James Dickey

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Dickey, James (Vol. 4)

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Dickey, James 1923–

Dickey is an American poet, critic, and novelist. Although his novel Deliverance was enormously successful, he considers himself primarily a poet. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

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 deaths, 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."…

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….

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.

Howard Nemerov, "James Dickey," in Sewanee Review (© 1963 by The University of the South), Winter, 1963; reprinted in his Reflexions on Poetry and Poetics, Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, N.J.), 1972, pp. 71-6.

The giants—Eliot and Williams, Frost and Stevens—are so recently dead that we have not yet accustomed ourselves to a world of lesser poets. Somehow the self-denigrating whiners who ask us to buy their books or listen to their readings as if we were their analysts serve only to remind us of the passing of confident, commanding greatness. Perhaps this accounts for the cordial welcome critics and reviewers have given James Dickey, a poet who is larger-than-life, raucous, Brobdingnagian. Here we have a book [Poems, 1957–1967] by which we can take his measurements: three hundred large pages of the poetry he wants to preserve from his first decade of writing. There is no question about the dimensions: he is a big poet; but...

(This entire section contains 3751 words.)

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his work is also massively blemished, sprawlingly disordered; and its disorder stems from haste, not from art. Dickey deserves praise for his energy, his independence, and his election of subjects from real life, but one hopes that during the next decade he will give us more finished poetry and perhaps a little less of it.

Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 43, No. 4 (Autumn, 1967), pp. clxviii-clxix.

Dickey's power as a poet has depended upon a fairly repetitive technique: a human psyche is situated in some natural setting and proceeds surrealistically toward a metaphorical merger with any of various forms of plant, animal or human life. The process is always accompanied by an accumulative verbal intensity and excitement. As Dickey himself has said of his own work, "I meant to try to get a fusion of inner and outer states, of dream, fantasy and illusion where everything partakes of the protagonist's mental processes and creates a single impression."…

I would suggest, however, two reasons why Dickey's newer poems do not reach the mark of some of his earlier work. The energizing power of Dickey's language has always depended upon the free flow of successive participal and gerund phrases, long, loose lines, frequently run-on: the effect must be accumulative…. [In The Eye-Beaters,] verbal power has succumbed to artificial gimmickry.

Secondly, and perhaps more pervasive, the focus of a number of these poems [in The Eye-Beaters] is blurred by a tendency toward verbosity and overstatement. "Turning Away" and "Pine" are examples of poems too discursive to sustain interest. Part of this is the result of the almost total prose-like effect of many of these poems: Dickey has moved far away indeed from the anapestic cadences of his earlier poems….

Finally, no one expects Dickey to be able to sustain through every poem the authentic lyric force of poems like "The Lifeguard" and "Hunting Civil War Relics at Nimblewill Creek." The nature of his poetry is such that it demands strong emotive risks, but it should be undertaken with acute consciousness of the dangers along the way.

George Lensing, in Carolina Quarterly, Spring, 1970, pp. 90-1.

Resurrection, regeneration, death in life and life in death, the struggle to keep alive those ancient intuitive powers of the mind that link man to his biological past—these are Dickey's abiding concerns…. [One] is conscious of this poet's passion for life and his desperate insistence that every human experience, however painful or ugly, be viewed as a possible occasion for the renewal of life. With Dickey any renewal inevitably requires struggle; sometimes it is intense physical strife, other times a battle of the inner life….

In many of [his] poems Dickey … is striving toward something in the past, some primitive source,… which perhaps will provide the illumination needed to "re-invent the vision of the race." Some of [his poems] … are among the finest his generation has produced.

Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 47, No. 1 (Winter, 1971), p. xviii.

In The Eye-Beaters, Mr. Dickey displays a style that seems daring or difficult while lacking invention. It is founded on the exclamatory sentence, treated with an expansiveness that makes one long for Whitman and a violence that makes one wince for Hopkins. To suggest intensity of feeling, he repeats words often and erratically, as if in a stammer of ecstasy. This does not mean that the words are carefully chosen. To distract one from his lack of grace, Mr. Dickey makes a showy distribution of words on the page, to look like elaborate stanza forms with touches of concrete poetry. Since these shapes have little foundation in rhythm, they are largely arbitrary….

In effect, Mr. Dickey tramples on the slogan of "fit audience though few" and reveals a degree of ambition that would raise a claque for him in an underground station. The loudest, most visible effects, clearly designed to gather the biggest, most miscellaneous audience, are the standard elements of his work.

"In Search of an Audience," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), May 21, 1971, p. 580.

Owl imagery is quite prominent in James Dickey's Deliverance and may be understood as a symbol for an antiromantic view of primitive man in nature….

Three well-known qualities of owls pertain to their function in the novel. First, owls are naturally birds of prey. The one that perches on the tent spends the night hunting. The four characters on the canoe trip are in the process of becoming animals of prey. Lewis Medlock, the organizer of the trip, insisted from the beginning that it was an exercise in survival, and the men intend to kill what they eat. After they meet the two mountaineers, their lives depend on their ability to kill for a different reason. Killing a man to protect oneself has a different moral meaning from killing an animal to eat. Killing a man is killing on the same level with oneself, as opposed to killing a lower animal; but since lower animals usually kill on the same level with themselves, Gentry becomes like them when he undertakes to kill a man. Thus he has to undergo a transformation, to become an animal, in order to accomplish his purpose: "I'll make a circle inland, very quiet, and look for him like I'm some kind of animal. What kind? It doesn't matter, as long as I'm quiet and deadly. I could be a snake" (149). Second, in literature an owl is a bird of ill omen. Its function in the novel in this respect hardly needs comment. The artificial owl at the beginning prefigures the real owl on the tent, which forebodes the horrible experiences of the next day. Third, in folklore the owl is a bird of wisdom. Numerous nursery rhymes and folk proverbs testify to this point. Deliverance is obviously an initiation story, a story in which the major character or characters come to a deep understanding of something fundamental to human nature. Lewis and Ed certainly come to a realization of the natural savagery of man in nature, though the shallowness of Bobby's character prevents him from plumbing the situation beyond its surface horror. Though Drew's death may prevent us from concluding how meaningful the experience was to him, the fact that he was the only one to argue that the situation should be resolved through civilized procedures of justice indicates that he had to be killed in the wilderness because he was unable to adjust to its laws (cf. 105-13). But at least half the characters acquire the knowledge that the owl symbolizes.

The owl has a fourth symbolic quality, different in kind from the previous three. The story begins in civilization, represented by the artificial owl, in which man's instinctive savage nature has to be repressed…. When the characters move into the woods, savagery becomes an actuality and violence a necessity; therefore, the artificial owl is replaced with a real one. After the three survivors have returned to civilization, Ed again thinks of the innocuous artificial owl. His calling it a "wind-toy" emphasizes the contrast between the artificial and the real. Their problem now is not to be violent but to cover up all traces of their past savagery and violence. That they finally become civilized again is evidenced at the end of the novel by the submerging of the horror in the casual activities and quiet tone of the conclusion. In three days they have retraced the course of human development and have found in the natural state not the romantic ideal of beauty in nature coupled with brotherhood among men but beauty in nature coupled with the necessity to kill men, coolly and in the course of things.

C. Hines Edwards, Jr., "Dickey's 'Deliverance': The Owl and the Eye," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XV, No. 2, 1973, pp. 95-101.

James Dickey has been attempting to write, during the last decade, what none of his contemporaries seems capable of or interested in attempting—a poetry of the common man: about his obsessions, failures, uninspiring everyday life and attempts to escape it, and above all, his successes, which would not perhaps have been considered as such in another age or country….

What seems to me most striking,… reading over all of Dickey's poems, is the great change, not entirely in style, but obviously in format of the work in such a short period of time. When I mentioned … that Dickey attempted to write a poetry of the common man, it was because the attempt seems particularly to have engaged his subconscious. Though in his first book he did not entirely succeed in the attempt, in each successive volume, culminating in the latest—the title of which, The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy, seems designed to attract the divergent desires of as many readers as possible—he has moved farther and farther towards the common man and away from poetry, as if admitting that the two are just not compatible, but trying, nonetheless, to stretch the definition of the latter because the former is not, unfortunately, as malleable. The result of this movement away from the focus of poetry has been to center Dickey's ellipse about the common man and his preferences, and the poet has given up even the pretense of indentation and line break and told again the story of one of his poems, dressed up and dressed out, in prose, with an almost too appropriate title, Deliverance, and deliverance it surely is, from any responsibility—no matter how little there was to begin with—for the placement of his words in a stricter order than their sense….

It is possible that James Dickey will concentrate, in future, on writing more outdoor adventure stories like Deliverance, and will write less and less of [the] sort of "poetry" [presented in Buckdancer's Choice and subsequent volumes]. When he started writing poems in the late 'fifties there was no one quite like him, and therefore his sort of poetry, better then than it is now, was interesting, as novel. Some of the earlier poems may last as examples of his style—some are good enough even as poems, compared to so much of what has been passed off in the past decade. But, as is true of almost any unusual, personal style, imitations abound as soon as it succeeds in attracting much attention, and those styles which are personal to begin with—if they are not also based on personal perception, and a thorough knowledge of poetic practice, which assures that few would-be mimics will be competent enough for the forgery—are taken over quickly by a crowd. Dickey's style has been imitated excessively already, so that if he does not again write the massive number of poems he once did, our loss will be compensated by the many poems of others written after his fashion. As fashions go (and this one will like so many others) this is not the most attractive that America produced in the 1960's.

James Dickey's poetry appeared like a tidal wave to flood the poetic landscape of the 'sixties, washing inland as far as it could, but then settled into one of the lowest depressions in that landscape, producing one of our newest imaginative swamps, where the imitative bull-frogs have taken up residence and taken up the cry, exchanging their stories in indistinguishable croaks.

Michael Mesic, "A Note on James Dickey," in American Poetry Since 1960: Some Critical Perspectives, edited by Robert B. Shaw (reprinted by permission of Dufour Editions, Inc.), Carcanet, 1973, pp. 145-53.

I am trying to uncover what [Deliverance] says rather than what Dickey wants it to. I think Dickey was the victim of his own trap, which ultimately is his secret belief that men are free when they are straying and breaking away, not when they are in a living homeland. Dickey has it that Ed, despite his apathetic attitude, contains within him the spark of life which simply needs liberating. Lewis is just the man to liberate it, and the story concerns transference of life energies from master to apprentice. This theme of ritual initiation into manhood Dickey no doubt recognized as being at the center of much American literature. Ed grows up, meets the challenge, gets in touch with himself, with nature, and with "life," and eventually the two self-made heroes are properly humanized and forced to accept their limitations. Bobby of course remains an obvious foil; he never learns and appropriately slips off at the end to the easy life in Hawaii. We feel no pain for his humiliation. We might even accept it as cosmic justice appropriate to such a mental and physical coward. But what about Drew? In order for the grand pattern to become emotionally significant, a tragic waste has to be built in somewhere along the line. Bobby obviously isn't good enough to be the scapegoat victim. Drew is at once the innocent bystander drawn into the tragic conflict and at the same time the Orphic poet, dismembered by a society that cannot tolerate the artist's inner freedom and power of expression. Someone has to die to illustrate the gravity of the theme, and Dickey is careful to delineate the guilt for the scapegoat's death. First Drew is wounded by a member of the country culture (ironically, since Drew is their one link with the city culture, as seen by the interchange between Lonnie and Drew and also by the fraternal touch on the shoulder given Drew by Lonnie's father). But the gunshot wound is apparently superficial; it is the river that finishes him off. Drew is too good to be done in by man alone—or is it that he senses the futility of it all and gives it up?

So the river kills him, but Drew has the last word. When the others finally find him he is seated somewhat comfortably in the middle of the river (not, as in the movie, with one arm grotesquely twisted around his head). He appears strangely serene in the midst of chaotic turbulence; he faces upstream and is jammed into what appears to be a natural throne or altar, eyelids "propped open by the current, seeming to see out of the open water back up into the mountains, around all the curves of the river, infinitely." Even in death Drew's firm center shines forth. The river might have temporarily conquered him, yet he seems to be prophesying in his "all-seeing and clear" way its own impending demise—as well, perhaps, as the demise of the Lewises of the world. This is what the novel tells us, and this is the Drew we are going to remember, as well as the Drew who is no doubt going to haunt Ed and Lewis later in life. Drew the musician, Drew the tamer of the wild, Drew the magician. We'd like to know more about him. He is our link with the future.

But of course Dickey can't tell us more. I think one part of him knows that Drew is the real hero, but the other part has to stereotype him, has to simplify and categorize him as a "straight-forward quiet fellow … devoted to his family" who believes in the things his soft drink company stands for to the point of keeping a copy of the company history on his living room coffee table. Something in Dickey has to sacrifice Drew to Lewis: immediately after describing Drew he has Ed say, "But Lewis and I were different" and explains what sets them (especially Lewis at this point) apart in their praiseworthy attempt to "rise above time … take a chance, as though the burden of … laborious immortality were too heavy to bear." Come on, Dickey. We'd like to believe you know better.

What is it then that kills Drew? Dickey wants to tell us it's his adaptiveness, his willingness to compromise, his middle-of-the-roadness. But we know enough about Drew to recognize that he is just as adamant in his beliefs as Lewis is—in fact more so, since Lewis knows he has Ed and Bobby on his side. It can't be Drew's character flaw that kills him, then, but his strength. For as soon as Drew objects, he becomes the voice of civilization reprimanding the outlaw duo. It is Lewis and Ed that kill Drew—the brotherhood of good outlaws, the song of the open road, the song of freedom and individuality. Society be damned, the individual must take a stand against the group if he is to achieve his personal salvation. Drew is merely a superego sacrificed to the id's greater demands. In face of Ahab's dark quest, Drew looks a lot like tame Starbuck. The die is cast. But where is Ishmael?

Dickey should be Ishmael (since in this novel Ed can't be), but Dickey has cast his lot with Lewis and Ed. In order to test this out we might examine the various characters' responses to music and art. Bobby, of course, is totally insensitive. Lewis seems to know about the music Drew and the country people make but never seems to hear it, whereas Ed learns by listening to it. Moreover, Ed, not Lewis, is the potential artist who has a rudimentary "ability to get the elements of a layout into some kind of harmonious relationship." It is Ed who makes the connection between the real owl and its artistic representation (the wind-chime owl which rings from his patio), as it is Ed who appreciates Holley's transformation of a "dead" work of art into a "live" work (one of Braque's birds into a Pegasus). The question revolves around the artist's role in society. Lewis, the antinomian hero, has no room in his life style for art. Drew, the artist, has no room in his life for antinomianism. Ed has room for both.

We wonder, then, what Dickey is going to make of Ed. Unfortunately Dickey chooses to tell us it is Lewis' influence that saves Ed, whereas the novel tells us it is Drew's. For this reason Deliverance has the potential of becoming a classic….

The point is that Drew's music ultimately becomes the prophet's music, the artist's music which, as Frost says, is at best a "momentary stay against confusion." The artist's music works for the artist, and if we believe Shelley, works in the long run for society as well. But the artist in our Western culture usually suffers Orpheus' fate. So Drew, the man who knows too much and sees too clearly, must be sacrificed. Perhaps he sees that the brotherhood of man can be built, but not on Lewis' individualistic premises—the old antinomian urge of Natty Bumppo to escape man's limitations for once and for all and build a new society in the wilderness. Instead, Drew, and perhaps even Dickey, might possess more conservative notions of what it is that keeps men together. Music and law, not reckless freedom and salvation through violence.

William Stephenson, "Deliverance from What?" in The Georgia Review, Spring, 1974, pp. 114-120.


Dickey, James (Vol. 2)


Dickey, James (Vol. 7)