yourself
More here          you will be cow chips          chicken croaking …
.....                                                                                                    and every last one of you will groan
Like nails barely holding          and your hair be full of the gray
Glints of stump chains.          Children, each year at this time you will have
Back-pain, but also heaven

In “May Day Sermon” Dickey creates a patchwork of images that go beyond the “not wholly sane” images of “Chenille.”

However, Buckdancer's Choice contains several very personal and moving poems dealing with mortality, the title poem and “Angina” (which deal with Dickey's mother, an invalid “dying of breathless angina”), “Them, Crying,” “The Escape,” and one that reasserts the mystical possibility of transcending death, its certainties expressed in a steady three-beat line:

All ages of mankind unite
Where it is dark enough.
.....All creatures tumbled together
Get back in their wildest arms
No single thing but each other. …

(“The Common Grave”)

But the most passionate poems are counterstatements concerned with developing images adequate to express horror; in “Pursuit from Under” the poet summons up a terrifying image that does not have its place in his own experience, or even in his probable experience, but is a conscious re-creation of a memory. He is standing in a meadow, in August, and imagines he hears the “bark of seals” and feels “the cold of a personal ice age. …” Then he recalls having once read an account of Arctic explorers who died of starvation and whose journal contained a single entry of unforgettable horror:

… under the ice,
The killer whale darts and distorts,
Cut down by the flawing glass
To a weasel's shadow,
And when, through his ceiling, he sees
Anything darker than snow
He falls away
To gather more and more force
                                                            … then charges
Straight up, looms up at the ice and smashes
Into it with his forehead. …

And so the killer whale pursues the poet, even in this familiar meadow in the South, and he thinks of “how the downed dead pursue us”—“not only in the snow / But in the family field.” It is interesting to note that Norman Mailer's nihilistic and very deliberately “literary” novel Why Are We in Vietnam? also transports its protagonist/victim to the Arctic in order to allow him a vision of God-as-beast; this “vision” is then imposed upon all of American (universal?) experience and can allow for no possibilities of transcendence. If God is a beast (as Dickey concludes in “The Eye-Beaters”), then the beast is God, and one must either acquiesce to Him and experience the helplessness of terror in an ordinary southern meadow, or imitate Him, taking on some of His powers. But, increasingly, the poet reaches out beyond his own geographical and historical territory to appropriate this vision. It demands a distortion or a rejection of naturalistic life; at times, as he admits, a kind of necessary theatricality, as he explains in Self-Interviews why hunting is so important to him: “… the main thing is to re-enter the cycle of the man who hunts for his food. Now this may be playacting at being a primitive man, but it's better than not having any rapport with the animal at all … I have a great sense of renewal when I am able to go into the woods and hunt with a bow and arrow, to enter into the animal's world in this way.” And, in Deliverance, the experience of “renewal” or deliverance itself is stimulated by a hunt for other men; simple animals are no longer enough, and the whole of the novel is constructed around those several intensely dramatic moments in which the narrator sights his target—a human and usually forbidden target—and kills him with an arrow from his powerful bow. The arrow is at least real; the napalm and gasoline bomb are not, since they are dropped upon abstractions. And, too, the necessary intimacy of the besieged men in Deliverance approximates a primitive brotherliness, excluding the confusion that women bring to a world of simple, clear, direct actions. For women, while mysterious and unfathomable, are also “civilization.”

But if women are objects, goddess objects, they too can be assimilated into the mystique of primitive power-worship. One of the most striking poems in all of Dickey's work is “The Fiend,” which magically transforms a voyeur/lover into a tree, into an omnipotent observer, back into a voyeur again, while throughout he is the poet who loves and desires and despairs of truly knowing his subject; the poem is a long, hushed, reverential overture to murder. Yet the equation of the voyeur with the poet is obvious, and the poem concludes ominously by remarking how “the light / Of a hundred favored windows” has “gone wrong somewhere in his glasses. …” Dickey is remarkably honest in acknowledging the value he puts upon his own fantasies, in contrast to the less interesting world of reality. What is important is his imaginative creation, his powers of seeing. In praise of what a Jungian would call the “anima,” Dickey has said in Sorties that “poor mortal perishable women are as dust before these powerful and sensual creatures of the depths of one's being” (p. 4). A dangerous overestimation of the individual's self-sufficiency, one might think, especially since there is always the possibility of that interior light going “wrong somewhere in his glasses.”

In fact, in Dickey's later poems eyesight becomes crucial, aligned with the mysterious grace of masculinity itself. When one's vision begins to weaken, there is an immediate danger of loss of control; conversely, “sight” itself can be rejected, denied, as a prelude to glorious savagery. Or the denial of vision can facilitate a more formal, sinister betrayal, as Dickey imagines himself as, simultaneously, a slave owner on a southern plantation and the white father of an illegitimate black son and the father-who-denies-his-son, a master driven to madness by his role as an owner, in the poem “Slave Quarters.” Dickey's question concerns itself with many forms of paternal betrayal, a betrayal of the eyes of others:

What it is to look once a day
Into an only
Son's brown, waiting, wholly possessed
Amazing eye, and not
Acknowledge, but own. …

How take on the guilt … ? is the poem's central question.

In the section Falling in Poems 1957-1967, Dickey explores further extensions of life, beginning with “Reincarnation (II),” in which the poet has taken on the form of a bird. His first reincarnation was into a snake, which we leave waiting in an old wheel not for food but for the first man to walk by—minute by minute the head of the snake becoming “more poisonous and poised.” But as a bird the poet undergoes a long, eerie, metaphysical flight that takes him out of mortality altogether—

                                                                                          to be dead
In one life is to enter
Another          to break out          to rise above          the clouds

But “Reincarnation (II)” is extremely abstract and does not seem to have engaged the poet's imaginative energies as deeply as “Reincarnation (I)” of Buckdancer's Choice. It is balanced by the long “Falling,” an astonishing poetic feat that dramatizes the accidental fall of an airline stewardess from a plane to her death in a corn field. “The greatest thing that ever came to Kansas” undergoes a number of swift metamorphoses—owl, hawk, goddess—stripping herself naked as she falls. She imagines the possibility of falling into water, turning her fall into a dive so that she can “come out healthily dripping / And be handed a Coca-Cola,” but ultimately she is helpless to save herself; she is a human being, not a bird like the spiritual power of “Reincarnation (II),” and she comes to know how “the body will assume without effort any position / Except the one that will sustain it enable it to rise live / Not die.” She dies, “driven well into the image of her body,” inexplicable and unquestionable, and her clothes begin to come down all over Kansas; a kind of mortal goddess, given as much immortality by this strange poem as poetry is capable of giving its subjects.

The starkly confessional poem “Adultery” tells of the poet's need for life-affirming moments, though they are furtive and evidently depend upon a belief that the guilt caused by an act of adultery is magical—“We have done it again we are / Still living.” The poem's subject is really not adultery or any exploration of the connections between people; it is about the desperate need to prove that life is still possible. We are still living: that guilty, triumphant cry. In this poem and several others, Dickey seems to share Norman Mailer's sentiment that sex would be meaningless if divorced from “guilt.” What role does the woman play in this male scenario? She is evidently real enough, since she is driven to tears by the impossibility of the adulterous situation; but in a more important sense she does not really exist, for she is one of those “poor mortal perishable women” temporarily illuminated by the man's anima-projection, and she is “as dust” compared to the fantasy that arises from the depths of the lover's being. Descartes' I doubt, hence I think; I think, hence I am has become, for those who despair of the Cartesian logic of salvation, I love, hence I exist; I am loved, hence I must exist.

With Dickey this fear is closely related to the fundamental helplessness he feels as a man trapped in a puzzling technological civilization he cannot totally comprehend. Even the passionate love of women and the guilt of adultery will not be sufficient, ultimately, to convince the poet that he will continue to exist. He identifies with the wolverine, that “small, filthy, unwinged” creature whose species is in danger of extinction, in the poem “For the Last Wolverine.” The wolverine is an animal capable of “mindless rage,” enslaved by the “glutton's internal fire,” but Dickey recognizes a kinship with it in the creature's hopeless desire to “eat / The world. …”

Yet, for all its bloodthirsty frenzy, the wolverine is in danger of dying out. It is a “nonsurvivor” after all. The poet's mystical identification with this beast is, paradoxically, an identification with death, and death driven, indeed, is the impulse behind his musing: “How much the timid poem needs / The mindless explosion of your rage. …” Like Sylvia Plath and innumerable others, the poet imagines a division between himself as a human being and the rest of the world—the universe itself—symbolized by the fact that his consciousness allows him to see and to judge his position, while the rest of nature is more or less mute. It is doubtful, incidentally, that nature is really so mute, so unintelligent, as alienated personalities seem to think; it is certainly doubtful that the human ego, the “I,” is in any significant way isolated from the vast, living totality of which it is a part. However, granted for the moment that the poet is “timid” when he compares himself to the most vicious of animals, it is still questionable whether such viciousness, such “mindless explosion” of rage, is superior to the poem, to the human activity of creating and organizing language in a coherent, original structure. The prayer of the poem is very moving, but it is not the wolverine's consciousness that is speaking to us: “Lord, let me die but not die / Out.”

Dickey has dramatized from the inside the terrors of the personality that fears it may not be immortal after all; its control of itself and of other people and of the environment seems to be more and more illusory, fading, failing. “Entropy”—a much-used and misused term—refers to the phenomenon of energy loss and increasing disorder as a system begins to falter, and is always a threat, a terror, to those who assume that the system to which they belong or which they have themselves organized was meant to be infinite. There is no space here to consider the psychological reasons for the shift from man's assumption of immortality as an abstraction (the “immortal” soul was expected to survive, but not the “mortal” man—the personality or ego) to his frantic and futile hope for immortality in the flesh. There are cultural, political, economic reasons, certainly, but they cannot entirely account for the naïveté of the wish: I want to live forever. Because this wish is so extraordinarily naïve, even childish, it is never allowed in that form into the consciousness of most intelligent people. When it emerges, it is always disguised. It sometimes takes the form of a vague, disappointed despair; or rage without any appropriate object; or a hopeless and even sentimental envy of those human beings (or animals) who strike the despairing one as too stupid to know how unhappy they should be. The excessive admiration of animals and birds and other manifestations of “unconscious” nature is, in some people, a screen for their own self-loathing. They are in “hell” because the activity of their consciousness is mainly self-concerned, self-questioning, self-doubting. The rest of the world, however, seems quite content. As entropy is irrationally feared by some, it is as irrationally welcomed by others. Disorganization—chaos—the “mindless explosion” of repressed rage: all are welcomed, mistaken for a liberating of the deepest soul.


Mysticism is generally considered in the light of its highest religious and spiritual achievements. Most literature on the subject deals exclusively with saintly human beings, some of whom have experienced not only a powerful emotional enlightenment but an intellectual enlightenment as well. These mystics are the ones who have, in a sense, created our world: it is unnecessary to mention their names, since in a way those of us who live now have always lived, unconsciously, involuntarily, within the scope of their imaginations—as a writer lives, when he is writing, within the vast but finite universe of his language. There is an existence beyond that, surely; but he cannot quite imagine it. That I exist at this moment—that I am a writer, a woman, a surviving human being—has very little to do with accident, but is a direct, though remote, consequence of someone's thinking: Let us value life. Let us enhance life. Let us imagine a New World, a democracy. … It is not true, as Auden so famously stated, that poetry makes nothing happen. On the contrary, poetry, or the poetic imagination, has made everything happen.

Yet “mysticism” can swing in other directions. Essentially, it is a loss of “ego,” but it may result in a loss of “ego control” as well. A mysterious, unfathomable revolution seems to be taking place in our civilization, and like all upheavals in history it is neither knowable nor governable; like inexplicable branchings in the flow of life, in evolution, it goes its way quite apart from the wishes of entire species, let alone individuals. However, it seems to be characterized by loss of ego, by experiences of transcendence among more and more people, especially younger people. Yet one brings to that other world of mysticism only the equipment, the conscious moral intelligence, that one has developed through the activities of the ego: the experience of oneness with the divine, the knowledge of That Art Thou, gives us in its benevolent expression Jesus Christ, Gautama Buddha, and other founders of great religions, and in its malignant and grotesque expression a Hitler, a Stalin, a Charles Manson. The most important study of this subject still remains William James's Varieties of Religious Experience, since it was written by a man who did experience a sense of his ego's dissolution but who had not a ready-made religious structure into which he might leap. The mystic breaks free of human codes of morality, of all restraints, of “civilization,” of normality itself. Useless to argue with him, for he knows. When D. H. Lawrence declares that he is allied with the sun and not with men, he is speaking out of the certainty of his religious knowledge that he is a form of energy and derives his finite being only from a higher, external form of energy. Literary critics may concern themselves with metaphors, symbols, and allusion, but most writers are writing out of their deepest experience; the playful organization of words into structures, the aesthetic impulse, is always a secondary activity. And so is social action. And so is that social being, the “ego.”

But when the conscious ego has despaired of discovering values in the social world or in the world of spirit, the dissolution of that ego will probably not result in a higher wisdom, in an elevation of the moral sense so passionately required for survival. Instead, the mystic may plunge into his own ancestral past, into his own “animal” nature. This is especially tempting in an era characterized by superficiality, bad thinking, and outright inhumanity, for these abnormalities are considered “normal” and therefore “human.” Something must be valued—some god must be worshiped. Where is he? Where is it? Who has experienced him?

So it is not surprising that many people value the “animal” over the “human,” as if animals were not extraordinarily intelligent in their own contexts. In any case animals are not valued for what they are, but for their evidently uncivilized qualities; perhaps even for their cunning and savagery, their “innocence.” Should it be argued that animals live and die within strict codes of behavior (which in our species is “morality”), the romantic will not listen; he is certain that his animals are free, wild, even immortal in their own way. They always do all the things he has wished to do, but has not dared. They are not so obviously and embarrassingly his own creation as a cartoonist's animals are his, but they share, often with the female sex, that special numinous grace of being the image bearers of men. If it is a question of mere survival, the ideal will be a predator who cannot not survive, because he demands so little of his environment. Ted Hughes's Crow poems, for instance, are concerned with a minimal consciousness that is always human, though reduced to beak and claws and uncanny keenness of vision. But the poems are, upon examination, oddly abstract, even rhetorical and argumentative; they have very little of the slashing emotional immediacy of Dickey's best poems. What to Ted Hughes is an allegorical possibility is for Dickey an existential fact.

As the poet wakes from his dream of “stone,” enters the turbulent contests of “flesh,” he will no longer be able, even, to “sail artistically over” the wars of his civilization. He must participate in them as a man; if they will not come to him, he must seek them out.

The horror of Dickey's novel Deliverance grows out of its ordinary, suburban framework, the assimilation of brutal events by ordinary men; not near-Biblical figures like Crow, or men trapped in a distant and hostile world, but four middle-aged, middle-class men who want to canoe along a dangerous but attractive river not far from their homes. The novel is about our deep, instinctive needs to get back to nature, to establish some kind of rapport with primitive energies, but it is also about the need of some men to do violence, to be delivered out of their banal lives by a violence so irreparable that it can never be confessed. It is a fantasy of a highly civilized and affluent society, which imagines physical violence to be transforming in a mystical—and therefore permanent—sense, a society in which rites of initiation no longer exist. This society asks its men: How do you know you are men? But there is no answer except in terms of an earlier society, where the male is distinguished from the female, so far as behavior is concerned, by his physical strength and his willingnes to risk life. But killing other men can be made into a ritual, a proof of one's manhood; Deliverance is about this ritual. It is like Mailer's short novel Why Are We in Vietnam? in its consideration of homosexuality, though for Mailer homosexuality evokes terror and for Dickey it evokes loathing. The boys in the Mailer novel tremble on the verge of becoming lovers in their Arctic camp, but they draw back from each other, terrified, and are then given tremendous energies as “killer brothers” now united to go fight the war in Vietnam. Both novels demonstrate not any extraordinary fear of homosexuality but, what is more disturbing, a fear of affection. Dickey has so created his backwoods degenerates as to be beyond all human sympathy, so that most readers are compelled to become “killers” along with the narrator. The murder of the homosexual threat, whether an exterior force or an inner impulse, results in an apparent increase in animal spirits and appetite, and the narrator is able to return to civilization and to his wife, a man with a profound secret, in touch with an illicit, demonic mystery, delivered. Violence has been his salvation—his deliverance from ordinary life.

The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy is as crammed and various as its title suggests. A few poems are bluntly confessional, the “Apollo” poem is linked to a historic event, and all are in the same tone of musing, sometimes cynical, sometimes tender contemplation. The volume ends with “Turning Away: Variations on Estrangement,” a complex, abstract work of philosophical inquiry; but most of its poems are linked firmly to domestic things, and even the difficult subjects of disease and death are made “livable,” in Dickey's words.

The book is disturbing because it asks so many questions but refuses to answer them. It is filled with questions: What did I say? Or do? Am I still drunk? Who is this woman? Where? Can you see me? Can the five fingers / Of the hand still show against / anything? Have they come for us? It is also disturbing because of its attitude toward certain subjects: men suffering from diabetes and cancer are not treated solemnly, and in Dickey's fantasy of dying from a heart attack (or love) he and the nurse/prostitute flicker downward together “Like television like Arthur Godfrey's face / Coming on huge happy.” The book's seventeen poems are of widely varying length and seem to make up a dialogue or combat among their various themes, as if the poet were entering into a battle with aspects of his soul—the word “battle” used deliberately here, because Dickey declares in “Turning Away” how it is necessary to turn “From an old peaceful love / To a helmet of silent war / Against the universe.”

Many of the poems are about diseased emotions or diseased forms of hope, such as the futility of seeking out one's youth by “going home” decades later; but several deal with specific disorders—“Diabetes,” “The Cancer Match,” “Madness,” and “The Eye-Beaters” (which is about both blindness and insanity). “Diabetes” is a brutally frank, sardonic confessional poem in two parts which begins with the poet's gigantic thirst: “One night I thirsted like a prince / Then like a king / Then like an empire like a world / On fire.” But the thirst is not a thirst for life, it is not a metaphor; it is clinically real. After the illness is diagnosed, the poet sees sugar as “gangrene in white,” and his routine of exercise is attended by an ironic counting, a parody of his earlier poetic themes:

Each time the barbell
Rose each time a foot fell
Jogging, it counted itself
One death two death three death and resurrection
For a little while. Not bad! …

He will endure a “livable death,” scaled down and presided over by a nice young physician. The second half of the poem, “Under Buzzards,” has Dickey imagining in heavy summer the “birds of death” attracted by the “rotten, nervous sweetness” of his blood, the “city sugar” of his life. In a final, defiant gesture, the poet deliberately summons the birds of death, but he does it in a curiously unheroic way, by taking a forbidden drink of beer:

                    Red sugar of my eyeballs
Feels them [the buzzards] turn blindly
                    In the fire rising turning turning
                                        Back to Hogback Ridge, and it is all
Delicious, brother: my body is turning is flashing unbalanced
          Sweetness everywhere, and I am calling my birds.

Characteristic of this volume is a repeated use of terms to link the reader with the poet: “my friend,” “brother,” “companion,” “my son,” “you.” The whole of “Venom” is a kind of prayer, the poet and his listener joined as brothers who must “turn the poison / Round,” back on itself, the venom that comes “from the head” of man and corrupts his life blood. “Madness” is about a domestic dog that contracts rabies and must be killed, but it is also a call for “Help help madness help.”

Balancing the poems of disease are several about Dickey's sons and the Life-commissioned double poem, “Apollo,” placed near the physical center of the magazine and divided by a black page—a symbol of the black featureless depths of space in which our planet, “the blue planet steeped in its dream,” has a minute existence. The poems to or about Dickey's sons are all excellent, though there is an air of sorrow about them. “The Lord in the Air” is prefaced by a quotation from Blake: “… If the spectator could … make a friend & companion of one of these Images of wonder … then would he meet the Lord in the air & … be happy.” Dickey seems to be reimagining an earlier role of his own as he describes a son's performance with a crow whistle, so deceiving the crows that they come to him from miles away, “meeting the Lord / Of their stolen voice in the air.” The crows have but one word, a syllable that means everything to them, and in gaining control of it the boy becomes a kind of poet. A “new / Power over birds and beasts” has been achieved by man, but “not for betrayal, or to call / Up death or desire, but only to give” a unique tone “never struck in the egg.” O Chris come in, drop off now is the language Dickey allots to himself; magic has become the property of his boy.

“Messages” deals with images of life (butterflies with “ragged, brave wings”)—and death (a cow's skeleton), and matches the father's protectiveness with his wisdom, which his sleeping son cannot yet be told: that life is a gamble, a play “in bones and in wings and in light.” The poem is also about the necessity of a father's surrendering his son to life—“to the sea”—with the reminder that human love exists in its own world, unchallenged by the nihilistic depths of the ocean or the speechless primitive world. The love evident in the “message” poems is totally lacking in the disease poems, as if the speakers were angrily fighting self-pity; “The Cancer Match” imagines cancer and whiskey fighting together, in the drunken mind of a dying man who has “cancer and whiskey / In a lovely relation”: “I watch them struggle / All around the room, inside and out / Of the house, as they battle / Near the mailbox. …” No dignity here, even in dying; the poem refuses to mourn the body's decay.

Addressing himself to the Apollo moon shot, Dickey synthesizes the diverse emotions of awe, suspicion, cynicism, and acquiescence; like Mailer in Of a Fire on the Moon, he cannot help but wonder if some catastrophe will be unleashed (“Will the moonplague kill our children … ?”), and just as Mailer contemplated photographs of the moon's surface and thought of Cézanne, Dickey, in the imagined consciousness of one of the moon explorers, hears lines from Gray's Elegy “helplessly coming / From my heart. …” A triumph of technology is seen in terms of aesthetic triumphs of the past. Both men express doubt about the future, but both accept its inevitable direction, though Dickey is characteristically more emotionally involved:

                                                            My eyes blind
                    With unreachable tears          my breath goes all over
                                                                                          Me and cannot escape. …
                    Our clothes embrace we cannot touch we cannot
                                                                                          Kneel. We stare into the moon
dust, the earth-blazing ground. We laugh, with the beautiful craze
                                        Of static. We bend, we pick up stones.

The future is explorable, however, only through one's imaginative identification with other men. The most powerful poems in The Eye-Beaters are those that refuse to deal with the future at all and explore old obsessions with the past. The pathetic double poem “Going Home” takes the poet (“the Keeper”) back to his own lost childhood, where he encounters his Old Self like a “younger brother, like a son,” in a confusion of homes, times, places, rooms that live “only / In my head.” His childhood is distant from the adulthood he now inhabits, in which he is a Keeper of rooms “growing intolerable,” through which he walks like a stranger, “as though I belonged there.” The riddle of Identities! Identities! the younger Dickey puzzled over (in the poem “Mangham” of Buckdancer's Choice) still taunts him, as past and present contend, and the Keeper fears he will go mad with his questions:

                              And tell me for the Lord God
's sake, where are all our old
                                        Which way is that?
Is it this vacant lot? …

In a final admission of defeat, the “mad, weeping Keeper” realizes that he cannot keep anything alive: none of his rooms, his people, his past, his youth, himself. Yet he cannot let them die either, and he will call them “for a little while, sons.” In “Looking for the Buckhead Boys,” a poem on the verge of turning into a short story, the futile search for one's youth in the past is given a specific location, and the poet returns to his home town to look for his old friends; if he can find one of them, just one, he believes his youth will once again “walk / Inside me like a king.” But his friends are gone, or changed, or paralyzed or, like Charlie Gates at the filling station, not really the person for whom the poet has a secret “that has to be put in code.” The poem ends with a flat anticlimatic imperative: “Fill 'er up, Charlie.” Encountering one's past, in the form of an old friend, underscores the impossibility of “keeping” the past.

“The Eye-Beaters” is an extravagant, curious fantasy, supposedly set in a home for children in Indiana. In this home some children have gone blind, evidently since admission; not just blind, but mad, so that their arms must be tied at their sides to prevent their beating their eyeballs in order to stimulate the optic nerves. By no naturalistic set of facts can one determine how this “home” can be real, and so the reader concludes that the entire poem is an explorative fantasy, like “The Owl King,” which dealt with a child's blindness. The blindness of the children and their pathetic response to it is so distressing that the Visitor must create a fiction in order to save himself from madness. He tries to imagine what they see:

                                                                                          Lord, when they slug
Their blue cheeks blacker, can it be that they do not see the wings
And green of insects          or the therapist suffering kindly          but
                                                                                          a tribal light old
Enough to be seen without sight?

The vision he imagines for them is prehistoric; a caveman artist, “Bestial, working like God,” is drawing beasts on a cave wall: deer, antelope, elk, ibex, quagga, rhinoceros of wool-gathering smoke, cave bear, mammoth, “beings that appear / Only in the memory of caves.” The niches of the children's middle brain, “where the race is young,” are filled not with images of the Virgin but with squat shapes of the Mother or with the bloody hand print on the stone “where God gropes like a man” and where the artist “hunts and slashes” his wounded game. Then the Visitor's rational, skeptical nature argues with him, addressing him as “Stranger”; perhaps the children want to smash their eyes in order to see nothing, and the Visitor's invention of the cave-man artist is an expression of his own blindness, his hope for magic that might “re-invent the vision of the race.” He admits his desire to believe that the world calls out for art, for the magical life-renewal of art, and not for the blankness of nothing save physical pain. Otherwise it is possible that he will go mad. Otherwise what can he value in his own poetry? The artist must be a therapist to the race, and not simply to himself; but Dickey concludes this complex poem by acquiescing to his own self-defined “fiction,” a kind of lie that enables him to identify himself with the cave-man artist and to escape the deadening truths of his Reason by choosing “madness, / Perversity.” He projects himself back into a dim racial memory, a hideous vision that excludes history. No salvation, except by way of a total surrender to the irrational and uninventive:

                                                                                          Beast, get in
My way. Your body opens onto the plain. Deer, take me into your life-
lined form. I merge, I pass beyond in secret          in perversity and the sheer
Despair of invention          my double-clear bifocals off my reason gone
Like eyes. Therapist, farewell at the living end. Give me my spear.

The prayer, addressed to a “Beast,” necessarily involves the poet in a transformation downward, into a kind of human beast whose “despair of invention” forces him to inarticulate, violent action. It is possible that the conclusion is an ambiguous one—the artist denying his art through a self-conscious work of art—or, as Raymond Smith has seen it, in an essay called “The Poetic Faith of James Dickey,”8 the poet rejecting any art-for-art's-sake aesthetic. However, the final words of the poem seem the expression of a suicidal loss of faith in anything but action, and that action primitive and bloody.

Dickey had diagnosed this action as “Perversity,” and the poem has a passionate, religious feel about it, the testament of a loss of faith in one religion (Art) and the tentative commitment to another (the “Beast”). This is the mystical leap that Dickey's imagination has yearned for, the defiance of his higher, artistic, moral self, experienced in middle age as a banality from which he must—somehow—be delivered.

The forms of Dickey's “heroism” are anachronistic, perhaps, but his despair may be prophetic.

In these later poems, the poems of “flesh,” there is a dramatic ferocity that goes beyond even the shimmering walls of words he created for “Falling” and “May Day Sermon.” Dickey is there, inside the poem; reading it, we are inside his head. He is willing to tell everything, anything; he is willing to become transparent, in war now against his own exquisite sensibility. Help help madness help: the book's shameless cry.

Society did not always shy away from the self-expression of its most sensitive and eccentric members. Much has been written about the relationship of so-called primitive people with their priests and shamans: these societies benefited from their leaders' ecstasies and bizarre revelations and did not destroy them as heretics or castrate them by interpreting their visions as “only poetry.” What value can the visionary give to his own experience if, returning to the world with it, he is at the very most congratulated for having invented some fascinating, original metaphors? Dickey, so disturbing to many of us, must be seen in a larger context, as a kind of “shaman,” a man necessarily at war with his civilization because that civilization will not, cannot, understand what he is saying. Mircea Eliade defines the shaman as a “specialist in ecstasy”: traditionally, he excites himself into a frenzy, enters a trancelike state, and receives the power of understanding and imitating the language of birds and animals. He is not a “normal” personality, at least in these times. He participates in what is believed to be divine.

If the shaman, or the man with similar magical powers, has no social structure in which to interpret himself, and if he is obviously not normal in the restrictive sense of that word, his instincts will lead him into a rebellion against that world; at his most serene, he can manage a cynical compromise with it. Irony can be a genteel form of savagery, no less savage than physical brutality. In some intellectuals, irony is the expression of disappointed hopes; in others, it is a substitute for violence. It is violent. If the release offered by words no longer satisfies the intense need of the sufferer, he will certainly fall into despair, estrangement. Hence a preoccupation, in Dickey, with physical risk, a courting of the primitive in art and in life (in carefully restricted areas, of course), and a frantic, even masochistic need to continually test and “prove” himself.9 The ritual of hunting cannot ultimately work, because it is so obviously a “ritual”—a game—and bears no relationship at all to what hunting was, and is, to people who must hunt for their food. It is just another organized adventure, another “timid poem.” Consciousness is split on a number of levels: the sensual keenness inspired by adultery and guilt, the excitement inspired by near death, the mindless rage of the beast who fears extinction, the plight of the overweight suburban homeowner, the husband, the father, the poet … and yet the truest self seems somehow detached, uninvolved. “Turning Away,” the last poem in The Eye-Beaters, deals with aspects of estrangement not simply in terms of marriage but in terms of the self, which hopes to see “Later, much later on” how it may make sense—perhaps as a fictional creation, in a book.

If regression cannot be justified by calling it “ritual”—hunting, fighting, excessively brutal sports—it must be abandoned. If the poet can no longer evoke the “primitive,” since his body cannot keep pace with the demands of his imagination, the primitive ideal must be abandoned. Physical prowess—extraordinary keenness of eyesight—can be undermined by that baffling human problem, mortality and disease. Death awaits. Yet one is not always prepared for it. If it is seen as an embarrassment, another obscure defeat, it will never be accepted at all; better to pray for the Apocalypse, so that everyone can die at once, with no one left to think about it afterward. The stasis celebrated in much of contemporary literature, the erecting of gigantic paranoid-delusion systems that are self-enclosed and self-destructing, argues for a simple failure of reasoning: the human ego has too long imagined itself the supreme form of consciousness in the universe. When that delusion is taken from it, it suffers. Suffering, it projects its emotions outward onto everything, everyone, into the universe itself. Our imaginative literature has largely refused to integrate ever-increasing subtleties of intuitive experience with those of intellectual experience; it will not acknowledge the fact that the dynamism of our species has become largely a dynamism of the brain, not the body. Old loves die slowly. But they die.

The concluding poem in The Eye-Beaters differs from the rest in many ways. It is primarily a meditation. It is almost entirely speculative, an abstract seventeen-stanza work dealing with the mystery of the soul. The familiar theme of battle and certain specific images involved (helmets, meadows of “intensified grass”) are used in a way new to Dickey; its tone of hard, impassive detachment contrasts with the despairing ferocity of “The Eye-Beaters” and the poems of disease.

The immediate occasion for the poem is evidently dissatisfaction with an “old peaceful love.” Another person, nearby, is “suddenly / Also free … weeping her body away.” But the confessional quality of the poem is not very important; the poet's detachment approaches that of Eliot's in “Four Quarters.” Dickey could very well be writing about himself—his relationship with his “soul” (which in mystical literature is usually identified with the feminine, though that interpretation is probably not necessary). The poet's problem is how, as a “normal” man, to relate his predicament with the human condition generally. As in “Reincarnation (II),” the poet discovers himself released from one life and projected into another where he feels himself “Like a king starting out on a journey / Away from all things that he knows.” Outside the “simple-minded window” is a world of ordinary sights from which one may take his face; yet this world is one of danger and “iron-masked silence.” In utter stillness the poet stands with his palm on the window sill (as he once stood with his palm on the fence wire) and feels the “secret passivity” and “unquestionable Silence” of existence: man wears the reason for his own existence as he stands and, in such a confrontation, the “tongue grows solid also.”

Imagined then as a kind of Caesar (Dickey would like to “see with / the eyes of a very great general,” here as elsewhere), he realizes he has nothing to do in his own life with his military yearnings and his hope for himself to be utterly free of any finite time or place, an omni-potent life force released from identity to “breed / With the farthest women / And the farthest also in time: breed / Through bees, like flowers and bushes: / Breed Greeks, Egyptians and Romans hoplites / Peasants caged kings clairvoyant bastards. …” His desire is so vast as to exclude the personal entirely; he must turn away, at least in imagination, from the domesticity of his life, so that his soul can achieve the release it demands. It is nothing less than the wide universe that is the object of its desire; like the wolverine, the poet's soul hungers to “eat the world.” This desire is in itself a kind of miracle or reincarnation:

                                                  Turning away, seeing fearful
                    Ordinary ground, boys' eyes manlike go,
The middle-aged man's like a desperate
Boy's, the old man's like a new angel's. …

Dreaming, the poet sees horses, a “cloud / That is their oversoul,” and armed men who may spring from his teeth. He must speak of battles that do not stain the meadow with blood but release “inner lives”—as if through a pure concentration of will, of artistic creation, the poet realizes:

                              So many things stand wide
                    Open!          Distance is helplessly deep
                    On all sides          and you can enter, alone,
                                        Anything          anything can go
On wherever it wishes          anywhere in the world or in time
                                                            But here and now.

What must be resisted is the “alien sobbing” nearby; the poet's attachment to a finite self, a domestic existence, must be overcome, as if he were a guard on his duty to prevent the desertion of the higher yearnings of his soul. The most abstract charge of all is his sense that he might be, even, a hero in a book—his life might be “a thing / That can be learned, / As those earnest young heroes learned theirs, / Later, much later on.”

“Turning Away” is a tentative reply to the despairing vision of “The Eye-Beaters,” and it concludes a collection of widely varying poems with a statement about the need to transcend the physical life by an identification with the timeless, “physical life” having been examined frankly and unsparingly and found to be generally diseased. The poem's immediate occasion is marital discord, but Dickey's imagery of battle is a very generalized one—“So many battles / Fought in cow pastures fought back / And forth over anybody's farm / With men or only / With wounded eyes—” Dickey's most inclusive metaphor for life is life-as-battle; for man, man-as-combatant.

The emphasis Dickey places in his later poems upon decay, disease, regression, and estrangement suggests that they may constitute a terminal group of poems: terminal in the sense that the poet may be about to take on newer challenges. Having developed from the mysticism of Stone into and through the mysticism of Flesh, having explored variations on unity and variations on dissolution, he seems suspended—between the formal abstractions of “Turning Away” and the jagged primitive-heroic music of “The Eye-Beaters,” perhaps still seeking what Blake calls the “Image of wonder” that allows man to “meet the Lord in the Air & … be happy.”

In any case, Dickey's work is significant in its expression of the savagery that always threatens to become an ideal, when faith in human values is difficult to come by—or when a culture cannot accommodate man's most basic instincts, forcing them backward, downward, away from the conscious imagination and back into the body as if into the body of an ancient ancestor: into the past, that is, forbidding intelligent entry into the future.


  1. The Suspect in Poetry (Madison, Minnesota: The Sixties Press, 1964), p. 47.

  2. Lewis Thomas, M.D., “Information,” in the New England Journal of Medicine, December 14, 1972, pp. 1238-39.

  3. Dickey either literally or figuratively puts on masks in any number of poems—notably “Armor,” “Drinking from a Helmet,” and “Approaching Prayer” (in which he puts on a “hollow hog's head”).

  4. Dickey's perfect vision singled him out for training in night fighters in the Army Air Corps. Throughout his poetry there is a concern, not just imagistic or metaphorical, with vision—eyesight—that makes doubly poignant his conclusion in “False Youth: Two Seasons” (from Falling) that his youth was “a lifetime search / For the Blind.” Also, the conclusion of “The Eye-Beaters” shows us the poet “in perversity and the sheer / Despair of invention” taking his “Double-clear bifocals off”—then succumbing to a fantasy of regressive madness.

  5. The Suspect in Poetry, p. 77. The word “helplessness” is repeated several times in connection with Jarrell, and in an essay on Howard Nemerov (a review of Nemerov's Selected Poems, 1960), Dickey praises Nemerov for what seem to me the wrong reasons: “… the enveloping emotion that arises from his writing is helplessness: the helplessness we all feel in the face of the events of our time, and of life itself: the helplessness one feels as one's legitimate but chronically unfair portion of all the things that can't be assuaged or explained” (p. 67). Throughout Self-Interviews, which seems the work of a different James Dickey, one who cannot do justice to the excellence of the essential Dickey, there is a reliance upon an inner, moral helplessness, as if certain emotional prejudices were there, in human nature, and one might as well acquiesce to them; though elsewhere does Dickey take on as rigorously combative a tone as Nietzsche in feeling that the true artist would not tolerate the world as it is even for one instant.

  6. From Dickey's account of his growth as a poet, in Poets on Poetry, edited by Howard Nemerov (New York, 1966), pp. 225-38. It is ironic that Dickey should so distrust and mock his own reflective, intellectual nature, since he knows himself a poet of the “Second Birth”—one who has worked hard at his craft. Yet his finest poems give the impression of having been written very quickly; one feels the strange compulsion to read them quickly, as if to keep pace with the language. Dickey's poems are structures that barely contain the energies they deal with. That “agent” in the poem known as the “I” is unpredictable, at times frightening, for he may lead us anywhere. Dickey might have written extraordinary short stories had he not chosen to develop himself as a poet almost exclusively. In an excellent essay, “The Self as Agent,” from Sorties, Dickey says that the chief glory and excitement of writing poetry is the chance it gives the poet to “confront and dramatize parts of himself that otherwise would not have surfaced. The poem is a window opening not on truth but on possibility …” (p. 161).

  7. Dickey's reviews of Howl and Kaddish are both negative. He says that Ginsberg's principal state of mind is “hallucination” and that the poetry is really “strewn, mishmash prose.” Yet Dickey allows that, somewhere, in the Babel of undisciplined contemporary poets, “there might one day appear a writer to supply the in-touch-with-living authenticity which current American poetry so badly needs, grown as it has genteel and almost suffocatingly proper.” From The Suspect in Poetry, pp. 16-19. When a poet-critic speaks in these terms, one may always assume he is talking about himself, whether he knows it or not.

  8. Raymond Smith, “The Poetic Faith of James Dickey,” Modern Poetry Studies, Vol. 2, No. 6, pp. 259-72. Masculine response to Dickey's poetry probably differs inevitably from a woman's response.

  9. Dickey has granted a number of interviews, all of them characterized by an extraordinary frankness. In a recent one, the poet William Heyen asks him to discuss the violent “morality” of Deliverance, and Dickey states that there is a kind of “absolutism” about country people in his part of the world: “Life and death … are very basic gut-type things, and if somebody does something that violates your code, you kill him, and you don't think twice about it. … the foremost fear of our time, especially with the growing crime rate, crime in the cities and so on, … the thing that we're most terrified of is being set upon by malicious strangers. …” He therefore agrees with the decisions his characters make in the novel, and it is clear from his discussion of Ed Gentry's decision to kill and Gentry's growing realization that he is a “born killer” (Dickey's words) that the novel, like much of the poetry, is an attempt to deal with an essentially mystical experience. That it is also brutal and dehumanizing is not Dickey's concern. Murder is “a quietly transfiguring influence” on the novel's hero. “A Conversation with James Dickey,” ed. by William Heyen, The Southern Review (Winter, 1973) IX, 1, pp. 135-56.

Harold Bloom (essay date 1985)

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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 Formalist learns that he is at best a mortal god.

The pain of that learning is the central story of Dickey's poetry, and I choose to evade that pain here in order to emphasize Dickey's countersong of otherness. Since I will take him scarcely into his middle years, I will be ignoring all of his most ambitious poetry, “the later motion,” as he has called it. Though his work from 1965 to the present clearly is more problematic than the poems I will discuss, its achievement quite possibly is of a higher order. But it is too soon to prophesy Dickey's final stature, and criticism must discourse on what it loves before it broods upon the limits of the canonical. What I know and love best, so far, in Dickey's poetry is “the early motion,” and the counter-song of otherness in that motion moves me most. I have circled back to that poem, “The Other,” and turn to it now to locate an origin of Dickey's quest as a poet.

That origin is guilt, and guilt ostensibly of being a substitute or replacement for a brother dead before one was born. Freud, I think, would have judged such guilt to be a screen memory, and I am Freudian enough to look or surmise elsewhere for the source of guilt in the poems of Into the Stone. From the beginning of his poetic career, Dickey was a poet of Sublime longings, and those who court the Sublime are particularly subject to changeling fantasies. The poem he titled “The Other” is manifestly Yeatsian, whether directly or through the mediation of Roethke, but the argument already is Dickey's own, and in all respects it is the meter-making argument, and not the derived diction and metric, that gives this poem its great distinction. Indeed Dickey, an instinctive Emersonian from the start, despite his southern heritage, literalizes Emerson's trope of a meter-making argument by the extraordinary device of packing the seventy-seven lines of this lyrical reverie into what has always felt to me like a single sentence. How could there be a second sentence in a poem that identifies itself so completely with the changeling's will to be the other, when the other ultimately is the god Apollo?

Somewhere, Dickey identified his triad of literary heroes as the unlikely combination of Keats, Malcolm Lowry, and James Agee, presumably associated because of their early or relatively early deaths, and because of their shared intensity of belief in what could be called the salvation history of the literary art. But Dickey is very much a poet of Sensibility, in the mode that Frye once defined as the Age of Sensibility, the mode of Christopher Smart and of William Collins, among other doomed poets whose threshold stance destroyed them upon the verge of High Romanticism. The Keats who moves Dickey most, the Keats of the letters, is the culmination of the major theme of the poets of Sensibility, the theme that, following Collins, I have called the Incarnation of the Poetical Character. Lowry and Agee, though I don't recall Dickey mentioning this, were curiously allied as verse writers by the overwhelming influence that Hart Crane exerted upon both of them. Dickey seems to prefer Crane's letters to his poems, which oddly parallels his preference of Keats's letters. But Keats and Crane, like Lowry and Agee in their verse, represent fully in their poems the Incarnation of the Poetical Character, where the poet, in the guise of a young man, is reborn as the young god of the sun. That is clearly the genre of Dickey's “The Other,” but the clarity is shadowed by Dickey's early guilt concerning what the poem accurately names as “my lust of self.”

What self can that be except the magic and occult self, ontological rather than empirical, and in Yeatsian or Whitmanian terms, self rather than soul? The guilt that shadows Dickey's marvelous seventy-seven-line utterance is the guilt induced by what Freud came to call the above-I or the over-I (the superego), a rather more daunting though no less fictive entity than Emerson's Oversoul. Emerson had the shrewdest of eyes for anxiety, but Freud's eye, as Wallace Stevens once wrote, was the microscope of potency. The guilt of family betrayal must ensue from the changeling fantasy of the family romance, and for Freud (as for Kenneth Burke), all romance is family romance. But the family romance of the poet as poet tends to depart from the domain of the merely biographical family. Dickey's assertion of self as person was the desire to rise from the “strength-haunted body” of a “rack-ribbed child” to the Herculean figure he has been since, a titanic form among contemporary poets. But since poems can attempt the truth only through fictions or tropes, the poem of “The Other” is compelled to treat the child's aspiration as the drive towards becoming Apollo, poetry itself. The youthful Henry James, reviewing Drum-Taps, scorned Whitman as an essentially prosaic temperament trying to lift itself by muscular exertion into poetry. The elderly Henry James, weeping over the great Lilacs elegy, scorned his own youthful review; but, properly modified, it can give us a critical trope for reading Dickey: an essentially poetic temperament lifting itself by muscular exertion into poetry.

Dickey's most curious characteristic, from “The Other” through Puella, is his involuntary but striking dualism, curious because so heroic a vitalist ought not to exemplify (as he does) so Pauline and Cartesian a mind-body split, or even so prevalent a sense of what Stevens termed the dumb-foundering abyss between ourselves and the object. What the poem surprisingly shows for and to Dickey is that his own body becomes his brother, or Apollo, or “the other.” If the body is the divine other, then pathos becomes both sublime and grotesque, because the body must change, and the final form of that change is death. “The Other” is almost the first of Dickey's poems, and in some ways he has never surpassed it, not because he has failed to develop, but because it is unsurpassable. The whole of Dickey is in it already, as the whole of Shelley is in Alastor, or the whole of Yeats is in The Wanderings of Oisin. I repeat that this does not mean that Dickey simply has unfolded; so restless and reckless an experimentalist is outrageously metamorphic. But all his changes quest hopelessly for a disjunctiveness his temperament refuses to allow him. The “holes” that space out the poems of his major phase never represent discursive gaps or even crossings from one kind of figuration to another. Instead, they impressively mark or punctuate the exquisite desperation of the will to live, the lust of self that is not to be railed at, because it does represent what Keats called “a sickness not ignoble”: the sickness unto death of heroic poetry.

“The Other,” like so much of Dickey's best work, is very clearly a Southern American poem, and yet its Incarnation of the Poetical Character is necessarily universal in its imagery and argument. This is the universal purchased at the high cost of what was to be a permanent guilt, the guilt of a poet who as poet greatly desired not to be egocentric, despite the demands of the mythology that found him from the start. Those demands are felt even in the opening movement of “The Other”:

Holding onto myself by the hand,
I change places into the spirit
I had as a rack-ribbed child,
And walk slowly out through my mind
To the wood, as into a falling fire
Where I turned from that strength-haunted body
Half-way to bronze, as I wished to.

Dickey's natural religion always has been Mithraism, the traditional faith of soldiers, and certainly the most masculine and fierce of all Western beliefs. Despite the Persian origins of Mithra, Rome assimilated him to Apollo, and Dickey's major alteration is to make the Incarnation of the Poetical Character into a Mithraic ritual. The “bronze” of this first stanza will be revealed, later in the poem, as both the statue of Apollo and the body of the sacrificial bull slain by Mithra. As the boy Dickey slings up the too-heavy ax-head, he prays:

To another, unlike me, beside me:
To a brother or king-sized shadow
Who looked at me, burned, and believed me:
Who believed I would rise like Apollo
With armor-cast shoulders upon me:
Whose voice, whistling back through my teeth,
Counted strokes with the hiss of a serpent.
Where the sun through the bright wood drove
Him, mute, and floating strangely, to the ground,
He led me into his house, and sat
Upright, with a face I could never imagine,
With a great harp leant on his shoulder,
And began in deep handfuls to play it.

“Burned” is the crucial trope here, since the brother, as god of the sun, leads only into the heat and light that is the house of the sun. The oracular hiss is Pythian, though the voice truly becomes Dickey's own. What Dickey, in the poem, develops most brilliantly is the figure of downward movement, which is introduced in the second stanza as the combined fall of sweat and leaves, and further invoked in the fall of light. Later in the poem, music falls, followed in the final line by the casting down of foliage. All these fallings substitute for the hidden ritual in which the bull's blood falls upon the Mithraic adept, the warrior in the act of becoming Apollo:

My brother rose beside me from the earth,
With the wing-bone of music on his back
Trembling strongly with heartfelt gold,
And ascended like a bird into the tree,
And music fell in a comb, as I stood
In a bull's heavy, bronze-bodied shape
As it mixed with a god's, on the ground,
And leaned on the helve of the ax.

The “great, dead tree” of the poem's second stanza might be called Dickey's first major fiction of duration, the origin of his quarrel with time. Being Dickey's, it is the liveliest of dead trees, yet it cannot propitiate this poet's poignant longing for a literal immortality:

Now, owing my arms to the dead
Tree, and the leaf-loosing, mortal wood,
Still hearing that music amaze me,
I walk through the time-stricken forest,
And wish another body for my life,
Knowing that none is given
By the giant, unusable tree
And the leaf-shapen lightning of sun,
And rail at my lust of self
With an effort like chopping through root-stocks:
Yet the light, looming brother but more
Brightly above me is blazing,
In that music come down from the branches
In utter, unseasonable glory,
Telling nothing but how I made
By hand, a creature to keep me dying
Years longer, and coming to sing in the wood
Of what love still might give,
Could I turn wholly mortal in my mind,
My body-building angel give me rest,
This tree cast down its foliage with the years.

“This tree” is at last Dickey himself as fiction of duration, the poet become his own poem, indeed “made / By hand,” and so a house made by hands, a mortal body. When desire can turn monistic, for Dickey, it can become only a mortal turn, a trope knowing it is only trope. The other is divine, but only as Apollo or Mithra was divine, rather than as Jesus or Jehovah. A poem “about” a body-building child has transformed itself into the Sublime, into the body-building angel who has never since given Dickey any rest.

Retrospectively, I suppose that the poem “The Other” first moved me because so few American poems of twenty years ago had anything like Dickey's remarkable ability to be so humanly direct and yet so trustingly given to the potential of figurative language. The Dickey of the early motion seemed to have found his way back, almost effortlessly, to the secrets of poetry. I remember that the first poem by Dickey that I read was the title poem of Drowning With Others, a title that is itself an unforgettable trope, worthy of Emily Dickinson's apprehension that an acute consciousness, even when aware of neighbors and the sun, of other selves and outward nature, still died quite alone, except for its own identity, a totemic single hound. What is Sublime in the self finally is capable only of “drowning with others,” but that is only part of what is central in what remains one of Dickey's most singular and enduring poems.

If I remember aright, Dickey himself doesn't much like this poem, and thinks it obscure rather than strong. Indeed, I recall his insistence that he wrote the poem only so as to give status to his book's title. His account of the poem's referential aspect was strangely literal, but I think this is one of his poems that sneaked by him, as it were:

There are moments a man turns from us
Whom we have all known until now.
Upgathered, we watch him grow,
Unshipping his shoulder bones
Like human, everyday wings
That he has not ever used,
Releasing his hair from his brain,
A kingfisher's crest, confused
By the God-tilted light of Heaven.
His deep, window-watching smile
Comes closely upon us in waves,
And spreads, and now we are
At last within it, dancing.
Slowly we turn and shine
Upon what is holding us,
As under our feet he soars,
Struck dumb as the angel of Eden,
In wide, eye-opening rings.
Yet the hand on my shoulder fears
To feel my own wingblades spring,
To feel me sink slowly away
In my hair turned loose like a thought
Of a fisherbird dying in flight.
If I opened my arms, I could hear
Every shell in the sea find the word
It has tried to put into my mouth.
Broad flight would become of my dancing,
And I would obsess the whole sea,
But I keep rising and singing
With my last breath. Upon my back,
With his hand on my unborn wing,
A man rests easy as sunlight
Who has kept himself free of the forms
Of the deaf, down-soaring dead,
And me laid out and alive
For nothing at all, in his arms.

I read this as another lyric of poetic incarnation, a rather less willing assumption of the divine other, perhaps even a defense against the Orphic predicament, but still a revision of the poem “The Other.” Indeed, I wonder if one way of characterizing Dickey's obsessive strength as a poet is to say that he cannot stop rewriting that essential early poem. For the man who turns from us in the opening line of “Drowning With Others” is the Orphic Dickey, poet and divine other. Like the richhaired youth of Collins, or Coleridge's youth with flashing eyes and floating hair, or Stevens' figure of the youth as virile poet in “Mrs. Alfred Uruguay,” this other Dickey has hair released into “a kingfisher's crest, confused / By the God-tilted light of Heaven.” Apollo is reborn again, but as Orphic drowning man, fit version of the poet of Sensibility in America, be he Hart Crane or Roethke or Agee or Dickey. But if the man turning from us in this poem is Dickey in the act of Sublime apotheosis, then whoever is that “I” rather desperately chanting this hieratic spell? Perhaps that is why Dickey as commentator judged this grand lyric too obscure, despite its palpable strength.

Our poet is weird in the true sense, one of the Fates (as Richard Howard, lexicographer among bards, might remind us), and his natural mode is the uncanny. What he has done here may be obscure to his spectral self, but his magic or occult self gathers his spectral self, until even that “I” keeps “rising and singing / With my last breath.” And so truly neither self dies, or can die, in this soaring lyric of divination. Perhaps there is a touch, not indeliberate, of Dylan Thomas in the metric here, and even allusive overtones of Thomas at moments in the diction. That resemblance may even be a hidden cause of Dickey's distaste for his poem, but I remark upon it to note the difference between the poets, rather than their shared qualities. On mortality, the warrior Dickey cannot deceive himself, but a poet whose totem seems to be the albatross does not fear death by water. Few lines are as characteristic of Dickey as “And I would obsess the whole sea.”

I take it that “drowning with others” is a trope for “winging with others,” and that the dominant image here is flight, and not going under. Flight of course is Freud's true trope for repression, and an Orphic sensibility never ceases to forget, involuntarily but on purpose, that its vocation is mortal godhood, or not dying as a poet. Drowning with others, then, as a trope, must mean something like dying only as the immortal precursor dies or writing poems that men will not let die. Though its scale is small, this is Dickey's Lycidas, even as The Zodiac will be his cosmological elegy for the self. The child building up a Mithra-like body is still here in this poem, but he is here more reluctantly, caught up in the moments of discovering that a too-closely-shared immortality becomes mortality again, the stronger the sharing is known.

Dickey, being one of our authentic avatars of the American Sublime, exemplifies its two grand stigmata: not to feel free unless he is alone, and finally to know that what is oldest in him is no part of the Creation. After two poems wrestling with otherness, I need to restore his sense of solitude, his Emersonian self-reliance, and the great poem for this in his early motion is “In the Mountain Tent,” which appropriately concludes the book Drowning With Others. I remember that Dickey contrasts this with the more famous “The Heaven of Animals,” a lovely poem, but not one with the power of this meditation:

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.
I obey, and am free-falling slowly
Through the thought-out leaves of the wood
Into the minds of animals.
I am there in the shining of water
Like dark, like light, out of Heaven.
I am there like the dead, or the beast
Itself, which thinks of a poem—
Green, plausible, living, and holy—
And cannot speak, but hears,
Called forth from the waiting of things,
A vast, proper, reinforced crying
With the sifted, harmonious pause,
The sustained intake of all breath
Before the first word of the Bible.
At midnight water dawns
Upon the held skulls of the foxes
And weasels and touseled hares
On the eastern side of the mountain.
Their light is the image I make
As I wait as if recently killed,
Receptive, fragile, half-smiling,
My brow watermarked with the mark
On the wing of a moth
And the tent taking shape on my body
Like ill-fitting, Heavenly clothes.
From holes in the ground comes my voice
In the God-silenced tongue of the beasts.
“I shall rise from the dead,” I am saying.

Whether a Christian or not, this speaker appears to entertain a belief in the resurrection of the body. Even in this solitude of spirit, the uncanny in Dickey, his daimon, enters with the poem's implicit question: Whose body, mine or that of the other? Is it every man who shall rise in the body, or is it not a more Gnostic persuasion that is at work here? The Gnostic lives already in the resurrected body, which is the body of a Primal Man who preceded the Creation. What a Gnostic called the Pleroma, the Fullness, Dickey calls beautifully “the waiting of things.” The dead, the animals, and Dickey as the poem's speaker, all hear together the Gnostic Call, a vast crying out of the waiting of things. Without knowing any esoteric Gnosticism, Dickey by poetic intuition arrives at the trope of the Kabbalistic holding in of the divine breath that precedes the rupture of Creation. What Dickey celebrates therefore is “The sustained intake of all breath / Before the first word of the Bible.” That word in Hebrew is Beresit, and so the vision of this poem is set before the Beginning. At midnight, not at dawn, and so only in the light of a rain image reflected from the beasts, Dickey speaks forth for the beasts, who have been silenced by the Demiurge called God by Genesis. In Dickey's own interpretation, the man experiences both a kinship with the beasts and a fundamental difference, since he alone will rise from the dead. But I think the poet is stronger than the poet-as-interpreter here. To rise from the dead, in this poem's context, is merely to be one's own magical or pneumatic self, a self that precedes the first word of the Bible.

It isn't very startling to see and say that Dickey, as poet, is not a Christian poet, but rather an Emersonian, an American Orphic and Gnostic. This is only to repeat Richard Howard's fine wordplay upon what could be called the Native Strain in our literature. What startles me, a little, is to see and say just how doctrinal, even programmatic, Dickey's early Orphism now seems. The Orphism has persisted, emerging with tumultuous force in the superbly mad female preacher of Dickey's “May Day Sermon,” which I recommend we all read directly after each time we read Jonathan Edwards' rather contrary sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Rhetorically, though, that is a very different Dickey than the poet of The Early Motion, whose Orphism perhaps is the more persuasive for being almost overheard, rather than so emphatically heard.

I turn my charting of the early motion to Dickey's next book, Helmets, which so far may be his most distinguished single volume, a judgment in which I would neither want nor expect him to concur. “Helmet,” as a word, ultimately goes back to an Indo-European root that means both “to cover and conceal,” but also “to save,” which explains why “helm” and “helmet” are related to those two antithetical primal names, Hell and Valhalla. Dickey's book, of course, knows all this, Dickey being a preternaturally implicit knower, both as a poet and as a warrior—or, combining both modes, as an archer and hunter. Had I time and space, I would want to comment on every poem in Helmets, but I will confine myself to its two most ambitious meditations, “Approaching Prayer” and the final “Drinking from a Helmet.” Certain thematic and agonistic strains that I have glanced at already can be said not to culminate but to achieve definitive expression in these major poems. I qualify my statement because what is most problematic about Dickey's poetry is that nothing ever is allowed to culminate, not even in The Zodiac, or “Falling,” or “May Day Sermon.” So obsessive a poet generally would not remain also so tentative, but Dickey's is a cunning imagination, metamorphic enough to evade its exegetes.

As a critic himself obsessed with the issue of belatedness, I am particularly impressed by the originality of “Approaching Prayer,” which Dickey rightly called “the most complicated and far-fetched poem I've written.” I should add that Dickey said that some fifteen years ago, but it is good enough for me that his observation was true up to then. The far-fetcher was the good, rough English term that the Elizabethan rhetorician Puttenham used to translate the ancient trope called metalepsis or transumption, and “Approaching Prayer” is certainly an instance of the kind of poem that I have learned to call transumptive. Such a poem swallows up an ever-early freshness as its own, and spits out all sense of belatedness, as belonging only to others. “Approaching Prayer” is at moments Yeatsian in its stance and diction, but what overwhelmingly matters most in it can only be called “originality.” I know no poem remotely like it. If it shares a magic vitalism with Yeats and D. H. Lawrence, its curious kind of wordless, almost undirected prayer has nothing Yeatsian or Lawrentian in its vision. And it is less like Dickey's true precursor, Roethke, than it is like Robert Penn Warren's masterful “Red-Tailed Hawk and Pyre of Youth,” which, however, was written long after it and perhaps may even owe something to it.

Originality in poetry, despite Northrop Frye's eloquent assertions, has little to do with the renewal of an archetype. Instead, it has to do with what I would call a struggle against facticity, where “facticity” means being so incarcerated by an author, a tradition, or a mode that neither author nor reader is aware of the incarceration. Dickey calls his poem “Approaching Prayer,” but as his revisionist or critic, I will retitle it “Approaching Poetry” or even “Approaching Otherness.” I grant that Dickey has said, “In this poem I tried to imagine how a rather prosaic person would prepare himself for the miraculous event which will be the prayer he's going to try to pray,” but surely that “rather prosaic person” is a transparent enough defense for the not exactly prosaic Dickey. No one has ever stood in Dickey's presence and felt that he was encountering prose. The poem's speaker is “inside the hair helmet” (my emphasis), and this helmet too both conceals and saves. At the poem's visionary center, the boar's voice, speaking through the helmet, gives us the essential trope as he describes his murder by the archer: “The sound from his fingers / Like a plucked word, quickly pierces / Me again.” The bow, then, is poetic language, and each figuration is a wounding arrow. Who then is slaying whom?

Like any strong poet, Dickey puts on the body of his dead father, for him, let us say, the composite precursor Yeats/Roethke. Shall we say that the strong poet, in Dickey's savage version, reverses the fate of Adonis, and slays the boar of facticity? I hear the accent of another reversal, when Dickey writes:

My father's sweater
Swarms over me in the dark.
I see nothing, but for a second
Something goes through me
Like an accident, a negligent glance.

Emerson, in his famous epiphany of transmutation into a Transparent Eyeball, chanted: “I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” Dickey's surrogate sees nothing, but for a second is all, since that something going through him, glancingly negligent, accidental, also makes him part or particle of God. Addressing beasts and angels, this not so very prosaic personage speaks both as beast and as angel. But to whom? To part or particle of what is oldest, earliest in him, to the beyond that comes straight down at the point of the acceptable time. But acceptable to whom? The God of the hunt is hardly Yahweh Elohim. Dickey's closing chant salutes the God through the trope of “enough”: a violent enough stillness, a brain having enough blood, love enough from the dead father, lift enough from the acuity of slaughter—all enough to slay reason in the name of something being, something that need not be heard, if only “it may have been somehow said.” The apocalyptic Lawrence of the last poems and The Man Who Died, and the Yeats of the final phase, celebrated and so would have understood that “enough.” As an American Orphic, as pilot and as archer, Dickey is less theoretic, more pragmatic, in having known just that “enough.”

If I were writing of the later Dickey, the poet of “The Firebombing,” “Slave Quarters,” “Falling,” and The Zodiac, then I would invoke Blake's Proverbs of Hell on the dialectics of knowing enough by knowing more than enough. But I am going to conclude where Dickey himself ends The Early Motion, with the gracious approach to otherness that characterizes the nineteen fragments that constitute “Drinking from a Helmet.” Dickey remarks that the fragments are set between the battlefield and the graveyard, which I suspect is no inaccurate motto for the entire cosmos of what will prove to be the Whole Motion, when we have it all. Though it is a suite of war poems, “Drinking from a Helmet,” even in its title, moves toward meaning both of Dickey's major imaginative obsessions: divination through finding the right cover of otherness, and salvation from the body of this death through finding the magic body of the poet.

A survivor climbs out of his foxhole to wait on line at a green water-truck, picking up another's helmet to serve as a drinking vessel. Behind him, the graves registration people are laying out the graveyard for those still fighting. The literal force of this is almost too strong, and conceals the trope of divination, defined by Vico as the process of evasion by which the poet of Magic Formalism achieves godhood—a kind of mortal godhood, but immortality enough. Drinking from a helmet becomes the magic act of substitution, fully introduced in the luminous intensity of fragment VIII:

At the middle of water
Bright circles dawned inward and outward
Like oak rings surviving the tree
As its soul, or like
The concentric gold spirit of time.
I kept trembling forward through something
Just born of me.

The “something” is prayer, but again in the peculiar sense adumbrated in the poem “Approaching Prayer.” Dickey always has been strongest at invention (which Dr. Johnson thought the essence of poetry) and his invention is triumphant throughout the subsequent progression of fragments. We apprehend an almost Blakean audacity of pure vision, as the speaker struggles to raise the dead:

I swayed, as if kissed in the brain.
Above the shelled palm-stumps I saw
How the tops of huge trees might be moved
In a place in my own country
I never had seen in my life.
In the closed dazzle of my mouth
I fought with a word in the water
To call on the dead to strain
Their muscles to get up and go there.
I felt the difference between
Sweat and tears when they rise,
Both trying to melt the brow down.

I think one would have to go back to Whitman's Drum-Taps to find an American war poetry this nobly wrought. Vision moves from Okinawa to rural America, to the place of the slain other whose helmet has served as the vessel of the water of life:

On even the first day of death
The dead cannot rise up,
But their last thought hovers somewhere
For whoever finds it.
My uninjured face floated strangely
In the rings of a bodiless tree.
Among them, also, a final
Idea lived, waiting
As in Ariel's limbed, growing jail.

Ariel, imprisoned by the witch before Prospero's advent, then becomes the spirit of freedom, but not in this poem, where only to “be no more killed” becomes freedom enough. “Not dying wherever you are” is the new mode of otherness, as vision yields to action:

Shining, I picked up my carbine and said.
I threw my old helmet down
And put the wet one on.
Warmed water ran over my face.
My last thought changed, and I knew
I inherited one of the dead.

Dickey at last, though only through surrogate or trope, is at once self and other. What was vision becomes domesticated, touchingly American:

I saw tremendous trees
That would grow on the sun if they could,
Towering. I saw a fence
And two boys facing each other,
Quietly talking,
Looking in at the gigantic redwoods,
The rings in the trunks turning slowly
To raise up stupendous green.
They went away, one turning
The wheels of a blue bicycle,
The smaller one curled catercornered
In the handlebar basket.

The dead soldier's last thought is of his older brother, as Dickey's longing always has been for his own older brother, dead before the poet was born. Fragment XVIII, following, is the gentlest pathos in all of Dickey:

I would survive and go there,
Stepping off the train in a helmet
That held a man's last thought,
Which showed him his older brother
Showing him trees.
I would ride through all
California upon two wheels
Until I came to the white
Dirt road where they had been,
Hoping to meet his blond brother,
And to walk with him into the wood
Until we were lost,
Then take off the helmet
And tell him where I had stood,
What poured, what spilled, what swallowed:

That “what” is the magic of substitution, and the final fragment is Whitmanian and unforgettable, being the word of the survivor who suffered and was there:

And tell him I was the man.

The ritual magic of a soldier's survival has been made one with the Incarnation of the Poetical Character. Of all Dickey's poems, it is the one I am persuaded that Walt Whitman would have admired most. Whitman too would have said with Dickey: “I never have been able to disassociate the poem from the poet, and I hope I never will.” What Whitman and Dickey alike show is that “the poet” is both an empirical self, and more problematically a real me or me myself, an ontological self, and yet a divine other. Both poets are hermetic and esoteric while making populist gestures. There the resemblance ends, and to pursue it further would be unfair to Dickey or any contemporary; it would have been unfair even for Stevens or for Hart Crane. The Dickey of the later motion is no Whitmanian; if one wants an American analogue, one would have to imagine Theodore Roethke as an astronaut, which defeats imagination. But I end by citing Whitman because his final gestures are the largest contrast I know to James Dickey's ongoing motions in his life's work. Whitman is up ahead of us somewhere; he is perpetually early, warning us: “Will you speak before I am gone? will you prove already too late?” The burden of belatedness is upon us, but if we hurry, we will catch up to him:

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

Not Dickey; he cannot stop, yet he has taken up part of the burden for us. Whitman is larger, but then no one is larger, and that largeness is a final comfort, like Stevens' “Large Red Man Reading.” Dickey speaks only to and for part of us, but that part is or wants to be the survivor; wants no more dying. Words alone, alas, are not certain good, though the young Yeats, like the young Dickey, wanted them to be. But they can help us to make “a creature to keep me dying / Years longer,” as Dickey wrote in the poem of “The Other.” I conclude by going full circle, by returning to the poem with the tribute that it could prove to contain the whole motion within it. Dickey cannot “turn wholly mortal in [his] mind,” and that touch of “utter, unseasonable glory” will be his legacy.

James Applewhite (review date 1985)

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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 fairground. The excitement of Dickey has always resided in how provisionally, at the outset, the poem's speaker has been identified, how blindly and inevitably he has been called to by a deeper-lying stratum of his being. Like Lear “he hath ever but slenderly known himself” because the poet is in a sense all men (and all women), and thus knowledge of the self can never be complete, must wait upon the compulsion outside the ego toward that energetic ground the poet shares with trout and his parents and all other riders on the crowded Ferris wheel and the fiend waiting in darkness in the tree.

Apollo is all light, technical means, sun-clarity, but the image of blindness haunts the Dickean universe, and the poetic transaction takes place often in darkness, even underwater. To find himself the poet must lose himself. “For I is another,” said Rimbaud. Thus to take the identity of a woman (or girl) is only to enter more completely that voyage into the terra incognita the poet must always traverse in his “given” poems. If the daughter in “Root Light” in her numinous birth caul of bubbles is part of the quick heart of the river, then entering that other thing more completely would be to feel through her senses, wake in her psyche. This the poet has done in Puella. In a poem such as “Veer-Voices: Two Sisters Under Crows” the author's single male identity is transformed, split, mirrored, and redoubled. One sister, the speaker, verges toward the identity of the other, and both represent the human tensions from “the night-mass of families … our stifled folk” as they are given tongue by the veering, dividing cries of crows. These alien voices, tight strung and barbed like the wire underneath them, fill the sisters' “surround,” bisect it from all angles and make a multi-tongued “cry of unfathomable hordes,” into which the sisters' tight unexpressed human individuality is fused and expressed.

In the face of the many problems caused in the West by the restrictive masculine sensibility, it is particularly interesting that now Dickey devotes a whole book to another point of view. Though I don't think it quite convincing to translate “The Surround” (originally published in the Atlantic as James Dickey's tribute to James Wright) into a Deborah-poem simply by the inclusion of a subtitle, that title itself is of interest: “Imagining Herself as the Environment, / She speaks to James Wright at Sundown.” One part of the Hemingway persona tells of shooting the lion like a boast. It is not that aspect of the male self that knows the lion, feels from his arteries. That is a Hemingway (or Dickey) not locked in a uniform of male courage and will, but part of the hunting/hunted, terrified and terrifying frieze of animals and jungle. Part of the environment. If Dickey views this identification with the environment as feminine, then it is all the more appropriate that he take on the persona of Deborah, because at his best he is more among the animals than with the hunter; he is beyond any known identity, as simply the keenest edge of being alive in salt marsh or zoo, heartbeat and sinew.

Loss of self in the discovery of a more essential and continuous ground of perception is central to Romantic poetry. Keats thought of children just come into the world as atoms of perception, sparks of an original light of seeing that was from God. Whitman in “There Was a Child Went Forth Each Day” is delivered from knowing only the self of intentions, business, willed projects by seeing the father as “self-sufficient, manly, mean, anger'd, unjust”; the child's identification with him has been foiled by “the blow, the quick loud word, the tight bargain, the crafty lure,” and expands like a spirit denied any single body to possess a partial residence in everything it sees. In his sight of the “fish suspending themselves so curiously below there” the word curiously reminds us of just how wonderfully strange are all the not-selves becoming partial selves for the poet, as his never completed, blind identity finds temporary home in mare's foal or old drunkard staggering home from the outhouse—as, for Dickey, in sheep child or in the awakening of a girl/woman growing toward self-knowledge among crows and cornfields.

Though Puella in its diversity (including, along with poems of nature identification, others dealing with piano playing, dancing, and the art of tapestry) resists simplification into a single developmental sequence, there is, for me at least, a core of psychological process. Poems early on in the book reveal Deborah waking to her individual identity, once with the aid of a mirror (“Deborah, Moon, Mirror, Right Hand Rising”). This regarding of the self by the self, in a circle shining with the moon, begins the relation between the psyche and the world. But Dickey knows, and feels through Deborah, the child's apocalyptic tendency to oppose this world (which opposes its wishes), and has dramatized a holocaust of this location in time and space in the initial poem: “Deborah Burning a Doll Made of House-Wood.” Yet the love of carpenters here, of their “God-balanced bubbles” (in carpenters' levels) suggests an adaptation toward the structure of houses, of adulthood, which is developing, along with the child's blazing ability to negate the world about it, the “power to see / Pure loss. …” So as the sequence moves on into later poems such as “Veer-Voices” a dialectic is entered upon, and the psyche learns to express itself through identification with things about it—as with these voices of crows. After poems of horseback riding and first onset of menses, there is the lyrically mysterious “Ray-Flowers.” I am reminded of Blake's “The Book of Thel.” The essential metaphor of Dickey's poem is of a down-light drifting fall, and I suspect that at bottom this fall is into the world we know, and from some center of self-contained spiritual identity which still, as in the opening poem, opposes the limiting holds of gravity and time. The image of a feather holds the “whole mingling oversouling loom / Of this generation,” and the persona, probably now an adolescent, grows “Akin to it, down-haired, like the near side of smoke. …” I take this to suggest a consoling poetic vision of lightness, of potential imaginative flight, which helps compensate for “where we fall, or fell.”

If my reading of “Ray-Flowers” as a poem of resistance to involvement with the physical facts, yet of final acceptance, is correct, then “Deborah as Scion,” next, makes a great deal of sense. At the family cemetery Deborah sees her dead ancestors in a moment of vision, “Gravedirt exploding like powder / Into sunlit lace. …” From the “green mines” of the family plot, the lives and labor of these earlier women, their “dark dazzle of needles,” are unearthed. Deborah, having discovered her single self in the world, having accepted this “fall,” now feels pressing upon her the sequence of mothers before who have stamped her with their “eyebrows, / Breasts, breath and butt. …” She feels herself alive for a moment in their whalebone corsets, “closed bones” which suggest the body she has inherited as well as the restrictions of dress. These corsets are perhaps the epitome of confinement, the final indication of being trapped in a condition and a time. What I find hard to make sense of in the latter part of this two-section poem is the transition to a vision of whales and whaling. Are the whales, sounding and breaching, an image of sexuality? Is this a further compensatory freedom? I am not sure.

Dickey's tendency to use sensory illusion, (as when his father's hospital room keeps ascending toward “Heaven” with the momentum of an elevator ride in “The Hospital Window,” Drowning with Others), seems related to his sense of awakening to the world and its curiousness. In “Heraldic: Deborah and Horse in Morning Forest” we get once again this immersion through motion in a phenomenal flux which is complexly, physically present: for the horse and rider, “twigs from all sprung angles” speed toward the eyeball, as these two race toward “the wildly hidden log prowling upward. …” World as process, as flow, as danger, seeks to engulf the perceiving identity. As when Wordsworth in Book I of The Prelude sees the mountain rising through optical illusion to stride after him in his purloined rowboat, so the Dickean self feels Dionysian nature looming over in a tidal wave that threatens the small boat of ego and its limited capacity for identification. The confrontation is terrifying yet fruitful. If the poet or his persona rides out the surge, part of the blind world is given sight.

As “All Presences change into trees” (“Sleeping Out at Easter,” Into the Stone), the one eye that opens slowly is the sun's, but also the poet's; and “All dark is now no more” because of his reawakened, world-creating consciousness. When the poet makes the rain “Take the shape of the tent and believe it” (“In the Mountain Tent,” Drowning with Others), he is creating definitions, asserting order. These seeings, these comings back to the surface, counterpoint the blindnesses, the divings under. Dickey, like the paradigm of the poet as second Creator, is romantic, and therefore the balance may seem sometimes to incline more toward the flood than toward the Ark. But finally he is a poet who rides it out, whose reassertions of order evoke (and investigate) a crucial boundary: between the light of the farmhouse with screened porch and the dark with its nightly creatures, that the shadows of the figures on the porch stretch out toward. Like the poet, these figures in “A Screened Porch in the Country” (Drowning with Others) are extended into a world beyond the consciously human, there to be touched by the soft bodies usually repelled by the boundary of wire.

I can't help feeling Dickey one of our most poignant literary enigmas. When we first met in the sixties, he the arm-waving windmill of energy, the eye of a hurricane of gossip and rumor, he sat quietly in my house for hours, watching the Masters on TV and holding my two-year-old daughter in his lap. Influenced, perhaps, by that memory, I have since felt an edge of delicacy in both man and poet that others apparently did not always feel. Now here in Puella the fight between warrior male psyche and “the enemy women” has been resolved in favor of a wider self-capacious enough to include sensitivities that the aggressive personal identity may in some respects have offended. I see Dickey sometimes as a figure wandering a giant landscape, the hurt, lush South of our unconscious inheritance. The conscious, male poet, bearing his baggage of wound, prejudice, ego-limitation, is sometimes transfixed by magnetic lines arising from pasture, salt marsh, or Civil War battle-ground, to be made momentarily a voice expressive of the great life beyond him. “Birds speak, their voices beyond them” (“Sleeping Out at Easter”), just as the voice of the poet is beyond mere will, intention, personality of which a person might boast. The experiences which matter don't belong to anyone, man or woman. They are gifts to the species from its past, to the eye from its landscape. The anonymous, blind son reveals the light of the man's mind, of which he is father. Trees are resurrected from dawn mist within the eyes which create them. The historical personage and its burdens have been used by a larger self.

Not that any of this is easy or automatic. Dickey has devoted enormous labor to finding himself in his craft. It is just that he has had the final good fortune to lose that self in words as only the greatest have done: falling from a jet liner, undressing, or leaving the Baptist Church, a woman preacher, or here, now, waking to consciousness and womanhood as Deborah. We see in Puella that the powerful Dickey of old is still at work, and that he has succeeded in adding at least a handful of these new poems to the central canon. I am impressed by the singularity of taut, musical phrases, remembering Dickey the musician, composer of “Dueling Banjos” for the movie Deliverance. The influence of Hopkins in these poems brings a tenser rhythmic and imagistic organization, pulls the rigging shipshape. At least “Deborah Burning a Doll Made of House-Wood,” “Deborah, Moon, Mirror, Right Hand Rising,” “Veer-Voices: Two Sisters Under Crows,” “Ray-Flowers,” and the first section of “Deborah as Scion” will join the other great central Dickey poems we remember and reread.

Ronald Baughman (essay date 1985)

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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 which begins the volume, he asks whether he should seek absolution or sentence for his Air Force bombing activities. The speaker can find no easy answer; but that he is asking the question reveals his desire to move from self-laceration toward potential renewal. This question of absolution or sentence also underlies the writer's exploration of his other key subjects. In the family poems Dickey focuses on the mother-child relationship that has given him life but also produced a guilt about being alive. “Slave Quarters,” an important social poem, probes the moral quandary generated by the master and slave love-hate relationship so much a part of Southern history. “The Fiend,” one of his unique love poems, dramatizes another form of socially disapproved and yet curiously elevating passion. In nature, too, the writer illustrates, through “The Shark's Parlor,” how a boy's victory over a shark creates both a moment of youthful glory and a lifelong haunting memory. Dickey directly treats, in the major works of this collection, the ambiguities caught in survivor's guilt.

The volume's first poem, “The Firebombing,”2 dramatically reveals the difficulties the speaker has in bringing himself back to life after combat. Looking back on his actions during World War II, he realizes that he has had no choice about what he has done—firebombing was, after all, his duty; yet he also concedes that through his bombing missions he has caused horrifying deaths to innocent populations. Dickey has declared that the poem treats “a very complex state of mind, guilt at the inability to feel guilt.”3 His statement suggests at least some of the ambiguities that permeate the poem and its speaker's mind.

As Dickey says of the protagonist in “The Jewel,” the central figure in “The Firebombing” is a man “doubled strangely in time.” Riding in the streetcars, sitting in bars, checking his well-stocked pantry, or shining flashlights on his palm trees in present-day America, he envisions his enemies' world which in the past he has helped to destroy. That the ordinary details of his present life persistently recall that other locale suggests the extent to which he is haunted by his past experiences, by questions about his own guilt or innocence in causing the deaths of Japanese civilians. To come to some answer he engages in a series of imaginative re-creations of his experience.

First he examines his own role during the war. As a pilot he became, like his plane, a kind of machine. He learned not to feel concern for his victims or to apply moral judgments to his actions; instead, he measured only how well he performed his task. He became “some technical-minded stranger with my hands” who flew artistically accomplished missions. As a pilot he had the power of life and death over others, but

                                                                                                                        … when those on earth
Die, there is not even sound;
One is cool and enthralled in the cockpit,
Turned blue by the power of beauty, …

Such detachment has allowed him to be a successful pilot and to perform his duty without remorse.

Yet because his actions now haunt him, he also feels compelled to envision the scenes of destruction that he has caused. As a pilot he had been “unable / To get down there or see / What really happened.” Since he could not witness, could not be there, he uses his imagination to portray what he could not see in actuality:

All leashes of dogs
Break under the first bomb, around those
In bed, or late in the public baths: around those
Who inch forward on their hands
Into medicinal waters.
Their heads come up with a roar
Of Chicago fire:
As I sail artistically over
The resort town followed by farms,
Singing and twisting
All the handles in heaven          kicking
The small cattle off their feet
In a red costly blast
Flinging jelly over the walls
With fire of mine like a cat
Holding onto another man's walls. …

Through these horrifying images which have held him for twenty years, he shows that “With this in the dark of the mind, / Death will not be what it should.”

Finally, to get to the truth of his experience, the speaker tries to put himself in the place of his victims. He commands himself to

Think of this          think of this
I did not think of my house
But think of my house now. …

As a homeowner seemingly in league with other homeowners, both American and Japanese, he wants to feel a sense of unity with his victims:

All families lie together, though some are burned alive.
The others try to feel
For them. Some can, it is often said.

Yet the protagonist is not among those who can—simply and automatically—“feel” for these victims. Rather, his response is more complex.

He has been involved in the destruction of families hauntingly like his own; that he was just doing his duty does not, he knows, expiate him. Uncertain finally about the extent of his own moral responsibility, he will not attempt to simplify it, either for himself or others. Instead, he can only pose yet another question: “Absolution? Sentence? No matter; / The thing itself is in that.” What Dickey suggests here is that the question of guilt or innocence is too complicated to be easily stated or resolved. If he wishes honestly to treat the question, he must acknowledge all the ambiguities it does, in fact, contain. Thus his speaker finally comes to no certain conclusion but instead continues to grope with the ambivalence implicit in his situation.

A similar emotional quandary is dramatized in “Buckdancer's Choice”4 and “Angina,” two family poems that focus on the mother-child relationship. Although the poet expresses great affection and admiration for his mother in these works, his feelings are also influenced by guilt. He realizes that he has been born only because an older child has died and that his birth has endangered the life of his mother, a heart patient. Thus their relationship contains profound emotional ambiguities.

In the title poem Dickey's mother serves as a model of courage in the face of death. To counter her agony she whistles “The thousand variations of one song; / It is called Buckdancer's Choice.” Through her music the child-speaker envisions the dying art of a black buck-and-wing dancer who flaps his elbows in a futile attempt to transform them into wings. Together these two performers merge in the child's mind as emblems of human refusal to give in to death:

Through stratum after stratum of a tone
Proclaiming what choices there are
For the last dancers of their kind,
For ill women and for all slaves
Of death, and children enchanted at walls
Not dancing but nearly risen
Through barnlike, theatrelike houses
On the wings of the buck and wing.

The personal, private arts of the two performers, which are caught in the three-beat anapestic lines, inspire the child, another slave of death, to pursue his own art years later.

Again, in “Angina,”5 the speaker asserts that “when I think of love” it embodies itself in “an old woman” who “takes her appalling risks.” Though doctors had warned her that to bear children would cause her death, she nonetheless has had four; to this woman “Existence is family,” although “Her children and her children's children fail / In school, marriage, abstinence, business.” Aware of her agony, the speaker stands at her bedside and hears death “saying slowly / to itself.”

I must be still and not worry,
Not worry, not worry, to hold
My peace, my poor place, my own.

Here the voice of death and that of the son fuse. Measured against the woman's courage, death does indeed hold a “poor place”; so too does the grown child who is conscious that he, like his siblings, has imperiled his mother's life, has caused her enormous disappointments. He thus feels a mixture of love and guilt in his relationship with her, an ambiguity that he cannot resolve but must explore.

Dickey's honesty in facing emotional truths about himself extends as well to the larger social context. Although he feels strong affection for the South, he acknowledges the guilt implicit in his region's history. In “Slave Quarters,”6 Dickey records a contemporary white Southerner's responses to his ancestors' sexual domination of black slave women. In many respects “Slave Quarters” is about a special kind of love, but one that accommodates an active indifference which is a form of hate as well. The sexual encounters between slave owner and slave are always described as “love” in the poem, yet the owner's attitude suggests his arrogance, his complete freedom to take possession whenever he chooses and then to feel no sense of obligation or concern afterward.

Like the protagonist of “The Firebombing,” Dickey's speaker is a man who bridges the present and the past, fusing the two periods in his own imagination. His dilemma, as a contemporary Southerner, involves how to acknowledge his own place within the legacy he knows was wrong:

                                                                                                    How take on the guilt
Of slavers? How shudder like one who made
Money from buying a people
To work as ghosts
In this blowing solitude?

Although he knows that the master-slave relationship was wrong, he also feels drawn to it and to the social system it implies.

While visiting the site of a former plantation, the speaker re-creates in his mind the life established in “the great house” of the South. In the daytime house of social order and decorum the plantation owner has led an aristocratic life. Like the protagonist in “The Firebombing” who surveys his well-stocked pantry and suburban home, the planter records his affluence: he is

                                                                      proud of his grounds,
His dogs, his spinet
From Savannah, his pale daughters,
His war with the sawgrass, pushed back into
The sea it crawled from.

His taming of the wilderness into a fruitful, cultivated environment sparks the contemporary Southerner's pride. But only the plantation dogs decipher what is true of both the owner and the speaker, “what I totally am”—a creature of lust and sexual power. In one sense the slave master has the same kind of power over others' lives that the pilot does in “The Firebombing.”

At night, in the moonlight—the light associated in Dickey's work with madness and a special inner vision—the plantation owner leaves his house and his “thin wife” and “seeks the other color of his body.” The speaker recognizes the very real passion in the relationship between the white man and the black woman, whether in the past or in the present:

My body has a color not yet freed:
In that ruined house let me throw
Obsessive gentility off;
Let Africa rise upon me like a man
Whose instincts are delivered from their chains. …

Such passion is good, alive; yet it grows out of power over other human beings.

Furthermore, when in his ancestor's time this passion creates “A child who belongs in no world,” the slave master responds with indifference. For the present-day speaker this uncaring attitude is his region's greatest sin. He cannot imagine heartlessly confining a child to a life as a doorman, waiter, parking lot attendant, or member of a road gang simply because the father will not acknowledge his son. In Self-Interviews, Dickey states that “the main thing I characterize as the emotion of love is the wish to protect the other person.”7 Since the slave owner ignores the requirement to protect the black woman and their child, his guilt is profound.

In “Slave Quarters” Dickey evaluates the extremely ambivalent feelings he has about his region's history. As he states in his essay “Notes on the Decline of Outrage,” every white Southerner must appraise the attitudes that he retains from his past: “Not for a moment does he entertain the notion that these prejudices are just, fitting, or reasonable. But neither can he deny that they belong to him by inheritance, as they belong to other Southerners. Yet this does not mean that they cannot be seen for what they are, that they cannot be appraised and understood.”8 However, as in “The Firebombing,” the appraisal in order to be honest must convey all the ambiguities that remain.

“Them, Crying”9 clearly embodies the wound motif that operates throughout Dickey's poetry, and, like “Slave Quarters,” it emphasizes the writer's unconditional compassion for children who suffer. About this subject he feels no ambivalence. In his portrait of a truck driver who spends his nights in hospitals comforting sick and dying children, he therefore describes a man who does not scrutinize his motives—a desire for absolution or sentence—but instead simply acts.

Dickey writes, “I've always had the most complete horror of hospitals. … I view hospitals as charnel houses. … I hold it against doctors that they're not miracle workers; they're helpless in so many ways. … To me, the voice of a child who is alone, frightened, and in pain is an appeal so powerful that it can go through any barrier and be heard anywhere.”10 His own feelings about children in pain become those of his protagonist, an outsider who is “Unmarried, unchildlike, / Half-bearded and foul-mouthed” but who at night is “called to by something beyond / His life,” the appeal of hospitalized children. The trucker's personal characteristics make him seem one unlikely to feel concern for others; in fact, Dickey purposely has selected a figure who is ordinarily thought of as insensitive and boorish. Acutely aware that he does not belong within the medical and family groups in the hospital, the truck driver nonetheless consoles children in ways doctors cannot;

For our children lie there beyond us
In the still, foreign city of pain
Singing backward into the world
To those never seen before,
Old cool-handed doctors and young ones,
Capped girls bearing vessels of glucose,
Ginger ward boys, pan handlers, technicians,
Thieves, nightwalkers, truckers, and drunkards
Who must hear, not listening, them:
Them, crying: for they rise only unto
Those few who transcend themselves,
The superhuman tenderness of strangers.

Unlike most of those who gather in the hospital, the trucker “transcends” himself in agonizing for a small child's return to life. And his unselfish, unambivalent response provides the miracle that helps the child “rise,” either to health and life or to heaven as an angel.

Returning to a more ambiguous figure in “The Fiend,”11 Dickey reasserts the tone dominating much of Buckdancer's Choice. Here his protagonist is both evil and good: the conventional view of the voyeur is mirrored by the poem's title; yet in its course the fiend also becomes a source for love. Fusing the potential for violent death with the possibility for transforming love, the beholder bestows a rare gift—both threatening and promising—upon those he watches:

                                                                                                                                            Not one of these beheld would
                    ever give
Him a second look                    but he gives them all a first look that goes
On and on                    conferring immortality while it lasts

As he watches people through their apartment windows, he sees and participates in the familiar dramas of their lives:

In some guise or other he is near them when they are weeping without sound
When the teen-age son has quit school                    when the girl has broken up
With the basketball star                    when the banker walks out on his wife.
He sees mothers counsel desperately with pulsing girls face down
On beds full of overstuffed beasts                    sees men dress as women
In ante-bellum costumes with bonnets                    sees doctors come, looking oddly
Like himself. …

He learns to read their lives as he reads their lips, “like reading the lips of the dead.” And as he crouches in tree limbs, calming dogs and connecting with birds and other creatures of nature's night, he observes people who involve themselves only with the artificial, lifeless images reflected by their television screens. His is a passionate connection; theirs is passive and empty.

Yet his greatest gift and greatest threat goes to those lonely, too often unnoticed women whose husbands and lovers do not provide the intensity of emotion the fiend offers. When he watches “a sullen shopgirl” undress to shower, for example,

                              She touches one button at her throat, and rigor mortis
Slithers into his pockets, making everything there—keys, pen
and secret love—stand up.

The thematic fusion of love and death is dramatically suggested through the rigor mortis image. However, when he “gets / A hold on himself” sexually, the shopgirl senses a connection with her unseen admirer, and she is transformed:

                                                                                          With that clasp she changes                    senses                    something
Some breath through the fragile walls                    some all-seeing eye
Of God                    some touch that enfolds her body                    some hand come up
                    out of roots

Once she is “beheld” she becomes “a saint” and “moves in a cloud.” She sings, “As if singing to him, come up from river-fog,” and is changed into an ideal of womanhood, into a goddess. For this girl as well as for all the other people he observes, “It is his beholding that saves them.”

On the other hand, to those who close their shades and refuse disclosure to him, he harbors an implicit threat of danger, of possible death. Such harm will, he knows, finally emerge when he moves from his hidden existence into an open declaration of who and what he is. He will follow a closed-shade shopgirl home and into her apartment to behold her directly. And once he abandons his secret life for an open disclosure, the fusion of love and death will probably culminate in his raping and killing the one he beholds.

With the figure of the voyeur as his protagonist the poet ventures far from the conventional bounds of morality. “The Fiend,” like “Slave Quarters,” formulates a complex vision of human passions and their potential, a vision far removed from traditional concepts of love. And because this vision is complex, it underlines the ambiguities Dickey perceives in his world.

“The Shark's Parlor”12 portrays one of nature's fiends, the shark—a creature who, like the snake, represents for the poet the power of indifferent, inexorable destruction. Yet like its human counterpoint in “The Fiend,” the shark in this work also has transforming powers for the human being who confronts it. Dickey says the poem recounts a coming-of-age experience.13 Clearly, however, what the protagonist learns through his struggle with the shark is that victories over the powers of death are bound to be transitory.

As the poem begins, the adult speaker invokes “Memory” to recall the time in his youth when he and his friend, Payton Ford, had fished for a shark from the porch of a beach house. Fortified by their “first brassy taste of / beer” and their nightly dreams of “the great fin circling / Under the bedroom floor,” the two spread blood upon the sea to lure the creature to their hook. The struggle between the caught shark and the boys, helped by other “men and boys,” is a monumental one. Although they finally drag him onto the porch and into the house, he nearly destroys their “vacation paradise”:

                                                                                          cutting all four legs from under the dinner table
With one deep-water move                    he unwove the rugs in a moment throwing pints
Of blood over everything we owned                    knocked the buck teeth out of my picture
His odd head full of crushed jelly-glass splinters and radio tubes thrashing
Among the pages of fan magazines                    all the movie stars drenched in sea-blood.

And as the protagonist says:

Each time we thought he was dead                    he struggled back and smashed
One more thing                    in all coming back to die                    three or four more times after death.

By triumphing over this creature of the deep, the speaker seems to have attained manhood, seems to have defeated the mindless powers of death and destruction. Yet, as he reveals at the end of the poem, he has felt compelled to buy the beach house under which the shark still symbolically swims and which he can still symbolically wreck. The narrator thus concedes that his youthful struggle with death has been—and will continue to be—forced upon him: he feels “with age / … in all worlds the growing / encounters.” His triumph therefore remains equivocal; the initiation experience contains real ambivalence for him.

Throughout Buckdancer's Choice Dickey raises difficult questions about his own and his speakers' roles in relationship to the events and people in their lives. That he comes up with no clear answers—no clear verdicts of absolution or sentence—may at first suggest that he is avoiding his responsibility as an artist. However, his stance in fact reveals his honesty, his integrity, his refusal to reduce complex issues through simple answers. By probing and finally accepting the ambiguities of his situation, Dickey opens the way to renewal, for which he continues to strive in the succeeding collections.


  1. Babel to Byzantium 291.

  2. Buckdancer's Choice (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1965) 11-20; Poems 1957-1967 181-88.

  3. Self-Interviews 137.

  4. Buckdancer's Choice 21-22; Poems 1957-1967 189-90.

  5. Buckdancer's Choice 63-65; Poems 1957-1967 226-27.

  6. Buckdancer's Choice 73-79; Poems 1957-1967 234-39.

  7. Self-Interviews 148.

  8. Babel to Byzantium 274-75.

  9. Buckdancer's Choice 31-33; Poems 1957-1967 198-200.

  10. Self-Interviews 141-42.

  11. Buckdancer's Choice 68-72; Poems 1957-1967 230-33.

  12. Buckdancer's Choice 39-42; Poems 1957-1967 205-08.

  13. Self-Interviews 146.

Paul Christensen (review date 1986)

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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 Zodiac,

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 have longed for and immortalized their dreams of escape—either to the East or to the West, depending on the sensibility of the escape. But the South remains a puzzle, even to the most ardent Southern historians. The South is difficult from almost any perspective, but interesting in its opaqueness and mystique. It was an anomaly from the outset: half its states are named after English kings and queens, the other half have Indian names; its culture was derived from medieval Western Europe, and its aristocratic ways were cultivated in the teeth of a democratized, industrial North. The Civil War was, in some respects, a replay of the French Revolution, in which sans-culotte Yankees destroyed an intransigent nobility. The emergence of a national corporate economy in America following the Civil War parallels the development of an industrial republic from the smoking buckets of the guillotine.

The identity of the South does not lie in its opposition to the North but in its opposition to itself, within itself, a whirligig of polarities that in their fury and violence forged the essential nature of the region. “Love-hate,” James Dickey wrote, “is stronger than love or hate.” The kudzu vine that conquers numberless pastures and meadows, barns and electric poles of the Deep South is a metaphor of the voluptuous fertility of the ground; but it is countered in the classic antebellum South by a sedate and exacting symmetry of nature on the plantation estates—a willful control of the green world brought over from neoclassical Europe. The image we have of the South, nationally, is of an unsynthesized state somewhere between kudzu and Monticello, between cypress swamps and lynch mobs and the pristine whiteness of a Greek-styled manor house, columned and domed, an emblem of human triumph over the powerful counterthrust of tropical abundance. The original polarity between human symmetry and nature's fertility has undergone constant revision, but it remains the key point of the South's psychic bearings. The vestiges of an old order's will are embodied in Blanche DuBois and in Stanley Kowalski's dark fertility, which longs to overtake her. The polarities within the Southern psyche are myriad, a Zen universe of poised and equal adversaries that constitute the yin and yang of its sensibility.

In a way, the South is the burial ground of the Western mind. The South was formed in the closing decades of the European Renaissance, in the era in which a state culture was being wrested from a sacred one, dooming Europe to decline from a civilization to an economic system. The Western mind, as Charles Olson has argued, began somewhere far back in time in a feud with nature. The axis of Western thought ever since had been toward the control of the realms of growth and decay, the domination of the natural order. It sought to protect itself from mutability through a faith in a heaven of immortal things, each perfect and unchanging; so long as it was able to aspire to such a realm of static bliss, the Western mind thrived in its conflict with all its earthly adversaries. But when the sacred and mundane were separated politically in the Protestant Reformation, the aspirations of the Western mind were thwarted and redirected to nurturing a secular state, with all its mundane responsibilities and repairs. The loss of heaven, as Georg Lukacs observed, was the loss of reality in European art and philosophy. The Renaissance separation of essence from substance closed the routes to heaven in Western ideology and aesthetics, and a kind of sorrowful dream was vented and driven off to the new Eden of the Southern United States. The South glowed like a dream for two centuries: wide fields of symmetrical cultivation, a code of chivalrous conduct, the naming of cities after those of Rome and Greece. The South was an ersatz European country, with the Negro essential to its pretensions: his servile role in the social order was the fulfillment of an old Western ambition: for the Negro was supremely the human extension of Africa's wild, undiluted nature.

The moment the South grasped its role as the inheritor of Europe's humanism, its mind was forged and its psychological conflicts were set in motion. It was an old order in a new country; it was a civilization thrust upon a wilderness; it was a regime of whites ruling over blacks. It was a culture of refinements that soon learned savage ways of punishment and internecine feuding. In every way, the South grappled with opposition and conflict, and its culture was oddly mute to the rest of the nation and the world. Its silence for two centuries was secretive, a brooding within itself that resembled the hard silence of a schizophrenic patient. The South had no way to grow or develop, no way to traffic with the world; it was captive to its own profound conflict and contradiction. In “Notes on the Decline of Outrage” (1961), Dickey describes the feelings of a white Southern male who has boarded a bus with blacks:

At this moment he is very much aware of himself as a Southerner, and that he is in some way betraying someone or something, even though the impulse which brought him to his present seat on the bus may have been completely laudable, sub specie aeternitatis. Oddly enough, he cannot help feeling also a sharp upswing of defiant joy at remembering that he is a Southerner, a joy that in no way wishes to distinguish approval from disapproval, right from wrong, good from evil.

His memories of a Southern grandfather are “now intolerably confused,” for his grandfather's life was “inextricably entangled with attitudes which, rightly seen, are and have always been indefensible, inhuman, corrupt, and corrupting.”

The young man understands himself as the victim of a cruel and fathomless paradox, a dilemma between the horns of which only a god could survive and still retain his identity.

Dickey has tried to make a poetry of that “mixed state” of mind which he argues, here and elsewhere in essays, is the Southern mind. In “The Poet Turns on Himself,” published in 1966, he set out this goal for himself:

I should like now to develop a writing instrument which would be capable of embodying these [inseparably bound] moments and their attendant states of mind, and I would be most pleased if readers came away from my poems not at all sure as to where the danger and the repose separate, where joy ends and longing begins. Strongly mixed emotions are what I usually have and what I usually remember from the events of my life. Strongly mixed, but giving the impression of being one emotion—that is the condition I am seeking to impose on my readers, whoever they may be.

The South is where the European mind unraveled; the brittle culture that kept alive its separatist vision of things collapsed under the tread of another culture. What whelmed up from its ruins and smoking cinders is the afterlife of the Western mind—the imagination entangled in oppositions and paradoxes. The literal and material experience of Southern life is only a surface under which the depths of myth and mystery glitter; the Southern character is a mosaic of contending elements, bestial and human, dark and light, irrational and rational. Poe's voice rises out of the region to declare the start of this imagination, its erased borders and maze-like patterns of thought, its lurid and brilliant perceptions. He was the first anticipation of the breakdown of categorical logic; what rose to replace it was an odd fusion of Indian, African, and European dispositions, the slow and inexorable mixing of elements to create the jointed processes of Southern awareness—felt in its dialects, its rural architecture, its peculiar and contradictory jurisprudence, its paradoxic masculinity, which compresses myriad conflicting images of boy-men in the same youth; its sacred and desecrating values of the female, and so on. The Western mind thinned out into a delta here, a swampy mixture of elements that dissolved its original binary character. This Southern fusion is the point of Twain's Huckleberry Finn, whose plot shows the creation of the Southern mind—as tutored by a black surrogate father, whose spiritual advice is opposed to the literal, skeptical outlook Huck has inherited from Europe. Huck cannot affect the reality of the river settlements with mere logical powers; he learns to accept the paradoxes of human character through repeated trial and error, until he has achieved double-sightedness and can sympathize with the entangled elements composing human nature.

The writer who approaches the subject of the South must look for a graspable aspect of its paradox. For Faulkner, as for George Washington Cable and Kate Chopin, the essential paradox was time itself: the lingering insistence of a high European culture, the steady erosion of it by the present, between which dangled the helpless Southern soul. When Dickey emerged in the 1960s, he had been well schooled in the literature of the region. He had the good fortune to be born in Atlanta, perhaps the center of Southern paradox—destroyed by Sherman, rebuilt as the capital of the new South, it became the emblem of urban industrialism surrounded by the primitive culture thriving in its hills and river valleys. It is the seat of Emory University and of the Coca-Cola Company; it was to become in Dickey's mind the citadel of urban drudgery, from which the average Atlantan longed to escape—into the hillsides, where he could drink at the springs of its primitive counterpart once more. Dickey attended Clemson briefly, and after the war took degrees from Vanderbilt, where an aging fringe of the original agrarians still lingered on its faculty. Their work obliquely enters into Dickey's style and attitudes, but it was the paradox of Southern life itself that shaped even the earliest lyrics of Dickey's canon.

The rites of passage of Southern boyhood have been explored by every major writer of the region; they differ remarkably from female rites, particularly as noted in Eudora Welty's fiction, as in “Moon Lake,” where mock intercourse is performed on a nearly drowned girl by a wiry, primal lifeguard. A Negro pushed her into the lake from her perch, and in her rescue, all the girls of the camp watch as a male ritually matures the frail form beneath his legs. But where the Southern female receives her lessons in life and life-bearing, the Southern male is taught the mysteries of death and violence, of the role of hunter in nature. He is raised to see himself as the destroyer of Otherness, a conqueror of the primal realm. But to kill the enemy requires that one perceive his affinity and kinship with the lower world. The growing up of the Southern boy requires a rebirth in nature, from which he emerges only after he has killed an animal and rubbed his face in the blood of his victory, as does “the boy” in Faulkner's “The Old People.” Only then can he return to the city and accede to adulthood, from which, periodically, Dickey warns, one must escape and re-enter the green realm to be rejuvenated.

Dickey's adult characters are uncomfortable with age, unwilling to lose their primal powers. They point up the underlying dilemma of the Southern vision of the male—he is imagined a little past puberty and no further. There is a limit to the range of virile identity in the Southern mind—it includes the warrior in combat, the young heir, the suitor and husband in the flush of his first marriage, but beyond a void begins and a hollow honor descends upon those who are middle-aged. The “colonel” is a stereotype of mock-seriousness, stiffly attired in white in his mansion retreat, a kind of fisher-king waiting to be overtaken by a youthful suitor of his daughter's. He is a figure of wisdom but of dwindling authority; power can be held only by repeated challenges of nature: the hunt, battle, expeditions, rescues.

The problem besetting Dickey's The Central Motion: Poems, 1968-1979 is that he has tried to deal with middle age, his own, and fails to perceive in it value or meaning. It is only negative—a loss against which he loudly and dramatically declaims. The collection reprints three books of the 1970s: The Eye-Beaters (1970), The Zodiac (1976), and The Strength of Fields (1979). The poems span his middle years from his mid-forties to the age of fifty-six. Hence the title, the central motion, with its insinuation of a central e-motion. There is a centering drive in much of the work: the lines of most poems are balanced on an axis, “hung,” Dickey remarked to me some years ago, “as if on a string, like a mobile.” Sometimes the enjambments are awkward, with lines broken at random to make them fit his expanding and contracting shapes, his balances. The poems spread out like Rorschach blotches, or balloon up and down like a breathing bulb. In their conscious shapings, they express the craftsmanship, if not the vision Dickey struggles to impose here. To center anything thus is a nerve-racking act of precision, and there is a good deal of trembling and frustration in the tone of these poems. The lyrics are often shrill, at times agonized to find a dramatic finale to essentially uneventful experience.

The exaggerated tension in the book suggests Dickey's dread of his subject, as if growing older were a terrible curse with grim consequences. The opening poem, “Diabetes,” is nearly frantic with fear of debility and death. The persona lugs his ailing body around at night full of “self- / Made night water.” His doctor has made him swear off booze and all his other vices, or else he can look forward / To gangrene and kidney // Failure boils blindness infection skin trouble falling / Teeth coma and death.” It is not a promising start for a book about the wisdom years. Instead, it begins with a dark threat against one's desire to remain recklessly young under one's soft chin and sagging belly. This pitch of rhetoric is sustained throughout all three books, into the final poems, which are Dickey's loose renderings of fourteen foreign-language poems, also about old age, dying, illness, and a serene final resignation to it all.

Dickey cannot find a justification for his own mortality; the loss of youthful powers is irreplaceable by wisdom or any nourishing vision of the remainder of life. There are no rituals or rites of passage for the mid-life adult to undertake to redeem himself. He can only dread the further loss of his powers, or remember with poignance the range of his youthful passions. The figure stumbling around in “Diabetes” has lost his bearings: everything he believed in had to do with strength and courage. This is where the Southern dream of manhood aborts—when older age becomes the waking nightmare. Now it is upon him, and a terrible throe ensues in operatic, shrilly pitched lyric thrashings. The language is anguished, distorted, the syntax skewered into Lear-like raging soliloquies. Dickey means to play out to the end his own final curtain as a Southern male; but the passions running through the poems are very toxic, the potent confusions that drove Hemingway to suicide. Missing here are the resourceful and cunning self-rescues in Saul Bellow's mid-life novels, Henderson the Rain King (1959) and Herzog (1964).

But for Dickey there is no going forward; to dwindle in strength and courage is unthinkable. He plies his theme with melodramatic hyperbole, but keeps an eye on the effect he is having on his audience. Dickey knows when he is hamming his emotions and when they cause him genuine angst; but the poems merge candor and bombast into one lyric keen. He can change his act on a nod; some of the poems take an abrupt turn from self-pity to show us his fatherly affections, as in two poems on his sons, “Messages,” with their tender words from an otherwise hard-boiled parent. Soon after, he is off once more, raging in his ambulance on the way to the emergency room, having collapsed in the street, shouting his fustian and gesturing like an old tragedian in the poem “Mercy,” arms outstretched as he delivers this close:

          My lips          hold them down don't let them cry
With the cry          close          closer          eyeball to eyeball
                                        In my arms, O queen of death
                                        Alive, and with me at the end.

This peroration is intended for his favorite nurse, who has rushed down to find her old warrior dying again. The tone of this poem is murky—a mixture of pathetic sincerity and self-mocking irony. It turns over its own psychological ruse by minimizing and clowning in a serious crisis.

“Mercy” is at least a coping strategy—a satire on the failing body; another is in “Two Poems of Going Home,” perhaps the most often-sought escape from middle age: to look up one's youthful haunts, which Dickey does with good humor in “Looking for the Buckhead Boys,” where he wanders around in an imaginary Tyree's Pool Hall, finding his old gang shooting pool around the table—but “it's a shoe store now,” and even this vivid fantasy fades out on the middle-aged speaker. Alas. Both poems of “return” offer trite plots; Dickey tries to compensate by rhetorical extravagance, by a sprawling typography that strews phrases across the page, winds in inner voices, ghosts, and all the rest of lyric gothic machinery. But they remain the maunderings of mid-life; try as he might, Dickey has only produced a few sentimental journeys at dramatic pitch:

                                                                                          Let me go pull my car out
                                                                                          Of the parking lot in back
Of Wender and Roberts'. Do I need gas? No; let me drive around the block
                                                                                Let me drive around Buckhead
                              A few dozen times          turning          turning in my foreign
                              Car till the town spins          whirls till the chrome vanishes
                    From Wender and Roberts'          the spittoons are remade
From the sun itself          the dead pages flutter the hearts rise up, that lie
                                        In the ground, and Bobby Laster's backbreaking fingers
                              Pick up a cue-stick          Tommy Nichols and I rack the balls …

The poem “Apollo” celebrates the first manned lunar mission and appeared originally in Life magazine with a big spread; it is cleverly deployed in The Eye-Beaters as a variation on the dread of mortality. The moon is the bleak planet of death, hanging in its dark void above. Dickey relives the experience of going behind it, where all communication with the living ceases, and of coming round again to a sight of earth. A full black page dramatizes the silent phase of the trip, the “hysterical void,” but Dickey jubilates as the ship floats back to light:

Almighty! To come back! To complete the curve          to come back
                    Singing with procedure          back through the last dark
                                                                      Of the moon, past the dim ritual
          Random stones of oblivion, and through the blind edge
                                                                      Of moonlight into the sun
                                                                                                    And behold
                    The blue planet steeped in its dream
                    Of reality, its calculated vision shaking with
                                                                                          The only love.

Death is nothing; life is everything, but exactly what life is remains unspoken. It is merely a continuation of the struggle. But this undimensional imperative counters all thoughts of death but the fear of it. Dickey is at an impasse in this book—he has gone from youth to age, only to dread the progress. The poems do not penetrate experience; instead, they build up a wall of extravagant evasions to it. The forays back to youth and wartime memories are brief escapes from torment; the illness poems are full of self-mocking humor. The obsession with death fears is everywhere; he transforms all his experience into it, but this momentary fiat of imagination is then blocked by an unwillingness to argue for relief or consolation. That is why the sudden appearance of “The Eye-Beaters” is so extraordinary in the stagnant relation of the other poems. It suddenly leaps off in a new direction, alien to the other poems.

The eye-beaters of the poem are blind children in an asylum who beat on their eyes to experience visions; they beat them till they bleed and turn black. An older man narrates his visit to them and sympathizes with, almost approves of their tortuous behavior—he, too, is blind and has no vision of his own. The poem seems to acknowledge the intellectual catch of all the preceding poems—the aging persona who cannot drink, smoke, or womanize must now preserve what health remains, even as he dreams of youth and escape from his ailing body. The children are in a similar intellectual paralysis, prisoners of their own malfunctioning organisms who also need to be consoled and delivered. As they beat on their eyes, visions form, he imagines, that are nothing more than hemorrhages, but to the inner eye are like the scrawls of cave walls—the figures etched in feces and vegetable dyes by primordial man, who was also “blind” and desperate to create a consoling vision for his life. The children re-create for themselves the same archetypal images that were first seen thirty thousand years ago in the corridors of the Dordogne caves. In a way, history is static in this poem—a suspended state of desire in which the same archetypes appear across the whole human era, from beginning to now. There is considerable merit to the thesis, and other poets have recently been exploring the notion of such archetypal patterning in the deep imagination—in the work of Robert Bly and even more recently in Clayton Eshleman. Eshleman's thesis is that the cave drawings “narrate” the emergence of the human mind from the animal continuum, the lonely vigil of which is both mourned and celebrated. He suggests in Hades in Manganese (1981) and in Fracture (1983) that the dancing figures of the caves are half man, half animal, lonely misbegotten things in exile from the edenic continuum of other life forms. This thesis vaguely circulates in “The Eye-Beaters” as the basis of the primordial mind, which the children and the adult visitor both return to in their own different states of desperation. Somehow their human identities are inadequate, unfulfilling, isolating—and in disease or older age, to be human is to be cast off into the hopeless void. The “collective consciousness” hinted at in this poem encloses the children, the speaker, and the primate hominids of the Paleolithic era. Each goes about in his cave, physical or psychological, etching those primitive but vitalizing formations from his spiritual hunger for companionship.

It is a good poem, and its roots go far back into earlier work—into other poems touching on the human relation to the animal world, as in “The Sheep-Child” and “The Shark's Parlor.” In its dread of life and loneliness, it bears relation to other classic poems in the vein, among them Yeats's “Among School Children” and Dylan Thomas's “I See the Boys of Summer.” But personal solace is not forthcoming in Dickey's poem; it ends on a note of indeterminacy. The goal of the poem was the agony, not the relief. It is a grotesque poem in the original sense of the word, from grotto, the cave, the dark soul. It bears pointing out that Dickey, like few others in American poetry, is a grotesque writer—from the tradition of Bosch, Goya, Céline, Burroughs—whose energies have always been directed at the hidden depths of pain and distortion in life. Its negative tradition is a running commentary through the centuries on different notions of the Sublime, the Beautiful—but in reverse. Solace for Dickey is not in escape from the pain but in finding commiseration through others also in pain, the exploration of pain itself, its myriad volatile images and fused emotions.

The line of reasoning in “The Eye-Beaters” prompted the ambitious, failed effort called The Zodiac, which appeared six years later, in 1976. The poem is about another eye-beater, a Dutch poet whose “triangular eyes” look into the cold Christian heaven and alter all its abstractions with animal totems of his own invention. Reordering the zodiac and paganizing the lifeless divinity of the Christian view somehow consoles his besotted mind, though how is never clear or persuasive. The book-length piece is a dark, sweaty, booze-laden sequence, monotonous in pace, raspy-voiced in its slangy lyric climaxes and repeated epithets. It is disheveled in every way—with a laundry-line typographic scheme that drapes the onrush of phrases over the whole page space. Dickey is at sea trying to make up a new mythology through the guise of his deranged persona.

Both “The Eye-Beaters” and The Zodiac bear much in common—they constitute Dickey's forays into the speculative realms of Charles Olson. By 1970, Dickey was played out on the themes of youth and heroism. Olson died the same year and left behind a contentious canon and a bevy of admiring young intellectuals to spread its heady gospels. Dickey was not amused by Olson's brief spate of publications, but he paid attention to them through the years, as did other major figures who frequently took aim at Olson in the journals. The real bone of contention was Olson's attack of Western beliefs—he dismissed them out of hand as alienating and delusory; his argument was for a reconception of nature as an autonomous, harmonious order that Western metaphysics had distorted and maligned for millennia. Olson saw nature through the eyes of primitive cultures, through the language systems and other texts of Mayan, Sumerian, and other non-Western cultures, and found their view more nearly exact and welcoming of this “other” order in the universe. It was the basis of a truth about life, and was covered up and nearly obliterated by the false humanism of Western tradition. This seemed to throw too much in doubt at once, but it was arresting and intriguing even to Olson's angriest detractors. Dickey tries out the notion of a valid primordial “sight” in “The Eye-Beaters,” but in The Zodiac he seems to be writing a Maximus Poems in miniature, under flamboyant disguises and with disclaimers posted at the outset. This may seem an awkward thesis to put forward in the light of the harsh words Dickey wrote in Babel to Byzantium (1968, 1981), but he could turn around even there and say, “Yet I have a weakness for long poems of this kind.” “His mind,” he wrote, “seems to me a capable one,” and his Maximus poems, though “unsuccessful,” contain a “few moderately interesting sections … worth reading.”

By 1966, in “The Poet Turns on Himself,” he wrote: “I began to conceive of something I called—doubtless misleadingly—the ‘open’ poem: a poem which would have none of the neatness of most of the 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.” But this is precisely what Dickey complained of in 1961 in Olson's “structure of fortuitous association,” which five years later is grafted onto Dickey's poetic, since he is now “interested most of all in getting an optimum ‘presentational immediacy,’ a compulsiveness in the presentation of the matter of the poem that would cause the reader to forget literary judgments entirely and simply experience.” This is a slight rephrasing of poetic statements both Williams and Olson had made in the 1950s, the poem as vehicle for conveying the undiluted perceptual force of a poet to his reader.

The turn to Olson, however veiled or half-conscious, is curious and problematic: the Southern poet regarded himself as a force of conservation of certain Western values, which in Olson are under attack. Olson had specified a disorder that released creative energies; the Southern legacy put a value on controlling one's materials as a siphoning off of essences in the poetic act. Even Poe retained the graces of lyric and its sturdiest conventions of the European tradition. With few exceptions, Southern writers, though of perplexed emotion, held out for order over materials as an imperative of art. One must wonder if it is the Zeitgeist of the mid-century or the disarming arrogance of Olson that made Dickey question his own rules and conventions and throw them out.

But one affinity between Olson and Dickey is always just under the surface of Dickey's poetry: his “permanent interest … in the forfeited animal grace of human beings, occasionally redeemed by athletes … and the hunter's sense of understanding with the hunted animal.” Both Americans expressed attitudes toward the natural world previously articulated by D. H. Lawrence, which sets them apart in the distinctive, rebellious direction of recent poetry. Whereas poets like Theodore Roethke and James Wright admired the grace and peace of certain animals, Dickey, Olson, and Lawrence longed for the violent, untamable animal realm that would overpower the frailties of human awareness. They wanted reunion with a primal world of violence and instinct, which they glimpsed in certain primordial images. All three writers expressed an intense masculinity and dreaded the loss of their animal powers through the refinements of human evolution.

The drama of these uneven poems of middle life is of a Southern poet moving out of the boundaries of his literary heritage into a great uncertainty of composition and idea, which he deals with by incorporating principles of his most suspect contemporary. Olson at least asked big questions and wondered aloud in his messy compositions, and sought no firm conclusions to his arguments. It was more important to be lost in one's creative confusion, which Dickey now wanted for himself—the “conclusionless poem,” with its language at once “open” and “ungeneralizing,” the poem “un-well-made.” If Faulkner exploded the sentence to lay bare the paradoxical content of his own feelings, it is not until Dickey that the line of Southern poetry is finally broken open to allow a disorderly subjectivity to tumble out of it. The “tradition” of Southern writing, rich as it is, eccentric and volatile as it may seem, was bridled by its inherited European aesthetic. The line from Faulkner to Wolfe to Barthelme is a dissent and an opening out of the prose structure of fiction; it cannot be traced in poetry much before the wild, disordering tendencies of Dickey's poems in the mid-1960s.

For all that, The Zodiac is not very good. As a long poem, it lacks the mosaic infrastructure required for suspense and rapid, jagged movement forward; it rarely achieves the fortuitousness desired; and it labors to show a mind liberated from old assumptions, which comes and goes in a boozy haze of imprecision and feigned madness. The long poem is essentially a ritual, a “dark game” which, when carried out well, shows a Western poet seated among the fragments of his own culture and of others, which he sorts through and reassembles in order to bring off his own eccentric perspective on life. Dickey's persona can't do that; the poet behind him is not speculative by nature but sure-handed and too exacting. The kind of mind Dickey wants to invent—the Olsonian speculator of lofty, difficult notions—is simply too foreign to him. Instead, he falls back on his old maunderings and bellyachings through his speaker—whose alcoholism threatens his life and whose desire to bring “God's crazy beasts” back into metaphysics simply fades out. Olsonianisms are rife in the poem: in things like “He can't tell Europe / from his own death,” to such Black Mountain tropes as “Don't shack up with the intellect: / Don't put your prick in a cold womb.” The poem wants to conceive a “human universe,” Olson's phrase, to replace the one prescribed through centuries of desultory metaphysics. Dickey's instinct is correct in the poem—to seize upon some scheme for heaven that rekindles the Western passion to mine essence from substance, to put spirit back into its coils of flesh once more, but the means and the conceptual process are missing. Dickey can only record the sweating melodrama of the effort, not its steps of mental progress. Sadly, his poem becomes a Hollywood treatment of the long poem—scenes and dialogue, little of the essential substance of its subject.

The Zodiac obscures Dickey's merits. His early poems quickly showed his genius in probing the unspoken bond between urban and wilderness realms that still nourished Southern identity. In a sense Dickey is another Dickens, a tale-teller of dazzling, hallucinatory powers who could break into the latent consciousness of his audience and reconstruct its content in poetry. The South was losing its green world at the time, becoming an urbanized, diluted sprawl of industrial culture, which Dickey spoke directly to, with dread, anger, outrage, and with dreamscapes and mythical characters which spoke to one's longings for some past world of inseparable relations to nature. His rescuers and daredevils are all figments of the Southern dream of transcendence and immersion—the paradox of having and lacking one's place in nature. He perplexed his critics at the start, but roused his audience and commanded it with a series of short, powerful books through the 1960s that established him at once as the premier voice of his times—the mixed fate of Southern culture. But by middle age, the direction of those shrewd powers to articulate the spirit of the region was shifted to his own situation, to his concerns as an aging, virile male whose image was now to be catered to. Half invented by his own dramatic poems, he was now partly captive of it and required in his own mind lyrics to sustain it—to portray himself as a lion in old age. Even the eye-beater in The Zodiac is virile as well as pathetic, a hunter in armchair with a pen for a rifle, his prey all the wilderness of his imagination, which he imposes upon the night sky. The long poem fell apart, into the pieces of his own confused intentions—dead-end speculations of uninspired language; a breast-beating drunken hero, whose pains are monotonous, and a concern for failing health and an aging mind, at which he is vivid and dramatic.

The Strength of Fields (1979), the third and last book of The Central Motion, is a slight but fluid collection of original poems, with an appendix of fourteen translations. Dickey has made some adjustments to style in it—an emphasis on sound and the musically enriched phrase, and away from a crisp narrative focus. The poems seem reluctant to tell anything—an image will do, as in “Root-Light, or the Lawyer's Daughter,” with its rush of baroque imagery, its subject withheld until the final lines, when a naked girl dives from a bridge into a river as a lasting memory of youth and beauty. “The Strength of Fields” was commissioned for Carter's inauguration, and it is an elegant tribute to a new President. It explores the delicate sense of fealty between one isolated self and the lives that fill the surrounding cosmos as a low, baleful train whistle is heard in the distance to remind one of change and mortality. The poem's elegant sophistications of language are tempered a bit by the form they construct—an open-ended variation on the blues ballad of freight trains and lonely travel. “The Rain Guitar” is a silly bit of mythmaking, with Dickey as magic minstrel again, playing his regional music as an English fisherman helplessly dances in excitement. It is a throwback to the magical realism Dickey produced earlier, but its self-glorifications hardly seem naïve any longer.

Especially interesting is the poem “For the Death of Lombardi,” which is Dickey at his vintage best. In Lombardi Dickey finds a mystical Southern father—someone who drove the boys to manhood, who died and is lamented self-consciously in mythical terms as a source of Dickey's own manhood. His death by cancer is metaphorical of a terrible inexorability, which Dickey fears now that he is “middle-aged and gray.” Other fathers are listed in the lament: Paul Hornung, who “has withdrawn from me,” and George Patton, “who created armies” the way Lombardi “created us.” Lombardi is the archetypal coach. His death spells death for all he raised—“We're with you all the way / You're going forever, Vince.” It is followed, a bit too neatly, with “False Youth: Autumn: Clothes of the Age,” in which Dickey gets a haircut and is scorned by the barber as a “middle-aged hippie.” Upon leaving, he notices a youth wearing an embroidered jacket with a portentous figure on it:

                                                            eagle riding on his claws with a banner
Outstretched as the wings of my shoulders
                    Coming after me with his flag
          Disintegrating, his one eye raveling
                                        Out, filthy strings flying
                    From the white feathers, one wing nearly gone:
                                                                                Blind eagle but flying
                    Where I walk, where I stop with my fox
          Head at the glass to let the row of chairs spell it out
                    And get a lifetime look at my bird's
One word, raggedly blazing with extinction and soaring loose
                    In red threads burning up white until I am shot in the back
                                                            Through my wings or ripped apart
                                                                                                              For rags:

Mortality, old age, and death are the terms of this poetry, but Dickey seems to have found peace with himself. The poems are less shrill and frenzied; they balance once more on their plumb lines, the lines tapering and expanding as he packs all the music he can into their lumpy, jarring phrases. Some of the language reads like tongue-twisting elocution drills, but there are also somber themes that buoy up the dizzying lyric spells. In the closing poem of Part One, “Exchanges,” Dickey merges his words with lines from Joseph Trumbull Stickney, as both describe the California coast. The Stickney lines are romantic and reverent, while Dickey's are sober and realistic: together they merge the two halves of history—the beautiful wilderness, the gloomy sea of oil rigs and pollution. It ends on Dickey's most persistent theme: the human curse upon nature:

                              Nothing for me
                    Was solved. I wandered the beach
                    Mumbling to a dead poet
          In the key of A, looking for the rainbow
                              Of oil, and the doomed
Among fish.
                                                            —Let us speak softly of living.

The group of translations which closes The Central Motion bears the nervous title “Head-Deep in Strange Sounds: Free-Flight Improvisations from the un-English,” and offers some loose renderings of various poems. “I chose them nearly at random,” he tells us in his preface, but most are about old age, fate, a serene resignation to the way of things:

I am of shadow and of sun of the sun
                                                  Returning always,
And I laugh, silently.

“O death so dear to me” opens another poem. Beyond the theme of aging, there is another, more subliminal one: a longing for the animal realm:

                                                  I am tired of existing
As an animal of intelligence—
… Let us go back into the immense and soft-handed, double
Fire-bringing ignorance.

But Dickey is clever by half. He hasn't made his peace; he has found it through others and only cosigns their counsels through his own boisterous, rowdy American versions. His tone almost contradicts their emotions: “I play the hell-game / That dances on the horizon,” or “Raging with discovery like a prow / Into the oncoming Never.” He tells us through a Yevtushenko poem, “I'm not a damn thing but old,” but that “It's horrible to live / And even more horrible / not to live.”

The Central Motion is the waffling poetry of a major writer of the 1970s. It's a slim volume with a few very good poems in it; the rest is confusion and ramblings, awkward experiments and grim failures. It comes after a decade of remarkable successes and awards and was perhaps an inevitable falling off. The seventies were themselves unheroic and inward-looking, and their atmosphere wears off in this work. The view is almost always within, at failing health and waning convictions; it is a book about struggle and grief, arguments with the self, a desire to go on as the feet grow leaden. It is partly about being caught in one's own confected image, the duties that it imposes, which are false and wearying. Americans took to Dickey, even non-readers, who flocked to his readings. Sporting-goods manufacturers plied him with canoes and power bows, hoping for his endorsements. The book seems to sigh under the load of that publicity and vanity, as real things ensue—mortality, death of loved ones, illnesses, qualms, and fears. It is a book of thrashings and throes by a man who cannot easily face his aging. Unlike Lear, who reached an epiphany of sorts—that man is a bare, forked animal gripped by change—Dickey's voice keeps arguing alone in the dark, in thickets of confusion and ill humor, trying to find the drama and the lyric ebullience to somehow get through it. But all Dickey can argue here is that youth is everything—and to lose it is the only tragedy.

Gordon Van Ness (essay date 1989)

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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).

Yet, if examination of a single subject within Dickey's poetry invites misconception because of its specialized focus, it nevertheless may offer large insights, the possibility of identifying some unified field theory, as it were, by which to understand Dickey's “universe.” As Dickey himself notes regarding the whole question of identity, “one must work with such misconceptions for whatever hint of insight—the making of a truth—they may contain: that fragment of existence which could not be seen in any other way and may with great good luck, as in the best poetry, be better than the truth” (Night Hurdling xi). I wish to suggest, therefore, that in his early poetic treatment of women, Dickey consciously used mythic archetypes to depict what Joseph Campbell in The Hero With A Thousand Faces calls the Queen Goddess of the World. My discussion primarily centers on certain short, overlooked, or unexamined poems, both published and unpublished, in that longer works such as “Falling” and “May Day Sermon” have been numerously examined by critics and that, in any event, these poems also support my contention. In narrowing my topic and making this assertion, I am conscious that Dickey's image as macho or Byronic, what Calhoun and Hill refer to as his “sexual legendry” and “nearly Rabelaisian experiences” (138, 2), has influenced previous criticism and renders debatable any interpretation of, say, “The Earth Drum” or “A Morning,” two unpublished poems discussed below that are dominated by a distinctly male perspective.1

In an overlooked essay entitled “Complicity” and published in Night Hurdling (1983), Dickey notes the poet Paul Claudel's view of Woman as “the promise that cannot be kept,” and he then declares: “From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it—the real earth, and not just the enchanted fragment of it that blazes in the longing mind to furnish her setting—she becomes a hidden archetype to the beholder rendered god-like by her presence: his possession and promise, soulless and soulful at the same time, receding, flashing up with a terrible certainty at the most inopportune times that she then makes opportune” (217). Such a view of women as mythic incarnations of the female principle receives earlier attention in Dickey's discussion of his poem “The Enclosure.” Referring to the nurses the airmen saw in World War II as they were trucked to the awaiting planes, Dickey states: “they were unmistakenly women. They had the inaccessibility I've always deemed such an important part of the man-woman relationship: the idealization of woman. You can see this idea in many places, not just in my poems” (Self-Interviews 91). Dickey's comments suggest that he, and by extension all men, views women as idealized figures whose possibilities offer fulfillment, the end of male isolation and inadequacy and the completion of the self.

Dickey's years at Vanderbilt had exposed him to the works of such mythologists and anthropologists as Joseph Campbell, Sir James George Frazer, Jane Ellen Harrison, and W.H.R. River. Following his unrestricted readings of many of their books, he consciously began using myth as the basis of his poetry. Indeed, the bound, unpublished notebooks Dickey kept in the early Fifties, in which he sought to determine his poetic method, suggest the conscious employment of this perspective and, specifically, the idealization of mortal women into an archetype who promises larger, life-fulfilling knowledge. One entry, for example, asserts: “it is part of my job to show that physical sex-fulfillment is only the prelude to a greater hunger which is unappeasable, but which is related to the idealized image of sex.” Another notation states: “the inviolable virgin one longs for.” Another asks: “—are the mythic and the ‘true-to-experience’ irreconcilable? Are the archetypal + the ‘true-to-experience’?”2

In The Hero With A Thousand Faces Campbell characterizes the hero's rites of passage, the ultimate adventure of which occurs as “a mystical marriage of the hero-soul with the Queen Goddess of the World.” Campbell describes her as “mother, sister, mistress, bride. Whatever in the world has lured, whatever has seemed to promise joy, has been premonitory of her existence—in the deep of sleep, if not in the cities and forests of the world. For she is the incarnation of the promise of perfection; the soul's assurance that, at the conclusion of its exile in a world of shared inadequacies, the bliss that once was known will be known again” (111). Frazer in The Golden Bough refers to this incarnate female principle as the “great Mother Goddess, the personification of all the reproductive energies of nature” (385). Always associated with her is a lover who is divine yet mortal and with whom she unites. The Queen Goddess, however, as Campbell further details, soon becomes temptress: “The mystical marriage … represents the hero's total mastery of life; for the woman is life, the hero its knower and master. And the testings of the hero, which were preliminary to his ultimate experience and deed, were symbolical of those crises of realization by means of which his consciousness came to be amplified and made capable of enduring the full possession of the mother-destroyer, his inevitable bride” (120-121). Through her promise, in other words, the hero becomes fully actualized, his consciousness freed of all limitations; yet in the very process of uniting with the world, he experiences revulsion. Campbell asserts: “life, the acts of life, the organs of life, woman in particular as the great symbol of life, become intolerable to the pure, the pure, pure soul” (122). Woman transforms him into something greater than he was, but in doing so the hero becomes disillusioned that the real does not sustain his previous idealized image. Dickey himself perhaps best acknowledges this disparity when he asserts in Sorties: “The phantom women of the mind—I speak from the man's standpoint only—are a great deal more important than any real women could ever possibly be. They represent the Ideal, and as such are indestructible. It is quite arguable that poor mortal perishable women are as dust before these powerful and sensual creatures of the depths of one's being. I believe that no one can understand what it is to live a human life without understanding this, at least to some small degree” (4). For Dickey women are actualizing agents without whom men remain unfulfilled and for whom they seek because as ideal figures they offer larger possibilities.

First published in Poetry in 1959, “Into the Stone” suggests this mythic view of what Woman can effect. Dickey notes that the poem depicts “the quality of a love relationship” as the speaker approaches “the love object, the woman,” and that “not only the world of the person in love is changed by the new love relationship, but the whole universe is changed” (Self-Interviews 98). Calhoun and Hill assert that the poem shows love as “almost a naturalistic sacrament” (21), while Baughman states that love becomes “a principal means of countering death” (26). None of the criticism centers specifically on the woman, whose presence informs the poem though she herself never literally appears. Nor should she, for “Into the Stone” concerns itself with the liberating results of union on the hero. Cambell alludes to these effects when he describes the hero's approach to the Queen Goddess: “Woman, in the picture language of mythology, represents the totality of what can be known. The hero is the one who comes to know. As he progresses in the slow initiation which is life, the form of the goddess undergoes for him a series of transfigurations: she can never be greater than himself, though she can always promise more than he is capable of comprehending. She lures, she guides, she bids him burst his fetters. And if he can match her import, the two, the knower and the known, will be released from every limitation” (116). As he journeys “On the way to a woman,” the speaker in Dickey's poem comes “through the land between.” Their union has affected the natural world: “The moon turns around in the fix / Of its light.” But it has also transformed the hero: “Like the dead, I have newly arisen, / Amazed by the light I can throw. / Stand waiting, my love, where you are.” Possessed with new and larger powers, he knows “No thing that shall die as I step / May fall, or not sing of rebirth.” His quest has taken him “Very far from myself,” but as a consequence, “I am he who I should have become.” Amazed by his initiation into innate mysteries, the speaker knows that “The dead have their chance in my body.” The woman's complicity has transformed him, for “I am known; I know my love.” However, Dickey clearly wishes to suggest that the Queen Goddess throughout her series of transfigurations creates the speaker's greater awareness: “Each time, the moon has burned backward. / Each time, my heart has gone from me / And shaken the sun from the moonlight. / Each time, a woman has called.” The poem reveals Woman as a creature whose powerful attraction promises the man larger knowledge and initiation into natural mysteries.

Occasionally in his early poetry Dickey deliberately employs Christian myth to depict the archetypal Woman. Published in Drowning With Others (1962), “The Rib,” for example, though its focus is on kinship with the natural world, alludes to Adam and Eve: “A rib in my right side speaks / To me more softly / Than Eve,” whom the poet describes as “the bidden, unfreeable shape / Of my own unfinished desire / For life, for death and the Other.” Here Woman becomes the means through which the speaker figuratively dies and whose symbolic rebirth promises larger understanding of those processes, specifically death, which govern the world. Another poem, “Eden,” an unpublished manuscript in the Washington University Special Collections, also focuses on the Genesis myth. Fifteen typed pages long in its last-completed draft, it concerns creativity generally; however, the poem specifically presents the story of a painter of pornographic pictures dying of encephalitis who decides to combine sex and religion into one final portrait of Eden. Dickey's notes for the poem read in part: “We should start with Adam himself, coming into being color by color. Eve is also coming. What is gradually revealed is their relationship to the man who is conceiving them—somewhat like God may be supposed to have conceived them—out of sickness and chance and death.” Dickey writes of Eve's appearance on the canvas, “a woman this time / Taking form, her whole body / Weeping-red, as if skinned alive, / Just born of her man. The one in all time / Equal to his desire.” Later, her form complete, she “quivers / With affirmation of being” and then “Eden is accomplished in this room.” Again, it is the archetypal woman, Eve, whose presence signifies wholeness.

In what is Dickey's only published poem whose title is a woman's name, “Mary Sheffield,” first published in Shenandoah in 1964, provides another example of how Dickey attributes larger, life-sustaining qualities to a woman; through her, the man realizes new knowledge. The poem depicts a speaker who, “Forever at war news,” stands thinking in the “low green of water” by the river's bank. It is “the last day but one before world war,” and he is conscious of the water's running, “quietly carving / red rocks,” and of time's passage which in retrospect will soon reveal a cataclysm of violence and death. Nearby Mary Sheffield sings, “sustained in the poured forms of live oaks / taking root.” Both she and her song belong to nature: “When the slight wind dies / each leaf still has two places / such music touched alive.” Her singing suddenly, intimately, involves the physical world: “all things spread sail sounds gather / on blunt stone streaming white / E minor gently running.” Discovering himself involved with her, “loving Mary Sheffield / for her chord changes,” the speaker figuratively joins with her by sitting down in the river. His transformation happens quickly; he is freed from time: “anywhere water flows the breastplate of time / rusts off me sounds green forms low voice / new music long long / past.” Mary Sheffield's singing becomes the means by which the narrator achieves a heightened understanding of the unchanging processes inherent in the natural world.

Dickey's idealization of Woman does not ignore the reality lived by mortal females. Behind the archetype, he declares, are “real women, giving to the ideal the substance it requires from the lived world, and serving to make more powerful and imperious those all-powerful creatures of the depths of our being, the slaves of our needs who enslave us” (Night Hurdling 217). That “lived world,” however, is not only one dominated by unrealizable male expectations but also by death and suffering. Both “The Leap” and “The Scarred Girl” reflect Dickey's awareness that “taking on the mortal and identifying flesh without which all ideals die” (Night Hurdling 217) necessitates confronting finitude. First published in Poems 1957-1967 (1967), “The Leap” concerns a woman who “married a man whom she didn't get along with, had his children, and eventually committed suicide because of it” (Self-Interviews 172). Obviously affected by what he states was an actual situation, Dickey uses her suicide to suggest a previous leap in the seventh grade, “when boys were beginning / To be as big as the girls.” Then, Jane MacNaughton before a dance jumped up and “touched the end / Of one of the paper-ring decorations / To see if she could reach it. She could.” Now, years later, having seen pictured in the paper the body of Jane MacNaughton Hill on the top of a taxi, “lying cradled / In that papery steel as though lying in the grass,” the speaker realizes she has “reached me now as well.” Caught and betrayed by “some boy who did not depend / On speed of foot,” the speaker's classmate has reached through the years with “her light, earth-spurning feet” to show him at last the nature of relationships, what Dickey himself calls “the results of her being a woman” (Self-Interviews 172). Humbled by the fact that “My feet are nailed to the ground,” the narrator, now with larger understanding, knows “Whatever it proves when you leap / In a new dress, a new womanhood, among the boys.” The poem, while it idealizes a woman, also displays an awareness of the reality of an ephemeral world.

Similarly, “The Scarred Girl,” published in New Yorker in 1963, reflects Dickey's awareness of what being a woman means, in this instance this culture's worship of physical beauty. Interpreting an incident that happened while he attended North Fulton High School, Dickey depicts “a girl who was the prettiest girl in Atlanta, by far. She was not pretty in a sexy way, but she had a Madonna-like beauty” (Self-Interviews 130). In an automobile accident her face shattered the windshield and, despite years of plastic surgery, “She never looked anything like she had before” (Self-Interviews 131). In the poem the girl worries that “the bright, fractured world,” momentarily whole before her face breaks the glass, now “Burns and pulls and weeps / To come together again.” She desires to have “The pastures of earth and heaven / Restored and undamaged, the cattle / Risen out of their jagged graves / To walk in the seamless sunlight / And a newborn countenance / Put upon everything.” Her selflessness and her inner, spiritual beauty elevate her and provide the narrator with a new knowledge of what womanhood should be. In his explanation of the poem, Dickey declares: “I had been reading in Plato about the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. This girl was true—although she seemed almost too good to be true—and good and beautiful she surely had been. It struck me that when a woman who is only beautiful loses her beauty through an accident or through age, she has had literally everything taken away from her. But she had this marvelous resource of being good, too. So … as I say at the end of the poem, that is now ‘the only way'” (Self-Interviews 131). With “good no nearer, but plainly / In sight,” the girl with her final transfiguration assumes the transcendent quality of Campbell's Queen Goddess.

Dickey's concern with relationships, manifested in such otherwise unrelated works as “In the Treehouse at Night” and “Hunting Civil War Relics at Nimblewill Creek,” also appears in poems focusing specifically on men and women, among them “Adultery” and “The Fiend.” Incautious critics have particularly attacked these latter poems, which sexually idealize women. Commenting on “Adultery,” which was published in Nation in 1966, Dickey writes: “As I get older I write more and more about sex. Adultery seems to me to be the most potentially beautiful and fruitful relationship between men and women, and also the most calamitous and destructive. … Not love with responsibility, but love without responsibility; just sex and being together like it is in the movies and in the popular songs of the forties where it's all lovely and there are no troubles connected with it. This is not an unworthy ideal, nor is it contemptible. It can result in some bad human situations and has, doubtless, many times, and will again. But if you are willing to pay the price of anxiety and possible disgrace, an adulterous situation is frequently, for a very short period of time, absolutely glorious” (Self-Interviews 166). Calhoun and Hill blatantly declare: “Although ‘Adultery’ makes an effort to portray evenhandedly the anxious passions of the man and the woman, [it is] powerfully male-dominant” (32). While told from the male perspective, however, the poem neither celebrates nor condemns adultery. Rather it shows its human dimension, the fact that “Gigantic forepleasure lives / Among such scenes, and we are alone with it,” that “we would not give / It up, for death is beaten,” and that “Guilt is magical.” Dickey's intent centers on the momentary enhancement of the act for both the man and the woman, not on its ethics. The poem manifests his belief that even in an illicit affair, the nature of which is usually transitory, women become elevated to a status that renders them life-enhancing. Dickey's narrator recognizes that despite his guilt, he will not end the relationship because “One could never die here.” While the male voice dominates, it is the woman's unspoken presence that informs the poem, rendering the speaker more conscious of himself, the setting, and others.

Regarding “The Fiend,” first published in the Partisan Review in 1965, Dickey observes: “I think the idealization of women is indigenous to men. There are various ways of idealizing women, especially sexually, based in almost every case on their inaccessibility. … But when a woman functions as an unobtainable love object, then she takes on a mythological quality” (Self-Interviews 153). Exploring a deviant aspect of the male tendency to view a woman as transcendent, the poem depicts a voyeur who climbs a tree by an apartment house to watch secretly while a woman undresses and then showers. It suggests that, continually frustrated at not being able to behold her, the voyeur will eventually enter her room and knife her to death. Commenting on the fiend himself, Dickey asserts: “It's important to the voyeur to have an invisibility that enables him to function in kind of a God-like way, as though he could be present at any scene, sexually or otherwise, that he wished to be present at” (Self-Interviews 153). Dickey's poetic intent also included the idea “that women, with their great hunger to be idealized, might feel something of this extreme, concentrated idealism coming in from the night where the voyeur in the tree would be having his transports of ecstasy. The woman would feel that she was on a kind of stage, and it would be a wonderful sexual experience for her. Because she's not being just looked at; she's being beheld, which is different” (Self-Interviews 154). Specifically, “The Fiend” examines the positions of power from which men and women view each other: the ability or need of the former to control events, whom he sees and when, while maintaining invisibly “some all-seeing eye / Of God”; and the desire of the latter to demand that attention, to stand and “move like a saint,” “Uncontrollable,” a “blaze of uncompromised being.” The poem should not be viewed principally, as Calhoun and Hill do, for its “ability to teeter on the brink of perversity and yet hold balance enough to maintain readers' interest and empathy” (71). The woman becomes Campbell's Queen Goddess whose “movement can restore the green eyes / Of middle age looking renewed.” That Dickey's concerns are inaccessibility, idealization, and fantasy, and not sexual degradation, are shown not only by the poem's title but also by his statement that “I'm fighting very hard, as I think everybody else ought to be fighting, against the notion of sex as mere meat” (Self-Interviews 168).

Two other early poems, “The Earth Drum” and “A Morning,” both unpublished, illustrate that Dickey's portrayal of women should almost always be viewed within the larger context of myth and myth-making: the idealization of mortal females into an archetype and the hero's subsequent view that the woman, symbol of life and source of the hero's power, finally “falls” because her own flesh, her own desires, condemn her as unworthy. Written in the late 1940s after Dickey had graduated from Vanderbilt and was teaching at Rice University in Houston, Texas, “The Earth Drum” is clearly an apprentice work. It depicts the marriage ceremony of an unnamed protagonist, seemingly Tarzan, to a woman who “solely merits gleam / Glenned and mooned.” As Dickey searched for a technique and style to deliver best certain aspects of myth, his language sometimes became imitative and inflated, even abstract, but it nevertheless retained the influence of his readings in mythology and anthropology. Exhorting the animals to “Rise ever … to his carnal coming,” the speaker urges that they “warp him to the ritual where / Lyricks on diamond joints beyond his muddy thumbing / The chaste and frost-cut queller.” With his “unsubtle, shagged and plexus-dweller / Brow,” Tarzan approaches the one who “curvets the void / Bequeathed by the latest girl his hands misplace / Upon bedevilled dark.” Here the woman promises an understanding presently beyond the “Evangel anthropoid” because previous incarnations of the Queen Goddess have failed to sustain him.

Focusing on the hero's enlightenment as a consequence of the woman's inability, finally, to maintain her ideality, “A Morning,” presently in the Washington University Special Collections, presents a speaker who is walking on the beach and whose nearby dog “surroundingly howls.” The dog senses change and reacts to it: “Painfully he is changing / His voice from a voice for the moon / To the voice he has for the sun.” The sun's more glaring reality implies that for the man new knowledge has come reluctantly, a lessening of possibilities inherent in the moon's more suggestive light. The speaker reaches into the water and picks up “a piece of the sea / To feel how a tall girl has swum / Yesterday in it too deeply.” Because she was “below the light,” the woman has become “More naked than Eve in the Garden.” The speaker's physical connection to and emotional participation with the sea links him again to this lost woman such that his “hands are shining with fever.” Yet the memory of the girl and the knowledge she has brought him provide the speaker with an understanding of what change means. He realizes the “long, changing word of the dog” and “the pain when the sun came up / For the first time on angel-shut gates / In its rays set closer than teeth.” The poem does not specify the nature of the narrator's relationship to the woman or what actually happened to her, whether she drowned or whether her death was figurative. Rather, “A Morning” presents Dickey's imaginative attempt to understand an archetypal situation in which the hero's fulfillment requires the loss of the woman.

This idealization of mortal women pervades Dickey's early poetry and noticeably appears in all his volumes, including Puella (1982), his full statement on this theme. The book's pointed epigraph, T. Sturge Moore's lines, “I lived in thee, and dreamed, and waked / Twice what I had been,” suggests Dickey's continuing belief in Woman as a source of life-enhancing possibilities. More important, however, Puella attempts to present Deborah's girlhood “male-imagined.” Taken together, the poems trace her maturation and reveal her heightened consciousness of the world, including her kinship with the elements of fire, air, earth, and water, and her growing knowledge of human relationships. The first-person point of view, in lyric poems that only in composite yield any real sense of “story,” along with a technique that offers reality through simultaneous, intuited images or associations, gives the book a psychological depth and richness not derived from Dickey's previous narrative methods.

The involved technique is important, for the images Deborah conveys evoke an emotional complex inherent in certain narrative points in time that increasingly seem timeless, that is to say, mythical, presenting the simultaneous penetration of worlds—male and female, present and past, transcendent and physical. Deborah understands, as she reflects in “The Lyric Beasts,” that Woman is “a body out-believing existence: / The shining of perfection, the myth-chill” and that “One form may live from another.” She enjoins the men who “witness” her to “Rise and on faith / Follow. It is better that I should be; / Be what I am not, and I am.” Given the reality of mortal men and women, Deborah knows that “Controlled, illusory fire is best / For us.” In the imaginations of men, who are “Young outriders of the Absolute,” she is “hurled and buried.” Yet if men require idealized women, mortal females also need men to achieve completion, for Deborah in “The Lode” recognizes her inherent inadequacy: “Teach me / And learn me, wanderer: every man-jack rain-soaked and vital / To the bone.” Male sexual potency releases her yet confirms her own heightened role. She thinks in “Deborah in Mountain Sound: Bell, Glacier, Rose”: “With one glance, one instant / Crystallization / Of an eyelash she is set, the mason's rose / Of ice sculpture in her fist, / Her image flash-frozen, unmerited / And radiant in the making-fluid of men.” At the end of Puella, having undergone a series of transfigurations, Deborah finally becomes the Surround, and “With half of my first child, / With invention unending,” she achieves mythic dimensions, a creature more her creation than that of men. The book's concluding poem, “Summons,” using an italicized refrain reminiscent of Dickey's earliest works, offers her vision both of herself and her world and a pronouncement whose utter simplicity suggests intuitive knowledge: “Have someone be nearing.

In his early notebooks written almost forty years ago, Dickey declares: “It is the task of poetry to find and articulate the archetypal individual (or, possibly, racial) vision, examine it, determine (or arrive at a tentative, or even assign one) its meaning, + make this meaning available.” His poetry has done just that, presenting the inherent male tendency to mythologize Woman, to render her transcendent, the source of possibility and the means through which he fully realizes his potential in a world whose larger mysteries have been revealed. Only by means of the Queen Goddess can the mythic hero finally complete his rites of passage.


  1. I am indebted to Professor Calhoun Winton of the University of Maryland and Professor Joyce Pair, editor of the James Dickey Newsletter, for making a copy of “The Earth Drum” known and accessible. Professor Winton states Dickey gave him sometime during or shortly before 1949. “A Morning” presently resides in Washington University Special Collections.

  2. The unpublished early notebooks are on deposit at the South Caroliniana Library of the University of South Carolina. Access is restricted. Material from James Dickey's notebooks may not be reprinted without his permission.

Works Cited

Baughman, Ronald. Understanding James Dickey. Columbia, SC.: U of South Carolina P, 1985.

Calhoun, Richard J., and Robert W. Hill. James Dickey. Boston: Twayne, 1983.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1968.

Dickey, James. Drowning With Others. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1962.

———. Night Hurdling. Columbia, SC and Bloomfield Hills, MI: Bruccoli Clark, 1983.

———. Poems 1957-1967. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1967.

———. Puella. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1982.

———. Self-Interviews. Ed. Barbara and James Reiss. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970.

———. Sorties. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1982.

Frazer, Sir James George. The Golden Bough. 1 Vol. Abridged Edition. New York: Macmillan, 1951.

Kirschten, Robert. James Dickey and the Gentle Ecstasy of Earth: A Reading of the Poems. Baton Rouge: Lousiana State UP, 1988.

Richard Tillinghast (review date 1992)

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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 thriving perennial in the field of literary gossip. I could without straining my memory probably tell you a dozen of these stories—most of them really funny, and many of them bearing at least some relation to the truth—and so, I imagine, could many readers of this review. But his lifestyle is not the only reason Dickey has become the most visible southern writer of his day. His interests in the backcountry survivalist movement, in whitewater canoeing, and in bow hunting have dovetailed with regional and national rediscovery of the wilderness.

The enormously popular movie made from his novel Deliverance made Dickey visible to all sorts of people who don't read contemporary poetry—as well as to people who don't read much of anything other than People magazine, Stephen King, and TV Guide. When Jimmy Carter, a president who in retrospect looks better and better all the time, chose his fellow Georgian to deliver a poem at his inauguration, Dickey took on the ceremonial role in Washington that Robert Frost played in John F. Kennedy's presidency. By the mid-seventies Dickey had become so much of a legend that we tended to forget he was, before anything else, a superb and stunningly original poet. Few poets who began writing in the sixties—certainly few southern poets—can credibly claim not to have been influenced by James Dickey. I gladly include myself as someone who has read, loved, and probably unconsciously imitated his poetry ever since I came under its spell over thirty years ago.

A delightful and unexpected feature of The Whole Motion is the inclusion of almost fifty pages of uncollected poetry written before Dickey's first book, Into the Stone. Here we see a less flamboyant poet than the one we would come to know later, but the general outlines of his style and his ruling preoccupations are already recognizable. One of these early poems, “The Sprinter at Forty,” introduces a figure Dickey would return to throughout his work: the over-the-hill athlete. Sports, competitive sports in particular, are emblematic of life and youth for this poet who has often spoken proudly of his college football days at Clemson University, and has written about them notably in “The Bee” from Falling, May Day Sermon, and Other Poems. In “The Sprinter at Forty,” the speaker states, “I receive the wish to live more / Which nothing but motion can answer” (a formulation that resonates with the word “motion” in the title of the entire collection). In an intellectual climate where football has been thought of as a “proto-fascist” activity, Dickey's identification with the sport has allowed him to put his finger on the pulse of our culture, because the competitive athlete is the American male's favorite fantasy hero. Dickey turns the superannuated athlete into a quintessentially American figure of pathos.

Yet Dickey avoids glorifying the athlete, presenting him instead as put-upon, often injured, under attack, as in “In the Pocket,” subtitled “NFL”, from Eye-Beaters: “hit move scramble,” goes the quarterback's interior monologue, “Before death and the ground / Come up LEAP STAND KILL DIE STRIKE / Now.” “For the Death of Lombardi,” from The Strength of Fields, shows how fully—in contrast to other poets, some of whom have tended to detach themselves from commercialized American culture—Dickey has operated within that culture. He has provided a point of intersection for the hero and the victim, one whose voice often enough is the American football fan's. Speaking for them, “those who entered the bodies / of Bart Starr, Donny Anderson, Ray Nitschke, Jerry Kramer / Through the snowing tube on Sunday afternoon,” Dickey mourns the Green Bay Packers' legendary coach:

                                                                                … We stand here among
                                                                      Discarded TV commercials:
          Among beer-cans and razor-blades and hair-tonic bottles,
                    Stinking with male deodorants: we stand here
                                                            Among teeth and filthy miles
          Of unwound tapes, novocaine needles, contracts, champagne
Mixed with shower-water, unraveling elastic, bloody faceguards …

In The Eagle's Mile, Dickey's most recent book, the celebration of “False Youth” is replayed in an overblown Whitmanian romp called “The Olympian,” where, after an afternoon spent drinking Olympia beer, Dickey spoofs his own fantasy, imagining a race between himself, in his “hilarious, pizza-fed fury,” and an Olympic champion:

                                                                                          … O hot, just hurdlable gates
                    Of deck-chairs! Lounges! A measured universe
          Of exhilarating laws! Here I had come          there I'd gone
                                        Laying it down confusing, staggering
                                        The fast lane and the slow, on and over
And over recliners, sun-cots, cleaning-poles and beach-balls …

In his early poems Dickey did not throw himself into the seductive punch bowl of contemporary American culture. He lived and wrote at one remove from all that, in the world of his own vision. In the very first poem in the collection, “The Baggage King,” where the pile of soldiers' luggage on an island in the Pacific rises “Like the hill of a dead king,” Dickey's predisposition to see experience in terms of ritual announces itself. The mythic dimension in his poetry has always exercised a strong attraction for me, and it shows both his continuity with and his break from older poets such as T. S. Eliot and Allen Tate and even poets closer to his own age such as Robert Lowell. These poets were drawn explicitly to religious conversion, and tried to adumbrate their sense of larger significances behind everyday events by reference to classical mythology. Their evocations of the Greek and Roman myths could take the form, in Donald Hall's parodic account of the period, “of long poems in iambics called ‘Herakles: A Double Sestina'”; or they could be subtle and exquisite, as in the last two quatrains of John Crowe Ransom's “Vision by Sweetwater”:

Let them alone, dear Aunt, just for one minute
Till I go fishing in the dark of my mind:
Where have I seen before, against the wind,
These bright virgins, robed and bare of bonnet,
Flowing with music of their strange quick tongue
And adventuring with delicate paces by the stream,—
Myself a child, old suddenly at the scream
From one of the white throats it hid among?

The early Dickey has more in common with Ransom than meets the eye—especially since the similarities of vision are obscured by strong differences not only of diction and versification, but of intent. (Ransom was, by the way, a Cleveland Browns fan, but a poem by him on professional football is unthinkable.) Dickey has never wanted to write just for the highly educated elite whom Ransom appealed to, but for the mass American audience.

But the personal myths of which I was speaking came to Dickey, it would seem, either from reading about pantheistic religions and fertility cults or simply from an intuitive sense of how well their way of seeing things triggered his own imagination. Watching the movie Black Robe recently, I was reminded by a simplified description of the Algonquian version of the afterlife—“At night in the woods the souls of dead people hunt the souls of dead animals”—of Dickey's “Heaven of the Animals,” where not human hunters but animals hunt other animals: “These hunt, as they have done, / But with claws and teeth grown perfect, // More deadly than they can believe.” Dickey's treatment of the fate of the victims might suggest a certain callousness toward others' pain, but I think it is more accurately seen as a mystical view of the world wherein predation and suffering are subsumed within an all-inclusive unity, where:

… those that are hunted
Know this as their life,
Their reward: to walk
Under such trees in full knowledge
Of what is in glory above them,
And to feel no fear,
But acceptance, compliance.
Fulfilling themselves without pain
At the cycle's center …

“The Owl King,” one of the first Dickey poems I read, sublimates the predatory instinct in a similar way: “I felt the hooked tufts on my head / Enlarge, and dream like a crown.” Here Dickey may be very close to intuiting how the raw power of feudal overlords became ritualized into the institution of kingship.

The Owl King must have represented at the same time a version of himself. I first met Dickey at the home of Monroe and Betty Spears in Sewanee, Tennessee, in about 1960, roughly the time this poem would have been written. Spears, who introduced me to modern poetry at Sewanee, was the professor at Vanderbilt whom Dickey credits with firing his enthusiasm for poetry when he entered graduate school after being discharged from the Air Force after World War II. In 1960 Dickey was still writing advertising copy in Atlanta for Coca-Cola—selling his soul to the devil by day, as he liked to put it, and buying it back at night by writing at the kitchen table of his suburban house, inventing himself as a poet. I can picture him there: “I in the innermost shining / Of my blazing, invented eyes.” In “The Vegetable King,” from Into the Stone, the poet explicitly becomes a king—the king of fertility cults, who dies with the dying year to be reborn with the spring. Here, “From my house and my silent folk / I step, and lay me in ritual down,” the poet writes, “One night each April.” He wills himself into ritual death and renewal, “And begin to believe a dream / I never once have had / Of being part of the acclaimed rebirth / Of the ruined, calm world, in spring …”

Many of the poems from this period celebrate the act of willed possession, wherein the self is overtaken by the dream of kingship seen in “The Vegetable King,” or where the blind child in “The Owl King” from Drowning with Others receives his summons, delivered in the incantatory three- and four-beat anapestic line that Dickey wrote so beautifully in his early books:

Through the trees, with the moon underfoot,
More soft than I can, I call.
I hear the king of the owls sing
Where he moves with my son in the gloom.
My tongue floats off in the darkness …

This call, this summons to a transformed reality, is always, in addition to whatever else it might be, the poem's summons, the siren song of the Muse or White Goddess. Dickey makes it quite clear that the call to poetic ecstasy, like the annunciation of kingship in the fertility rite, brings with it the threat of extinction, just as the Vegetable King, returning to his wife and family, “bears you home / Magnificent pardon” but also “dread, impending crime.” “A Dog Sleeping on My Feet,” from Drowning with Others, recounts the summons specifically in terms of possession by the poem, and in an image of the crucifixion and a glancing echo of the rhetoric of the King James Bible (“Marvelous is the pursuit”), evokes the psychic peril of inspiration:

The poem is beginning to move
Up through my pine-prickling legs
Out of the night wood,
Taking hold of the pen by my fingers.
Before me the fox floats lightly,
On fire with his holy scent.
All, all are running.
Marvelous is the pursuit,
Like a dazzle of nails through the ankles …

It may be that Dickey's greatest work still lay ahead of him at this point, but I wonder if he ever again achieved the exquisite purity, the Botticelli-like sense of sanctity, of the poems he wrote in the late-night isolation of the Atlanta suburbs.

The inclusion of the uncollected early poems makes clear how essential this kind of psychic self-immolation (I feel uncomfortable with my own ponderous language here, but it's hard to put it more simply) was to Dickey in the early days. “Drifting,” a marvelous poem I had never seen before, dramatizes the process of leaving the self behind—using a metaphor perhaps borrowed from Rimbaud's “Le Bateau Ivre”:

                                        It is worth it to get
Down there under the seats, stretched believingly out
                                        With your feet together,
Thinking of nothing but the smell of bait and the sky
                                        And the bow coming
To a point and the stern squared off until doomsday.

The metaphor may be Rimbaud's, but the details are very southern, with the idiomatic overkill of prepositions in “get / Down there under the seats” and the grandeur of the viewed sky undermined by the “smell of bait.” Rimbaud in a bass boat!

If you can imagine this poem in the oeuvre of one of his contemporaries—Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, or Anne Sexton, to construct an implausible “for instance”—then this voyage would suggest suicide:

Once in a lifetime a man must empty his pockets
                                                            On the bank of a river,
Take out two monogrammed handkerchiefs and tie them
                                                  To the oars stuck in the sand:
These mark the edge of the known …

This represents no death wish, however, but rather the poet's wish to leave his personality behind, and to float as Keats does—“Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards, / But on the viewless wings of Poesy.”

If one thinks of Dickey's suburban pastoral as an idyll he entered gladly, gratefully, after the war, still the war continued to haunt him—a process that is especially clear in Helmets (1964). In the poem “Drinking from a Helmet,” the GI poet, by drinking from the helmet of a man he imagines to have been killed, takes on that man's identity: “I stood as though I possessed / A cool, trembling man / Exactly my size, swallowed whole.” This is an image of the warrior who must go back to his peace-time world and live the life of the civilian, all the time carrying within him the man who has fought, has managed to avoid being killed, has himself perhaps killed.

In Buckdancer's Choice, winner of the National Book Award in 1965 and the third of the astonishing trio of books that began in 1962 with Drowning with Others, Dickey addressed the dilemma of the returned warrior in one of his most controversial poems, eight pages long, “The Firebombing.” The speaker in the poem, a comfortable yet uneasy suburbanite, tries in the midst of a typical middle-class life spent paying bills, mowing the lawn, and fretting about his receding hairline to come to terms with his experiences as a fighter pilot who carried out “anti-morale” napalm bombing runs against Japanese civilian targets. Memories of the firebombings intrude themselves just at the edges of quotidian concerns, cropping up as “fire” in the word “firewood” does in a broken line in this passage that describes his suburban home: “Where the lawn mower rests on its laurels”—the clichéd wording hinting at its owner's less than acute state of mind:

Where the diet exists
For my own good          where I try to drop
Twenty years, eating figs in the pantry
Blinded by each and all
Of the eye-catching cans that gladly have caught my wife's eye
Until I cannot say
Where the screwdriver is where the children
Get off the bus where the fly
Hones his front legs          where the hammock folds
Its erotic daydreams          where the Sunday
School text for the day has been put          where the fire
Wood is          where the payments
For everything under the sun
Pile peacefully up …

In 1967 Robert Bly, speaking from the pulpit of his influential magazine, The Sixties, castigated the poem in a vitriolic essay called “The Collapse of James Dickey.” His main contention was that “‘Firebombing’” (note how leaving “The” out of the title changes its meaning) “makes no real criticism of the American habit of firebombing Asians.” Bly was demanding that the poem's subject should be not the ambivalence felt by one particular pilot toward his own actions, but rather that the poem should become a kind of editorial against all American military action in Asia, with the premise that the war in the South Pacific against the Japanese was identical to the war against North Vietnam. Dickey once wrote that we live “in the age of the moral putdown,” and after attacks like Bly's, he was in a position to know. In abandoning any notion of aesthetic evaluation of poetry and insisting it become propaganda for the critic's political beliefs, Bly was ahead of his time—since his approach has become dogma among the Politically Correct theorists who now dominate academia. Bly condemns the poem because it displays “no real anguish. If the anguish were real, we would feel terrible remorse as we read, we would stop what we were doing, we would break the television set with an ax, we would throw ourselves on the ground sobbing.”

I have addressed myself mainly to poems from the first part of Dickey's Whole Motion—the first 240 pages of a 475-page collection—because these are the poems that speak to me most strongly. While writing this piece I have reached for my original Wesleyan Poetry Series paperbacks of Drowning with Others,Helmets, and Buckdancer's Choice to remind me of the sense of discovery I got reading these books almost thirty years ago. Even the atrocious cover art of these books bespeaks an awkward sincerity, reminiscent of Baptist Sunday School teachers' instruction manuals. I have never been as enthusiastic about Dickey's work from Falling, May Day Sermon, and Other Poems on. In his introduction to Falling, May Day Sermon, and Other Poems, Dickey writes of designing “an on-end block or wall of words, solid or almost solid, black with massed ink, through which a little light from behind would come at intermittent places.” And that for me is part of the problem. The wall of words, like the famous “wall of sound” introduced into Top 40 music by Phil Spector, seems to sacrifice some of the quieter, more subtle effects Dickey achieved in his earlier writings.

In poems like “Falling,” Dickey tries to imitate a motion whose sweep outruns the ability of his language to keep up with it. “The Sheep Child,” one of his most notorious (I use the word in its original, not its People magazine sense) poems, narrated by a dead half-human, half-sheep fetus pickled in alcohol in a museum in Atlanta, strikes me as southern grotesquerie gone over the limit. “Adultery,” on the other hand, dares to treat the same fine line between originality and questionable taste (or am I sounding like Robert Bly?); yet it succeeds, because one thing that Dickey is not is a hypocrite. “Encounter in the Cage Country” continues this remarkable poet's intuitive interaction with the natural world, but I prefer the poems where Dickey goes out to meet the animals on their own turf, not in the London Zoo. Maybe I heard too many sermons when I was a boy, but I flip the pages of “May Day Sermon to the Women of Gilmer County, Georgia, by a Woman Preacher Leaving the Baptist Church” just as I flip my car radio dial past the Sunday morning sermons. The Zodiac may capture with perfect verisimilitude the drunken ravings of a poet with an unusual imagination; but I've been there myself sufficiently often to know that a little drunken raving goes a long way.

Having said that, and not having even ventured a glance in the direction of Dickey's achievements as a literary critic and novelist, I think there are many fine things in the later parts of The Whole Motion. Dickey's elegy for Vince Lombardi I have already cited. “The Rain Guitar” from The Strength of Fields, where Dickey sits in the rain by an English stream near Winchester Cathedral playing the guitar (he is of course a virtuoso picker) while an Englishman with a wooden leg casts for trout, is as tight, as inspired, as jaunty as anything he has ever written. The poem ends:

                                                                                I was Air Force,
                                        I said. So was I; I picked
This up in Burma, he said, tapping his gone leg
          With his fly rod, as Burma and the South
          west Pacific and North Georgia reeled,
Rapped, cast, chimed, darkened and drew down
                              Cathedral water, and improved.

The reeling (of the fly reel, and the reel Dickey is playing on the guitar), the rapping (on the wooden leg, as well as the word in its sixties sense), the chiming (of the two men's war experiences, along with the Cathedral bells) synchronize magically.

“A good poet,” Randall Jarrell wrote in a much-quoted passage on Wallace Stevens from Poetry and the Age, “is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is a great.” Less often quoted is the way the paragraph begins: “Some of my readers may feel about all this [Jarrell's remarks on Stevens' Auroras of Autumn] … ‘Shouldn't the Mature poet be producing late masterpieces even better than the early ones?’. … All such questions show how necessary it is to think of the poet as somebody who has prepared himself to be visited by a daemon, as a sort of accident-prone worker to whom poems happen. …” Dickey is, in this sense, surpassingly, sublimely accident-prone. May he continue to stand out in thunderstorms, wearing his famous denim jacket with the eagle embroidered on it, so that we, like the barbershop rednecks in “False Youth: Autumn: Clothes of the Age,” can:

                                                            get a lifetime look at my bird's
One word, raggedly blazing with extinction and soaring loose
          In red threads burning up white until I am shot in the back
                                                  Through my wings          or ripped apart
                                                                                          For rags:

Gordon Van Ness (essay date 1992)

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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 meaning or showing the strange and extraordinary as safe and even life-enhancing. Whatever the experience presented, it must exhibit an arresting significance. Illustrations are not only comprehensible but also evoke emotional identification, allowing for the large exercise of the reader's imagination and an intense personal response. Like the text, they provide a vital, wholesome perspective by which to understand life. Taken together, words and pictures constitute an integrated, complex work of visual art, with each aspect creating conditions of dependence and interdependence. The text and the illustrations cohere and complement one another such that the book's format and layout are, finally, an aesthetic, psychological, and intellectual consideration.

Tucky the Hunter and Bronwen, the Traw, and the Shape-Shifter exhibit certain of these qualities, but each is flawed. Bronwen, which Dickey labels “A Poem in Four Parts,” is the more complex in character and plot, the more dramatic, and the more likely to intrigue both adults and children. However, while the black-and-white drawings by Richard Jesse Watson are intricately detailed, they not so much complement the poem as establish a counter-claim to the reader's interest. By contrast, the pastel sketches by Marie Angel in Tucky the Hunter more delicately cohere with the text rather than confront it, but the plot is simple and the protagonist's adventure mostly static. With both books, reviewers failed to offer substantive analysis, their commentary often revealing only the most general knowledge of Dickey's poetic themes. Logue (1979), for instance, declares that Tucky the Hunter celebrates the imagination of Dickey's grandson, his “oneness with the animal kingdom and his popgun” (68), as he hunts and shoots in his bed the world's wild creatures. Angel's paintings thoroughly detail the natural world, and the collaboration of poem and paintings seems “arrested in mid-flight of fantasy” (68). Johnston (1978) considers the work another successful example of Dickey's collaborative efforts with visual artists, which has produced such books as Jericho: The South Beheld (1974) and God's Images (1977). The rhymes “trip along drolly” (88), and the water colors display “imagination and sensitivity” (88). Kirkus Reviews (1978) provides the most condemnatory overview, calling the verses “forgettable” (917). Unlike other critics, the reviewer compares Tucky with works by authors of noted children's literature, including Maurice Sendak and A. A. Milne. Dickey's subject is “suburban nighttime exploits” (917), but the book lacks Sendak's poise and the conclusion is too obvious and reassuring. Tucky is “kind of slippery for children, too slight for adults” (917). Angel's delicate illustrations, while striking, overwhelm the meager text, which, unlike Milne, is “mismatched to the mock-serious tone of the poem” (917). In their later bio-critical study, Calhoun and Hill (1983) discern familiar Dickey themes of hunting and a spiritual exchange with nature, citing the line, “They sang in mystic double-tongue, the tongue of man and beast.” Also evident from Dickey's mature poetry is the presence of the suburbs. Because Tucky the Hunter offers nothing poetically innovative, Calhoun and Hill declare only that the book “seems to work” (101) with its limitations, but they neither analyze these themes nor attempt to compare their use with the mature poems.

Skinner (1979) remains the only critical essay focusing on Dickey's first children's book, though its brevity is indicative of the academic response to Dickey's efforts in this area. Tucky matures as a result of his experiences, which includes imaginary visits not only to places like Alaska, the Philippines, and Africa, but also to “the suburbs of the sun” and “the suburbs of Venus and of Mars.” When Susan, Tucky's mother, comes to check on her sleeping son, he gives her the song of the meadow lark, his hunting trophy, so that she, too, participates in his adventure. The poem's “fun” (56) derives from Dickey's ability to merge into the narrative delightful sounds with periodic nonsense. Endeavoring to involve the reader, he also includes suspense: “Tucky hunted EVERYTHING / but I hope not YOU and ME!” The music, set by quatrains with an abcb rhyme scheme, enhances the text. Yet because each quatrain consists of two separate couplets, the poem's pace speeds up, and the rhymes become expected. Most of the first and third lines have four accented syllables; the second and fourth, three. Alliterative phrases like “At Samarkand the whirling stars all whistle wild and pale” and “he slew it for its song” contribute to the poem's musical quality. Additionally, Skinner notes Dickey's use of onomatopoeia (“snapping wolverine” and “bumbling Kodiak”) and his vivid verbs that render improbable events both realistic and musically pleasing (“a grinning crocodile in the Ganges thick and brown, / gobbled up a newsboy in the middle of the town”). Such qualities broaden the poem's appeal to include adults as well as children. Tucky the Hunter enables children to share a boy's imaginative dreams as he discovers “his oneness with the universe and its inhabitants” (58), but adults respond to the musical qualities in the language.

The reviews of Bronwen, the Traw, and the Shape-Shifter are primarily negative. Kirkus (1986), while advising that adults would share Dickey's enjoyment in elevating his daughter into myth, also states that the poem is awkward if read aloud. The meter is “complex” and the diction “uneven” (1289), occasionally simple and childlike and at other times extended into complex images. The text's “poetic fantasy” (1289), however, is effectively portrayed by Watson's illustrations, which capture the “dark romantic tone” (1289) reminiscent of Sendak but are longer and more complicated than the latter. Whalin (1986) also criticizes the book's language. Bronwen's adventures appear in “excruciatingly lengthy detail” (173). The large, black-and-white drawings are “strong” (173) but do not mitigate the “plodding language” and “dragging action” (173). Though intended as an epic, which should have a quickened pace, Bronwen more often remains stationary.

Macaulay's (1987) essay-review details his objections in order to determine where specific fault lies for a work not so much an epic as “an endless poem” (31). Book one succeeds, introducing Bronwen and the All-Dark as the heroine and villain, respectively, as well as her magical traw, and moving from the sunlight and safety of the garden to the menacing shadows of Bronwen's bedroom as the All-Dark awakens. However, as the story progresses, it “flattens” (31) because imagination yields to mere acceptance. “Conventional fantasy” replaces the “power of suggestion” (31). The images that present Bronwen's battle with the All-Dark must be viewed not only in their format but also with the illustrations, and Watson's pictures reveal “the dangers of illustrating a text that already illustrates itself” (31). The drawings possess a sense of darkness but no mystery; having texture, they lack feeling. Moreover, the pictures struggle against themselves. The “star-warsian double-page spread” (31) that depicts Bronwen's battle with fire, wind, and water conflicts with the illustrations that portray the empowering of the traw. Macaulay asserts, however, that “the real battle is between words and pictures, between the imagined and the unavoidable, the suggested and the concrete” (31). Behind any successful picture book lies the integration of these opposites, but Bronwen becomes two books, one of words and the other of pictures, which share only the common packaging. Suggesting that its failure lies with an agent or editor who saw “a sure thing” (31) in Dickey's name and Watson's pictures, Macaulay then concludes by declaring the book “an over-designed, ill-conceived, pretentious product” (31) that undercuts the abilities of both artists.

Sporborg's (1987) lengthy review sees Bronwen positively, declaring that the “timeless fear of the dark” (25) inspires the book's “powerful echoic verses” (25). Bronwen's “vision-quest” (26) involves confronting the elements of fire, wind, and water; success in each instance costs her the magic in one of the traw's tines. Only when she battles “the endless black deep of the earth” and wins because the traw's handle blazes with magic power is the All-Dark finally defeated. Sporborg observes the changes in tone and poetic cadence that reflect a deepening despair as the narrative becomes more threatening. While the literal interpretation of the subject matter, together with the dedication (“To Bronwen and Her Mother in the Elements”), suggests an autobiographical content, the book speaks more openly to all readers.


Calhoun, Richard J., and Robert W. Hill. James Dickey. Boston: Twayne, 1983.

De La Fuente, Patricia, ed. James Dickey: Splintered Sunlight. Edinburg, TX: Pan American University, 1979.

Johnston, Albert H. “Tucky the Hunter.” Publisher's Weekly 214 (31 July 1978): 88.

Kirkus.Bronwen, the Traw, and the Shape-Shifter.” 54 (15 August 1986): 1289-90.

Kirkus.Tucky the Hunter.” 46 (15 August 1978): 917.

Logue, J. D. “Books About the South.” Southern Living 14 (January 1979): 68.

Macaulay, David. “Bronwen, the Traw, and the Shape-Shifter.New York Times Book Review. 8 March 1987. 31.

Skinner, Izora. “A Fun Poem by James Dickey.” In De La Fuente 56-58.

Sporborg, Ann. “Bronwen, the Traw, and the Shape-Shifter.James Dickey Newsletter 4 (Fall 1987): 25-28.

Whalin, Kathleen D. “Bronwen, the Traw, and the Shape-Shifter.School Library Journal 33 (October 1986): 173.

Patricia Laurence (essay date 1994)

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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 magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size” (35). Dickey is no exception: he awakes from his imagined encounter with Deborah's girlhood at least “twice” what he had been.

Feminist critics continue in the spirit of Virginia Woolf to observe the male voicing of womanhood as they take new critical turns into the historical and social inscriptions of language that bind women to certain roles or images. Amidst this scholarly activity, however, women continue to wonder why women poets do not write collections of poems about the boyhood of their lovers or husbands, and why male poets and novelists are so intrigued by the idea of possessing with the pen, the girlhoods or womanhoods of the women with whom they are engaged. The obsession to recover her past, particularly her sexual relationships, and to know and record them jealously leads to a terrifying conclusion. What such works share with Dickey's more innocent Puella is the author's desire to possess his woman, “before she met him.”

Through the centuries, a reader might identify this impulse to “possess” as peculiarly male; women more often are “possessed” than “possessing.” As Emily Dickinson states:

I am afraid to own a Body
I am afraid to own a soul
Profound-precarious property

Women are often afraid to own their own souls, bodies and voices, let alone anyone else's. And when they do seek to possess, as does the energetic Maud Bailey in A. S. Byatt's recent novel, Possession, it is, astonishingly, Victorian love letters. Since this critical consideration of Dickey takes place at a time when such social paradigms are being questioned—when women are less patient with male fictionalization of women's experience and are struggling to possess their own voices in literature—we pause. … Dickey has, after all, presented us, in his previous works, with a certain vision of the “masculine.”

Acknowledging then that “possession” is Dickey's drive in these poems, “lightness” is the quality that holds. “Puellae” in various kinds of personal and cultural flight are, somehow, levitated by the quality of Dickey's writing. He breathes what he has lived and dreamed of the sensuous life of his “puella”—in her Southern landscape—into her voice in these poems. We, in the meantime, rehearse in our heads the current declension of “correctness.” Puella: We must remain in our own skins. Puellae: We must remain in our own bodies. Puellae: We must remain in our own gender. Fixed identities. Dickey, despite his glorification of male initiations and macho stances—the hunter, the ex-combat pilot—resists such fixity of identity and admirably pits his imagination against social naming. As James Applewhite perceptively says of the poem, Dickey seeks “to feel through her senses, wake in her psyche” (150). I would broaden the field of “being” or “non-being” even further to suggest that he also attempts to awaken the consciousness of a doll, trees, rain, a whale, an environment or the sounds of crows. Dickey's Puella attempts what Gerard Genette ascribes to literature in general: “[I]t breathes new life into the world, freeing it from the pressure of social meaning, which is named meaning, and therefore dead meaning, maintaining as long as possible that opening, the uncertainty of signs which allows one to breathe” (41).

Acknowledging the “uncertainty of signs,” we make the critical turn from identity politics with its delineation of “identity” as fixed, toward a more complex view of the relation between gender, the imagination, and literature. Defend we must Dickey's exploration of the “I” and the “not I” as dimensions of being, and his imaginative rights to live in Deborah. He places a female speaker in a mythical and Southern landscape, breathing into her his voice: classical images of Athena springing from the head of Zeus come to mind. But note that he voices not only the dissolving line between male and female, but also girlhood and womanhood, past and present, the animate and inanimate, human and nature, and the actual and mythical. Deborah, somehow, always in motion, always “veering” into being something else, is a vector, Ungraspable. The challenge then of reading these subtle difficult poems is, “who is speaking?” And as Virginia Woolf further queries in one of her short stories, “when the self speaks to the self, who is speaking?” Is it Deborah? The male poet? Or is it an androgynous voice, both the “male” and “female” self of Dickey in dialogue? And what about the various animate and inanimate voicings that are also part of this speaker?

Different aspects of Deborah, ostensibly the changing, growing speaker, are presented in this collection. Each poem “veers” in another direction, some of them clustering about certain themes like magnetic filings. Dickey imagines Deborah in mythical and cultural relation to her body (menses, sex, death); to her family (mothers, grandmothers); to the house (civilization); to nature (Southern landscape, moon, rain, woods / flowers, animals); to sounds (the piano, crows); to the past (heraldry); and to fantasies. In “From Time,” Deborah imagines “for Years at the Piano”; in “The Lode,” we experience “Deborah's Rain Longing”; in “Tapestry and Sail,” “She Imagines Herself a Figure Upon Them”; in “The Surround,” “Imagining Herself as the Environment, She Speaks to James Wright at Sundown.”

The formalist Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin warns that, resist as we might, social namings are in us, and inscribed in our experience and language. We find in the opaque language of these poems a male presence or sensibility, at times, making it difficult to assess whose “experience” is being represented. In the first poem in the collection, “Deborah Burning a Doll Made of House-Wood,” Deborah burns her childhood self symbolized by a doll. She begins,

                                        I set you level,
Your eyes like the twin beasts of a wall.
                    As a child I believed I had grown you,
                    And I hummed as I mixed the blind nails
          Of this house with the light wood of Heaven—
                    The rootless trees there—falling in love
With carpenters—their painted, pure clothes, their flawless
          Baggies, their God-balanced bubbles, their levels.

Through Deborah's voice, we encounter metaphors of carpentry. The tools of Deborah's perception that take the measure of the “doll,” also her childhood self, are the “level” with its “God-balanced bubble,” “the blind nails,” “the light wood of Heaven,” and “the squared mess of an indoor wood-yard.” The poet has breathed language that is gender-marked into Deborah's voice as she watches the dust of her doll, indeed her childhood, bodying “into smoke.” This leaves us with a sense that both the male speaker and Deborah intertwine in perception, language and voice. Deborah continues, and we visually observe a balance in the spacing of the first line below to match Deborah's perception—“levelling” throughout the poem—and then in the fifth line, we observe the step-like lines of the “rungs,” the “climbing,” and the “domestic ascent” of the doll-child:

                    I am leaving:                    I have freed the shelves
                              So that you may burn cleanly, in sheer degrees
                                                  of domestic ascent, unfolding
                                        Boards one after the other, like a fireman
His rungs out of Hell
                                                                                or some holocaust
                                                                                                                                  whelmed and climbing:

Both the spaces and the words speak and mean in a Dickey poem. Deborah, after this ascent, this levitation of the doll-self, has “the power to see / Pure,” and moves on to another aspect of the self in “Deborah, Moon, Mirror, Right Hand Rising.” In this poem she observes in a mirror “the moon coming up in my face,” and she experiences,

                    New Being angled with thresholds.
                                                  Woman of the child
                    I was, I am shone through now
In circles, as though the moon in my hand were falling
                                                  Concentrically, on the spirit of a tree …

Here Deborah is absorbed into both a natural and mythical world through her mirror; comically, “All pores cold with cream.” She is moon; she is human, she is tree, even dryad; she is stone. Transparent,

A woman's live playing of the universe
                    As inner light, stands clear,
                    And is, where I last was.

All kinds of identities are mystically traversed in her “new being.” The poet imagines Deborah in “a body out-believing existence, … set going by imaginative laws, emblem eyes, degenerate with symbols” (“The Lyric Beasts”). The landscape of dream and myth, juxtaposed with Dickey's familiar terrain of woods and animals and the physical pleasure of being, leads us to appreciate the deeply felt connection between the man and the changing woman in these poems.

Again, the quality of the writing and perception that one experiences in these poems is “lightness,” the feeling that one falls through them sensuously, somehow balanced in flight: and, at times, levitating, rather than just reading them. Italo Calvino in Six Essays for the Next Millennium, discusses the virtue that the quality of “lightness” that removes “weight from the structure of stories and from language” (3) will have, as he projects this quality into the future of literature. He predicts that “The lightness is also something arising from the writing itself, from the poet's own linguistic power, quite independent of whatever philosophic doctrine the poet claims to be following” (10). In choosing an image for the new millennium, he selects one that might well apply to some of Dickey's poetry: “The sudden agile leap of the poet-philosopher who raises himself above the weight of the world showing that with all his gravity he has the secret of lightness” (12).

This lightness is present in even the darkest of Dickey's poems. In one of the most intriguing poems of the collection, “Veer Voices: Two Sisters Under Crows,” Dickey's voice splinters into the voice of Deborah, her sister as well as the screeches of the crows—somehow to be heard all through this poem, with “their spirit-shifting splits / Of tongue.” Again, we observe the poet traversing different dimensions of “being,” not localized in the human, but located mid-way between nature and the human in sound and image. The screech of crows “veer-crying and straining like wire” shadows this poem, the sisters psychically placed under the screeching of the “night-mass of families”:

                    Sometimes are living those who have been seen
                              Together                    those farthest leaning
                              With some dark birds and fielded
Below them          counter crying and hawing in savage openness
          For every reason. Such are as we, to come out
                                                  And under and balance-cruise,

The spaces of varying length and the placement of words in this description of the dark birds, sisters, together, create a visual veering or change of direction to match the veer-voices of the sisters:

                                                  A crossroads and passing out
                    One kind of voice in skinned speeches
                    All over the place          leaning and flying
                                        Passing into
                                                                                                                        flying in and out
Of each other
                                                                                          with nothing to tell of
          But the angles of light-sensitive dust
                    Between fences leaded with dew,
                              You might say back,
                                                                                          Come with me
                    Into the high-tension carry

We both see and hear the voices of the sisters and the crows “flying” in and out, identities blurring in the tense visual field of words and spaces on the page. It is almost as if the “countercrying” crows who “surround” the sisters in nature teach a voice or a knowledge of no human tone, “unfathomable” to human ears. Again Dickey explores the “I” and the “not I”: sisters in relation to one another, a man in relation to women, humans in relation to birds and their sounds in nature. Dickey bids the sisters to listen and move into the “high-tension carry” of this other world. Despite the Poe-like ominousness of the invitation, this poem, nevertheless, has a quality of lightness.

“Turning” not only his poetic lines but the dark parable of the two sisters into “lightness,” Dickey again reminds us of the paradoxical “lightness” to be found in “gravity.” This “lightness” arising from the gravity of the dark intuitions about Deborah's relations, about the relation between the human and natural worlds, then becomes a principle for reading Puella. Dickey, the poet, navigating the space of the page as Dickey, the air force pilot, navigated the space of sky in World War II and the Korean War.

In the poem, “Deborah in Ancient Lingerie, in Thin Oak Over Creek,” Deborah asserts all that she can “do” but again the stances and the language somehow suggest a male mirroring. The poet captures the “lightness” of the erotic acrobatics of a man and a woman with the imagery of the aerial beam and heron-veins in a landscape of mythic and actual outdoors. The poem and the reader levitate:

I can do
                                                  gently, just over you:
                                                                                          balance-beam disdain
                                        Like heron-veins over the forest
                              When my spirit is branching, when I
                                        Catch it and don't spend it, I can do:
                                                            All kinds of caused shade
I can do, and unparalleled being
                                                                                          I can do, snake-screaming
                                        Withering, foster-parenting for animals
I can do
                                                                                very gently from just about
                    Right over you, I can do
                                                            at no great height I can do
                                                                                          and bear
And counter-balance and do
                                                            and half-sway and do
                                                                                          and sway
                                                                                          and outsway and

We catch the sensuous rhythm of the erotic from the visual patterning of word and space, as well as the wildness of the sound of “snake screaming.” And in the macho tones of words and movements, the repetition of “do” and “gently … over you” and “balance-beam disdain” and “catch” and not “spend” and repeated swayings, we sense this is a man—not Deborah—complicating again our notion of the experience and the speaker represented in these poems. Nevertheless, in the “move” and “do” and “bear” and “sway” and “half-sway” and “outsway,” we, as readers, move across the visual space of the page in a choreography of eye and sense, creating a special relationship between the poet and the reader. The spaces of varying length to mark pauses and even a full black page in an earlier poem, “Apollo,” for the first manned moon orbit, suggest conceptual, visual, and auditory play in Dickey's poetry. The spaces and blackness are a place, just as Laurence Sterne offered in Tristam Shandy, for the participation of the reader.

The “female” companion piece to “Deborah in Ancient Lingerie, in Thin Oak Over Creek” may be the glorious poem, “RayFlowers.” Though it feels like a violation to quote only part of this poem or any of the other poems in this collection because of the importance of Dickey's choreography of space, a part of it will supply the feeling of lightness, and falling, and “consent”:

                                        As when we all fell all day
          Sight-softening                    space-massing
Time-thickening                                        time-floating more

The repetition of words such as “consenting” (somehow echoing Molly Bloom's “yes, she said yes …”), “sown,” “fall” and lines such as:

Muffle          splinter          increase          fill

suggest something, I think, closer to female sensibility. But then we might ask why Deborah says later,

                                                                      Super-nerved with weightlessness:
                              All girls of cloud and ego in your time,
                                        Smoked-out millennial air-space
                                                  Empowered with blurr, lie down
With bindweed force                    with angelic clutter and stillness
                                        As I hold out and for you unfold
                                        This feather-frond of a bird …

Though straining for Deborah's own sexual dawning in this poem, it is, nevertheless, intertwined with the male speaker's prowess, unfolding his “feather-frond of a bird.” We shift in different lines to different aspects of sexual experience.

One poem where Dickey crosses over more successfully into female and animal experience and voice is “Deborah as Scion.” Deborah at the family cemetery connects with her mothers and grandmothers, traversing the line between the past and the present. In this passage, which is beautiful in its movement and too long to quote, Deborah moves “back, from mother to mother” and is “totally them in the / Breasts, breath and butt.” But she is also curiously alive and in touch with whales whose bones have served for the corsets of confinement for them and Deborah:

                                                                      I stand now in your closed bones,
Sucked-in, in your magic tackle, taking whatever,
                              From the stark freedom under the land,
From under the sea, from the bones of the deepest beast,
                    Shaped now entirely by me, by whatever
                                        Breath I draw.

Identifying with the whales, crossing over from the human to the animal, Deborah and the whales are “paired bones of the deep” joined by the confinement and violation of their bodies. Whatever her own bodily confinements, her being grows as she identifies with and feels the ripping-up and boiling down of the whale “for animal oil.” She hears “the weird mammalian bleating of bled creatures” and thinks,

                                                                                          This animal
                              This animal                    I stand and think
Its feed                    its feel          its whole lifetime on one air:
                                        In lightning-strikes I watch it leap …

Anyone who has ever watched a “volcanic” whale leaping in the deep knows Deborah's visceral sense of the primeval, and of the mythic proportions of these creatures. Perhaps the “volcanic,” unconscious structuring of a girl's sexuality into the poem reminds us of Deborah's moving out from cultural restriction into her own experience of sexuality as a woman. “Out-believing” her existence as a woman, entering into the experience of a whale, we again move into a “deepening sense of being” that Laurence Lieberman writes of in a Dickey poem. And we hear, hear, the “weird mammalian bleating of bled creatures” just as we heard the “snake screaming” and the screeching of the crows in earlier poems. And in the penultimate poem, “The Surround,” where Deborah imagines herself as the environment speaking to James Wright at Sundown, she is no longer even human but mythically dissolved as a presence in the environment—spiritually sprinkled in nature—to surround and protect the male poet, James Wright, as a beneficent spirit:

                                                                                          Stay with me
                                                                      And without me, hearing
Your hearing come back in a circle. After midnight no ax
                                                                      Shall be harmful to your wholeness,
No blood-loss give life. You are in your rings, and growing
                                                            In darkness. I quell and thicken
                                                                                          Away. I am

The surround, and you are your own.

In this collection then, Dickey, the male poet, blurs easy distinctions between male and female, man and woman and nature, the animate and the inanimate, the human and the animal, the past and the present, the actual and the mythic, and the landscape of mind and place and page. What is most important is that Dickey attempts (with mixed results) to present a girl-woman, not solely in relationship to other people, but in relation with her girlhood, womanhood, body, life, death, and nature. She does not exist in traditional relation to man, though she is “themed” to meet the male poet. We find her, imperfectly mixed in voice with male sensibility, in relation to the universe. Entering into many dimensions of being and non-being, not just the Puella of the title, Dickey attempts to breathe new and strange life into poetry. He invites the reader into the generous space and dance of words on the page—his puella, somehow, in flight.

Works Cited

Applewhite, James. “Reflections on Puella.Southern Review 21, (January 1985): 214-19.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination. Trans. Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.

Calvino, Italo. Six Essays for the Next Millennium. Trans. Patrick Creagh. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1988.

Dickey, James. Deliverance. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970.

———The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1970.

———Poems, 1957-67. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan UP, 1967.

Genette, Gerard. Figures of Literary Discourse. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Columbia UP, 1982.

Lieberman, Laurence. The Achievement of James Dickey. Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1968.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1929.

Robert Kirschten (essay date 1995)

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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 delight in, little refinement of feeling or subtlety of judgment, no intellectual distinction, no hint of wisdom.” Even as staunch an early supporter as Richard Howard lamented that “The look of these poems on the page is disconcerting: forms are sundered, wrenched apart rather than wrought together.” Howard then concludes with a statement of considerable strength: “The cost to [Dickey's] poetry is tremendous, for it has cost him poems themselves—there are not poems here … only—only!—poetry.”

Despite the severity of these appraisals, Eye-Beaters contains at least seven of Dickey's major poems and constitutes one of the central transitional texts in Dickey's poetic canon.1 During this period, Dickey's experiments in two basic areas, form and diction, opened a number of technical, poetic doors that propelled him through his remarkable and controversial book-length poem The Zodiac in 1976 to major achievements in the eighties in Puella and The Eagle's Mile, two of his best volumes of verse. In The Eye-Beaters, Dickey still kept his eye at times on a classical sense of narrative—the story-based poem on which he built such a wide following of readers; however, he also began to highlight word groups that radically altered his techniques of telling and gained him especially dramatic entrance to the world of darkness and terror that strongly unsettled Leibowitz, DeMott, and Howard. These word groups reveal fundamental methods in Dickey's word-magic and the subsequent momentum of his poetic thought, which, to my mind, has been misrepresented by many of his negative critics. These critics look for intellectual or discursive thinking in a poet who is not understandable only to the rational mind, and, as a result, they find Dickey's poems lacking in elements that are completely irrelevant to his poetic program.2 Dickey's best poems in this book are not hysterical, unrestrained, unshaped, unsubtle, or wrenched apart but are intricately constructed forms generated by a mode of thinking that is rooted in anthropological and mythopoeic criticism, namely, contagious magic.

Presupposing an ancient, universal law of contact between animate and inanimate objects, even those which are geographically distant such as the moon and stars, contagious magic seems, at first, primitive, simple, or scientifically mistaken. However, when developed through the complex combinations within his extraordinary diction, Dickey's version of this practical causal principle allows him to reinvent a world in which magic not only seems plausible but natural and even necessary. For out of his animated series of “natural” connections, Dickey constructs a diverse range of rituals, ranging from sacrificial rites to linguistic acts of creation, which, reflexively, depend on his magical ontology for their effectiveness. When properly constructed, these rites reveal special, therapeutic powers designed to bring some measure of human control to the catastrophic, real worlds of “blood” and “madness.” The plausibility of Dickey's word-magic takes its authority from its appeal to deeper reaches of the human mind that are closed to more discursive modes of lyric action. Not “deep-image poetry” exactly, his poetry operates through archetypal images within a deeply appealing and personal mode that also engages and alters the social self, especially the self traumatized by war. While his verbal and formal magic has distinguished precedents in the work of Hart Crane, Dylan Thomas, Theodore Roethke, and even Samuel Taylor Coleridge, critics often fail to judge Dickey by those principles that have been used to canonize these writers. To establish critical criteria—especially those in a mythopoeic mode—more accurately attuned to Dickey's true poetic vision in The Eye-Beaters, we need to focus on a number of issues that preoccupied the poet at this point in his career: his construction of poetic form in relation to word-magic, the subsequent shift of formal momentum in his poetry from action to image, and the shaping elements in at least one of the historical genres in which he was writing.


To initiate his keynote speech to the South Atlantic Modern Language Association in November 1982, Dickey borrowed a distinction from the Notebooks of poet Winfield Townley Scott.3 Centering on two kinds of poetry, or, rather, two kinds of poetic diction, this distinction is simple enough yet reveals much about Dickey's own poetic practice. The first type of poetry is, according to Scott, literalistic and marked by its capacity for moving, external reference. It is “a commentary on human life so concentrated as to give off considerable pressure.” Two of its central practitioners are Wordsworth and Hardy, and it “is represented by [Edwin Arlington] Robinson's [line]: ‘And he was all alone there when he died.’” The second and opposite type, less literal and more evocative in character, “is a magic gesture of language” (Night Hurdling 125), among whose proponents are Poe and Rimbaud; this second type is illustrated by lines from Hart Crane's poem “Voyages”:

O minstrel galleons of Carib fire,
Bequeath us to no earthly shore until
Is answered in the vortex of our grave
The seal's wide spindrift gaze toward paradise.

(Poems 36)

For Dickey, the key word in these lines is “spindrift,” whose peculiar qualities place Crane among what Dickey calls, following Scott, the “Magic-Language exemplars” of poetry. Instead of a literal or essential component of the seal's manner of seeing, “spindrift” belongs less to the “reality-world” of animal vision than to the “word-world” (126) of verbal association (or what Crane calls, in his well-known phrase, the “logic of metaphor” [221]). Dickey explains that “‘Spindrift’ is sea-foam, wave-foam, usually wind-blown along beaches, and, though the seal's eyes may be wide, and his gaze toward Paradise, ‘spindrift’ is really not, cannot be, part of his vision: the word is word only, associational word, and in its way beautiful, but word” (126).4

Instead of inventing poems characterized by statements that have an empirical or external referential direction, the poets of word-magic work from inside a reverberating, self-generating world of linguistic interplay. According to Dickey, these writers are less interested in realistic narratives or personal anecdotes which convey maxims about the world of human action and ideas than in the evocative powers and suggestions of words themselves. This wordplay may be further understood by considering its opposite, namely, that kind of diction that belongs to poets whom Dickey calls “the literalists.” Unlike the “magic-language practitioners,” “literal-minded poets” believe “in words as agents which illuminate events and situations that are part of an already given continuum” (Night Hurdling 131). For example,

The Robinson line … is simply factual. There are only plain words in it: a statement. Plain words in ordinary order; nothing unusual, much less exotic. The line puts the reader into contemplation of something that happened to someone, and the condition of the happening: it is the clear pane of glass that does not call attention to itself, but gives clearly and cleanly on a circumstance.


On the other hand, word-magicians do not give primacy to plot or to the discursive revelations of character, but to a dream mode or some kind of surrealistic space in which the powers of reason have little importance. Although Dickey's remarks were made with Puella (1982) in mind, the book with his fullest use of word-magic and to which this article is a preliminary study, these observations reveal much about his own magical approach throughout his poetry. This approach is evident as far back in Dickey's work as the opening poem, the magical chant “Sleeping Out at Easter,” in his first collection of poems, Into the Stone (1960). Of word-magicians, Dickey said in 1982:

For the Magicians, language itself must be paramount: language and the connotative aura it gives off. … The words are seen as illuminations mainly of one another; their light of meaning plays back and forth between them, and, though it must by nature refer beyond, outside itself, shimmers back off the external world in a way whereby the world—or objective reality, or just Reality—serves as a kind of secondary necessity, a non-verbal backdrop to highlight the dance of words and their bemused interplay.

(Night Hurdling 126-27)

However magical Dickey's interests became at this point, he never fully divorced himself from his commitment to literal-mindedness or his belief in the necessity of basic storytelling. For in the same essay, he criticizes purely magical poetry for its considerable limitations. In magical poetry divorced from public concerns, Dickey says, “the world is lacking, and the buzz of language and hit-or-miss-metaphor-generation is everything; the poem itself is nothing; or only a collection of fragments” (Night Hurdling 138). Although he admits to being “profoundly interested” in “the absolute freedom” that the magical making of metaphors offers the poet, Dickey also wants lyrics “bound into one poetic situation, one scene, one event after the other” (139). A further problem with the magical method, especially in the surrealistic school, is that it invents without discovering, as Wallace Stevens noted. It does not reveal the contents of the unconscious but mere phantasms. Nor does it have “drama,” for it “cannot build.” Of poems in this style, Dickey observes that they have no narrative, no logic, no idea development, no transformation, no “publicly available” themes (137).

If one wonders in which camp Dickey places his own poetic language, he provides what appears to be a decisive response earlier in his address. Although he greatly admires the best of them, he claims, “I am not of the party of the magic-language practitioners” (Night Hurdling 129). At first glance, this self-classification seems true. Because so much of Dickey's early poetry depends on anecdotal narrative and extrinsic reference to topics and events from his own life (world war, family, animals, even a Southern Baptist preacher), he seems justified in placing himself among those poets whom he calls “literal-minded” (129), for example, Robert Frost, Edgar Lee Masters, and Randall Jarrell. From a stylistic or linguistic point of view, however, Dickey's poetry also suggests an extremely strong magical orientation. In the mid and late sixties in particular, Dickey began to experiment with word groups bunched together by means of techniques such as the “block format” (Central Motion v) and the “split line” (Self-Interviews 184-85). At this time, words themselves and their “connotative aura” (Night Hurdling 127) became singularly featured on the pages of his lyrics. In “May Day Sermon,” “Falling,” “The Shark's Parlor,” “The Fiend,” and to some extent in “The Firebombing,” he built “wall[s] of words” (116) out of distinctive visual and semantic combinations that were not only striking to behold but, more importantly, approximated, as Dickey says, “the real way of the mind as it associates verbally. … in bursts of words, in jumps” (Self-Interviews 184).

One major effect of the method (or “real way”) of these mental word “bursts” and “jumps” is the construction of an emotionally immediate, if not obsessive, universe in which the magical contiguity of natural forms of life and death is conveyed by Dickey's imagistic contiguities. Dickey calls the semantic aspect of this magical contact “apparently unjustifiable juxtapositions” and “shifts of meaning or consciousness” (Self-Interviews 185). These juxtapositions may be rationally “unjustifiable” but, from a poetic and emotional point of view, they enable the objects inside his visually bracketed word groups to exchange (or share) properties in an especially dramatic and vivid manner. These stylistically fused traits build scenes so rich in texture that they constitute the animating ground of the poem's action and thus possibility for Dickey's characters. “May Day Sermon” provides an especially vivid example of how the poet's word-magic “jumps” across the page with a stunning momentum that energizes the woman preacher who delivers the lines. This momentum also animates the objects of nature in Dickey's universe and reveals how he thinks magically through them:

                                                                                          Sisters, understand about men
and sheaths:
About nakedness: understand how butterflies, amazed, pass out
Of their natal silks     how the tight snake takes a great breath          bursts
Through himself and leaves himself behind          how a man casts finally
Off everything that shields him from another          beholds his loins
Shine with his children forever          burn with the very juice
Of resurrection

(Poems 7)

In this section, Dickey's word-magic builds the poem's (and nature's) momentum by means of his striking grammatical strategies of predication, strategies that, as we will see, are also central to his magical method in “Pine.” In the arrangement of word blocks in “May Day Sermon,” nouns such as “butterflies,” “the tight snake,” “man,” and “his children” share the ejaculatory, universal motion of sheaths and nakedness which “pass out,” breathe, burst, “shield,” behold, “[s]hine,” and “burn with … resurrection.” This sharing is effected by an elaborate series of delayed predicates in parallel constructions in which the poet omits punctuation and connectives in favor of breath spaces. By keeping mechanical interrupters and conjunctions to a minimum, Dickey creates an oratorical and ontological momentum marked by “fluidity and flux” (Voiced Connections 155) that is his own specification of William James's famous stream of consciousness.5 Dickey's poetic flow—more like a tidal wave in this poem—makes objects exchange attributes by making the mind “jump” between nouns and predicates such that a verb (and its textural traits) in one clause may be plausibly predicated of two or more preceding subjects. In the lines cited above, the subject of “burn” is “loins” but may as well be “children,” for both “loins” and “children”—albeit in different modes—“burn with the very juice / Of resurrection.” Dickey does not use this technique only for single terms. Because he begins his word blocks with dynamic verbs, gerunds, and present participles, he drives these blocks forward in a stream of sexual, natural, and grammatical motion while simultaneously allowing the eye to linger upon visually separated word groups so that entire groups of words appear to serve as nouns for several series of subsequent verbals. Several lines later in “May Day Sermon,” it is a trout which flows and slides upstream, but Dickey's spatial arrangement of his word groups makes it appear that the trout's “cold / Mountain of his birth” does the same, for the trout “heads upstream, breathing mist like water, for the cold / Mountain of his birth flowing sliding in and through the ego- / maniacal sleep of gamecocks” (Poems 7). The metaphysical mechanism behind these shared predicates is a mode of connection that Sir James Frazer calls “contagious magic” in The Golden Bough, namely, “that things which have once been in contact with each other are always in contact” (13). In Dickey's poetic universe, these grammatical and ontological connections produce a magical animism, in which, to use Joseph Campbell's phrasing, “there is no such thing as absolute death, only a passing of individuals back and forth, as it were, through a veil or screen of visibility, until—for one reason or another—they dissolve into an undifferentiated ground that is not of death, but of potential life, out of which new individuals appear” (Sacrifice 9).

Not only objects and groups of objects are animated by mental word-magic in Dickey's world. Dickey's word-magic also drives the emotionally animating end of “May Day Sermon,” which is nothing less than the resurrection in springtime of nature, sexual instinct, and the vocalized anima (or soul) of the victimized daughter, all under the aegis of the oratorical triad of energized women: preacher, audience, and subject of the sermon (the daughter). The daughter of the abusive, backwoods, Bible-reading father is able to return from the dead each year precisely because, in Dickey's lyric universe, “there is,” in Campbell's words, “no such thing as absolute death.” Dickey's is a world in which life and death cyclically and magically dissolve into and out of each other and in which the animating power of the woman preacher's eternal logos—like “men” and “nakedness”—also “bursts,” “[s]hine[s],” and “burn[s] with the very juice / Of resurrection.” The daughter does not die for her sexual freedom but dies as a fertility goddess who transcends death each spring, like the earth itself, by riding the eternal continuum of decay, regeneration, and rebirth, empowered in Dickey's world-view by the words of women and the poet's magical modes of “resurrection.” The very possibility of the daughter's archetypal transcendence is thus rooted in a magically empowered and conceived setting which eternally energizes her.

If the ritualized methods and the ground of action in Dickey's lyrics take on a special primitive power in the mid sixties, the effects of his word-magic and its reverberating linguistic momentum become even more pronounced in the late sixties and the early seventies. His magical diction is primarily effected through catalogues of tactile, concrete metaphors, hypenated word combinations, and explosive, staggered groups of action-packed gerundives. When working in a distinctively surrealistic or hallucinatory dream mode, Dickey distances himself even further from his earlier formal strategies, realistic anecdotes, and the relatively sober revelations of romantic perception, in favor of an exuberant emphasis on magical imagery. For instance, in “The Eye-Beaters,” the narrator does not go inside the minds of blind children for internal revelation when he visits a home for the children in Indiana, but instead externalizes his imagined vision of what they see as he addresses himself:

                                                                      Smudge-eyed, wide-eyed, gouged, horned, caved-
in, they are silent: it is for you to guess what they hold back inside
The brown and hazel                    inside the failed green          the vacant
eyed floating of the soul.

(Eye-Beaters 50)

At first, there appears to be little here of what could be traditionally called a complicated plot which changes the fortunes of its characters. Neither the children nor the narrator can change. Try as he may, the speaker cannot alter the condition of the blind children who beat their eyes in frustration. In a sense, then, the animating end of this poem is the realistic failure of the poet's magical, elaborate techniques of animation. This failure, however, is only half the equation. After acknowledging the therapeutic limits of his poetry, the speaker frantically continues to build his fictional wall of mythic images for his own sake and for that of the real “vision” of the children. He argues rationally that in spite of their blindness, these children are still important, and that “what they see must be crucial / To the human race.” Despite his claim to reason, Dickey's magic produces nothing more than a semihysterical nightmare of his own darkness and rage as the poet tries to see what is “under their pummeled lids” (54).

His word-magic is thus closer to word-madness than magic. Yet this madness has its own peculiar visioning power. In “May Day Sermon,” while partially maddened by her belief system, by abuse to the farmer's daughter, and by Dickey's inflamed rhetoric, the woman preacher nonetheless effects an optimistic, mythopoeic reincarnation of the victimized girl. In The Eye-Beaters, Dickey's word-madness seeks a magic that at first appears ineffective. This magic is built out of nothing but the “sheer / Despair of invention” (55) in the real world where the narrator's poetic powers cannot heal. However, what comes most alive in this world—even more than plot and character—is the poet's mental cave of magical images, that is, the cave of “perversity” and “madness,” constituted by Dickey's wall of words. It is as if he has taken us inside Plato's cave of illusions or inside one of the Paleolithic caves at Montesquieu-Avantes in the Pyrenees and left us in the dark. In such a world, “Half-broken light flickers” briefly and shows us partial images of “ibex quagga … cave bear aurochs [and] mammoth” (54, 51). However, this is a mental world which is even darker and more claustrophobic, where the poet's “reason” has “gone / Like eyes” (55), and only his primal images offer him solace. We thus come closer to experiencing the dark world of these children than we ever would have without Dickey's disturbing and dazzling poem, at the heart of which is yet another of his extraordinary, primitivistic exchanges. This exchange transforms speaker and reader by linking sighted readers to blind children, even though the mode of shared “vision” is only—or, to use Richard Howard's exclamation, “only!”—poetic.

As we trace the evolution of Dickey's use of magical language, what is important to note in “The Eye-Beaters”—as well as in “Mercy,” “Victory,” and “Pine” in the same volume—is that Dickey's walls of words are so powerful that their contagious, magical energy appears to displace plot, character, and revelation as emotionally central parts of his poetic action. These traditional shaping elements are, of course, still prominent in his work of this period. However, we may well be able to claim—using Dickey's own description of poetic word-magicians—that, in these boldly experimental poems, he has gone further than ever toward giving primacy to “language and the connotative aura it gives off.” This new primacy of parts enables him to invent a new poetic “Reality [which] serves as a … backdrop to highlight the dance of words and their bemused interplay” (Night Hurdling 127). To put it another way, Dickey's radically magical walls of reality establish settings which not so much displace thought and character as they take on the functions of character, revelation, and the solution (or opposition) to the protagonist's driving needs. In “May Day Sermon,” magical word groups not only create the physical setting but also the animating ground of change and motivation for the woman preacher. Yet they also constitute a formal revolution, what would in contemporary criticism be called a “deconstruction,” in which Dickey's word-magic achieves a parity of power with the classic, Aristotelian elements of thought and action, and even becomes the central pattern of thought and action. By focusing on “[the] action of words upon each other, for whatever meaning or sensation they may throw off, evoke” (131), Dickey uses these networks of “meaning or sensation” not to remain mired in sensation but to invent what is for him a new kind of poetic form. Insofar as his new diction produces a “connotative aura” that radically alters his speaker's fundamental mode of perception while also shaping and guiding the reader's point of view, Dickey's mythical language becomes both his poetic action and his basic method of representation. This collapse—or fusion—of analytic distinctions is true for all poetry insofar as poetry's shaping causes are synthesized within its verbal materials. But for Dickey, his distinctive change in emphasis yields especially vivid insights into a new way of thinking through words which themselves revolutionize his poetry.


If, in this middle period of his career, Dickey begins to think in a radically mytho-magical mode while quite consciously moving away from ancedote and narrative, we see yet another reason why his poetry upsets the Aristotelian causal hierarchy which privileges plot the way Dickey did in his early work. The very nature of thought manifested in Dickey's word-magic demands this formal shift. For, as Ernst Cassirer notes, “mythical consciousness … knows nothing of certain distinctions. … it lacks any fixed dividing line between mere ‘representation’ and ‘real’ perception, between wish and fulfillment, between image and thing” (Mythical Thought 36). Further, by using a mode of thought which burkes classical logical axioms and assumes instead magical principles—such as “the part not only stands for the whole but positively is the whole” (64)—Dickey confounded many critics in the late sixties and early seventies by inventing an “aura” that baffled them when they applied discursive or meditative criteria. For when Dickey's linguistic “aura” became a dominant force, it produced a dreamworld like that of the undifferentiated reality of primitive consciousness; thus many readers dismissed the poems in The Eye-Beaters as formless or poorly constructed. On the contrary, these poems are intricately constructed, and further, they are designed to convey the atmosphere of nightmares or dream consciousness, the very nature of which is cloudy or phantasmic.

One magical mode, the conversion of properties or attributes of objects into bodies, appears in the scenic imagery of “Mercy,” a nightmare poem about the narrator's lover Fay, a nurse at a hospital in “slum Atlanta,” whom he picks up at the nurses' dormitory called “Mercy Manor.” By mixing hypostatized, imagistic traits of love, mortality, blood, and banal pop culture in a dazzling scene of surrealistic transformation, Dickey converts Fay into a contemporary Persephone, macabre yet heroic. While “perfume and disinfectant battle / In her armpits” (Eye-Beaters 15), she straddles the worlds of life and death, goddess-like, when, in the poem's conclusion, the speaker imagines himself “Collapsed on the street,” having a kind of heart (or love) attack: “I nearly am dead / In love” (16). Herself a stark contrast in the colors of healing and of death, Fay leans over him as he calls for her kiss to silence the cry of mortality from his lips and to bear him safely from the world of darkness into the “mercy” of St. Joseph's hospital:

                                                                                          She would bend
                                                                                Over me like this                    sink down
                                                                                With me in her white dress
                                                                                Changing to black                    we sink
                                                                                                    Down flickering
                              Like television                    like Arthur Godfrey's face
                                                  Coming on                    huge                    happy
                                        About us                    happy
                                        About everything                    O bring up
My lips                    hold them down don't let them cry
With the cry                    close                    closer                    eyeball to eyeball
                                        In my arms, O queen of death
                                        Alive, and with me at the end.


If Fay, like Persephone, possesses a goddess-like power of healing and renewal, she does so because the poet rescues her from a convincing technical, pop cultural hell that enervates yet simultaneously animates her. As he does in “The Eye-Beaters,” Dickey builds another dynamic wall of words—this time, down the middle of the page—that makes the night world of hospitals come alive in a sensuously dark dream scene. This scene is not static. As the drama develops, the setting not only gains emotional power by means of the affective accumulation of Dickey's detail; it propels the action forward by providing an overwhelming opponent of “night” and “mortality” against which the speaker battles for “care” and “love.” In the night world of this hospital, “love,” if not life, has never felt more vulnerable. One cause of this vulnerability is the massive sense of indifference that the setting, indeed, the world, evinces toward the speaker. This anomie is reflected in Dickey's magical, imagistic hypostatization of Arthur Godfrey's smiling television face, whose mind-numbing, “happy” countenance benignly smiles over the night world of pain and death with the comic indifference of a plastic Halloween mask. Ernst Cassirer says that in magical thought, “The ‘image’ does not represent the ‘thing’; it is the thing; it does not merely stand for the object, but has the same actuality, so that it replaces the thing's immediate presence” (Mythical Thought 38). We do not confuse Arthur Godfrey with his image. Rather, Dickey so animates the banality of the image that its preposterous happiness becomes an oppressive, real, actual body. In this animated, surrealistic space, the poet turns a complex of cultural and technological relations into “a pre-existing material substance” in which, in Cassirer's words, “all mere properties or attributes … become bodies” (55). By magically making banality a substance, Dickey provides one element in the poisoned substratum of a contemporary, urban scene against which the energized passion of a goddess-woman offers temporary redemption from the speaker's hysterical “wail” and the dark, cold world of mortality and indifference.

In this stage of Dickey's poetic career—which may be labeled a magical period in which he makes a radical move from action to image—voice, points of view (reader's and speaker's), and plot seem less like specific, separable literary devices than undifferentiated aspects of the dreamy aura of his word selection. These strategically constructed word groups reveal the movement of his mind from linguistic block to block in modes of nondiscursive, non-analytical thought that Cassirer discusses in his chapter “Word Magic” in Language and Myth:

mythic ideation and primitive verbal conception. … [involve] a process of almost violent separation and individuation. Only when this intense individuation has been consummated, when the immediate intuition has been focused and … reduced to a single point, does the mythic or linguistic form emerge, and the word or the momentary god is created. … the process of apprehension aims not at an expansion, extension, universalizing of the content, but rather at its highest intensification. … The conscious experience is not merely wedded to the word, but is consumed by it. Whatever has been fixed by a name, henceforth is not only real, but is Reality.


In the momentum of Dickey's thought in the best poems from The Eye-Beaters, objects and events are individuated through narratives that antagonize and separate agents. Things and acts are also individuated through strategic spatial separations (different from the split line but an off-shoot of it) and through emphases of the arrangement of words on the page. Dickey's word blocks isolate images in focused impressions that, when grouped in his distinctive series of sequences, give the sense that a name and its referent are magically connected—indeed, that reality is built out of momentary bursts of tangible, tactile names. These names not only share the properties of what they signify but feel as if they are some essential part (or the whole) of their referents while simultaneously amplifying the emotional impact of those parts. At times, Dickey's focused images give us an animal's surrealistic, enlarged perspective of heads and eyes in word groups that themselves enlarge the objects represented. For example, in “Madness,” a family hound is bitten by a rabid female fox, and the experience of sound and pain is conveyed and enlarged in a poetic form marked by the isolation of intensified moments from the story:

                                                                                          she bit down
                                                            Hard on a great yell
                                        To the house being eaten alive
By April's leaves. Bawled; they came and found.
                                                                                The children cried
                                        Helping tote to the full moon
Of the kitchen                    “I carried the head”                    O full of eyes
Heads kept coming across, and friends and family
                                                                                Hurt                    hurt
          The spirit of the household, on the kitchen
Table being thick-sewed

(Eye-Beaters 48)

To no small degree, the basic representational device in this poem progressively becomes the form of the poem. That is, the strategic isolation of the names of fragments of events results in a magic pointillism that fixes as its primary patterned reality the surrealistic aspects of the core event that pattern depicts. Summarized under the title of “Madness,” the basic narrative is simple: a family dog is bitten, becomes rapid, is hunted down, then beheaded. However, the stylized, magical story is considerably more complex, primarily because of the way it is told: the conversion of a family hound into an energized, manic god of the hunt and kill, who, through a narrative of hallucinatory frenzy marked by the contagious, explosive escalation of sexuality and violence, dies a divine death as a nonretaliatory scapegoat; the humans in the poem project their own mimetic desire for violence upon this sacrificial monster who is expelled from the circle of domestic safety and then closes the poem's process of overflowing violence with his own execution. Dickey's verbal methods of separation, individuation, and amplification are essential to the monster-making process because they amplify the dog's bizarre and dangerous traits into monstrous proportions, so that his sacrificial death, dramatically mandated, purges the stable world that he himself has infected and threatened. One instance of this amplification process occurs after the dog is bitten. It is carried into the family kitchen, and the phrase “O full of eyes” floods the moment with what Dickey construes to be the animal's vision, yet also isolates that moment with an image in which eyes seem disembodied and bizarre, as would befit a being which is in the process of transgressing normal social boundaries. That the poem is so effectively disturbing and dark reveals that Dickey's vibrant word-magic makes fully tangible the traits of surrealistic monstrosity which the poem requires for its sacred drama.6

Although there is none of the archetypal pairing of the intensely dramatic mythopoeic opposites of sex and violence in the three-page lyric “Pine,” this poem reveals several other aspects of Dickey's remarkable—and difficult—mode of magical meditation.7 Cast in a sequence of “successive apprehensions” (or “four ways / Of being”), with a fifth, concluding, single-word section (“Glory”), “Pine” examines a pine tree by means of four senses: hearing, smell, taste, and touch. At first glance, the poem's process of thought appears to be built out of compounds—or, to use Dickey's own term, “a dark / Flood”—of traits which the speaker is “Opening one by one.” Each section features, though not exclusively, one sense which Dickey examines by means of a series of percepts, analogies, intuitions, and visceral experiences of the body. This flood of synesthetic experience combines to form a whole of some kind, when, at the end, Dickey claims:

                                                            A final form
And color at last comes out
Of you alone putting it all
          Together like nothing
          Here like almighty

(Eye-Beaters 46)

To some extent, Dickey's mode of perception resembles the kind of accumulation that, according to Denis Donoghue, constitutes “the self” in Walt Whitman's lengthy catalogues:

he begins by saying, Let x equal the self. Then x equals A plus B plus C plus D plus E … where each letter stands for a new experience contained and possessed, and the self is the sum of its possessions. This is the law of Whitman's lists. If you say that the self—x—is the sum of its possessions … then the more you add to the right-hand side of the equation, the more you enrich the left, and you do this without bothering about the “nature” of the x. You assume, as most Romantic poets did, that the self is not at any moment fixed, complete, or predetermined, and then you are free to develop or enlarge it at any time by adding to its experience.


The Romantic aspect of Dickey's poetic identity certainly coincides with the latter part of Donoghue's observation about flow and indeterminacy. However, Dickey's mental method of accumulation—and, consequently, his conception of his poetic “self”—does not depend on a mere unity that is the “sum of its possessions.” Dickey does not build his perceptual objects out of discrete properties only, but, instead, conceives a different kind of whole constituted by an empathic mode of consubstantiality. One may best see the method in his word-magic in the Melanesian concept of “mana,” which is a general, undifferentiated power that appears in different forms and different objects in a sacred, rather than a profane, world. In such a realm, not every animate thing possesses “mana,” only certain objects that evoke a sense of wonder and delight. Sacred wonder and delight in the world of physical sensation and magical things (especially animals and natural objects in motion) are constants in Dickey's lyric universe, the various elements of which are bound together by a principle of shared power that Cassirer calls the “law” of “concrescence or coincidence” (Mythical Thought 64):

Mythical thinking … knows such a unity neither of combination nor of separation. Even where it seems to divide an action into a number of stages, it considers the action in an entirely substantial form. It explains any attribute of the action by a specific material quality which passes from one thing in which it is inherent to other things. Even what in empirical and scientific thought appears to be a mere dependent attribute or momentary property here obtains a character of complete substantiality and hence of transferability.


Even though the major parts of “Pine” are divided by individual sense, Dickey builds the poem's progression out of a fluid “merging of properties” (Mythical Thought 77) which is effected by collections of hyphenated compounds and jammed fragments of thoughts and feelings. These compounds—especially Dickey's phrase “sift-softening”—and his fragmented, syntactic shorthand recall the opening lines from the fourth stanza of Gerard Manley Hopkins's “The Wreck of the Deutschland”:

                              I am soft sift
                    In an hourglass—at the wall
Fast, but mined with a motion, a drift,
                    And it crowds and it combs to the fall[.]


Hopkins's “soft sift / In an hourglass” serves to remind him that his body decays with time and that he can achieve redemption only by “Christ's gift” of eternal salvation, “proffer[ed]” in the gospel (13). In “Pine,” Dickey's “sift-softening” does not stand for the “motion” and “drift” of a heightened sense of personal mortality. Rather, “sift-softening” is one stage in his poetic process of rendering both sensible and transferable the motion of the wind through pine needles. If yet another mark of magical thinking is that substance and force are not sharply distinguished, then Dickey's fusion of force and thing demonstrates even more fully his mythopoeic mode of transforming relations between objects into tactile, living presences which he offers to perception. For instance, here is Dickey's flow of compounded properties that he unifies—or, in his own word, “assign[s]”—as he makes the force of the sound of pine sensuous and, therefore, substantial:

                                        Low-cloudly it whistles, changing heads
                    On you. How hard to hold and shape head-round.
                                                                                          So any hard hold
                    Now loses; form breathes near. Close to forest-form
                                                            By ear. …
.....                                                                                                    Overhead assign the bright and dark
Heels distance-running from all                    overdrawing the only sound
                                                  Of this sound                    sound of a life-mass
          Drawn in long lines in the air                    unbroken                    brother-saving
                                                                                Sound merely soft
          And loudly soft just in time                    then nothing and then
                    Soft                    soft and a little caring-for                    sift-softening
                    And soared-to.

(Eye-Beaters 44)

Because the form of the sound of pine is difficult to grasp—as Dickey says, “any hard hold / Now loses”—he hypostatizes the pine's “sound of a life-mass” by inventing a sequence of modes of motion, each of which is assigned a distinctive trait such as sifting, soaring, and whistling. By giving even the softest sound a tangibility, Dickey makes his own poetic process of perception—and thus his poetic form—substantial. What was “hard to hold” now has elements that can be held, and can be held in a discernible sequence or form. Further, by making sound a mode of motion shared among the fragments of his “apprehension,” Dickey also makes these substantial traits transferable from one part of the apprehension to another, and thus to the whole percept. The form of the stanza is the flow of the traits of felt motion commingling and building toward a whole. This process of substantiation and consubstantiation begins to culminate in the phrase “O ankle-wings lightening and fleeing” (44), which represents the magical fusion of the substantiated properties of the “sound” of pine; these properties include speed, lightness, evanescence, alternation, and texture. A few lines later, in its conclusion, the stanza reveals one whole, unified aspect of pine in terms of hearing. Pine's basic properties merge in the figure of “footless flight,” which the reader understands can be heard yet is difficult to hear—like the sound of pine—for it is “coming and fleeing / From ear-you and pine, and all pine” (44).

Another way to examine the poem's formal momentum is to think of Dickey's cataloguing and combining of properties as a mythopoeic mode of predication, that is, as a preliminary process of naming—and thus dividing—an undifferentiated subject into specific predicates from which he builds a differentiated reality. As an analogue of this preliminary, linguistic stage of cognition, Dickey's poem makes pine feel like “mana,” in that it emerges through his word groups with what feels like its own mysterious energy and power. Like the Sioux conception of Wakanda (“Great Spirit,” or world creator, or mystery, or grandeur, or sacredness—the term is nearly untranslatable in English), the spirit-force of pine grows magically through animated substances and, in Dickey's case, toward an ultimate, imaginatively conceived unity that differentiates it from its ground of perception. In his primitive predication of properties and in his conception of an animated whole, Dickey's poetic method is radically perspectival. As Cassirer notes, “for mythical thinking[,] the attribute is not one defining the aspect of the thing; rather, it expresses and contains within it the whole of the thing, seen from a different angle” (Mythical Thought 65). Not only is each perceptual sense in each major part of “Pine” “a different angle”; each tangible attribute of each sense is also “a different angle.” Further, as we saw, each “angle” reveals and incorporates the whole by means of Dickey's complex movement of concrete imagery. These new angles are themselves new views, new names of aspects of pine rendered plausible, determinate, and separable from the preconscious welter of sensation out of which pine reveals itself to consciousness.

In his verbal act of distinguishing perspectives, Dickey calls pine into being through the magical power of naming. With regard to this constitutive, predicative dimension, Dickey's perspectival form is a linguistic act of creation. Like the narrative thrust in many primitive creation myths, the direction of Dickey's mythic speech moves a differentiating human preconsciousness away from the chaotic condition of heaven and earth before things had names and thus could be verbally distinguished. What is magical and sacred about this naming is that, in Dickey's poem, names do not merely signify but convey the potential powers of the things named and thus symbolically created. In “Pine,” Dickey's series of imagistic potencies—for example, “Your skull like clover lung-swimming in rosin” (Eye-Beaters 45)—literally become the poetic essence of the identity of pine as the speaker's whole being, not just the rational component of the human mind, engages the world of nature and its emerging objects through his nascent language. No better description of the epistemological implications of Dickey's unity-effecting word-magic can be found than in an analogy between the primitive process of object formation and its relation to language, taken from the biblical narrative of creation. Cassirer recalls that after the word of God separated darkness from light to produce heaven and earth, the distinctively human element then entered the linguistic process of genesis:

the names of earthly creatures are no longer directly given by the Creator, but have to wait their assignment by Man. … In this act of appellation, man takes possession of the world both physically and intellectually—subjects it to his knowledge and his rule. … This unity, however, cannot be discovered except as it reveals itself in outward form by virtue of the concrete structures of language and myth, in which it is embodied, and from which it is afterward regained by the process of logical reflection.


Dickey's one-word conclusion to “Pine” thus signals his sacred finale to the linguistic process of inventing a “momentary god.” In this kind of “holy” and “mythico-religious” atmosphere, the unity-effecting name and the god's nature (or power) are thus felt, however evanescently, to be one: “Glory.”


Another formal achievement derived from the momentum of word-magic and magical thinking in The Eye-Beaters is the most dramatic aspect of Dickey's neo-Romanticism, namely, his reinvention of the ode of terror. To be sure, Dickey has explored the world of nightmares and dream consciousness from the very beginning of his work in poems such as “The Vegetable King” (1960) and “The Firebombing” (1964). However, in “Mercy” and “Madness,” his word-magic in this volume signals his fullest and most frightening contribution to a genre of poetry that was extremely popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Represented on Coleridge's dark side by “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Dejection: An Ode,” this genre took its criteria for excellence from Longinus's classic treatise “On the Sublime,” especially that aspect of the sublime that focuses on “the most striking and vehement circumstances of passion” (16). Because, in Edmund Burke's opinion, the sublime produces “the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” (cited in Ronald Crane 446), and because terror was felt to be an emotional corollary of the feeling of religious dread occasioned by nothing less in importance than “the supreme evil” (447), the ode of terror was held by many to be the highest form of lyric. Although there is no explicit theodicean component in “Victory,” this historic genre—“so wildly awful, so gloomily terrific” (447), as the eighteenth-century critic Nathan Drake enthusiastically put it—combined a number of traits that bear directly on Dickey:

To excel in this species of Ode demands a felicity and strength of genius that has seldom been attained; all the higher beauties of poetry, vastness of conception, brilliancy of colouring, grandeur of sentiment, the terrible and the appalling, must combine, and with mysterious energy alarm and elevate the imagination. A lightning of phrase should pervade the more empassioned parts, and an awful and even dreadful obscurity, from prophetic, or superhuman agency, diffuse its influence over the whole.


“Terrible” and “appalling,” with a “mysterious energy” that appears to issue from a “superhuman agency,” “Victory” is Dickey's striking nightmare poem about one of the most “supreme evil[s]” of human experience: world war. The poem recounts the story of a GI in the Pacific theater who anticipates the surrender of the Japanese on V-J Day (September 2, 1945) two years before the actual fact. “[T]wo birthdays // Back, in the jungle, before [he] sailed high on the rainbow / Waters of victory” (38), the soldier drinks whiskey sent by his mother as a present, then explains to her—apparently, in a letter—how he later found himself drunk in a tattoo parlor in Yokahama, with “four / Men … bent over me,” who tattoo his entire torso with a brightly colored snake that follows the contours of his body:

                                                                                          it was at my throat
                                        Beginning with its tail, …
                                                                                          moving under
                                                            My armpit like a sailor's, scale
                    By scale. …
.....                                                                                          I retched but choked
It back, for he had crossed my breast. …
.....                                                                                Oh yes and now he lay low
                                                  On my belly, and gathered together the rainbow
                    Ships of Buckner Bay. I slumbered deep and he crossed the small
                                                                                          Of my back                    increased
                    His patchwork hold on my hip                    passed through the V between
                                                                                                    My legs, and came
Around once more                    all but the head                    then I was turning                    the snake
                                                            Coiled round my right thigh and crossed
                                                            Me with light hands

(Eye-Beaters 40-41)

The soldier's experience with this all-devouring, demonic snake warrants immediate comparison with two turbulent moments from Coleridge's odes of terror. Dickey's snake-filled, nightmare world in “Victory”—especially “the dark side / Of the mind” (Eye-Beaters 40)—recalls Coleridge's “viper thoughts, that coil around my mind, / Reality's dark dream!” from “Dejection: An Ode” (419). When Coleridge turns from these viperous thoughts to “listen to the wind,” he hears, with greater terror, the “groans, of trampled men, with smarting wounds—/ At once they groan with pain, and shudder with the cold!” Likewise, Dickey's world of war is filled with the pain of men, that of his living “buddies,” “ready,” as he is, “to sail … toward life / After death,” along with the memories of “others long buried / At sea” (38). Even more important, the retching and choking of Dickey's soldier in a time of war suggest the sixth stanza from “Ode to the Departing Year,” which records Coleridge's rage and shock at human slaughter carried out in the name of liberty during the French Revolution and at the massacre of Ismail in 1770. After experiencing, “on no earthly shore,” a nightmare vision of the Departing Year, whose past events and “robe [are] inscrib'd with gore” (388), this Romantic poet awakes to find that his predatory dream continues to flood traumatically through his soul, to the same degree that World War II traumatically pervades Dickey's and fiction (even half a century later in Dickey's best and most recent novel, To the White Sea). One has only to place sections from “Victory” and “Ode to the Departing Year” side by side to note the emotional frenzy and and pain shared by the two writers.8 Here are Coleridge's words, still striking after two hundred years:

Yet still I gasp'd and reel'd with dread.
And ever, when the dream of night
Renews the phantom to my sight,
Cold sweat-drops gather on my limbs;
          My ears throb hot; my eye-balls start;
My brain with horrid tumult swims;
          Wild is the tempest of my heart;
And my thick and struggling breath
Imitates the toil of death!
No stranger agony confounds
          The Soldier on the war-field spread,
When all foredone with toil and wounds,
Death-like he dozes among heaps of dead!


While terror signals the presence of an emotionally animating form in both poems and indicates the genre to which they belong, the method of closure in each differs considerably, and this difference sheds further light on the momentum of Dickey's word-magic. To be sure, both poems close with a suffocating terror that demands release. Each poet has worked his way through considerable psychological pain; however, to remain in a state of such dread is emotional, moral, and political paralysis. In short, the pervasive terror in the body of each ode demands the poet's return to action in his conclusion, lest the momentum in each piece remain mired in pathetic tragedy.9 This two-step process—stasis and renewal—occurs in Coleridge's ending when he warns England that it has been protected from the political terrors of the Departing Year primarily because of the military value of its geographic isolation. Threatened even as he closes, Coleridge hears “the Birds of warning sing,” then personally resolves to be “unpartaking of the evil thing” (389) and to remain alert, “Cleans'd from the vaporous passions that bedim / God's Image” (390).

Dickey, also acutely aware of catastrophic evil in human nature, needs to be “Cleans'd” from his exposure to the atrocities of war, which, like Coleridge, he personifies in animal form.10 Although both poets subscribe to a harmonious pantheism that incorporates historical calamity as fully realistic material for the poetic imagination, Dickey postulates nothing like a divine providence—as does Coleridge when he “recentre[s]” his “immortal mind” (390)—as a subsumptive or unifying principle to which he can appeal for relief. Instead, on a personal level, Dickey dramatizes an inferred, magical animism in which life and death are not exclusive opposites but shared moments in a cycle of perpetual motion. In a world in which life and death constantly emerge into and out of each other, Dickey's snake—unlike Coleridge's birds, “the famish'd brood of prey”—has a double nature. First, the boa constrictor-like coiling and physical mutilation of the snake constitute a “confrontation” or “death encounter” for the speaker, a poetic event that has an emotional analogy with his vast experience of death from war and simultaneously stands for his desire for the symbolic death of his mutilated war self. With what appears at first to be an “appalling” movement, the snake then enters its subject from behind, and an opposite movement begins, namely, the renewal of the soldier that is initiated in the poem's final line. Strangely enough, the motion of the snake alters—indeed, redeems—both serpent and host, for the snake acquires, in Drake's terms, a “mysterious energy” that transforms the soldier, Christ-like, into “the new prince of peace”:

                                                                                                                                  I felt myself opened
          Just enough, where the serpent staggered on his last
          Colors                    needles gasping for air                    jack-hammering
                              My right haunch burned by the hundreds
Of holes, as the snake shone on me complete                    escaping
          Forever                    surviving                    crushing                    going home
                                                            To the bowels of the living,
                              His master, and the new prince of peace.

(Eye-Beaters 41)

As is the case with Dickey's animals in many of his poems, such as “Approaching Prayer,” “Eagles,” “Reincarnation I and II,” and “The Sheep Child,” the snake now functions redemptively by assuming the role of what is a shamanic commonplace in anthropological literature, namely, a power animal. In keeping with the classical, mythological character of a power animal, Dickey's snake acquires a “mysterious power” that is both malign and benign. On the one hand, as a cross-cultural symbol of the range of human evil (including war), the snake is a traditional object of terror. Joseph Campbell says, “in its threatening character, as a traveling aesophagus, the serpent is … an image of the consuming power of the … will [in nature], foreboding death to all that lives” (Mythologies 378). On the other hand, Campbell notes, “The ability of the serpent to shed its skin and thus to renew itself, as the moon is renewed by sloughing its shadow, has recommended it, throughout the world, as an obvious image of the mystery of the [same] will in nature, which is ever self-renewing in its generation of living beings” (378). This ancient mythological connection between snake and moon thus enables the serpent to play its double role by providing it with the “self-renewing” power that is passed on to the soldier. In “Victory,” as in “May Day Sermon” and “The Eye-Beaters,” Dickey establishes yet another magical setting in which his poetic agent is energized as he tries to overcome overwhelming odds. On the road of this momentous psychic journey, Dickey's soldier struggles forward to rid himself of war by acquiring traits of natural objects which are really rhetorical, self-animating aspects of his own mind.11 That nature should seem beneficent and helpful, rather than another debilitating oppressor, adds considerably to the momentum of the healing process.

Consequently, in Dickey's ritual scene, the moon is not static but carries with it a renewing, ancient, magical light. For example, in “Victory,” “two birthdays / Ago,” when the soldier got drunk—drunkenness being another variation of the hallucinatory state of shamanic transition—he did so at night when “the moon burned with the light it had when it split // From the earth” (Eye-Beaters 39). Dickey's soldier, like this moon, has been “split” by war from the human and emotional ground that he desperately requires. However, this moon retains the “light” or energizing possibility to split, then become something different and uniquely powerful, a possibility and process that bear direct analogy to the soldier's ritual journey of healing and self-empowerment. While expressing a dynamic relation between life and death, metaphors throughout the poem further bind the motions of snake and moon, suggesting once more that, in Dickey's world, there operates something analogous to Frazer's principle of a power-exchanging, contagious magic. When the soldier says, “I reached for the bottle. It was dying and the moon / Writhed closer to be free,” the dying energy of whiskey's liberating hallucination gives rise to the snakelike motion of the moon, which sheds its animating light on the soldier's “smile of foreknowledge” that he will survive the war. Similarly, just before the visionary snake emerges from the bottle, the speaker indicates another, closer connection between snake and moon that images the archetypal movement of life out of death: “Had the Form in the moon come from the dead soldier / Of your bottle, Mother?” (39). Finally, even during the tattooing process, the passive host gives himself over to the animating, magical motion of the snake. Earlier, he described the snake by saying, “the angel / Of peace is limbless” (39-40). Yet as the snake covers his body, the soldier identifies with the shape and motion of this “dreadful … superhuman agency” (Drake's terms) and so takes on its sustaining and renewing moon-energy as he notes, “limbless I fell and moved like moonlight / On the needles” (40).

Even though Dickey's poem suggests that the “Form in the moon” (which I read to be an incipient image of the “snakehead”) comes from a masculine source (albeit from his mother: “the dead soldier / Of your bottle”), and though the form's shape suggests a phallocentric image, the serpent is, by no means, a universal sign of masculine power. As an instrument of self-revelation and transformation, the serpent is conceived in many cultures as a feminine totem that symbolizes modes of coming to consciousness that bear directly on central religious components in Dickey's poem. For example, Campbell notes that in “India's Kundalini Yoga … the energy of life—all life—is symbolized as … a female serpent.” In this sect,

The aim of the yoga is to wake this Serpent Maiden, coiled in upon herself, and bring her up the spine to full consciousness, both of herself and of the spiritual nature of all things. She is awakened by the sound of the energy of the light of consciousness (the sound of the syllable “om”), which is brought to her first on the rhythm of the breath, but fully heard only when she has uncoiled and ascended to the center of the heart.

(Mythologies 291)

As it does in this Indian ritual initiated through feminine power, the snake in “Victory” covers the soldier's body with a motion that constitutes a hypnotic, somatic meditation, a meditation that, like Dickey's poem, involves the total transformation and awareness of its participant. Examples of the movement of Dickey's snake warrant repeating here to confirm this striking analogy: “the snake … was at my throat / Beginning with its tail … moving under / My armpit. … He coiled around me … I turned with him side / To side … he grew. … I lay and it lay / Now over my heart. … and I knew that many- / colored snakeskin was living with my heart our hearts / Beat as one” (40-41).

In Campbell's citation, the symbolic purpose of the Indian snake is to unify all human emotional and psychic centers, whether at the lowest point in the genitals or at the higher reaches of the heart. This somatic concordance then leads each center along the “One Way Trail” to full consciousness at “the crown of the head” (Mythologies 291). To carry the whole man—sensory and cognitive, conscious and unconscious—through a comprehensive healing process, Dickey's serpent enters the soldier's bowels with the ritual motion of the mythical ouraboros, the serpent eating its own tail in the eternally circular process of separation and return to an energizing source. When Dickey's serpent passes the navel (that part of the body that Campbell interprets as a mythological symbol of “[the] will to power, aggression” [291]) and enters the soldier, we may read this event as the poem's climactic moment, a culmination of the fully conscious, circular transformation of the aggressive, wartorn, and exhausted phallus into an instrument of peace and renewal. Thinking through the physical imagery of the male body, Dickey transcends the merely physical by concluding in the mystical tradition of T. S. Eliot in “East Coker.” While we may see a pun equal to Kenneth Burke's wordplay in his essay on the bodily tropes, we also see a standard, religious oxymoron in Eliot's words that locates Dickey's poetic attitude in a well-documented series of theological traditions, namely, that “In my end is my beginning” (129).12

If one thinks that this kind of closural magic (or, indeed, the formal, snakelike movement of Dickey's poem down the page) is trivial or may be reduced to static, sensory experience, one needs only to examine similar forms of “religious” meditation in other cultures, ranging from that of the Hopi Indians to certain Oriental religions.13 Consistent with the world-views in many of these beliefs, Dickey's magical method in “Victory” is not a form of escapism but rather a nondualistic way of clearing the ego of earthly pain in order to stand outside dominating sensation and emotion, and thus to free oneself from their tyranny. In many ways, the animating emotional form of “Victory” is analogous to the utterance of the mythic syllable om, which carries its practitioner through levels of consciousness, beyond myriad mental opposites, to the infernal and celestial vision deep within one's own soul. Dickey's magical, religious method of closure is thus both ancient and cross-cultural; it is directed to an external narrative of traumatic historical events, yet also inner-directed to the most sensitive reaction to these events by the human body. That this method should involve a sexual component becomes even more intelligible when related to certain basic religious principles, shared by Buddhist and Hindu sects. As Campbell notes of the Sahajiya cult in the Pala dynasty from Bengal, between A.D. 700 and 1200:

it was held that the only true experience of the pure rapture of the void was the rapture of sexual union, wherein “each is both.” This was the natural path … to the innate nature (sahaja) of oneself, and therewith of the universe: the path along which nature itself leads the way.

So we read … “This sahaja is to be intuited within.” “It is free from all sounds, colors, and qualities; can be neither spoken of nor known.” “Where the mind dies out and the vital breath is gone, there is the Great Delight supreme: it neither stands steady nor fluctuates; nor is it expressible in words.” “In that state the individual mind joins sahaja as water water.” “There is no duality in sahaja. It is perfect, like the sky.”

… One knows then: “I am the universe: I am the Buddha: I am perfect purity: I am non-cognition: I the annihilator of the cycle of existence.”

(Masks of God: Oriental Mythology 351)

“Victory” originally appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1968. Twenty-five years later, in fall 1993, Dickey dramatized yet again his paramount interest in mystical momentum by using word-magic to conclude his novel To the White Sea. Here, his hero-predator, the American tail gunner Muldrow, shot down over war-torn Japan, is killed by Japanese soldiers. As their bullets go through him, he does not exactly die but rather enters a desireless, objectless, bodiless world, like the Sahajiyaian realm of supreme rapture, in which “the mind dies out and the vital breath is gone,” which “neither stands steady nor fluctuates,” and in which there is “no duality,” for “the individual mind joins [nature] as water water.” This absolute, circular flow—the union of life and death, waking and dreaming, pain and the absence of sensation—then hypnotically transports him to a kind of waking trance beyond even these harmonious opposites. In the novel's final lines, Muldrow's predatory quest ends when he closes his eyes and the individuality of his speaking voice dissolves into a darkened silence, which Campbell calls the “fourth element” of om, “the sphere of bliss,” described in the Mandukya Upanishad as “neither inward- nor outward-turned consciousness, nor the two together … neither knowing nor unknowing … the coming to peaceful rest of all differentiated, relative existence: utterly quiet: peaceful-blissful” (Masks of God: Creative Mythology 666). In the purity of his motionless motion, this soldier, like the soldier in “Victory,” is propelled by the momentum of Dickey's extraordinary word-magic into the ecstatic silence that is his and its own final form:

When I tell you this, just say that it came from a voice in the wind: a voice without a voice, which doesn't make a sound. You can pick it up any time it snows, where you are, or even just when the wind is from the north, from anywhere north of east or west. I was in the place I tried to get to. I had made it in exactly the shape I wanted to be in, though maybe just a little beat up. But the main thing was that I had got to the landscape and the weather, and you can remember me standing there with the bullets going through, and me not feeling a thing. There it was. A red wall blazed. For a second there was a terrific heat, like somebody had opened a furnace door, the most terrible heat, something that could have burned up the world, and I was sure I was gone. But the cold and the snow came back. The wind mixed the flakes, and I knew I had it. I was in it, and part of it. I matched it all. And I will be everywhere in it from now on. You will be able to hear me, just like you're hearing me now. Everywhere in it, for the first time and the last, as soon as I close my eyes.



  1. Poems that I should like to nominate as major in this collection are “Under Buzzards” (part 2 of “Diabetes”), “Mercy,” “Victory,” “Pine,” “Madness,” “The Eye-Beaters,” and “Turning Away.”

  2. For example, “the stagy, unpleasant hysteria” with which Leibowitz faults Dickey may, in fact, be an emotional sign that Dickey has formally achieved exactly the kind of poem he intended to produce, with “hysterical” effects totally appropriate to its genre. See my discussion of “Madness,” “Mercy,” and “Victory” below. Ernest Suarez deals perceptively with the considerable critical misperception of Dickey, especially in chapter 4. See also Romy Heylen's valuable distinction between “reflection poetry” and “a participation poem or performance poem that quite simply must be experienced,” with Dickey falling under the latter heading.

  3. Dickey's speech, titled “The G.I. Can of Beets, The Fox in the Wave, and The Hammers Over Open Ground,” is collected in Night Hurdling (124-40).

  4. Whether or not we agree that “spindrift” cannot be part of this seal's vision—one recalls Crane's own, vigorous defense of his language in a famous letter to Harriet Monroe (Poems 234-40)—Dickey's comments on Crane's word selection lead to further considerations about magical wordplay in poetry which are relevant for the beginning of our inquiry.

  5. For Dickey's view of William James, see Baughman, Voiced Connections 155.

  6. Dickey calls this mode of lyric “country surrealism” (Sorties 100).

  7. My own reading of “Pine” differs from yet is indebted to Ernest Suarez's analysis (134-36).

  8. If we apply Drake's criteria as well as conventional standards of the ode to “Victory” and “Ode to the Departing Year,” we find that both poems qualify as singular representatives in the genre of terror. First, both poems are long—Dickey's at 131 lines, Coleridge's at 161—which enables each to develop a considerable vastness of conception regarding war and the toll it takes on human emotion. Further, both possess an occasional reference of considerable, if not ceremonial, importance, Dickey's to V-J Day, Coleridge's to the year 1796 and a preceding, tragic history; each occasional reference produces the feeling of an elevated status of public utterance, even though each poem is represented in a profoundly personal mode of address. Both poems entail elaborate stanzaic organization, exquisite detail and coloring, and a somewhat similar style of indentation, although Dickey's is more pronounced and much less regular than Coleridge's. While Dickey uses no rhyme and his tone is less heightened, both lyrics convey a considerable seriousness that slowly alters and transports the reader into a state of impassioned dread. Rhetorically, this dread aids the political position of each poet by giving him a vulnerable sincerity that makes him sympathetic and morally convincing.

  9. Arguing for the value of “poetic” rather than merely “semantic” meaning, Kenneth Burke puts the issue in a poignant statement that could well represent Dickey's poetic stand against certain self-indulgent aspects of confessional poetry: “I wonder how long it has been since a poet has asked himself … Suppose I did not simply wish to load upon the broad shoulders of the public medium my own ungainly appetities and ambitions? Suppose that, gnarled as I am, I did not consider it enough simply to seek payment for my gnarledness, the establishment of communion through evils held in common? Suppose I would also erect a structure of encouragement, for all of us? How should I go about it, in the sequence of imagery, not merely to bring us most poignantly into hell, but also out again? … Must there not, for every flight, be also a return, before my work can be called complete as a moral act?” (Philosophy 138-39).

  10. As critic Ronald Baughman poignantly points out in “James Dickey's War Poetry: A ‘Saved, Shaken Life,’” it is not just the snake that terrorizes Dickey, but also a veteran's residual terror of surviving the war. It is a well known biographical fact that Dickey spent the formative years of his young adulthood (1942-46) serving in the Army Air Force in the South Pacific. After Dickey flew nearly one hundred missions with the 418th Night Fighters, after he saw his American colleagues killed and mutilated by the enemy, and after he was an integral part of the killing mechanism of war, it is little wonder that so much of Dickey's poetry is driven by his internal need to deal emotionally with the shock of combat.

  11. This self-enabling rhetoric is extremely important, especially on a personal and emotional level. The reader has only to ask how many times he or she has had to fight back from psychological or physical attack, whether in a major social arena such as world war or in the wars conducted on the battlegrounds of one's profession, family, or love life, where the threat of failure is the constant enemy. For a similar rhetoric, though presented in a more explicit mode of direct address, see Whitman's “A Noiseless Patient Spider” (Whitman 450). See also “Rhetoric and Primitive Magic” and the “Realistic Function of Rhetoric” in Kenneth Burke's A Rhetoric of Motives (40-46).

  12. See Kenneth Burke, “The Thinking of the Body” and “Somnia ad Urinandnum,” Language as Symbolic Action 308-58. See also William James's famous chapter “Mysticism” in The Varieties of Religious Experience 299-336.

  13. See Joseph Campbell's description of the Hopi Indian Snake Dance, which occurs in late August in the lunar month called “the Big Feast Moon,” in Mythologies 290.

Works Cited

Baughman, Ronald. “James Dickey's War Poetry: A ‘Saved, Shaken Life.’” South Carolina Review 10 (Apr. 1983): 38-48.

———, ed. The Voiced Connections of James Dickey: Interviews and Conversations. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1989.

Burke, Kenneth. Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley: U of California P, 1966.

———. The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. New York: Vintage, 1957.

———. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969.

Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Creative Mythology. New York: Viking, 1968.

———. The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology. New York: Viking, 1962.

———. Mythologies of the Primitive Planters: The Middle and Southern Americas. Part 3 of The Way of the Seeded Earth. Vol. 2 of Historical Atlas of World Mythology. New York: Harper, 1989.

———. The Sacrifice. Part 1 of The Way of the Seeded Earth. Vol. 2 of Historical Atlas of World Mythology. New York: Harper, 1988.

Cassirer, Ernst. Language and Myth. Trans. Susanne K. Langer. New York: Dover, 1946.

———. Mythical Thought. Vol. 2 of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Trans. Ralph Manheim. New Haven: Yale UP, 1955.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Poems and prose. English Romantic Poetry and Prose. Ed. Russell Noyes. New York: Oxford UP, 1956. 373-447.

Crane, Hart. The Complete Poems and Selected Letters and Prose of Hart Crane. Ed. Brom Weber. Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1966.

Crane, Ronald, ed. Critics and Criticism: Ancient and Modern. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1952.

Davison, Peter. “The Difficulties of Being Major: The Poetry of Robert Lowell and James Dickey.” Atlantic Monthly Oct. 1967: 223-30.

DeMott, Benjamin. “The ‘More’ Life School and James Dickey.” Saturday Review 28 Mar. 1970: 38.

Dickey, James. The Central Motion: Poems, 1968-1979. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1983.

———. The Eagle's Mile. Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1990.

———. The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970.

———. Night Hurdling: Poems, Essays, Conversations, Commencements, and Afterwords. Columbia, SC, and Bloomfield Hills, MI: Bruccoli Clark, 1983.

———. Poems 1957-1967. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1967.

———. Puella. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1982.

———. Self-Interviews. New York: Dell, 1970.

———. Sorties. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1984.

———. To the White Sea. New York: Houghton, 1993.

Donoghue, Denis. “Walt Whitman.” Leaves of Grass. Ed. Sculley Bradley and Harold W. Blodgett. New York: Norton, 1973. 962-72.

Eliot, T. S. “East Coker.” The Complete Poems and Plays: 1909-1950. New York: Harcourt, 1952. 123-29.

Frazer, Sir James George. The Golden Bough. New York: Macmillan, 1963.

Heylen, Romy. “James Dickey's The Zodiac: A Self-Translation?” James Dickey Newsletter 6.2 (1990): 2-17.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. Poems and Prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Ed. W. H. Gardner. Baltimore: Penguin, 1953.

Howard, Richard. “Resurrection for a Little While.” Nation 23 Mar. 1970: 341-42.

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. London: Collier, 1961.

Leibowitz, Herbert. “The Moiling of Secret Forces: The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy.The Imagination as Glory: The Poetry of James Dickey. Ed. Bruce Weigl and T. R. Hummer. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1984. 130.

Longinus. “On the Sublime.” Ed. Mark Schorer, Josephine Miles, and Gordon McKenzie. Criticism: The Foundations of Modern Literary Judgment. New York: Harcourt, 1948. 10-24.

Simon, John. Rev. of Poems 1957-1967, by James Dickey. Commonweal 1 Dec. 1967: 315.

Suarez, Ernest. James Dickey and the Politics of Canon: Assessing the Savage Ideal. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1993.

Tulip, James. “Robert Lowell and James Dickey.” Poetry Australia 24 (Oct. 1968): 39-47.

Untermeyer, Louis. “A Way of Seeing and Saying.” Saturday Review 6 May 1967: 55.

Susanna Rich (essay date 1996)

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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 Cracker Kipling” for writing what Bly characterizes as “new critical brainwashing that doesn't wash.” But “The Firebombing” can be shown to implicate the reader in the blame for the firebombing of Japan during World War II. Bearing out the experiences of many war veterans, this reading is sound on several levels. First, politically, by sanctioning a government that, in war, sends people into battle, Americans sanction the bloodshed that ensues. Soldiers follow orders that are, “on behalf of the American people.” Second, psychologically, when the weight of guilt is too hard to bear, we pass it on to others to share it with us. Dickey, through the mirror of his craft, deftly reflects back into the picture those of us who deny complicity and disagree with the poem's message.

The poem begins with a rousing imperative, much like a pep talk given by a sergeant to his soldiers: “Homeowners unite”—a one-line, two-word stanza that looms larger because of the frame of white space around it. Dickey uses five of these one-line stanzas in the first three pages, and then, just when we become accustomed to them, stops. His stanzas vary in length, organization, and line length. Sometimes he begins the next line at the visual point where the previous line ends. We feel dropped. All this variation is unsettling, inviting us to grasp onto some comforting structure, impose it ourselves, just as a government imposes orders onto its military in the chaos of battle.

Unsettling, as well, is his shift to triple spacing between words, dividing verbs from adverbs, prepositions from their objects, verbs from their objects, nouns from their verbs. This invites the reader to try, albeit unconsciously, to pull the words back to comfortable regularity, thus including the reader in the shaping of the words on the page and, by implication, closing the distance between us as passive listeners and the speaker as active creator. In some places this spacing invites us to punctuate, as for example in these lines:

Grocery baskets          toy fire engines
New Buicks stalled by the half-moon
Shining at midnight on crossroads          green paint
Of jolly garden tools          red Christmas ribbons:

This invitation to punctuate is a haunting move, for dropping punctuation into written discourse as an afterthought, done by someone other than the author, is visually, and metaphorically, like dropping bombs into a landscape.

Dickey further unsettles us with stutterings:

In a dark dream          that          that is
That is like flying inside someone's head
Think of this          this of this
.....Letting go          letting go

As with any stutterer, we are tempted to say it for him just to stop the halting, get closure, be finished with it. And so we are drawn into the bombing, for these lines stutter the way a machine gun would. We want the words to empty out, the bombs to leave the bomb bay. With these and other unsettling moves Dickey makes us vulnerable, forcing us to look for some structure into which we can settle.

Dickey also draws us in with patterns such as anagramatic alliteration. For example, he often starts a series of lines with the same letters, as in stanza 3:

There are cowl flaps …
The shovel-marked …
The enemy …

or later:

Forever I do sleep …
For home that breaks …
From my wingtips …

Even his capitalization of first words offers the safety of return, and so we grab for the next line, and the next line, and are driven along to read more of the bomber's rapturous ode. Then there are visual and aural alliterations that link words in lines and across lines: the b's in,

Break under the first bomb, around those
In bed, or late in public baths …

and the look and sound of c's in,

Of Chicago fire:
Come up with the carp pond showing …

Whitmanesque catalogues of the landscape viewed from the cockpit name the elements of what is being bombed, like Adam's first naming and thus making conscious the parts of Paradise. We are drawn to this voice by its exuberance and power. We want to be part of a power that is not affected by moral strictures that seem, like the Japanese villages seen from the distance of an airplane, mere abstractions.

It would be easy for us to blame the pilot-speaker, to unburden ourselves of the guilt of having enjoyed this poem and of feeling the power of destruction. But there is the “Catch 22”: If we blame the firebomber, we destroy what we have co-created, and if we do not, then we are co-pilots and guilty as well.

Dickey begins “The Firebombing” with an epigram taken from the Book of Job, “Or hast thou an arm like God?” Dickey offers us two alternatives: to be blameworthy by blaming the firebomber for his lack of guilt, or to be forgiven by forgiving; to damn like the devil, or to forgive with the sweep of God's arm, and thus, like David's spectator, become the Christlike Sabine with outstretched arms—the one taken in violence.

Work Cited

Dickey, James. “The Firebombing.” Buckdancer's Choice. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1965. 181-88.

Russell Fraser (essay date 1998)

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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 dying of cancer, and his boys, Paul Hornung, Ray Nitschke, and Jerry Kramer, storied names, stand around him. “We're with you,” they say, having to believe there's such a thing as winning. “We're with you all the way / You're going forever, Vince.”

This sounds like the stuff of “the Sunday spirit-screen,” but the tricky thing is to hear what the lines are actually saying. They don't all speak for Dickey, a former football star at Clemson. The boy in the poem, sobbing into his jersey, is drawn by Norman Rockwell, whose art of half-truths misses life's bleakness, so stints on its glory. Dickey sees how the glory is contingent on loss. Not all of us win; on the contrary, everybody loses. Once golden like the poet—in his fantasy life a dead ringer for Hornung, the Packers' great running back—we subside into gray middle age. The poem's last lines tell us, when we look at them again, that we and the dying man are going the same way. Forever. But this isn't a poem that sets up expectations only to overthrow them, and the emotion it brims with is real.

Football gives Dickey his taking-off point for considering some home truths, incident to living. Life hangs by a hair, but the bruises it prints on us, “as from / Scrimmage with the varsity,” are man-creating and help us survive. “The Bee,” dedicated to the football coaches of Clemson, acts out this proposition and is meanwhile an ode to the game. Putting the old wingback through his paces again, knee action high as it was in his youth, fat man's body exploding through the five-hole over tackle, it bids him dig hard, for something must be saved. His son, stung by a bee that won't let go, is running in panic into the murderous traffic of the highway. Racing to save him, the poet hears his dead coaches, their voices still quick on the air. “Get the lead out,” they scream, and Dickey, leaving his feet at the last possible moment, brings his son down “where / He lives.” At the end of this marvelous poem, he salutes the dead instructor who taught him: “Coach Norton, I am your boy.”

But no modern poet is easier to poke fun at. More about football, “In the Pocket” is fun, except that the joke is on him. In the grasp of pursuers—“enemies,” he calls them—he reaches inside himself, as sports-writers say:

                                                                                                    hit move scramble
                    Before death and the ground
Come up          Leap stand kill die strike

That is what the writers mean when they liken football to life, and the only possible response is dismay. Dickey had genius, many poems attesting it, but critical talent wasn't his. He wrote too much, twenty volumes in thirty years, and the failures he left unchallenged drag his large output earthward.

He has a sappy, portentous side, and his young man's silliness doesn't go away. In prose reflections (Sorties) he should have kept to himself, he considers masturbation, “one of the most profound forms of self-communication.” The best “abdominal exercise” was fucking. His wrinkled skin prompts this observation: “You can look at your foot … and it is not the foot you ever had before.” Well, yes. In his late forties, he wondered how he would spend the rest of his life. A whirlwind, it was. “But is it the right whirlwind?” He goes on about sex, but “phantom women of the mind” got to him more than real ones. The confusion introduces a wistful Platonist, one who believes (according to Robert Frost) that “what we have here is an imperfect copy of what is in heaven. The woman you have is an imperfect copy of some woman in heaven or in someone else's bed.” That is Dickey's idea. For better or worse, his poetry is restless, always looking over the fence. I'll come to the better part of this later.

He offers a target as broad as a barn, and critics who don't like him have a field day. He wouldn't keep his head down. That made him highly vulnerable, said Monroe Spears, a sympathetic critic. But this was lucky, for without the vulnerability, good things in his poetry wouldn't happen. In his novel Deliverance, he is Lewis, he told himself, a great white hunter more talkative than Hemingway's. His ideal society is peopled by “survivors” who live in the woods, hunting, fishing, and strumming guitars. Surprising us, Dickey had the nerve to sneer at Robert Bly. But I vote Yes to the novel's big idea. Thinking of how it would be in the wild, the hero says: “You'd die early, and you'd suffer, and your children would suffer, but you'd be in touch.”

The nature lover owed a lot to art. Evaluating an artist friend (“somewhat derivative”), Dickey draws his own portrait, ecstatic as he bends to the work. Surely, some “original inscape” must be coming. But “[i]nstead, when it comes, it comes out looking like Graham Sutherland or Van Gogh.” The word “inscape” is a tipoff, and much of him comes out like Gerard Manley Hopkins—“hoe blade buckle bifocal,” and so on. Dickey's first-person pronoun harks back to Whitman's, and trying out the high rhetorical wire, he tilts toward Hart Crane: “O claspable / Symbol the unforeseen on home ground The thing that sustains us forever” (“Coming Back to America”). Dylan Thomas was one of his heroes, “the only predecessor.” These are dangerous masters.

Dickey isn't a discursive poet, his unit being the line, not the verse paragraph. Many lines are catenae, multicolored beads on a string. As in “The Shark's Parlor”:

crabs scuttling from under the floor …
An almighty fin in trouble          a moiling of secret forces          a false start
Of water          a round wave growing …

His apprehension of things is paratactic, circumscribing what he can do. A psychologist like him finds it hard to sustain interest, and his long poems gleam only sporadically “like the flashing of a shield,” a phrase from Wordsworth's Prelude. In between the gleams, the matter, as with Wordsworth, inclines to the turgid. Wordsworth's blank verse isn't part of Dickey's equipment, though, nor is Stevens's, in some great poems that harness the mind.

But his catenae are crystalline, at least enough of them to compel attention. In “The Escape” they fuse, creating a structure like the windowpanes in the poem, fitting the noon sun together:

An enormous glass-fronted hospital
Rises across the street, the traffic
Roars equally from all four sides,
And often, from a textile mill,
A teen-age girl wanders by,
Her head in a singing cloth
Still humming with bobbins and looms.

Structure remains a problem—following his metaphor, the sun reflecting off the glass is apt to blind the eye—and Dickey's poems aren't easy going. The difficulty they give isn't the kind that arises from complex meanings but from a built-in liability of oracular poetry. W. B. Yeats on Hopkins (in the Oxford Book of Modern Verse) seems on the point or near it: “His meaning is like some faint sound that strains the ear, comes out of words, passes to and fro between them, goes back into words, his manner a last development of poetical diction.” “Poetical diction” here means an arresting but florid vocabulary, language disoriented to quicken perception. Change the content, “never the form,” said a cynical English statesman—good advice, but Dickey ignores it. Like Hopkins and the other masters he emulates, he defeats expectation in diction and syntax, as in “Paestum”:

Snakes under the cloud live more
In their curves to move. Rain falls
With the instant, conclusive chill
Of a gnat flying into the eye.
Crows fall to the temple roof;
An American feels with his shoulders
Their new flightless weight be born …

The fracturing of normal usage irritates more than enlightens, and seems a modern affectation that will pass.

Dickey's self-conscious style approximates the condition of music, the big Romantic kind that aims to pin you to the wall. The other side of this is a paucity of nice discriminations. Declaimed poetry grows monotonous, and the bard is a windbag in long poems like “Reincarnation (II).” He hoped for language that “has a kind of unbridled frenzy about it,” becoming (as he acknowledged) inevitably more obscure. Like Mark Rothko, to whom he compared himself, Dickey loved colors, “just colors,” and wanted to build up “great shimmering walls of words.” It seems they went up at command or by magic, like the walls that obeyed Amphion's lyre. His best poems say he knew better, but his aesthetic is slippery, befitting the man who was drunk (if you believe him) for his last twenty-five years. This was boasting, but of a piece with his advice to his students at the University of South Carolina. Tune into the “celestial wireless,” he told them—the worst advice you can give to the young.

He wants so much, like a Thomas Wolfe in poetry, and the strain and cupidity tell. Everything is pristine and worth wonder. Compared to frivolous city fellers, he's awfully down to earth. In poetry, it's “the real, deep thing” that engages him, and he is “sure sick to death” of literary sophists. No misguided Platonist (the moralist now, not the lover of ideal women) put more stress on content, a great poem's “first prerequisite.” Of course he didn't cotton to John Berryman, all that intolerable playing (his italics). T. S. Eliot's subtleties went by him, and Eliot's having-us-on definition of poetry as “superior amusement” was like a red flag to Dickey's bull. To forfeit this side of poetry and/or Eliot's breezy view of it seems too bad, a loss for poetry in general, in particular Dickey's.

“Learned treatises” on poetry made his thumbs prick, as did learned poetry, Eliot's or Ezra Pound's. He said “intelligence always leads to overrefinement”; and against “palaver, and analysis,” he posed “large basic emotions.” I think we take his point while deploring its tendency. Our age of criticism has had its revenge on a poet who looked skeptically at academic critics pecking away at their laptops. Being a critic, I have a laptop, but have had to lean on a friend who knows how to “access” the library's outsize computer. Punching up the poet's name, my friend makes learned titles appear on the screen—in this case of Dickey, upwards of three hundred. Though he was vain enough, that would have appalled him.

Poetry struck him with the force of revelation, and he never got off the road to Damascus. Reading Theodore Roethke, “the greatest poet this country has yet produced,” Dickey realized with astonishment that he wasn't dead. Hyperbole is his element, but the second term at least is true, his poetry bearing it out. One way or another he wriggled free of mortality, getting beyond or outside himself. When he pronounces on life, his voice seems to know something he didn't.

In “May Day Sermon to the Women of Gilmer County, Georgia, by a Woman Preacher Leaving the Baptist Church,” Dickey brings us to the place where God speaks from the burning bush:

About nakedness: understand how butterflies, amazed, pass out
Of their natal silks          how the tight snake takes a great breath bursts
Through himself and leaves himself behind          how a man casts finally
Off everything that shields him from another          beholds his loins
Shine with his children forever          burn with the very juice
Of resurrection: such shining is how the spring creek comes
Forth from its sunken rocks          it is how the trout foams and turns on
Himself          heads upstream, breathing mist like water, for the cold
Mountain of his birth. …

Thanks to an enabling poet, down-and-outers, not out of pocket but evacuated in spirit, burst through the imprisoning bounds of the city into a bed of roses (“Bums, on Waking”). If we say that poetry is an act of generosity, Dickey's illustrates what this means.

He sought to re-create the world; and oxymoron, the conceit of the contraries, is a means to his end. “I want to work with extremely crazy, apparently unjustifiable juxtapositions,” he said, opening as great a division as possible between his comparative terms. Sometimes he fails to bridge them or is only showing off. When this happens, he is like Icarus falling into the sea, a failure but the splash makes you notice. Napalm and high-octane fuel pair with good bourbon and GI juice in “The Firebombing,” and the plane carries a monstrous burden “under the undeodorized arms” of its wings. I'd rate these pairings only so-so. In “Power and Light,” however, he straps crampons onto his shoes to climb the basement stairs, smiling when he says this—an improvement.

All poets are oxymoronic, and really good poets make ill-assorted things complicitous. Seeing them together, we find not strangeness but congruity we hadn't noticed before. Eugenio Montale, a modern master—Dickey does variations on him in his “Free-Flight Improvisations”—has an antipoetic sun like drippings on chimney tops, and iridescent words like the scales on a dying mullet. Many grudge this mordant phrasing, but Montale wills us to endorse it as right for the milieu he works in. Reshuffling old bones, Dickey is like that.

Except that comparing him to Montale needs a “Yes, but” reservation. Though Dickey plays with standard grammar and the way words reticulate, violating as he does this conventional notions of form, his poetry is old-fashioned, an honorable word, and in its attitudes toward life more pro than anti. It struts its stuff, frowned on by approved moderns—Eliot, his great antagonist, heading the list. Whatever the subject, it lights up “Like a bonfire seen through an eyelid” (“A Folk Singer of the Thirties”). The eyelid is the delimiting form.

A poem for a dying lady, “Angina” is highly formal—try counting the beats per line and estimating the kind of poetic foot your ear seems to hear. Emotion that might be mawkish wells up in this poem, but the controlling form makes it supportable. Thinking of love, the poet imagines taking a chairlift:

Up a staircase burning with dust
In the afternoon sun slanted also
Like stairs without steps
To a room where an old woman lies. …

From the pink radio comes “helplessly bad music,” paradoxically her only help; and death,

A chastened, respectful presence
Forced by years of excessive quiet
To be stiller than wallpaper roses,
Waits, twined in the roses, saying slowly
To itself, as sprier and sprier
Generations of disc jockeys chatter,
I must be still and not worry,
Not worry, not worry, to hold
My peace, my poor place, my own.

Macabre and tender, this ending is like Emily Dickinson a hundred years later, not least in its spareness of line.

Conceiving of poetry as “part of the Heraclitean flux,” Dickey rejected “marmoreal, closed forms.” Alexander Pope is no doubt marmoreal, and so are epigrammatists like Walter Savage Landor. But all form is closed, decisions having been taken, and this sounds suspiciously modern—worse yet, postmodern. Still, he jibbed at the role assigned him, “a kind of spokesman for spontaneity,” and said “nothing can exist without form.” Dickey's distinguishing thing—after you notice the sensibility, vigor, knack for invention, and so on—is that he is a formalist in an age of slapdash. His style is gerundival (moving, unfurling, keeping, covering, living, watching), and favors parallel constructions:

In some guise or other he is near them when they are weeping without sound
When the teen-age son has quit school          when the girl has broken up
With the basketball star          when the banker walks out on his wife.

(Both quotations are from “The Fiend,” a.k.a. The Poet.) Walt Whitman, famous for breaking the mold, is such another, both needing a centripetal pull.

Or the pull is away from the ego. Too much I is a problem in Dickey, and knowing that, he took measures. He didn't want to be the failed writer of The Zodiac who “can't get rid of himself enough / To write poetry.” He gets rid of himself by hitching on to public events (like the inaugural of the president, or of the governor of South Carolina), or by preferring narrative forms to lyric, where the danger of drenching the poem in the self is much greater. “The Eye-Beaters” tells a story, glossed in the margins à la “The Ancient Mariner”; and “Falling,” taking off from a clipping in the New York Times, reclaims territory that used to be fiction's. Doing what he can to slough the tyranny of self, Dickey imagines his way into a woman's life, or joins his voice to other voices, one that of a Chinese poet who died more than a millennium earlier. “The dead at their work-bench altars” tutor his ego, letting him know there's nothing new beneath the sun.

One of Dickey's permanent poems, “The Rain Guitar,” shows the opportunist, always a good role for a poet. Traveling England in the rain, he has his guitar with him, and it prompts the question: “With what I had, what could I do?” Winchester is the scene, but where is the cathedral? “Out of sight, but somewhere around,” like the War in the Pacific, North Georgia railroad tracks, British marching songs, and a buck dance. Harmonizing, they make a tune all its own, affecting, also comic, also “improved”—Dickey's word—by lumping discrete things together, then fishing for a common term.

He has a gift for comedy, seen to best advantage in “Daughter.” Powerful stuff comes our way in this poem—“Roll, real God. Roll through us”—and we might end up stranded in the land of rodomontade. But humor, toning things down, retrieves them. Its function is more than expedient, however—true of all the great comic turns, beginning with the drunken porter in Macbeth. Not chastely classical but deliberately impure, Dickey mixes tears and laughter, making a compound tougher than its unadulterated parts.

A poet in the modern idiom, he mostly frees himself of old constraints like rhyme and meter. But no good verse is free, an invidious word for poetry, and conventional forms are vestigial in Dickey, like the ghost of iambic pentameter in The Waste Land. He likes writing in stanzas, for example septets:

And now the green household is dark.
The half-moon completely is shining
On the earth-lighted tops of the trees.
To be dead, a house must be still.
The floor and the walls wave me slowly;
I am deep in them over my head.
The needles and pine cones about me …

(“In the Tree House at Night”)

This sounds to my ear like a sestina, structure being firmly linear and feeling intensely focused but at the same time dispersed. Each stanza—there are eight altogether—walls itself off from the others, and such unity as you get comes from the anapestic rhythm, Dickey's hallmark. After seven lines, his poem wants to break off, but the beat, impelling us forward, won't let it.

Dickey feels at home in short lines, and if his metric were old-style, it would often be trimeter. The short line suits and helps generate his uncomplicated male truths, simple but not simpleminded. Familiar protagonists keep turning up, as in a repertory theater: stonecutters, hunters, fishermen, soldiers, and aviators—men of action, not introspection. “Therapist, farewell,” he writes in “The Eye-Beaters”: “Give me my spear.” Don't call him “macho,” however, but a man who has his hands on the ropes. His competent heroes reflect him. “I have had my time,” he says in “Summer,” and we believe it.

“The Lifeguard,” stamped with the seal of the Norton Anthology of Poetry, is a tale of balked purpose and young life cut short; but an emphatic rhythm, both at ease and powerful, asserts continuities. Words recur, half a dozen of them, as in a sestina, and feminine endings heighten the disciplined run of the lines. At the end of each six-line stanza, exhaustion supervenes, the three-beat line reducing to two, and the poem seems to die on us. But then, a breath taken, it gets going again. This isn't dogged or defiant, like Samuel Beckett's “I can't go on, I'll go on,” only natural, the way spring follows winter.

Form is the hero in “Fence Wire,” from Helmets, the volume where Dickey comes into his own. “Arranging” the fenced-in acres of a farm, the humming sound of electric current defines the life of its animals too. It does this the way Stevens's jar on a hill in Tennessee takes dominion over the world that surrounds it. A war poem from the same volume, “Horses and Prisoners,” has a figure that suggests Dickey's special achievement, formal but incandescent. Growing flowers pound like hooves in the grassy infield where the horses used to be, and the dead men are enclosed by the poet's mind, “a fence on fire.”

Dickey's commitment to form isn't generally acknowledged. Howard Nemerov, in a 1963 review of Drowning with Others, sees “a willed mysticism”—damaging, if true. Nemerov's poet wills himself “to sink out of sight,” like the man who speaks in “The Driver,” eluding the shape (or form) that declares him. But this version of Dickey misses the mark. Form in his poetry is the condition of life, and the “fence,” always there, prevents it from leaking away.

Two poems worth revisiting clarify his conservatism, the kind that holds fast to dear life. In “The Driver,” he swims down to a submerged half-track and sits where the dead driver of the title sat before him. Wanting to cross over to the undiscovered country, he says, or tries to say: “I am become pure spirit.” But only the dead, who no longer hear life's high requiem, can say that. At last he swims back to the surface and, leaping for the sky just before darkness claims him, fills his lungs with the breath of life.

Opting for life, he opts for a purview of truth. Religious cranks and political ideologues are, like willfully mystic poets, avid of the whole truth. First, though, they have to kill their truth, impaling it like a specimen. No poet aspires more than Dickey, but he settles for our human condition, necessarily a privation. He does this again in “A Dog Sleeping on My Feet.” Taking his cue from the sleeping animal, he yearns to speak “The hypnotized language of beasts.” This may be worth doing but doesn't go with what we are, and at the end he breaks off, faltering and failing “Back into the human tongue.”

In the wolverine poem I began with, Dickey seems to exalt a “mindless” way of being, “beyond reason,” and it wouldn't be hard to fellow these quotations with others. But it isn't intellect he takes aim at. The butt of his wrath is the desiccated and goal-oriented man whose instinct is for decapitation. John Crowe Ransom puts it that way in his poem “Painted Head,” where the mind, floating free, leaves “the body bush” behind. Dickey's poems explore what happens when the mind is independent of the body. Finding out what happens, he quit his advertising job, sold his house, and headed for the territories.

“The Salt Marsh,” another keeper from the volume Nemerov looked at, locates Dickey amid stalks of sawgrass, swallowed up in a growing field that offers no promise of harvest. His body tingles like salt crystals, and the sun directly above him destroys all four points of the compass. But losing himself, he finds himself, and as the grass bends before the wind, he bends with it. “Supple” is the word for this, for the poetry too, not stately but quick with motion, often musical, and by its nature communicating repose.

Music isn't prized much in modern poetry, going all the way back to Pound's animadversions on the “swishiness and slushiness” of the post-Swinburnian line. Poets and their critics, canonizing anti-poetry, equate dissonance and truth, and the bulk of Montale will illustrate nicely. Music resonates in Dickey, though, setting him apart in his time. He knew what poetry ought to offer—not finding it in Charles Olson, dismissed for his lack of “personal rhythm,” or in William Carlos Williams's “tiresome and predictable prosiness,” and still less in Mark Strand, whose “deliberate eccentricity” seemed merely silly. Never mind if these judgments meet your agreement: all the words are chosen with malice aforethought. Thinking them over gets you closer to Dickey's intention.

The rhythm he heard had to be “characteristic of the writer.” Also it had to be syncopated, i.e., off the beat. His ear is cocked for the beat, however, absolutely the sine qua non. The critical thing was to move on the song without losing the music. In the Buckdancer poems, the key changes often, but not so often that it baffles the ear. Prosiness was tameness, when the poem stops swinging or its claws are blunted or drawn.

The “timid poem” needed wildness, Dickey said in “For the Last Wolverine.” But he wasn't a primitive, flinging about the bedclothes or burning down the house, and his lines for Richard Wilbur declare an un-Beat-like poet:

                    the great wild thing is not seeing
All the way in to the center,
But holding yourself at the edge,
Alive, where one can get a look.

“Holding yourself,” as if walking a tightrope: this poet is poised, like a bow-and-arrow man, like a musician, two roles Dickey excelled in. The other term to key on is “alive,” evidently equated with wildness. It doesn't mean abandon, though, but the abandoning of self that goes with complete involvement. The hero in Deliverance makes this meaning vivid.

But writing about writers, especially poets, one tends to straighten them out—a mistake. I mustn't discover too much order in Dickey, who had his crazy side, like Ancient Pistol when he sang of Africa and golden joys. The wildness he commends to us is partly itself, hair-raising when it gets into the music. Some examples:

                    on August week ends the cold of a personal ice age
Comes up through my bare feet.

(“Pursuit from Under”)

My life belongs to the world. I will do what I can.

(“The Strength of Fields”)

Or this reminiscence of an old man in a terminal ward, lying back,

                                                                      his eyes filmed, unappeased,
As all of them, clucking, pillow-patting,
Come to help his best savagery blaze, doomed, dead-
game, demanding, unreasonably
Battling to the death for what is his.


This recognizable voice of Dickey's sounds in an early poem, “The Performance,” remembering Donald Armstrong, a fellow airman, beheaded by the Japanese. About to die, he rises, kingly, round-shouldered, then kneels

                                                                      down in himself
Beside his hacked, glittering grave, having done
All things in this life that he could.

That is the voice we want in poetry, suitable for life's occasions, the kind we must get through alone.

R. S. Gwynn (review date 1999)

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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 the umpteenth time, I can at least honestly recall that I was the first five or six.

Rupert Brooke's reputation has declined mightily, but that falling off seems less precipitous than the collapse of Dickey's, the fault less of the poems that made his name than of the noisy celebrity and weak books of his last two decades. His work has all but disappeared from the anthologies of American literature, and even in Norton's recent The Literature of the American South he is allotted only the same number of pages as nikki giovanni! His son's widely read memōir and the inevitable biographies will doubtless spur reassessments; thus, it is good to have Robert Kirschten's portable volume at hand. That said, I can't help but have several regrets about the editor's initial assumptions and the choices that result. In an attempt to define Dickey's best qualities, Kirschten outlines Dickey's “four major poetic modes”: his natural mysticism, his Pythagorean reverence for music, his romanticism, and his primitivism. These are valid enough, perhaps, but they ignore the solid grounding in his generation's realities that gave Dickey's early work such resonance. First, there are the war poems. Kirschten includes “The Performance,” with its curious syntax brilliantly mimicking the unsteady acrobatics of its doomed protagonist, but he excludes “Between Two Prisoners,” in which two captured Americans await execution in an island schoolroom, and the spooky “The Driver,” where Dickey (as always, a problematical assumption) dives into a Pacific lagoon and sits in the driver's seat of a sunken half-track.

Further, I miss many of Dickey's best poems of postwar civilized discontent: “The Leap,” a narrative about the suicide of a woman remembered from childhood; “On the Coosawattee,” which contains the probable (and certainly less melodramatic) genesis of Deliverance; “Power and Light,” a brutal blue-collar dramatic monologue; and “Adultery,” which is bracketed by the best opening and closing lines of any Dickey poem: “We have all been in rooms / We cannot die in, and they are odd places, and sad” and

We have done it again                    we are
Still living. Sit up and smile,
God bless you. Guilt is magical.

I would have preferred more guilty magic like this (and where is the marvelous “Kudzu”?) to reprinting the ten-page “Reincarnation (II)” or more than the briefest sample from Dickey's last book, the inscrutable The Eagle's Mile.

Kirschten states that his aim is “to gather and showcase [Dickey's] very best material” and in doing so has to admit that Dickey's collected poems, The Whole Motion, is a bit too whole for most tastes (even Dickey excluded portions of the slack Puella). Kirschten does get a fair portion of the best ones in his limited space (the book is over a hundred pages shorter than Poems 1957-1967), but it is probably a sign of the times that in introducing Dickey's four “politically controversial” poems—“Slave Quarters,” “The Fiend,” “The Sheep Child,” and “The Firebombing”—he feels it necessary to attach a disclaimer (his italics): “Further, representation is not recommendation.” Now we can all sleep better. One wonders how this editor would preface a selection from the works of Robert Browning.


  1. The Selected Poems, by James Dickey. Ed. by Robert Kirschten. Wesleyan University Press.

Denis Donoghue (essay date 1999)

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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 Congress should be handing out the grand rosette to Roethke or any other poet didn't strike the poets and critics as inappropriate. In the December issue, too, Beatrice Roethke corrected Dickey's factual errors and said that “with one exception, a matter in which I had no selfish interest, Seager was free to say anything he could substantiate with honest evidence.” There the matter ended, so far as I know.

It was a minor episode, but it marked a new, vulgar phase of Dickey's career, the years in which, not content to be a mere poet, he turned himself by force of will into a public presence, a mythic figure, laureate of John Wayne's America.

James Lafayette Dickey was born on February 2, 1923, to Eugene Dickey and Maibelle Swift Dickey in Buckhead, a neighborhood of Atlanta, Georgia. His mother came from an established and well-to-do family. His father was, as the poet's son Christopher describes him in his memoir, a “dilettante lawyer and devoted gambler who took his son with him to cockfights, or to watch raccoons chained to floating logs fighting off packs of hounds, or to just about anything else where blood and death had money riding on them.”1 James Dickey read indiscriminately—pulp fiction, Southern novels, bits of philosophy—and gave his spare hours to weightlifting and bodybuilding, inspired by Mr. Universe, Charles Atlas. In 1942 he enrolled at Clemson Agricultural College, did pretty well in football there, and enlisted in the Army Air Corps. In February 1943 he started basic training as a pilot, but failed the course and had to settle for the smaller thrill of becoming a radar observer, an “intercept officer.”

After the war, he entered Vanderbilt University and started writing poems and critical essays, some of which were published in Sewanee Review. In 1950 he took a teaching job at Rice Institute in Houston, Texas, until he was called up during the Korean War and assigned to teach radar at bases in Mississippi and Texas. Returned to civilian life, he set about making a career in poetry, reviewing, and teaching, helped along by the novelist Andrew Nelson Lytle and the critic Monroe K. Spears.

Dickey's early work in criticism, collected in The Suspect in Poetry (1964) and Babel to Byzantium (1968), was remarkably pugnacious. He was willing to praise a few English poets, especially dead ones—Christopher Smart, Blake, Hopkins—and with reservations a few living ones, including Dylan Thomas, W. S. Graham, Philip Larkin, Jon Silkin, and Geoffrey Hill. European poets sent him into hyperboles: Char, Supervielle (“the best poet of the twentieth century,” “my all-time favorite poet in any and all languages”), and Montale, “in my opinion the greatest living poet.” But he dismissed nearly every American poet who might appear to be a competitor. He derided “the overrefined, university-pale subtleties” of the genteel tradition of American poetry, which was content with the “well-meaning, mannered management of nothing.” He regarded Ginsberg's Howl as “the conventional maunderings of one type of American adolescent, who has discovered that machine civilization has no interest in his having read Blake.” William Carlos Williams was “a poet of no merit whatsoever.” Charles Olson was “congenitally unable to say one memorable thing.” Dickey deplored the influence of Wallace Stevens, “whose mannered artificiality and poetry-about-writing-poetry-about-poetry have driven large numbers of writers delightedly back into their shimmering, wordy sensibilities and buried them there.” He sympathized with Anne Sexton and other “confessional” poets in their tragic lives, but could not take their poems seriously. He told Donald Hall:

I want a poetry that illuminates my experience. I want a poetry that gives me some of my life, over again; that restores something to me, or creates a need for more life, more feeling; something that gets me closer to the world: that gets me inside the world, in a new way, or in a way older than the world.

Roethke and Robert Penn Warren were the American poets Dickey praised most consistently:

The powerful, almost somnambulistic statements of [Roethke's] observations and accountings come to us as from the bottom of the “deep well of unconscious cerebration” itself, from a Delphic trance where everything one says is the right, undreamed-of, and known-by-the-gods-all-the-time thing that should be and never is said.

Warren was of the true visionary company, because his poetry was “so deeply and compellingly linked to man's ageless, age-old drive toward self-discovery, self-determination.” “I think of you as the best of all of us,” Dickey told him.

But Warren was an exception in one respect. He was a visionary in the sense that his poems gave feelings and intimations every privilege over the authority of mere events, but he was also sane. Most of the writers Dickey cared about were post-Romantic figures, men ruined in their lives but recovered in their Orphic, Delphic words—Hart Crane, James Agee, Malcolm Lowry, Roethke. In a note on Smart's “A Song to David,” Dickey asked:

How shall we deal with the mad in their perfect disguises? From the beginning we have suspected them of magic and have wanted what they have, the revelations. But how may we come by these and still retain our own sanity? What must we do in order to connect safety with the insane at their clairvoyant and dangerous levels?

“What we have always wanted from the insane,” he said, is “the life-extending, life-deepening insight, the ultimate symbolic sanity.”

In this respect, Roethke was Dickey's exemplar: he had manic phases, and then he could not write, but when he was sane, he remained at one with his visions, and spoke with their authority. Before and after the manic episodes, he was the strange, childlike poet whom Kenneth Burke described in “The Vegetal Radicalism of Theodore Roethke.” In an early notebook Dickey transcribed sentences from Burke's essay. Examining Roethke's The Lost Son and “The Visitant,” Burke said that this poet “goes as far as is humanly possible in quest of a speech wholly devoid of abstractions.” Using Kant's distinction, in the Critique of Pure Reason, between the three phases of knowledge—intuitions of sensibility, concepts of the understanding, and ideas of reason—Burke asked:

Do not these distinctions of Kant's indicate the direction which poetry might take, in looking for a notable purification of language? If one could avoid the terms for “ideas,” and could use “concepts” only insofar as they are needed to unify the manifold of “intuitions,” the resultant vocabulary would move toward childlike simplicity.

Roethke's aesthetic, and Dickey's to a degree, could then be summed up as a minimum of “ideas,” and a maximum of “intuitions,” “concepts” being admitted as a regrettable necessity. But Dickey was more willing than Roethke to add conceptual notes to his intuitions, as in “Power and Light” he refers to “the red-veined eyeball of a bulb,” and in “False Youth: Two Seasons” he writes of “the tight belt of time.” Roethke would have stopped at “eyeball” and “belt”; he would not have added the conceptual explanations.

In “The Visitant,” to stay with Burke's instance, Roethke begins with a natural scene, conveyed as fully as possible by intuitions of sensibility:

A cloud moved close. The bulk of the wind shifted.
A tree swayed over water.
A voice said:
Stay. Stay by the slip-ooze. Stay.
Dearest tree, I said, may I rest here?
A ripple made a soft reply.
I waited, alert as a dog.
The leech clinging to a stone waited;
And the crab, the quiet breather.

It is “such a natural scene,” Burke said, “as would require a local deity, a genius loci, to make it complete.” Hence as the poem begins, “the place described is infused with a numen or pneuma, a concentration of spirit just on the verge of apparition.” Dickey's note reads:

K. Burke: “begins with such a natural scene as would require a genius loci to make it complete.” Idea of a “completing” or “fulfilling” presence. “As would require” here the suggestive phrase. Scene which you set up during which the audience waits for an unknown inevitability to be fulfilled, to complete the scene which requires it. Sense of presence. Might be fruitful. Can be terribly hammed up.

It is a sensitive note, up to a point, indicating that Dickey started out as an artist, however careless he became in that capacity during the later years. The genius loci, the spirit of the place, is implicit in the way its different parts cohere; it has nothing to do with an audience waiting for something to happen. But Dickey saw in Roethke's poems, and clearly in Burke's account of them, a direction of energy eminently congenial to his own talent: to endow a landscape, a scene, with the spirit of the place, and to constitute himself as that spirit. Corresponding to the imagery of Roethke's “vegetal radicalism,” which features roses, orchids, and weeds, Dickey had his own geological and animal images of rivers, mountains, forests, deer, snakes, wolves. He becomes the genius loci by being attentive to the peremptory radiance of the natural world.

One of the poems in Helmets (1964), “In the Marble Quarry,” has Dickey descending to a quarry in North Georgia and rising with a block of marble on a pulley:

To feel sadness fall off as though
          I myself
                    Were rising from stone
                    Held by a thread in midair,
Badly cut, local-looking, and
          totally uninspired,
                    Not a masterwork
                    Or even worth seeing at all
But the spirit of this place just the same,
                    Felt here as joy.

“As joy,” because if Dickey feels himself to be the spirit of the place, nothing more is needed to authenticate the experience. If he wants to round out the experience further, he appeals to astronomy, the largest natural perspective that displaces metaphysics as the grammar of Being.

This explains, I think, why Dickey's poems take their bearings from the natural world to the extent of regarding the acculturated world as an aberration, however insistent. As a young man he read Alfred North Whitehead's Process and Reality and was impressed by Whitehead's emphasis on “presentational immediacy”—“our perception of the contemporary world by means of the senses”—and on the assumption that “actual entities in the contemporary universe are causally independent of each other.” That seemed as close to the beginnings of knowledge as Dickey could come. Until forced by circumstances, he gave little credence to the world in its “later” cultural, domestic, social, political, and moral manifestations—the world in which each thing seems rigid to him and resists being transformed. “The natural world seems infinitely more important to me than the manmade world,” Dickey said. “There's a part of me that has never heard of a telephone.” His chosen poetic place is the natural scene, mostly Georgia, the back woods, and South Carolina, where some terrain, even yet, is untamed, and therefore susceptible to his mythic desires, processes of transfiguration. In return for such attention, the natural world gives him the conviction that he is flying upon wings other than his own; it seems to take the harm out of dying by assimilating it to larger sequences and continuities.

But Dickey did not long remain content with the decorum of poetry and the genius loci. He got going as a writer after the war and started being noticed in 1954. He published his best poems in Into the Stone and Other Poems (1960), Drowning with Others (1962), Helmets (1964), and Buckdancer's Choice (1965). When Roethke died on August 1, 1963, Dickey thought that he was now king of the cats and should step forward to claim the privilege. When he took up his appointment as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in September 1966 and moved to Washington, he entered on a period of his life and work that was to be personally and poetically disastrous, though it must have seemed, in a material sense, a triumph. Sounding off on the poetry circuit, money, fast cars, women, drunkenness—“I like it like Patton liked war,” he told Gordon Lish—added up to his becoming a star.

Crux: The Letters of James Dickey tells the wretched story, mainly because the editors decided to make the letters annotate Dickey's career:

The letters assembled in this volume represent perhaps twenty percent of James Dickey's located correspondence. The double rationale for selection was first to document the growth of a major writer—how a scarcely educated jock discovered that he possessed genius and that writing was the only thing that counted—then, second, to document the ways he fulfilled his genius and advanced his career. Jim was unabashedly a careerist. He had a clear understanding of the odds against any poet, no matter how gifted, and he recognized that his poetry did not exist if it was not read. He deliberately promoted and exaggerated his several reputations—genius, drinker, woodsman, athlete—until the legends took over after Deliverance.

Most of the letters were written to other writers, and there are memorable details, as in a letter to Robert Fagles:

Poetry makes plenty happen; it can change your life. My whole existence has proceeded from one word in a poem, which I read in an anthology on Okinawa during the last weeks of the second War.

The editors of Crux tell us that the word was “shivered,” in these lines from Trumbull Stickney's “Live Blindly and Upon the Hour”:

Thou art divine, thou livest,—as of old
Apollo springing naked to the light,
And all his island shivered into flowers.

But what many of the letters reveal is Dickey's myth-making vanity. The materials include true statements, bombast, improprieties, and lies. I suppose it is true that he hunted deer with bow and arrow and diamondbacks with a blowgun. He canoed the rapids of the Coosawattee River. Did he, at the age of eighteen, marry a woman in Australia, as he claimed, before he married Maxine Syerson? No. In a letter to John Berryman he referred to meeting someone in Waco, Texas, “where I was in the Air Force for the second time, and just back from Korea.” He was never in Korea. Nor was he a fighter pilot, though he allowed Bill Moyers to say on WNET on January 25, 1976, that he was, and he let the Atlantic Monthly call him “a former star athlete, fighter pilot with more than 100 missions on his record in World War II and the Korean conflict.” Did he really attend a lecture by Camus at the Sorbonne—“and he was talking about the Existentialist proposition that we no longer have any supernatural sanctions”? I don't believe it.

The letters indicate that Dickey's life from 1967 on belongs to the history of publicity and legend-making. “I am at a stage now,” he told Richard Wilbur on September 16, 1968, “where I can reach a really mass audience.” The only thing he could not do was stay quiet. He was so compulsively accessible that an editor at Esquire thought he would pose nude for the magazine. He had the grace to decline: “Please tell Jill Goldstein that I have decided not to pose nude; that, really, is not for me.” Deliverance appeared on March 23, 1970, and became a best seller, second to Erich Segal's Love Story. The book was Dickey's dream of immortality, man and the natural world, two forces nearly equal. His hero Lewis Medlock “could do with his life exactly what he wanted to,” challenging the river, the rocks and falls: “My God, those falls must have been something, back there,” Lewis says to Ed Gentry.

Dickey's career was now a triumph of visibility. “I am shaking the great man's throne,” Dickey said of Robert Lowell on November 19, 1970. Filming of Deliverance started in May 1971, and Dickey had a minor part as Sheriff Bullard. Meanwhile he abandoned scruple and delicacy. He was out of control. Sorties, a ragbag of critical pieces, was one of the ten books nominated in the Arts and Letters section of the National Book Award in 1971. In a string of calumnies, Dickey urged Stanley Burnshaw, one of the three judges for the award, not to give it to Edmund Wilson, “the most over-rated literary critic I have ever read”:

His work is one long tissue of self-indulgent clichés and self-aggrandizement. And when I read the Lowells in the New York Review of Books talk about what a “great writer” he is, I feel the sudden cold touch which indicates the prevalence of literary log-rolling in this country. Edmund Wilson is a great writer to the Lowells and to the New York Review of Books simply because he endorses Lowell as a poet.

The award went to Charles Rosen for The Classical Style.

The Selected Poems and The James Dickey Reader serve different purposes. The Reader gives samples of every phase of his work, good and bad. It is niggardly on the early poems, but it includes nine pages of The Zodiac (1976), a poem I could barely force myself to read. It is ostensibly the soliloquy of a drunken Dutch poet, Hendrik Marsman, forcing the stars to deliver the meaning of life:

          You son of a bitch, you!
          Don't try to get away from yourself!
I won't have it! You know God-damned well I mean you! And you too,
          Pythagoras! Put down that guitar, lyre, whatever it is!

The poems account for less than half of the Reader, the rest is taken up with excerpts from the novels Deliverance, Alnilam (1987), To the White Sea (1993), and Crux, an unpublished and indeed barely begun novel. (Crux is a constellation in the southern hemisphere near Centaurus and Musca; it is also called the Southern Cross.) The Reader also includes essays from Babel to Byzantium, Sorties (1971), and Night Hurdling (1983). The Selected Poems does not cover the scene; it intends to present the best of Dickey and to draw poems from all the books except The Zodiac. But again the early books, which contain his best work, get short measure; only three poems from Into the Stone, five from Drowning with Others, six from Helmets, and seven from Buckdancer's Choice.

Comparing both books with The Whole Motion: Collected Poems 1945-1992,2 I find that the editors, while often disagreeing in their selections, are at one in emphasizing the social, domestic poems at the expense of the visionary or planetary ones. Most of the chosen poems are those in which an actual event has taken place and seized Dickey's attention, and he makes the most of it. “The Hospital Window”—it's in the Reader, not in The Selected Poems—begins, “I have just come down from my father,” and I assume it started from such a visit. It may be that the visionary poems have not attracted many readers, and that the circumstantial poems are easier to hold in mind. But it is unfortunate that the poems of natural magic, such as “Inside the River,” have not been selected from The Whole Motion. Only a determined reader will go to that book now that the Reader and The Selected Poems are available. Here is a passage from “Inside the River”:

Let flowing create
A new, inner being:
As the source in the mountain
Gives water in pulses,
These can be felt at
The heart of the current.
And here it is only
One wandering step
Forth, to the sea.
Your freed hair floating
Out of your brain.

Here, as throughout the poem, intuitions of sensibility survive their passage through the imperative phrases. The poem is unlikely to win as many readers as “The Hospital Visit,” “The Fiend,” and the celebrated piece of magical realism, “Falling,” do, but it embodies a distinctive part of Dickey's talent, the neo-Roethkean part, which produced some of his finest and least flamboyant work.


  1. Christopher Dickey, Summer of Deliverance: A Memoir of Father and Son (Simon and Schuster, 1998), p. 30.

  2. Wesleyan University Press/University Press of New England, 1992.


James Dickey Poetry: American Poets Analysis


Dickey, James (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)