Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8216
Dickey, James 1923–
Dickey, an American poet, novelist, and critic, has been compared with Hart Crane for his emphasis on the interrelationship between the natural and the mechanical. His work is often set in the South and, while intensely autobiographical, it celebrates the uniqueness and richness of each individual's experiences. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
Taken as a whole, Dickey's poetry is a phantasmagoria, a life of remembered moments, a vision with few plain human actions: all is flying, diving, soaring, drifting, creeping, sliding, falling—through the skies, along field, forest, stream, beneath the waters of the world—in animal guises, scales, wings, fins, furred and thrusting haunches, naked and inhuman limbs. He moves in nature, of it, not through cities; in wildness aboriginal or feral, never suburban or tame.
And his voice is seldom in the midranges we use conversing, meditating, arguing; it's not even our inner voice. It ranges pitched beyond both ends of the spectrum of speech, sounding not human at all, though it is a poet's voice. And also the voice of the beast, or demon-human, as well as the spirit's, daemon's or angel's; it's usually exalted, the voice of ecstasy.
Whitman, Hopkins, Yeats, Dylan Thomas used that voice, and it is thrilling as hell, or heaven. It shouts, sings, prays, always sweeping you through a transfigured world of subhuman plants, animals, and superhuman presences, angels felt in their lower frequencies, barely visible and there in that brutal flux of time and matter that is his vision. Dickey is also obsessed by death, and goes to meet it usually where it waits, before, after or outside the banal sunlight of adult life in America, which accounts, I suppose, for the incantatory, invocatory tone.
But he waddles like a frigate bird when he tries to render the social scene; so he prefers to view it through fiendish eyes, and the fiend is one utterly dispossessed of the human, as in several big poems of his last two books ["Buckdancer's Choice" and "Poems: 1957–1967"]. Which means Dickey is intensely religious, though the religion is a poet's: chthonic, suffering in primeval timelessness, lost and loveless in the human condition now.
The only place he can live is in language, which is a way of saying he's that rarest of birdmen, a real poet. Thus most of his poems are vast flights through our biosphere, made luminous and transparent by his voice. Much more ought to be said about his astonishing creation, but I must call attention to his reviews of about 60 poets, collected … in "Babel to Byzantium."
Dickey is a trenchant reader and ruthless critic, and he puts his opinions strongly enough to make this book most useful for those who wish to study the poetic scene in the last 10 years, and to go from his observations to the poets' books. No matter how hard he is on others, he serves poetry, and his opinions illumine his own work too, so that he stands declared, open on both fronts.
Jascha Kessler, "Ten Years of Poetry," in The Los Angeles Times (copyright, 1968, Los Angeles Times; reprinted by permission), May 19, 1968, p. 41.
The adventure of James Dickey's career, the pursuit of a poetry which must, in its transactions with love and death, self and circumstance, be as new as foam and as old as the rock (Emerson …), the heroic quest which is this poet's unending venture begins with an expression already complete, gorged on miracle and complacent as a sphere:
… a way out of dying
Like a myth and a beast, conjoined.
More kinship and majesty
Could not be,
And nothing could look away …
in a first book of Orphic utterance, the meditative and metaphysical gnomons of Into the Stone, published in 1960. Here the poet has categorized, divided up and dealt out, like so many divining suits, his first two dozen poems into traditional categories: family, war, death and love. An imagery of sociability, of killing and of ecstasy is thus the vehicle for ruminations on life, death and resurrection, and so persuasive, so powerful is the plunge the poet takes into the deep well of his discourse that wisdom survives the interchangeability of the parts, vision sustains the replacement of elements, and language, quite simply, serves. (pp. 75-6)
Here nothing develops, grows or changes from its essence, yet everything can be transformed into anything else, the metal sun and stone moon, the winged tree and walking water woven into a net of correspondences thrown over life like a tarnhelm. And the energy that knots these elements together, that thrusts them against each other in harmony or thematic opposition, is a circular movement, a conjugation of rituals: pieties of family, of kingship, of devotion to the divine Other, a round-dance of service and mastery best expressed, in terms of action, by the gerundive form. In the poetry of James Dickey, as he first composes it, there is no end to action, one is always in the process of it. (pp. 76-7)
In this first book of Dickey's, then, there is an airless mastery, a sense of liturgical consummation, of life's chances being eliminated as we follow the self's necessary scheme, that is quite stifling: as in those adjectival tropics of Conrad's, nothing moves, every leaf attends the fatal moment when its life or its death is appointed. (p. 78)
Two years after Into the Stone appeared, Dickey published his second congregation of poems—three dozen of them this time, two very long, and the entire group constituting a movement toward the "productions of time" Blake said eternity was in love with—an impulse to break out of the archetypal spirals and into a linear history. There is still the aspiration, of course, to be free of the personal, what Shelley called "that burr of self that sticks to one so," to win free of contingency into an existence that would be an endless ring of ecstasy and regeneration…. For the bulk of Drowning with Others, then, 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. (p. 80)
From the magical submersions of Drowning with Others, the defrocked poet rises or at least advances into a world without explicit ceremony, conscious of his task and, dispossessed of his ministry, ready to confront his heritage: he must invent his own.
In 1964 Dickey published another collection of poems, Helmets, which confirmed him as the telluric maker Wallace Stevens had called for in prophesying that the great poems of heaven and hell have been written and the great poem of the earth remains to be written. Here, more loosely cast in the emblems of battle and quest, are the same gerundive preoccupations with process, though they are now content with the poem as its own reward, rather than as a magical charm or source of control over nature. The poet is no longer a necromancer, a magus, but a man speaking to himself, for others. (p. 85)
One of the principal images of earth Dickey has always used is that of the helmet, which gives this new book its title: the word itself affords a clue to his major preoccupations, for it derives from two old verbs for protecting and concealing—protection, in Dickey's world, against the energies of earth, and concealment against those of the Unseen, crown and prison both. [The] impulse—to disarm and confront one's naked humanity—is what governs this entire book, its celebrations of life on earth and its imagined figures: "where my breath takes shape on the air / like a white helmet come from the lungs." (pp. 86-7)
[In Bellow Ellijay, the second section of Helmets,] Dickey has succeeded, in his account of the characteristic spiritual journey or ascensus, in reconciling the starkest vocabulary of transcendence with the lush nature of the backwoods country. It is a moment of astonishing equilibrium in the poet's long quest, enriched in the final section, The Inundation, with a remembered rescue from the rapids by another Wordsworthian figure, "the strange woods boy" Lucas Gentry…. In thematic control, in sureness of their subject, these are poems so resolved that one would be at a loss—and quite happy to be there—to define the point where the poet's abiding struggle with himself might be located, were it not for the aura of incantation, of litany that Dickey still employs, even though he has steadily, painfully rid himself of the ritual imagination. Or rather, even though he has rejected the ritual as something given, and has instead cast it ahead of himself as something to be found, invented. By the end of Helmets, the litaneutical measure is disputed, the steady beat of the three- and four-foot lines, altered only by dactyl or spondee teleutons, and generally matching line length with sense unit, is breaking up. Moreover the long, regularly shaped stanzas give way to clusters of verse separated in arbitrary ways by blanks—as if the poet were reluctant to let the cadences coincide with the reader's breath, but must hurry him on when he would pause, slow him down just when he would gather momentum. What in the earlier books had sunk, with great virtuosity in diction, indeed with what Gide called a "diverse monotonie," into the ear to do its murmurous work is now offered in a less convinced form, or turned, as in "Cherrylog Road," to less reverent purposes. (p. 89)
Though Dickey will always retain, for strategic use, the rhythms he had early developed to be those in which he most naturally addresses himself, entrusts his consciousness to the language, it is evident that a formal metamorphosis must occur, after Helmets, to accommodate the other change, the transformation of ritual into romance, which Dickey has effected in his poetry. (p. 90)
That metamorphosis has occurred in Dickey's next book, Buckdancer's Choice, of 1965, and occurred with such a rush of impulse that the reader of the earlier collections, having come to expect the somnambulist forms of Dickey's imagination of recurrence, will be jarred by the immediacy, the brutality of disjunct actions, performed once and, however celebrated, done away with…. [For] the most part, Dickey's universe, and the measures which accommodate and express his phenomenology of exchange, has ceased to be one of eternal return, of enchantment. Instead, once out of eternity, the poet confronts and laments (exults over) the outrage of individual death, of a linear movement within time—each event and each moment being unique, therefore lost. If the self can die, then others exist, survivors of what Newman, in another connection, called an aboriginal catastrophe. Obsession, madness, excess: the burden of Buckdancer's Choice is altogether new in this poet, and crowned, or ballasted, by a pervasive terror of extinction. That is the penalty of the historical imagination; its reward is the awareness of others, always incipient in this poet but never before, by the very system of his discourse, explicit. (pp. 90-1)
[The long poem "The Firebombing" in Buckdancer's Choice] is, surely, Dickey's most complete statement of the magical life in its appalling triumphs (military rank and power a part of the Old Order of kingship and vassalage) over against the slow conquests and defeats of an undistinguished reality. (p. 93)
James Dickey has searched deep in himself and wide in the world for a criticism of eternity by history, of immortality by trapped lives, of sovereignty by freedom. (p. 95)
There is, certainly, a loves-of-Jupiter aspect to all Dickey's late work, an erotic mastery of metamorphosis by which he reconstitutes, in a narrative utterly without ritual, the very mythology he has been at such pains to disintegrate in his figures, his meters. Meanwhile the more quietly handled poems between these two giant performances (performances must be the word: the platform manner is not to be dissociated, henceforth, from the galvanic achievements of this veteran barnstormer who comes before his audiences "in renewed light, utterly alone!") recapitulate every subject, every subjection of identity to the chthonic energy, to that possession by the gods which Dickey has owned up to throughout his work in order to own it; and if they are poems still "possessing / music order repose," they possess, as well, that difference for which Dickey is now so often reproached by the very admirers of his old hieratic stance, his Heraclitean status; it is a mistake to reproach the poet for precisely what he has determined to do—his titanic choice is to recast the entire burden of utterance ("as though to be born to awaken to what one is / were to be carried"), transforming what has been recurrent and therefore changeless to what is, merely, real and released. (pp. 97-8)
Richard Howard, "James Dickey: 'We Never Can Really Tell Whether Nature Condemns Us or Loves Us'" (originally published in Partisan Review), in his Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950 (copyright © 1966, 1969 by Richard Howard; reprinted by permission of Atheneum Publishers, New York), Atheneum, 1969, pp. 75-98.
Dickey is an important poet. I would guess that he is the most discussed American poet of the generation just after that of Berryman, Lowell, Roethke, and Schwartz, and that he works about as hard as possible at filling the image of the great poet. His style, which is completely his own, is one of the most insistent and arrogant imaginable. That is not necessarily a disabling flaw and I do not mean it as an insult. As William Blake said, Prudence is a rich, ugly old maid courted by Incapacity. There is not an ounce of Prudence in James Dickey. Which does not necessarily mean that he is our Blake….
I must admit to a very ambiguous response to Dickey's work. When I reviewed Helmets in these pages (Autumn, 1965) I found myself being persuaded, almost against my will, of the vitality of his poetry. I find that still to be in the main a valid reaction, though I find myself wondering why I should have to be constantly re-persuaded, as if there were something not altogether right in his poetry in spite of its force. (p. 318)
I find James Dickey to be often an exciting poet, and that there is much in his feeling for the oneness of experience with which I sympathize. So what is it in even so quiet a poem as "Deer Among Cattle" that disturbs me, let alone in his longer and more intense works? It comes in places where a phrase like "the searing beam of my hand" is used to describe the light of the flashlight; or in the "paralyzed fence" which encloses "human grass"; or the deer's ability to "foreclose inhuman brightness from his eyes." These have some symbolic aptness, and it may seem carping to pick such small points. I could find many more obvious examples, but these will serve. They all display a certain lack of respect for the physical world, an unwillingness to let it remain somewhat as it is. That world is full enough of mystery without forcing so many searing, paralyzing adjectives upon it. This extravagant rhetoric is everywhere in Dickey, and I suspect that it betrays a certain recklessness and predatoriness toward the world. This forced metaphorical quality arouses the feeling that Dickey would rather assert than observe, and that he is none too worried whether his assertions do violence to the world of our experience or not. To remarks like this the poet may properly reply: whose world and whose experience? But that leads into issues I dare not consider here. (p. 320)
R. K. Meiners, in The Southern Review (copyright, 1971, by R. K. Meiners), Vol. VII, No. 1, Winter, 1971.
[In Deliverance] the epic tradition is apparent in at least three ways. First, the book speaks for a sedentary generation that pays lip service to a love of the out-of-doors and longs to escape from civilization and return to the wilderness. Second, the narrator, a soft part-owner of a graphics studio, forces himself to become a hero in order to save not just his life but the lives of two other men. Civilized, abhorring violence, he plays the role of what a friend of mine calls "the reluctant hero." And third, there is the veiled allegory with an obvious moral. Although some readers have decided that Dickey's Deliverance condemns modern man, since the businessmen start and end in a life of civilized mediocrity, there is a paradox involved that leads away from cynicism. The modern city dwellers literally descend into a deep canyon to find their river and their epic hell. Then the chief character climbs a high, almost unscalable, cliff to ambush and destroy his enemy, ascending the heights both literally and figuratively. In other words, armed with a primitive weapon, his intelligence, and his will to survive, the civilized man overcomes the primitive man armed with the advanced weapon of civilization. For a brief moment Ed Gentry is Odysseus putting out the eye of Polyphemus, or Vasco de Gama, Camões' great leader who, more by endurance and intelligence than by bravery, leads a nation to the end of a glorious voyage. The allegory of Deliverance is completed when the beautiful but hellish river is dammed by the government and its water covers the entire area, obliterating forever the voyage into the past, the visit to Hades. The moral that LeBossu or Addison might find here is that whenever he is forced to act, civilized man will rise to the occasion and save his civilization even if it often seems unworthy of being saved. (p. 309)
Percy Adams, in The Southern Review (copyright, 1973, by Percy Adams), Vol. IX, No. 1, Spring, 1973.
James Dickey's "The Firebombing" discovers and sustains an ambiguous moral awareness deeply true to the situation of having bombed unknown people and their homes in war—a guilt held in abeyance and, in fact, declared non-existent that yet persists. In other poems, though, Dickey slips away from the sustained sensitivity of "The Firebombing" into the cultivation of a sense of confusion for its own sake, one almost masquerading as vision. In many poems he focuses on some simple literal situation and then blurs his subject—not the same thing as poetic exploration…. Dickey … [lapses] into undifferentiated meandering within portentously isolated private states without perspective. (p. 64)
M. L. Rosenthal, in Salmagundi (copyright © 1973 by Skidmore College), Spring-Summer, 1973.
In terms of published work, Dickey is the most prolific representative voice of serious poetry of the American '60's…. In spite of this abundance of literary work, rewarded with publication and with prizes, he is a self-conscious craftsman, aware of his apocalyptic tendency and defensive about it.
Dickey retained a sanguine temperament throughout the apocalyptic '60's. A poet of God and America, he is against nay-sayers and cynical intellectuals. (pp. 258-59)
He is for self-improvement of body and mind, and admires the athlete for the possibility that exercise will lead, through application, to the physical grace that animals feel instinctively. He accepts the nobility of service in the Second World War. He loves "the large scenes of nature, forms of alien life, fish, sun, silence and—a loaf of bread." Shamelessly, he celebrates the strivings of suburban man to test his body. In his journals, he writes continually about improving his mind through the study of languages. He loves his wife … and his children … and transposes his experiences at home into poetry by pushing to metaphysical limits or dinary, mundane, and unheroic events, like a bad sunburn or a short circuit in the suburban house.
There is behind these attitudes a body of thought, a somewhat systematic theory of modern culture that flourished at Vanderbilt 20 years before Dickey took his degrees. Dickey is a Southern poet, not just by fact of birth, but by temperament. At Vanderbilt, he was taught by Mrs. Monroe Spears and later came to know the critic himself, with whom Dickey studied the eighteenth century. Vanderbilt was the home of the Fugitives, who, in the '20's, became the Southern Agrarians…. In 1930, in I'll Take My Stand, the group, which included, among others, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren, asserted that their goal was to foster a "distributist" agrarian economy, in opposition to industrialism. Since applied science at the beginning of the Great Depression had rendered industrial labor hard, fierce in tempo, and insecure, they sought to retain the best of the Southern past in the face of industrial encroachment. (pp. 259-60)
While the terms are altered by 1960, the essence of the agrarian scheme retains a hold over Dickey's mind and art. In place of a "distributist" agrarian economy is the suburban house, removed from center cities, and supported with ecological poetry…. (p. 260)
The form of his verse, except for some early slant-rhymed couplets, is open, tending toward rhythmic blocks with conversational anapestics, or, later, the "split line," in which the space bar of Dickey's typewriter determines the duration of a caesura. Both open forms appear to be contemptuous of strong metrics, for enjambed lines and stanzas based on conversational rhythms, often deliberately prosaic, confuse the reader who wants to stop at the end of a verse or a stanza before realizing, abruptly, that he should have carried the sense on. Even though the metrics are vague, expletives, as in conversation, fill out many lines—vague it's and there's forcing a reader to search for antecedent nouns. One cannot quarrel with Dickey's assertion that diction must be "convincing as speech before as poetry," but decorum is violated when unlikely unions of disparate elements are expressed in common speech. (pp. 261-62)
Dickey eschews cynicism, but not gloom. In Drowning with Others, Dickey tends to dissipate poetic feeling into either plain misery or accedium…. [He] "sacramentalizes" hunting. The fox has a holy scent…. A mystical fog envelops the animals, prefiguring a birth. Wounds of animals are "like the mouths of holy beings." Summoning an animal with a mating call, Dickey listens to the "beast that shall die of its love." In short, Dickey's accedium springs from his "unfinished desire … for the Other."…
These poems strive after mystical transcendence, and a questionable luminosity encourages belief in mystery in the reader. Mr. Dickey's warmth and sensitivity toward family life, nature, and God, and his hopefulness of finding the "Other"—these qualities make him a mystic-poet. (p. 263)
Dickey's affection for metaphysics, together with his desire to celebrate suburban adventure—the razor's edge between the sublime and the absurd—would be viable only if he had a systematic religion…. A vague religion is worse than none, particularly one that is "strong in my work in some wild kind of way." With the luxury of disbelief or non-belief, a poet can be on a quest, without knowing beforehand the fixed destination.
Induced religion hovers about Dickey's intentions, even in poems seemingly unconcerned with last things. You read, for example, the title "Sun," curious about how Dickey, who always seems to be invoking moons, half-moons, and crescents, will treat the solar force, which, in Yeats's phases, stands for objective reality as opposed to the moon's subjective reality and imagination. (p. 264)
In a decade that demanded of its poets "confession" and "hysteria," Dickey retained a sanguine temperament. While … Roethke, Lowell, and Plath conveyed tortured mental suffering which he doubts to be a correct subject of poetry, Dickey seems to have been well-disposed to the world, pushing toward the Other as a poetic convenience. (p. 267)
When Dickey rejected the closed poem admired by Pound, Eliot, and the Southern agrarians, he retained the chief element that unified their poems in his own open, process-directed, free-form verse…. Because Dickey was in love with life as it was given him, in all its mutability, he had no need for the rhetorical figure that was their mainstay and that continued to be needed by Roethke, Lowell, and Plath. Once delivered from this figure of speech …, Dickey, avoiding the conjunction of dissimilars—which explains the uneasiness a reader feels in his prolific apocalyptic '60's poems—will, I think, be less tempted to exalt the commonplace. And the preferred medium for his verbal talents will be the novel. (p. 268)
Norman Silverstein, "James Dickey's Muscular Eschatology," in Salmagundi (copyright © 1973 by Skidmore College), Spring-Summer, 1973, pp. 258-68.
[In] Dickey's "Falling," weight and weightlessness stretch across time—they are time in their unitv; not time broken up into a series of "nows," but time as it flows out of itself; not time as a system of objective, discrete positions, but time that unites and synthesizes total mobility and total immobility. In other words, the falling of the stewardess is also a floating; there is a stasis, a timelessness, at the heart of its movement. (pp. 135-36)
Time is and is not itself; it is falling. The way in which time unites opposites in Dickey's poem—weight and weightlessness, helplessness and freedom, immobility and mobility, passing and presence, falling and rising—and unites them not by reducing one to the other, but by preserving the full meaning of each, is an indication of the sense in which time is at the core of the symbolic world, as the very membrane which holds that world together. And as a unity of Being and Nonbeing, that membrane holds the symbolic world apart also, unites unity and multiplicity in such a way that they are and are not each other. The stewardess in "Falling" is her world by not being her world…. (p. 140)
[Another aspect of this poem is] the poem as a poem, as a form which itself can be considered according to the structure of falling. There is a kind of improvised inevitability to Dickey's poem, as there is to so much modern literature, a temporal form that is the antithesis of the already constituted space of realistic and naturalistic fiction…. [Just] as the act of falling is not a series of discrete positions but a unity of presence and passing, and just as falling continually relates to its wholeness by falling into and out of itself, so the elements of the poem "Falling" are transformed as our eyes fall from line to line, and the past of the poem never remains as a static bulk but changes qualitatively with each new presence in it. (p. 141)
We always perceive the whole of a poem in each element of it, and we do this while falling through the poem. In Dickey's "Falling," the act the poem describes, the act of the poem itself, and our act of reading the poem are all held in a unity, the unity of falling. (pp. 141-42)
John Vernon, in his The Garden and the Map: Schizophrenia in Twentieth-Century Literature and Culture (© 1973 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois; reprinted by permission of the author and the University of Illinois Press), University of Illinois Press, 1973.
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. (p. 207)
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….) (p. 208)
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…. 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. (pp. 208-09)
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….
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. (p. 210)
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…." (pp. 212-13)
The process of increasing self-consciousness, as image after image is explored, held up like a mask to the poet's face, 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. (p. 213)
But Into the Stone is characterized by passivity and no hint of the guilty, pleasurable agitation of physical life, whether hunting or love…. (p. 215)
A more dramatic sense of self is evident in Dickey's second book, Drowning with Others…. [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…. (p. 216)
"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 … 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. (p. 217)
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. (p. 219)
In [the] 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." (p. 220)
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…. 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 [the] 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. (pp. 221-22)
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. (p. 227)
Dickey has many extraordinary poems, fusions of "genius" and "art," but the central poem of his work seems to be "The Firebombing."… 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. (pp. 227-28)
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? (p. 228)
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…. 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? (pp. 229-30)
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. (pp. 230-31)
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. (pp. 231-32)
But Dickey cannot operate through metaphor,… 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."… If made general and universal, in order to be shared, is guilt itself not made an aesthetic event?—a luxury?—a perversion? (p. 232)
The narrative and confessional elements of "The Firebombing" demand a totally different aesthetic: the aesthetic-denying open form…. "The Firebombing" is central to an understanding of Dickey's work. (p. 233)
[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? (pp. 233-34)
After countless readings, "May Day Sermon" [in Poems 1957–1967] still has the power to shock…. The maniacal repetitions make one wince ("get up … up in your socks and rise"), and the Dylan Thomas-surreal touches sometimes seem forced …, 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."… 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…. (pp. 235-36)
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."… 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. (pp. 240-41)
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…. (p. 243)
[For] all its bloodthirsty frenzy, the wolverine is in danger of dying out. It is a "nonsurvivor."… 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…. 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. (pp. 243-44)
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…. 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. (pp. 244-45)
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 …, 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…. 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. (pp. 248-49)
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 because that civilization will not, cannot, understand what he is saying. (p. 258)
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. 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." (pp. 258-59)
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. (p. 259)
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….
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. (p. 263)
Joyce Carol Oates, "Out of Stone, into Flesh: The Imagination of James Dickey," in her New Heaven, New Earth: The Visionary Experience in Literature (copyright © 1974 by Joyce Carol Oates; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Vanguard Press, Inc.), Vanguard, 1974, pp. 205-63.
Dickey, as far as I know, has not directly addressed the civil rights issue since 1961, when he wrote a short essay before he left the advertising business called "Notes on the Decline of Outrage." Dickey knew the score then, for he described the unfolding drama of the Negro struggle as "pointing up, as nothing else in this country has ever done before, the fearful consequences of systematic and heedless oppression for both the oppressed and the oppressor, who cannot continue to bear such a burden without becoming himself diminished, and in the end debased, by such secret and cruel ways…. It is not too much to say that in the 'Negro problem' lies the problem of the South itself."
Then how to explain the void in "Jericho"? (p. 4)
While writing "Deliverance" (which also steered away from racial themes), Dickey elaborated on this defense of his creative choice by saying, "It excites me more to write about a river than to write about violence in the streets. And if that's what excites me, by God, that's what I'm going to write about."
Dickey, the poet and novelist was on defensible ground, I think, because a writer of his sensibilities must write from the emotional edge, calling on the fragments of experience that move him.
But "Jericho" is an interpretive history which announces its theme as "The South Beheld." An omission as immense, as egregious as the changes the civil rights movement brought about in black and white attitudes—not to mention the longing and anger that punctuates all of Southern black history, so tellingly revealed to us in "All Gods Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw" (in fact they should be read together)—raises a fundamental political and psychological question about the intentions of the authors…. With "Jericho," Dickey cannot any longer retreat onto the platform of poetry or the prerogative of creative preference by professing a lack of interest in the Southern racial struggles. No Southern writer can write about Southern history without addressing this tiger directly. "Jericho," then, shouts with Dickey's silence.
Had Dickey begun to explore Jericho's impact on blacks, he might have come upon fascinating possibilities….
[This] book papers over the real South, shielding its blemishes and changes from the reader; it is successful because its subliminal message tells the book-buying South what it wants to hear—that the last 20 years didn't happen, that they are still living in a white paradise without any recognition of the paradise lost.
For Dickey, one of the most publicized American poets since Frost and Sandburg, the gap is profoundly disappointing. He sells his South short. In so many ways, the South is now the most optimistic section of America embarked on its long process of healing while Northern cities are exploding with white violence.
Perhaps the South is Jericho, destroyed by war, tempered by protest, and now rebuilt to new strength and vigor on the shoulders of a committed leadership of both races that see black and white cooperation as a key to regional vitality and national reconciliation. That's the Jericho that could have unfolded in this volume; that's the political and emotional reality of the South in the seventies that Shuptrine [the photographer with whom Dickey collaborated] and Dickey could have captured for the next generation. The tragedy is that the opportunity to do it in such a dramatic format will probably not come again. (p. 5)
Eli N. Evans, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 9, 1975.