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.
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.
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.
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.