James Dickey

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Wendell Berry (review date November 1964)

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SOURCE: Berry, Wendell. “James Dickey's New Book.” Poetry 105 (November 1964): 130-31.

[In the following review, Berry describes some of the poems in Helmets as clumsy and mechanical.]

Going into this book [Helmets] is like going into an experience in your own life that you know will change your mind. You either go in willing to let it happen, or you stay out. There are a lot of good poems here. “The Dusk of Horses,” “Fence Wire,” “Cherrylog Road,” “The Scarred Girl,” “The Ice Skin, Drinking from a Helmet,” and “Bums, on Waking” aren't the only poems I thought moving and good, but they are the ones I keep the firmest, clearest memory of.

Thinking just of the poems I've named, I realize to what an extent sympathy is the burden of this book, how much there is of seeing into the life of beings other than the poet. The reader is moved imaginatively and sympathetically into the minds of horses at nightfall, of farmer and animals divided and held together by fences, of a young girl scarred in a wreck, of bums waking up in places they never intended to come to.

“Drinking from a Helmet” represents not the fact of sympathy, but the making of it. The poet moves from his own isolated experience of war into an almost mystical realization (and assumption) of the life of the dead soldier from whose helmet he drinks. A tense balance is held between the felt bigness of the war and the experience of the one young man.

“Cherrylog Road” is a funny, poignant, garrulous poem about making love in a junk yard. It surely owes a great deal to the country art of storytelling. It's a poem you want to read out loud to somebody else, and it's best and most enjoyable when you do.

But I think that Mr. Dickey is also capable of much less than his best. There are poems that seem to have been produced by the over-straining of method, ground out in accordance with what the poet has come to expect he'll do in a given situation. “Springer Mountain” will illustrate what I mean. The poem tells about a hunter who, on impulse, pulls off his clothes and starts running after a deer. I can't help believing that the power of insight and feeling that is the being of a poem like “The Dusk of Horses” becomes equipment in “Springer Mountain.” The poet seems to be using capabilities developed elsewhere, and to be using them deliberately and mechanically. The hunter's gesture, or transport or whatever it is, seems to have been made to happen, and isn't seen with enough humor to mitigate its inherent silliness and clumsiness. After a good many readings I don't yet feel I know how it is meant or what it means. And more than that, I have no faith in it, no belief that anybody ever did any such thing. It's like watching a magician's act that, in spite of a certain brilliance, remains flatly incredible.

Usually involved in the weakness of the weaker poems is a dependence on a galloping monotonous line-rhythm (nine syllables, three or four stressed, five or six unstressed, the last unstressed) that can be both dulling and aggravating. The point isn't that this happens, but that it happens often. And when it happens it acts as a kind of fence, on the opposite sides of which the poem and the reader either give each other up or, worse, go on out of duty.

But I want to end by turning back...

(This entire section contains 629 words.)

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to the goodness of the book. There are poems here of such life that you don't believe they're possible until you read them the second time, and I've got no bone to pick with them.


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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 contemporary American literature, Dickey is best known for his intense exploration of the primal, irrational, creative, and ordering forces in life. Often classified as a visionary 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 confrontations in war, sports, and nature as a means for probing violence, mortality, creativity, and social values. In his poetry, Dickey rejected formalism, artifice, and confession, favoring instead a narrative mode that features energetic rhythms and charged emotions.

Biographical Information

Dickey was born February 2, 1923, in the Atlanta suburb of Buckhead. In 1942 he attended Clemson College, but left to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Corps. During World War II, he logged nearly 500 combat hours, serving in the South Pacific. After the war, Dickey attended Vanderbilt University, graduating with his B.A. in 1949, and earning his M.A. in 1950. In 1956 Dickey, then a successful advertising copywriter and executive, cultivated a friendship with Ezra Pound, whose essays on poetry were to have a considerable influence on Dickey's image-centered approach to poetry. During the 1960s, Dickey won wide acclaim and several major literary awards for his poetry. He also was appointed Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. He continued to be active during the 1980s and 1990s, teaching until five days before his death January 19, 1997.

Major Works

Dickey's poetry was often inspired by crucial events in his own life. His early poetry, for example, is infused with guilt over his role as a fighter pilot in World War II and the Korean War, ruminations on his older brother's death, and reflections upon his Southern heritage. In his first three volumes of verse—Into the Stone and Other Poems (1960), Drowning with Others (1962), and Helmets (1964)—Dickey explores such topics as war, family, love, death, spiritual rebirth, nature, and survival. These poems are generally arranged in traditional stanzaic units and are marked by an expansive tone. These volumes also contain several poems about the wilderness in which Dickey stresses the importance of maintaining the primal physical and imaginative powers that he believes are suppressed by civilization. Buckdancer's Choice (1965), which won a National Book Award, signaled a shift in Dickey's verse to freer, more complex forms. Employing internal monologues, varied spacing between words and phrases in place of punctuation, and subtler rhythms, Buckdancer's Choice investigates human suffering in its myriad forms.

Throughout his later poetry, Dickey laments the loss of youth, expresses a profound fear of mortality, and explores visionary qualities and creative energies. This verse evidences a more self-reflexive voice and an increasingly restrained, meditative style. He also began to employ what he termed “country surrealism,” a technique by which he obscures distinctions between dreams and reality to accommodate the irrational. For example, “The Zodiac” is a long, self-referential poem about an intensely visionary alcoholic artist who has difficulty distinguishing between illusion and reality. The title poem of The Strength of the Fields (1979), which Dickey read at Jimmy Carter's presidential inauguration, affirms faith in humanity while addressing various human dilemmas.

In Deliverance (1970), which was adapted into an acclaimed film, Dickey reiterates several themes prevalent in his verse, primarily the rejuvenation of human life through interaction with nature. The novel describes four suburban men who seek diversion from their unfulfilling lives by canoeing down a remote and dangerous river. They encounter natural threats and human violence, forcing them to rely on primitive instincts in order to survive. Dickey's second novel, Alnilam (1987), is an ambitious, experimental work centering on a blind man's attempts to uncover the mysterious circumstances of his son's death. His last novel, To the White Sea (1993), is the story of a seemingly sociopathic soldier forced to parachute into Japan during World War II. In addition to his writing, Dickey also is an esteemed poetry critic. In such volumes of essays and journals as Babel to Byzantium (1968), Self-Interviews (1970), Sorties (1971), and Crux (1999), he offers subjective viewpoints of poetry and asserts his preference for artistic intensity and intuition.

Critical Reception

Dickey is considered one of the major figures in American literature during the latter half of the twentieth century. Lauded as a significant American poet, he might be the most frequently discussed poet of his generation. Much has been written about Dickey's controversial public persona and pursuit of celebrity, and the ways in which his legendary personality affected his work and literary reputation. The role of his Southern heritage is also a rich area of critical discussion, as several reviewers have explored Dickey's place within the pantheon of Southern poets. Another area of debate has been Dickey's interest in primitivism, the concept that civilized man should maintain contact with nature, sensations, and primal impulses often suppressed by modern society. This theme was viewed as a recurring one in Dickey's oeuvre and was embodied in the best-selling novel, Deliverance.

William C. Strange (essay date fall-winter 1965-1966)

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SOURCE: Strange, William C. “To Dream, To Remember: James Dickey's Buckdancer's Choice.Northwest Review 7, no. 2 (fall-winter 1965-1966): 33-42.

[In the following essay, Strange identifies dream and memory as the main thematic concerns of the poems comprising Buckdancer's Choice.]

Dream, memory, and poem are an ancient knot in a web of tempting correspondencies: image and event, possibility and necessity, wish and commandment, future and past. At one time or another and in various measure, all of these pairs have been used to explain that tense presence which is a poem, and they are still useful, permitting one to describe handily the tendency of modern poetry as a shift from memory and its co-ordinates to dream. Of course, there are exceptions. Old Ovid seems a poet of the dream while David Jones clearly writes for us out of a remarkable memory. Still, our time is distinguished by poet-theorists such as André Breton, who talks of “l'homme, ce rêveur définitif,” and we support with our prizes the Seventy-seven Dream Songs of John Berryman. And when the drift of western poetry is seen in large perspective, as the pitch of its weight slips from heroic to lyric, then its direction is unmistakable. The Greeks called memory the mother of poetry; we moderns know a deep well of the unremembered where poetry and dreams are born.

James Dickey's most recent book, Buckdancer's Choice, stands out sharply in this context as a collection of modern poems in which one can feel both the lure of dream and the thrust of memory. In single poems and in the ordering of the whole, it displays a breadth of concern and a balance of energies that are notable in themselves and full of promise for the future.

Most simply, Buckdancer's Choice can be sorted into one set of recognizably modern poems that are dreams in fact or in technique and another set of poems that are “remembered” rather than dreamed. Indeed, this division is so much a part of this book that quite often a poem from one category will be paired off with a poem from the other. “Fathers and Sons,” for example, consists of two poems printed together: the first describes a boy asleep and dreaming while his father dies, and the second a father haunted by his memories of a dead son. Other poems may not be so explicitly joined, but they, too, will draw together to enforce a balance between timeless dream and time remembered. “Pursuit from Under” and “Sled Burial, Dream Ceremony” or “Faces Seen Once” and “The Common Grave” co-operate in this way. However, the most striking moments in the dialectic occur when these opposites meet within one large poem such as “The Firebombing” or within a short and remarkably compressed piece like “The War Wound.” One comes to read Buckdancer's Choice for such compounding poems as these, but the collection is best met in its simples.

Of the two categories, Dickey's dream poems are by far the less impressive. Sometimes they are too dependent upon other poems, even upon poems from other collections. “Sled Burial, Dream Ceremony” is scarcely intelligible without “Pursuit from Under,” and “Fox Blood” drives us all the way back to “Listening to Foxhounds” and “A Dog Sleeping on my Feet” in Dickey's second book, Drowning with Others. More often, these poems fail to impress because we know their moves too well. Dreaming transformations of men into appropriate beasts is old hat though Dickey can vary his tired totems effectively, reporting the metamorphosis as fact when it suits him, as in “Reincarnation,” or using it boldly in “Gamecock” to stage a conceit. His style, too, is masterful, reaching with suitable ease to the brittle clarity of nightmare. And his bag of dream tricks contains all the turns of a neo-Freudian rhetoric: condensation, displacement, reversal, etc. Indeed, the more clinical these poems are, the more effective they seem to be. Witness the depth and power of Dickey's conception in “Them, Crying” where compulsion is his subject. In something less than eighty lines, he brings to life a truck-driver, “unmarried, unchildlike, / Half-bearded and foul-mouthed,” who is drawn irresistibly to the children's ward of a large hospital by the sound of children crying within him. Or witness the perfectly realized counterpoint of hallucination and reality in Dickey's presentation of a voyeur in “The Friend.”

                                        He has learned what a plant is like
When it moves near a human habitation          moving closer the
                              later it is
Unfurling its leaves near bedrooms          still keeping
                              its wilderness life
Twigs covering his body with only one way out          for his
                              eyes into inner light
Of a chosen window. …

The dreams of damaged minds seldom have been rendered better than this. But the real surprise is to find that Dickey can make of these clinical materials poems that are gracious and charming. Such qualities are not common in those whose work is the dream, be they poets or psychoanalysts, and they have been too rare in Dickey's earlier verse. But he broke through with “Cherrylog Road” in his last collection, Helmets, and he breaks through in this book with a poem such as “The Celebration.”

This last is as clinical a dream poem as one could wish for. Surely, no tenets are more basic to the art of psychoanalysis than these: We all carry within us a record, written in scars, of the inevitable frustrations met by our growing appetites. Of necessity, these frustrations are usually sexual and often involve our parents. Adjustment, maturity, wisdom, or whatever you choose to call the achievement of a sound life, depends in part upon our becoming aware of past pain and its effects in the present; and this past is recovered most easily through the symbols that we dream. Now, Dickey could have tailored “The Celebration” to these propositions. In it, the poet describes himself moving through symbols to a quite literal anamnesis of his parents as lovers and then back from this vision of the primal scene to a new sense of himself and his responsibilities in the present. What the poet learns, he feels along the body more than knows—“[I] stepped upon sparking shocks / Of recognition when I saw my feet … knowing them given”—, but he does try to state what he has recognized as clearly and as directly as he can. He talks of learning to understand

                              the whirling impulse
From which I had been born,
The great gift of shaken lights,
The being wholly lifted with another,
All this having all and nothing
To do with me.

The final lines of the poem are even more explicit in pointing the moral of all this seeing: the poet sees and becomes as a consequence “a kind of loving, / A mortal, a dutiful son.” It is hard to conceive of a poem more properly psychoanalytic in its recognitions and consequent moralizings.

The details which earn this recognition, making the “whirling impulse” known and truly told within the poem, also are heavy with the modern craft of dreams. In its first lines the poem looks like a phantasmagoria of lust:

All wheels; a man breathed fire,
Exhaling like a blowtorch down the road
And burnt the stripper's gown
Above her moving-barely feet.
A condemned train climbed from the earth
Up stilted nightlights zooming in a track.
I ambled along in that crowd. …

Most of us have met such carnal nightmares before, in the Commedia or in The Rape of the Lock, but this one is distinctly modern. More savage than Pope's, more narrowly psychological than Dante's, this fantasy is twin to the cases reported in Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams or to George Grosz's drawings of Berlin. Reason can stumble through this queer pastiche but is sent spinning when we find that all this fantasy is simple fact. The blowtorch-man is a fire-eater in a side show, the stripper just that, the condemned train a roller-coaster, and the crowded scene, Lakewood Midway at carnival time. With some care Dickey has led us into his poem, forcing us to see both the literal and the figurative dimensions of its sense, refusing to let us simplify.

In the second stanza Dickey quickly re-asserts the figurativeness of the carnival setting. Just in case his realistic explanation of the hallucinatory first stanza may have been too surprising and too distracting, he makes another ride, the dodgem cars, explicitly figurative by using them as one term of a simile: “each in his vehicle half / In control, half-helplessly power-mad / As was in the traffic that brought him.” After this reminder, the poem need not be so explicit with its images; Dickey has prepared us for the symbols that he must use. In the literal scene, the poet is walking quietly and alone in the carnival crowd when he sees with surprise that his mother and father are there, “he leaning / On a dog-chewed cane, she wrapped to the nose / In the fur of exhausted weasels.” Age and sexuality are finely caught here as the phallic symbols of cane and wrap are modified by their worn, literal substance. More than anything else, it is precisely this shadow of sexual energy in his parents that surprises the poet. They are so old. What can they celebrate? “I believed them buried [that verb is no accident] miles back / In the country, in the faint sleep / Of the old, and had not thought to be / On this of all nights compelled / To follow where they led. …”

In the stanza which follows, similar details reinforce this effect of tired fact scarcely covering powerful fancy. His mother carries a teddy bear that is as insistently symbolic as weasel wrap and dog-chewed cane; she holds it as if it were a child, and it was won for her “on the waning whip” of his father's right arm. The “crippled Stetson” which his father wears may not be so suggestive, except in its bobbing movement, but even here one could cite a section of Freud's dream book headed simply “A Hat as a Symbol of a Man (or of Male Genitals).” The poem's central image, of the old couple riding on a ferris wheel, needs no such footnoting:

                              They laughed;
She clung to him; then suddenty
The Wheel of wheels was turning
The colored night around.
They climbed aboard. My God, they rose
Above me, stopped themselves, and swayed
Fifty feet up; he pointed
With his toothed cane, and took in
The whole Midway till they dropped,
Came down, went from me, came and went
Faster and faster, going up backward,
Cresting, out-topping, falling roundly.

“The Wheel of wheels” is a perfectly apt description of a ferris wheel, but here it is also an intensive and a symbol. The cane, too, has become ambiguous with a new-old strength, for “toothed” may still mean “dog-chewed” but it suggests “possessing teeth.” And all of the verbs that move these lines carry into them a phallic significance that nearly obliterates their letter. The whole passage is rich with a sense that scarcely requires glossing, even though it is this large image that elicits from the poet those attempts at direct statement our analysis began with.

But working our way up to these statements as the poem meant us to, we find that the lesson read is something more than a moral tag at its close. Recognition sparks within and without this poem, for “The Celebration” is peculiarly reflexive. Its images know themselves as they would be known, and the “whirling impulse” this poet sees, he teaches us to see, with all the fervent pragmatism of a revivalist. “Believers, I have seen / The wheel in the middle of the air. …” Though such language is borrowed from an old faith and testament, with some wit it calls a new generation of dreamers back to the constant task of prophecy: in omens find a responsible joy, and let it find you.

                              Believers, I have seen
The wheel in the middle of the air
Where old age rises and laughs,
And on Lakewood Midway became
In five strides a kind of loving,
A mortal, a dutiful son.

With this poem and others like it, Dickey seems to be saying to his contemporaries, “Look, I can do it too,” and also “Look, how narrow this thing that we have done.” “The Celebration” is a first-rate product of our time's craft of dreams, but it is also ours in ways that are not so admirable: in the passivity and in the privacy of its vision. Dreams happen to a person, and if you live in and for them, you wait and are paid for your waiting in coin of no man's realm. Clearly, a balanced art demands visions that one chooses as well as those that one is chosen by, and visions of more than one's self. Poetry, at least, should be dreams that one can trade in. Concern with the trap of solipsism, that Wordsworth and Sartre both know so well, and concern for a poetry that is performance as well as visitation run throughout Buckdancer's Choice. One finds it in certain implications of “The Celebration”'s moral close: in seeing others oblivious of me, I see myself and my responsibilities, my “duty.” One finds it in the way that this small book is crammed with the full reality of other persons: generations of family, friends, an old teacher with a bad heart, a truck driver drowning in tenderness, a voyeur, a slaveowner, enemies from an old war, and victims. One finds it in Dickey's appetite for

                              those things that, once
Established, cannot be changed by angels,
Devils, lightning, ice, or indifference:
Identities! Identities!

in a context where these “Identities” are both the mathematics that Mangham teaches and the man that he is as the poet's remembering “establishes” him. One finds it, conversely, in Dickey's reaction to “an angel's too-realized / Unbearable memoryless face.” One finds it, particularly, in his sense of memory as counter-weight to dream, public and willed, and in such poems as “Buckdancer's Choice.”

Intended or not, the use of this poem as title piece flaunts such a book as John Berryman's Seventy-Seven Dream Songs, for “Buckdancer's Choice” is a song, too, but not a dream song. It is an old song that minstrels once danced to, shuffling and flapping their arms like stunted wings, and the poem remembers it as it was performed. The poem begins by recalling the poet's mother, “dying of breathless angina” but finding breath and life of a sort in whistling to herself “the thousand variations” of this one song. It also remembers the poet as a boy who “crept close to the wall / Sock-footed, to hear the sounds alter, / Her tongue like a mockingbird's beak / Through stratum after stratum of a tone. …” Behind this spot of time lies another evoked by it: the house in which the boy listens is “barnlike, theatrelike,” he is “sock-footed,” and his mother's whistle calls up in him “a sight like a one-man band, / Freed black, with cymbals at heel, / An ex-slave who thrivingly danced / To the ring of his own clashing light. …” Together, these two moments of time past form a metaphor of sorts whose point is most immediately that time does pass. “For years, they have all been dying / Out, the classic buck-and-wing men / Of traveling minstrel shows; / With them also an old woman / Was dying of breathless angina. …”

But there are three faces to this metaphor—the minstrel's, the mother's, and the boy's—and only the first two are stained by death. The song speaks for each of them in different ways 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
With a brass-beating glow underfoot,
Not dancing but nearly risen
Through barnlike, theatrelike houses
On the wings of the buck and wing.

Choices and risen are the most difficult terms in this last and fullest statement of the metaphor. Clearly, they are meant to give the image its final shape by opposing the dying mother and the last dancer to the boy who does not die and, apparently, to the poet who remembers him with this poem. The alignment is clear, if not its sense. Why choices?

To choose is to be free, and the buckdancer is a freed slave who celebrates his freedom by dancing out “The thousand variations of one song,” thriving all the while in the choices of his dance. His dying art remembered frees the woman who is slave to the nearness of her death, for his song is both a literal artifact making it possible for her to partake of a joy her dying body denies her and a kind of emblematic definition of its own use. Joy is the one song, but she cannot simply identify with it; rather, she must achieve her own identity as a kind of thousand-and-first variation of it. Art's long memory has saved for her the fact of joy, but she must join with it, finding herself in her own performance of this joy as a dancer finds identity in the strict measure of his dance or as variations find themselves in a sounding theme.

The boy and the poet who remembers him complete the literal scene by making something nearly heroic out of the invalid's ultimate lyricism. In listening to his mother “warbling all day to herself,” the boy reverses the movement from minstrel show to muffled sickroom by transforming the house into a kind of theatre, while the poet remembering this three-personed song in his poem restores it entirely to the public domain so that we, too, may use it. Perhaps this is one justification for the poem's claim that the vanishing dancer and the dying woman are countered by a “risen” boy: the song she appropriates—and what could be more private than the “prone music” of an invalid's whistle—he takes back for himself and in time performs, that others may for the moment find themselves, and company, in “Buckdancer's Choice.”

But “risen” makes figurative sense as well as literal, as it must when it involves even such mimic wings as the buckdancer's elbows suggest. At first glance, “risen” looks like more of that southern evangelical baroque that is such an engaging quality of Dickey's imagination, but here I think the religious implications are more precise and more serious. “Risen” is but the end of something that has been building from the first lines of the poem. For example, why should his mother's whistle have split the air into just “nine levels”? Is the number meant to remind us of the nine muses, or of the nine heavens through which Dante rose as the blessed were manifest to him under the conditions of space and time? When this same fracted air, in terza senza rima, is offered as proving “some gift of tongues of the whistler,” the reference is more certainly religious and more illuminating.

Speaking in tongues is described several times in the New Testament. In Acts St. Peter defends the authenticity of the experience in terms which could suggest Dickey's poem: “your sons and daughters shall prophesy, / And your young men shall see visions, / And your old men shall dream dreams” (2:17). However, St. Paul's discussion of the gift of tongues seems more clearly relevant to a reading of Dickey's poem. In I Corinthians 14, he develops at some length the distinction between tongues and prophecy that St. Peter hints at with his young prophets and aged dreamers. According to St. Paul, the man with the gift of tongues speaks in mysteries to his God; his spirit prays, but his understanding is not fruitful unless his words are interpreted for him and for others. To the unbelievers, speaking in tongues will seem testimony only of madness in the speaker. (In this context, the address “Believers, I have seen …” at the close of “The Celebration” acquires further ironic bite.) Describing his mother's whistle as a gift of tongues, Dickey draws heavily upon St. Paul's conception and even language, for St. Paul calls this a “speaking into the air” and expands his claim with a series of musical metaphors. More important, Dickey's reference seems to involve St. Paul's valuation of the experience: speaking in tongues is a valid gift of the spirit, but the gift of prophecy is much greater. The prophet is a tuned pipe and harp, a certain trumpet; he speaks to all for the sake of all. He is a bearer of public visions. If the old woman has received the gift of tongues, her son hopes for the gift of tuned speech, for the gift of prophecy; and in time he receives it, as this poem testifies most powerfully.

No wonder, then, that Dickey chooses “Buckdancer's Choice” as the title piece for this collection: it is a perfect emblem of the art he would achieve. Modern poetry has been content too long with an invalid's private song. Dickey is reaching once more for the time that was and the time that is to be. He is reaching for prophecy.

Dickey's verbal skills were always considerable; they have grown more sure. In his earlier books the fluent movement of his verse was overwhelmed at times by a surge of anapests, and diction was marred by conventional insincerities. Those poems had a brother dying “ablaze with the meaning of typhoid” and fell too often into the cadence of “O grasses and fence wire of glory / That have been burned like a coral with depth. …” Now, such cadences are modulated by carefully indicated pauses within the line: “He has only to pass by a tree moodily walking head down …” and his familiar elegiac and meditative vocabulary includes new tones, like the impeccable gaucherie of “Homeowners unite. / All families lie together, though some are burned alive. / The other try to feel / For them. Some can, it is often said.” Still, these are not the clearest measure of Dickey's growth or of his achievement in this new book. Poems of real substance may be recognized by what they do to our commonplaces about poetry, not cancelling them out but making them more true than they were before. We have known for a long time that the modern poet seeks in “la plénitude du grand songe” for “memorable speech.” The virtue of Buckdancer's Choice is to insist that the deepest dreams belong to languages not to men and that the best poetry is speech remembering.

Principal Works

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Into the Stone, and Other Poems (poetry) 1960

Drowning with Others (poetry) 1962

Helmets (poetry) 1964

The Suspect in Poetry (criticism) 1964

Two Poems of the Air (poetry) 1964

Buckdancer's Choice (poetry) 1965

Babel to Byzantium: Poets and Poetry Now (criticism) 1968

Poems, 1957-1967 (poetry) 1968

Deliverance (novel) 1970

The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead, and Mercy (poetry) 1970

Self-Interviews (monologues) 1970

Sorties: Journals and New Essays (essays) 1971

Tucky the Hunter (children's poetry) 1978

The Strength of Fields (poetry) 1979

Scion (poetry) 1980

Falling, May Day Sermon, and Other Poems (poetry) 1981

Puella (poetry) 1982

The Central Motion (poetry) 1983

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

Alnilam (novel) 1987

The Eagle's Mile (poetry) 1990

The Whole Motion: Collected Poems, 1945-1992 (poetry) 1992

To the White Sea (novel) 1993

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

James Dickey: Selected Poems (poetry) 1998

Crux: The Letters of James Dickey (correspondence) 1999

The James Dickey Reader (poetry, essays, monologues, and criticism) 1999

Paul Carroll (review date November 1968)

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SOURCE: Carroll, Paul. “James Dickey as Critic.” Chicago Review 20 (November 1968): 82-7.

[In the following favorable review of Babel to Byzantium, Carroll examines the critical backlash against Dickey's work.]

After I talk about this collection of book reviews and essays on modern poets—which seems to me the sanest, most invigorating and most fun to read since Randall Jarrell's Poetry and the Age (1953)—I want to try and put into perspective a nasty attempt at poetic fratricide in which James Dickey has been the target. Why I bother with such dirty literary linen is simple: I want everybody to read and enjoy Mr. Dickey without the distraction encouraged by the scuttlebutt resulting from the attempt at fratricide, which was manufactured, for the most part, by envy, it would seem. Not only has James Dickey shown the unmistakable “blue sign of his god on the forehead,” as St.-John Perse describes the true poet, which holds the promise that we may have a major poet in our midst (indeed, why his collected Poems: 1957-67 failed to win the 1968 Pulitzer Prize remains, to my mind, more baffling than the intricacies displayed in most of the theories regarding John F. Kennedy's assassination) but he also writes the kind of criticism I admire—namely, direct, personal talk about this poet or that poem in his or its own skin, as it were.

What commends the prose in Babel to Byzantium is similar to what makes the best of Mr. Dickey's poems memorable: the honesty and authority of the insight, unburdened by literary fashion or even by the critic's previous judgment; and the originality and power of the imagination at work on material that counts.

When I suggest that the insight is honest and has authority I mean that it is the last thing from that type of tidy, judicious opinion one reads (only during Lent, hopefully) in so many reviews and essays. One learns to trust Dickey to say only what he feels. What he feels can compel you, in turn, to reread a writer whom you may have dismissed as an adolescent infatuation or to open yourself to one whom you've never read. Of Kenneth Patchen for instance, Dickey says: “It is wrong of us to wish Patchen would ‘pull himself together.’ He has never been together. He cannot write poems, as this present book (When We Were Here Together) heartlessly demonstrates. But his authentic and terrible hallucinations infrequently come to great good among the words which they must use. We should leave it at that,” he concludes, “and take what we can from him.” Or of John Logan and the lack of wider recognition his work merits but hasn't received: “His strange kind of innocence, walking in and out of his ecclesiastical and literary knowledgeableness, is not an easy thing to talk about, though anyone who reads Mr. Logan cannot fail to be excited and uplifted by it.” Then the insight blazes: “(Logan) is far beyond the Idols of the Marketplace and works where the work itself is done out of regard for the world he lives in and the people he lives among because he is helplessly and joyously what he is.”

Fluctuating quotations on the literary stock market obviously do not interest Dickey. He refuses to take on faith alone, for example, the veneration afforded Charles Olson and his poetics of “composition by field” by some of the poets associated with the old Black Mountain College and by some of the Beat poets, as well as by some of the younger poets, longing, it would seem, for apostolic succession. Examining Olson's theory and its practice in The Maximus Poems, Dickey finds both second-hand and not too interesting news. But he is not out to hatchet another poet, granting that Olson's mind “seems to me quite a capable one, and at all points working hard to say what it has been given it. That is enough, because it has to be.” On the other hand, J. V. Cunningham, John Frederick Nims, Elder Olson, and Reed Whittemore are treated as poets and not as “minor voices from the '40s.” Nims, for one, is often dismissed by fellow poets and critics as a virtuoso. Not by Dickey: “Mr. Nims has worked hard for a good many years to achieve his style of unremitting brilliance, and it behooves us to look closely at what he is doing”—which he does, with care and energy.

And the originality and power of the imagination seem without equal, in my opinion, among practicing critics. “Opening a book by Robert Penn Warren is like putting out the light of the sun,” Dickey observes, “or like plunging into the labyrinth and feeling the thread break after the first corner is passed.” His is an imagination which leaps beyond mere critical insight: “One will never come out the same Self as that in which one entered. When he is good, and often when he is bad, you had as soon read Warren as live.” Truths such as this, arrived at only through the imagination, occur again and again throughout this book.

In addition, Dickey almost always exhibits that rare gift: he is able to transcend a fundamental antipathy to some poet's work—which he describes, however, clearly and forcefully—and to discover what he feels is genuine in the poems. After arguing that Robert Duncan, for instance, is “certainly one of the most unpityingly pretentious poets I have ever come across,” he also praises Duncan's “ingenuousness,” the originality of his intellect, and several “marvelous” Duncan poems. Richard Wilbur, James Merrill, Allen Ginsberg, and Gene Derwood are other poets whom Dickey dislikes. In each, however, he finds nuggets of genuine poetry.

In brief, these book reviews of some 65 American and British poets are free of that myopia, parochialism and occasional smugness or patronizing tone found in much criticism. Instead, Dickey's reviews are clear-sighted, catholic in taste, and exuberantly respectful as only one poet can be towards the effort of one of his fellows. Best of all, Dickey ignores what he calls the critic's expected “System of Evaluation,” which he is supposed to defend not only on its practical and local instances but in its broader theoretical and philosophical implications as well. On the contrary, Dickey explores only his immediate, existential experience of this poet or that poem. And he does so in clear, masculine prose. (His lack of a critical system is the only possible fault I can find in this book. As far as I'm concerned, however, such lack is a virtue.)

In addition to the book reviews, there are longer essays on Edward Arlington Robinson—a valuable discussion which I know will send me back to Robinson soon—and on Robert Frost—an analysis so accurate in defining both Frost's genius and his spiteful, egocentric personality that one feels like laughing and weeping at once. Then there are five good shorter essays on individual poems, ranging from Smart's “A Song of David” to Francis Thompson's “The Hound of Heaven” to Williams' “The Yachts.” (An entire book on individual poems he loves would be a happy event, I think, from which everybody would benefit.)

Finally, three essays are grouped under the umbrella, “The Poet Turns on Himself.” “Barnstorming for Poetry” delineates what it feels like for a middleaged man suddenly to find himself a literary lion overnight as he sings, staggers, and suffers from college to college during an exhausting, exhilarating reading tour. Every poet who has ever run such a curious gauntlet will read this piece with (what Melville called in a far different context, I'm afraid) “that shock of recognition.” “Notes on the Decline of Outrage” should be read, and read carefully, by anyone who likes to think of James Dickey as a Georgia redneck. He isn't. What we come to know instead is a man, who was born white and raised in the Georgia of 40 years ago, trying to explore, as much in touch with his feelings as he can get, what it means to him to think about abandoning inherited, familial attitudes towards Negroes. What that man decides, as well as how he reaches the decision, will not satisfy those addicted to easy abstract slogans; but I suspect the essay will be admired by those who care more about individuals than abstractions or clichés or finding a mirror which will reflect their opinions and prejudices. I know I admire the essay almost as much as James Baldwin's masterpiece, “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind,” and for the same reason: both offer one man, feeling and thinking with his own heart, memories, and brains.

Now, I'd like to turn to the attempt at poetic fratricide mentioned at the beginning of this review.

“The Hunting of the Dickey” has become a popular, if vulgar, sport among a growing number of poets and poetasters. A few weeks ago, for example, I heard one of the younger poets, who is bright and well-read, dimiss Dickey as being the David Ogilvy of American verse. When asked if he'd read such magnificent Dickey poems as “The Sleep Child,” “Slave Quarters” or “The Heaven of the Animals,” he admitted, rather sheepishly, he had not; even more depressing, the poet confessd that, due to bad-mouthing against Dickey he'd heard along the literary grapevine, he'd decided not to bother with the criticism collected in Babel to Byzantium.

Exactly what are Dickey's crimes or sins? I thought, after this melancholy encounter. Most of the charges I've heard poets make against Dickey seem to have been brought into melodramatic focus by Robert Bly in his well-read essay, “The Collapse of James Dickey” (The Sixties, Spring, 1967). In that piece, Mr. (I almost said Captain) Bly tries to secure Dickey to the yardarm and flog him because some of the poems in Buckdancer's Choice (National Book Award, 1966) exhibit “a gloating about power over others.” According to Bly, this gloating manifests itself most clearly in such poems as “Slave Quarters”—that almost classic work depicting the sensibility of a contemporary white Southerner enmeshed in the cunning bondage of memory and fantasy of what an antebellum plantation owner might have felt—and in “Firebombing”—a long, often tedious poem which, with considerable honesty and power, embodies an attempt by a middleaged suburbanite to relive in memory the excitement and youthful virility felt when he was a bomber pilot flying missions over Japan during World War II. Both are poems of “memory and desire”: haunting, masculine, poignant. Clearly the first is not the apologia pro rednecks Mr. Bly discovers, nor is the latter a paean to “the American habit of firebombing Asians.” But Bly shows little interest in reading them as poems: instead, he chooses to bully poems into being flagrantly “repulsive” examples of what he claims is their author's moral leprosy.

The Bly essay concludes, then, with a libel against Mr. Dickey. The poet is branded as “a sort of Georgia cracker Kipling,” presumably because he earns an annual $25,000 from activities resulting from his being a poet, publishes some of his verse in The New Yorker, allegedly supports the Vietnam war, and reveals himself in general as “a toady to the government, supporting all movement toward Empire.”

Frankly, the Bly essay appalled me. How could a critic with his sensibility and extremely wide reading, I wondered, allow his argument to be grounded on the silly assumption that since the Dickey poems espouse few of the virtues cherished by white Northern liberals, the poems were “repulsive” and their author an Establishment stooge and moral pariah? Mr. Bly's essay is so shrill and wrong-headed that it almost seems unnecessary to recall that Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot despised equalitarian democracy and, by implication, most, if not all, liberal goals; or that Apollinaire adored the war on the Western Front; or that Dante firmly believed that unless one were a baptized believer in the One, Holy, Roman, Catholic, and Apostolic Church one was destined for eternal misery in either hell or limbo.

Here, then, are the crimes for which Mr. Dickey stands accused by Mr. Bly and other devotees of “The Hunting of the Dickey” clan. In his poems, he explores feelings and memories of one man existing in his own flesh and bone, instead of using poetry to elicit attention by mouthing this or that current liberal or Far Left attitude about the Negro revolution or the Vietnam conflict. In addition, he earns a decent living for his family by doing what he can do with consummate skill: write poetry, read it in public, and teach it in the classroom. In other words, his crimes or sins are the ancient ones: talent, independence of attitude, and recognition and reward. Worst of all, he is only 45. Ten years ago, he was unpublished and unknown. Today, he stands as the first of his generation to have published a collected poems and a volume of criticism on modern and contemporary poets. Success is, as Ambrose Bierce reminds us, “the one unpardonable sin against one's fellows.”

(Regarding Mr. Dickey's views on Vietnam, I know only that when we talked about that wretched war one afternoon in September, 1967, the poet said that, after a lot of hard thought, he hadn't made up his mind as yet. In my opinion, our involvement in Vietnam is murder—barbarous, immoral, infectuous—and I told Dickey as much. But I also remembered that Camus refused to join the supporters of the Algerian rebels in 1957, stating that he hadn't made up his mind, thereby provoking vicious denunciations from intellectuals of the Left, including Sartre. Moreover, Dickey mentioned the possibility that he might become a speech writer for Senator Eugene McCarthy. What began as a casual acquaintanceship in 1966, when the poet assumed his responsibilities as poet to the Library of Congress, had matured into what Dickey implied was a closer relationship. At that time, he clearly was a McCarthy man; I don't know how he feels today, and it doesn't matter, of course, in so far as the irresponsible smear that he's a toady of the Pentagon and White House is concerned.)

I've spent time in describing this inept attempt at poetic fratricide by Mr. Bly—most of whose criticism and work as editor, translator and gadfly-at-large to the literary community, and whose exemplary public stands against the Vietnam war I admire without reservation—in order to say to him and to other members of “The Hunting of the Dickey” society, including that young poet: If you allow such popular but false images of James Dickey as “redneck” or “war-lover” or “careerist” to keep you from reading Babel to Byzantium, or from reading it with an unclouded eye, you'll be depriving yourself of criticism as it should be written. The man who wrote this book clearly loves and serves the god of poetry and the god's faithful disciples with (as the Baltimore Catechism prescribes with regard to another deity) his whole heart, and his whole soul, and whole mind, and whole strength.

Harry Morris (essay date April 1969)

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SOURCE: Morris, Harry. “A Formal View of the Poetry of Dickey, Garrigue, and Simpson.” Sewanee Review 77, no. 2 (April 1969): 318-22.

[In the following excerpt, Morris provides a negative assessment of Poems, 1957-1967, calling the poems in the volume dull, awkward, and stylistically inferior.]

James Dickey, Jean Garrigue, and Louis Simpson are ready apparently for an assessment of their work to date; for each poet, the current book is a selection from all his past work plus a final section containing new poems.

Traditionally we have expected poets to develop their powers of observation, to give form to their utterance; to be concise and precise, to seek a verbal music, and to enrich the texture of their verse with the devices of rhetoric. In Mr. Dickey's verse [in Poems, 1957-1967] I find the observation myopic, sometimes filmed completely over; form is adhered to but so meaninglessly or inexactly as to suggest casual concern only or incredibly inept management. In addition to what seems a total inability to achieve conciseness within a single poem, Mr. Dickey appears unable also to conclude a poem in under thirty lines. Of the 108 pieces in this volume, only seven comprise fewer than thirty lines. The majority of the poems are close to fifty lines or over. Precision in diction is of so little concern to the poet that in many cases even prepositions are employed awkwardly or improperly. With the two foregoing misdeeds, music can be at best only a tiresome jangle, harsh and out of tune. Rhetoric in our fashionable age is out at heels and many will applaud Mr. Dickey's avoidance of all the old devices, but will they clap also for the resulting threadbare fabric of the verse?

Mr. Dickey is a poet of nature; he looks at a wide range of wildlife; shark, fox, wolverine, deer, cattle, big cat at the zoo, rabbit, sheep, dog, and mostly unidentified birds. But I wish to test Mr. Dickey's observation of snakes, reptiles being among the few creatures I know anything about.

“Reincarnation (I)” presents a former county judge reborn as a rattlesnake. Mr. Dickey does not know that the rattlesnake, like all pit vipers, is viviparous, not oviparous.

… disappearing into the egg buried under the sand
And wakened to the low world being born …

Mr. Dickey has heard that snakes employ their tongues in sensory perception, in some manner other than to taste. The scientists, much at odds about the matter, say that snakes smell through their tongues or feel through them or do indeed, like other creatures, taste through them. None that I have ever heard or read has suggested that snakes hear through their tongues:

With his tongue he can hear them in their concerted effort. …

Mr. Dickey believes that snakes can pass through the grass without a telltale wavering of blades.

                              he moves through, moving nothing,
And the grass stands as never entered.

Such skill is rarely, if ever, true of the rattlesnake. Add to this recital his error in believing that rattlesnakes rattle as a warning and that they will attack a man unprovoked.

Perhaps more a failure in logic or in preciseness than in observation is the age of Mr. Dickey's snake. Observation would come into play, however, in a person's having noted that a new-born rattlesnake is rarely twelve inches long, whereas the snake in the poem would have to be several feet:

Still, passed through the spokes of an old wheel, on and
The hub's furry rust in the weeds and shadows of the riverbank.

Logic fails the writer when he presents us with a mature snake, one who has already “drawn from bird eggs and thunderstruck rodents”, and yet tells us that the reincarnated judge is in the “new/Life of resurrection”. Would not reincarnation be as a new-born creature rather than as something already existing, already full-grown?

I know very little about other animals of which Mr. Dickey writes, but when he makes six errors of considerable magnitude on a creature I know something about, I am reluctant to accept his teachings on others.

I have condemned the writer's casual nod to the conventions of form. In his earlier work, most of his pieces may be said to be stanzaic: pattern is observed in the number of lines to the stanza. Favored stanza lengths are five and six lines per unit, although couplets, tercets, quatrains, septenaries, and octets are frequently used. But why Mr. Dickey has observed such regularity in this one matter is beyond me. Since he employs no rhyme pattern, it is not rhyme that determines the length of a stanza. Since stanza units are not thought units, image units, or sound units, these factors do not dictate the length of a stanza. In fact, there is no justification for any of his groupings. Line length, at first glance, appears regular; but on scanning we find that Mr. Dickey ignores the number of feet in any given line whenever he pleases.

In his later work, Mr. Dickey is apparently experimenting with very long lines, broken on the printed page by extra spacing to indicate pauses or rhythm groupings. He is not attempting an alliterative revival as some reviewers have suggested, for no convention of Anglo-Saxon or Middle English verse with which we are familiar is observed. I suppose he is writing by phrases—wanting cadences that to him must be attractive—but to get cadences he employs a good many loose constructions, a weakness that leads to my next objection.

Mr. Dickey writes verse so loosely that he may do anything in it, commit any dispersal, admit any discourse, follow any digression. In “The Escape”, the title of which refers to arranging burial in a plot other than the family mausoleum in Fairmount, Mr. Dickey employs twenty-one lines to describe some of the surroundings the corpse will “escape”. Mr. Dickey or the “over-witty in other mens Writings” will justify these excursions as scenes of life and death not to be encountered in the county graveyard in Alabama to which the corpse escapes; even as such the tableaux are loosely written, with much unnecessary verbiage. But they do not belong in the poem at all; a finer poet would achieve a greater poignancy through symbolic correlatives, delivered in the focused materials themselves.

Illustrations of Mr. Dickey's lack of verbal precision may be taken from almost any poem (my italics):

Bleary with ointments


With a ring of convulsive rubber


With dew our porous home
Is dense, wound up like a spring,
Which is solid as motherlode
At night.

(“Hedge Life”)

Especially are his pronouns difficult. As in the last quotation above, where the antecedent for the relative pronoun which is impossibly ambiguous, poem after poem employs all the different classes of pronouns—personal, possessive, demonstrative, and relative—in bewildering uncertainty; see for instance “The Wedding”. So often is dedicated search a necessary labor that a reader wearies and concludes the pains have outcost the truffles. Especially distatsteful is the repeated use of you as an indefinite pronoun.

And, finally, Mr. Dickey's avoidance of all but a few of the devices of rhetoric, his eschewal of most of those things which would give density to his verse—and herein most especially symbolic action—leave his work so thin that a reader is left unsatisfied, and one who endures the full three hundred pages of Poems 1957-1967 suffers a dulling tedium through which poetry should never put its faithful.

Unfortunately I find little or no growth in this collection of the work of ten years; the only change is in the direction of greater dispersal, to be found both in the author's self-permissiveness in greater rambling and in his adoption of the long line. And although no single poem satisfies altogether, here are the pieces that are least discomforting: “The Performance”, “The Lifeguard”, “Chenille”, “Cherrylog Road”, “Pursuit from Under”, “Gamecock”, “Mangham”, “Angina”, “The Sheep Child”, and “Bread”.

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 Co., 1971, 107 p.

Primary and secondary bibliography.


Calhoun, Richard J., and Robert W. Hill. James Dickey. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983, 156 p.

Biographical and critical study.

Hart, Henry. James Dickey: The World as a Lie. New York: Picador, 2000, 811 p.

Biographical study of Dickey.


Alexander, George L. “A Psychoanalytic Observation on the Scopophilic Imagery in James Dickey's Deliverance.James Dickey Newsletter, 11, no. 1 (fall 1994): 2-11.

Traces the scopophilic theme in Dickey's novel.

Baughman, Ronald. Understanding James Dickey. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1985, 174 p.

Full-length critical study of Dickey's poetry, novels, and literary criticism.

———, ed. The Voiced Connections of James Dickey: Interviews and Conversations. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989, 281 p.

Collection of interviews with and essays on Dickey.

Bowers, Neal. James Dickey: The Poet as Pitchman. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1985, 86 p.

Investigates Dickey's penchant for publicity and its impact on his work.

Calhoun, Richard J. James Dickey: The Expansive Imagination, A Collection of Critical Essays. Deland, Fla.: Everett/Edwards, 1973, 231 p.

Collection of interviews and critical essays.

Gleason, Judith. “That Lingering Child of Air.” Parnassus 8 (1980): 63-82.

Derogatory review of Tucky the Hunter.

Howard, Richard. “James Dickey.” Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States since 1950, pp. 75-98. New York: Atheneum, 1969.

Traces Dickey's poetic development.

Kellman, Steven G. “All the World's a Movie Set: Dickey's Deliverance.South Carolina Review 26, No. 2 (spring 1994): 155-61.

Asserts that “many elements in Dickey's novel facilitated translation from the medium of prose fiction to that of cinema.”

Kirschten, Robert. James Dickey and the Gentle Ecstasy of Earth: A Reading of the Poems. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988, 218 p.

Analyzes stylistic and thematic elements of Dickey's poetry.

Kuehl, John R., and Linda K. Kuehl. “‘The Principle of Uncertainty’ in Deliverance.South Carolina Press 26, no. 2 (spring 1994): 162-72.

Surveys critical perspectives on Dickey's novel.

Moorhead, Michael. “Dickey's Deliverance.Explicator 51, no. 4 (summer 1993): 247-48.

Examines the conclusion of Dickey's novel.

Spears, Monroe K. “James Dickey's Poetry.” Southern Review 30, no. 4 (autumn 1994): 751-60.

Explores the defining characteristics of Dickey's poetry.

Suarez, Ernest. James Dickey and the Politics of Canon: Assessing the Savage Ideal. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993, 170 p.

Investigates Dickey's development as writer and celebrity within the context of contemporary poetry and late twentieth-century American culture.

———. “James Dickey's Literary Reputation: Romanticism and Hedonism in To the White Sea and Deliverance.South Carolina Review 26, no. 2 (sSpring 1994): 141-54.

Discusses parallels between Dickey's To the White Sea and Deliverance.

Van Ness, Gordon. Outbelieving Existence: The Measured Motion of James Dickey. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1992, 139 p.

Explores critical reaction to Dickey's work and reputation.

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 and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 50; Authors in the News, Vols. 1, 2; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 1; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Vols. 1968-1988; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12R; Contemporary Authors Bibliographical Series, Vol. 2; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 10, 48, 61, 105; Contemporary Authors—Obituary, Vol. 156; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 7, 10, 15, 47, 109; Contemporary Poets Ed. 7; 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 3.0; DISCovering Authors Modules: Novelists,Poets and Popular Fiction; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vol. 9; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 40; Poetry for Students, Vols. 6, 11; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; and Twayne's United States Authors.

George Lensing (review date spring 1970)

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SOURCE: Lensing, George. A review of The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy, by James Dickey. Carolina Quarterly 22, no. 2 (spring 1970): 90-1.

[In the following essay, Lensing offers a negative review of The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead, and Mercy.]

When James Dickey's Poems 1957-1967 appeared three years ago, the poet found himself suddenly promoted to the front ranks of American versifiers: Louis Untermeyer described the volume as the “outstanding collection of one man's poems to appear in this decade,” while Peter Davison suggested that Dickey might well nudge his way onto the niche of eminence with Robert Lowell as a “major” poet. Dickey's next volume, therefore, has been awaited with some anticipation, and The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy, it seems to me, does not forcibly advance his reputation.

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.” Most of the poems in the new volume are projections of this technique.

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 participial and gerund phrases, long, loose lines, frequently run-on: the effect must be accumulative. One poem in the new volume, “In the Pocket,” describes a game of football phatasmagorically reenacted. The poem's crescendo builds toward the conclusion:

                              … throw it hit him in the middle
                    Of his enemies          hit move scramble
                         Before death and the ground

The failure lies in the excessive dependence on upper-case letters, verbal arrangement on the page, and a weak anticlimactic redundancy with the terminal adverb. In short, verbal power has succumbed to artificial gimmickry.

Secondly, and perhaps more pervasive, the focus of a number of these poems 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. The poet himself seems to sense the nature of the problem by his insertion of a marginal gloss in “The Eye-Beaters” or a brief plot-summary epigraph in “Madness.”

These weaknesses do not obscure Dickey's continuing power as a poet—though The Eye-Beaters, etc. seems to me a falling off from the success of Buckdancer's Choice and the preceding volumes. One poem, “The Eye-Beaters,” reminiscent of the earlier “The Owl King,” describes blind children whose hands are tied to prevent their striking their eyes in angry frustration. Though flawed by discursiveness and a trite conclusion, the poem is a powerful statement. 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.

Richard J. Calhoun (essay date June 1971)

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SOURCE: Calhoun, Richard J. “‘His Reason Argues with His Invention’: James Dickey's Self-Interviews and The Eye-Beaters.South Carolina Review 3, no. 2 (June 1971): 9-16.

[In the following essay, Calhoun surveys the weakness in Dickey's Self-Interviews and The Eye-Beaters.]

James Dickey's first novel, Deliverance, was such a phenomenal success that anything else he produced in 1970 must by comparison seem rather neglected. Early last year he published his sixth volume of poems, a slim paperback with one of the most ungainly titles in the history of American publishing—The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy. Then just as the excitement over Deliverance was abating, a third 1970 volume, Self-Interviews, appeared, simpler in its title but unique in its conception. It seems that Dickey had agreed to expound via the tape recorder on a series of topics outlined for him by two young teachers, Barbara and James Reiss, who feel that they have midwifed something “neither quite like a typical tape-recorded interview nor autobiography” but rather “a new genre, the tape recorded self-interview.”

This new genre of the McLuhan era does have a much older literary antecedent which it may not quite equal for literary style or drama, the dialogue in which the writer creates two voices, one his, the other in opposition, in dialectical counterpoint. Dickey has used this form effectively in an essay on Randall Jarrell reprinted in Babel to Byzantium. Perhaps this kind of essay reveals more of a duality in Dickey as poet-critic and virile sophisticate than Self-Interviews, but with James Dickey as the protagonist the Reisses could hardly fail to produce a volume that is both entertaining and informative.

I would have to say, however, that, no matter how entertaining this spoken Dickeyese may be, the prose is not quite up to the standards of the essays in Dickey's volume of literary criticism, Babel to Byzantium, where Dickey's critical judgments are occasionally enlivened by a stylistic barb of true wit. Nothing comes across on the tape recorder to equal the preciseness of his epigram on the poetry of J. V. Cunningham.

Cunningham is a good, deliberately small and authentic poet, a man with tight lips, a good education and his own agonies. His handsome little book should be read, and above all by future Traditionalists and confessors; he is their man.

The microphone is also not quite conducive to audacious but carefully worded opening paragraphs like that with which Dickey began his essay on William Carlos Williams.

William Carlos Williams is now, dead, and that fact shakes one. Has any other poet in American history been so actually useful, usable, and influential? How many beginning writers took Williams as their model, were encouraged to write because … Well, if that is poetry, I believe I might be able to write it too!

The only comparable passage that filters through the tape recorder to the pages of Self-Interviews is Dickey's account of a poem written in an advertising office and typed by a new secretary.

I wrote this poem “The Heaven of Animals” in an advertising office. I had a new secretary and I asked her to type it for me. She typed up the poem letter-perfect and brought it to me.

Then she asked, “What is it? What company does it go to?”

“This is a poem,” I said.

“It is?”

“Yes, it is, I hope.”

“What are we going to sell with it?” she asked.

“God,” I said, “We're going to sell God.”

“Does this go to a religious magazine or something?”

“No, I'm going to publish it in The New Yorker,” I told her.

And, as it happened, that's where it came out.

If Self-Interviews seldom equals the wit of Dickey's best critical prose, it has the true sound of Dickey speaking, a marvel in itself as anyone who has heard him read will testify; and it is a handbook of information about Dickey and his poems, compiled not by some assistant professor at a midwestern university but by the poet himself. Part one, “The Poet at Mid-Career,” provides details about Dickey's creative psyche from the first awakenings of his interests in poetry through the publication of Poems 1957-1967. Part two, “The Poem as Something That Matters,” consists of five sections, one each on Dickey's first five volumes of poetry. Dickey's critical pretensions are very modest. He makes it clear that he is not trying “to impose an official interpretation on the poems or “to preclude anybody else's interpretation. … I have been asked on this occasion, though, what my poems are supposed to be about from my standpoint and what I have tried to do in them.”

What is surprising is that Dickey's comments are not too surprising. Very little transpires which would show that his explicators have ever been dead wrong. Instead, in part one we have further evidence for what his critics have assumed all along. Dickey has “never been able to dissociate the poem from the poet.” He doesn't “believe in Eliot's theory of autotelic art.” He feels that the value of literature “must be maintained if we're going to have any humanity left at all.” He regards a poem as “that kind of personal connection of very disparate elements under the fusing heat of the poem's necessity.” He just doesn't “have beautiful Mozartian flights of the imagination.” He is not surprisingly “much more interested in a man's relationship to the God-made world, or the universe-made world, than to the man-made world.” He is drawn “to a philosopher like Heraclitus” and has as “personal heroes of the sensibility John Keats, James Agee, and Malcolm Lowry.” The last two items may be news.

Part two is of greater use to students of Dickey's poems. It is informative and useful and often good reading, even if Dickey fails to evoke any sense of a critical recreation of the creative process as Stephen Spender did in “The Making of a Poem” and Allen Tate did in his essay on his own “Ode to the Confederate Dead.”

Some reviewers have complained that Dickey reveals himself very cautiously, giving his reader “a routine milking of the glands” rather than the “total act of the body” that he feels meaningful communication should involve. I would not call Self-Interviews or anything that James Dickey's imagination produces routine, but the reader may well feel that the Dickey he encounters here is the public Dickey speaking on the level of good conversation and that the voice of the inner man is not heard.

The passage in Self-Interviews that best provides a lead for a description of The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy is Dickey's comment on his poem “The Lifeguard” from his early volume, Drowning With Others.

Allen Tate once said that he thought of his poems as commentaries on those human situations from which there was no escape. “The Lifeguard” is my idea of a poem about one of those human situations from which there is no escape.

There are seventeen poems in The Eye-Beaters. An even dozen are concerned with situations from which there is no escape—aging, illness, and death; and it is these poems which have attracted the attention of the reviewers. This part of Dickey's book seems to be his “no exit,” that is, (if Dickey will pardon the trite phrase) his most existential volume.

Dickey has indicated in a recent interview that he is pleased with The Eye-Beaters, regarding it as perhaps his most successful single volume. His reviewers have not been exactly unanimous in their agreement with Dickey's judgment. Some have objected to it on thematic grounds, feeling that Dickey at his best is a poetic celebrant of the life force and that he cannot handle darker themes as successfully. Other critics have found a falling off in style. Dickey, the poet of “open forms,” has not quite successfully mated the freedom of his split line with the discipline of more nearly regular stanzaic forms, etc. Critics always seem to voice a feeling of having been betrayed when poets change a successful style or theme.

There is some truth to these charges, however, and I must agree partially with the complaints about Dickey's style. Dickey is a bit too often both rhetorical and commonplace. I do not detect the note of hysteria that the ears of some critics have caught, but I was bothered by an overuse of rhetorical devices which tend to make Dickey sound somewhat melodramatic. Several of Dickey's poems in this volume bear a heavy freight of interjections (“Ah, it was then, Chris,” etc.) and apostrophes (“O son,” “O Chris,” “O parents,” “O justice scales”) as well as rhetorical questions. Occasionally—and only occasionally—Dickey sounds like Randall Jarrell, who was a bit too fond of such devices.

In fact, it seems that stylistically Dickey is heading in two opposite directions in this volume. In a poem like “The Eye-Beaters” he seems to be moving impressively ahead, even beyond the “big forms” of his earlier poems, toward archetypal images; whereas in other poems he seems to revert to the direct statements of his early poems and to come up with something too commonplace.

… Not bad! I always knew it would have to be
                                        somewhere around
The house …

(“Diabetes, I”)

… I'm going in Tyree's toilet
and pull down my pants and take a shit.

(“Looking for the Buckhead Boys”)

When he touches on his illnesses, real and imaginary, his style suggests that of Robert Lowell in Life Studies rather than the expansive imagination of James Dickey evident in his previous volumes.

My eyes are green as lettuce with my diet,
                    My weight is down. …

(“Under Buzzards”)

But in spite of such tatters in his poetic garments James Dickey is still a very fine poet, and his most recent volume of poetry does not represent as abrupt a change in his style or thematics as some of his reviewers have assumed or as my few examples might have suggested. A central concern of Dickey's poetry has always been contact with the Other, represented variously as animalistic natural forces, the dead, Being itself.

In his first volume, Into the Stone, death is regarded as a change of being, not a thing to be feared; and the dead are accessible through the imagination. An exchange of being with the dead is a part of Dickey's obsession to understand through an act of faith in his imagination events which reason alone cannot comprehend. In Drowning with Others this “way of exchange” is a chief preoccupation of Dickey's, but here he seems for the first time reluctant to commune with the dead, and the exchange is predominantly with vital animal forces. In his next volume, Helmets, even the communion with the Other has become suspect as something only temporary and even potentially dangerous, since the persona may lose power as well as gain it. In Buckdancer's Choice there are, for the first time, unsuccessful attempts at communion. In one of the finest poems in the volume, “The Firebombing,” Dickey tries to transpose himself from his airplane down to the destruction he is creating below. This time, however, his imagination is incapable of penetrating such barriers as the aesthetic distance created by the space barrier, the beauty of the flight, and peacetime, middle-class comfort.

In the “Falling” section of Poems 1957-1967 there is a further stage in Dickey's movement away from a concern with vital forces to the threat of destructive forces. Here he becomes concerned with the problem of how to face death and other threats to vitality and with the resources and rituals the merely human being has to draw on in such encounters. In the title poem “Falling,” an airline hostess falling to her death realizes under the extreme pressures of her contracted life-span that the only possibility of transcendence lies in making her death a mystery for the farm boys below. Consequently, she affirms her life at the very moment of her death, stripping herself naked and preparing her body for the last fatal and sacrificial reunion with the fertile earth. She discovers within herself a resource which permits transcendence.

In another poem, “Power and Light,” there is a suggestion that the pole climber represents a new concept that Dickey has of the poet, in that he is able to find the sources of his power—his ability to make connections for “the ghostly mouths” carried over the lines—underground, in the silent dark of his basement. Dickey seems to suggest that the “secret” of existence that he has been pursuing comes from a confrontation not with the natural world but with the “dark” of one's own death. A key passage in the poem seems to look back toward his earliest personal poems and ahead to new directions.

… Years in the family dark have made me good
At this                    nothing else is so good                    pure fires of the Self
Rise crooning in lively blackness. …

In Self-Interviews Dickey provides further evidence of continuity by confirming what his reviewers have always known, that there is a connection between the chronology of his poems and that of his life. In The Eye-Beaters the reader encounters a person who is aware that his own youth is gone, that his life-space, like that of the air hostess in “Falling,” has narrowed. “Two Poems of Going Home” invokes rather effectively the inmost secret fears of a middle-aged man who finds only memories left at the locale of his youth.

                              … Why does the Keeper go blind
With sunset? The mad, weeping Keeper who can't keep
A God-damned thing          who knows he can't keep everything
Or anything alive:           none of his rooms, his people
                              His past, his youth, himself,
                         But cannot let them die? …

(“Living There”)

“The Cancer Match” uses that prerogative of the poet that Dickey describes in Self-Interviews of lying convincingly and projects a fatal illness.

                                   I see now the delights
                              Of being let “come home”
From the hospital.
                                        I don't have all the time
                              In the world, but I have all night.
                         I have space for me and my house,
                              And I have cancer and whiskey
                                   In a lovely relation.

In Self-Interviews Dickey describes his celebration of life forces in his earlier poems as the reaction of a survivor of two very destructive wars. Rather than hysteria, the emotions that make themselves known to the reader in the poems of The Eye-Beaters are gratitude at having survived so far the destructive forces of nature and praise of the courage to take risks as a means of coping with the fear of death.

In the poem “The Eye-Beaters” Dickey implies the new poetics of the present volume. The poet must describe encounters with the most basic life experiences, including destructive as well as life-giving forces. He must see the image of the blind children as archetypal and imagine the reason for the children beating their eyes.

                              Therapists, I admit it; it helps me to think
That they can give themselves, like God from their scabby fists,
                                                  the original
Images of mankind: …

In The Eye-Beaters, consequently, Dickey presents situations, real and imaginary, where his persona is faced with the fear of death. He must imagine ways to cope with this fear. One solution, already indicated, is to take risks. In “Giving a Son to the Sea,” the father urges his son to take to the sea to affirm life even though the sea may swallow him up. In “Under Buzzards,” the diabetic drinks the beer that could kill him.

At any rate, Dickey makes it clear that the reality of death must be confronted. In “Looking Up the Buckhead Boys,” the poet feels the compulsion to look into his school yearbook of more than thirty years before—“The Book of the Dead”—and to go out to face what has happened to the “Buckhead Boys.” Like some of his reviewers, I regret the loss of those powerful notes of Dickey's celebration of life; every poet today must have his existential volume, and, for better or worse, this is Dickey's. Here he seems to be attempting to say that a confrontation with death and its associated destructive forces (aging, disease, violence, and madness) may lead to fear but it may also lead to a realization of and an appreciation of the value of life. It should be noted that the volume includes a unique and almost semi-official celebration of the courage to take risks. Dickey reprints opposite a black, blank page the two poems from Life Magazine in honor of the Apollo astronauts who first walked on the dead surfaces of the moon and, from that perspective, appreciated in the black sky of the universe the blue life-light of their own planet.

                              … 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 blinding 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.

Stanley Plumly (review date July 1977)

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SOURCE: Plumly, Stanley. A review of The Zodiac, by James Dickey. American Poetry Review 6, no. 4 (July 1977): 42-3.

[In the following unfavorable review, Plumly asserts that The Zodiac is “overwhelmed by its own ambition.”]

James Dickey ends his twelve-part, twelve-tiered poem of The Zodiac with a kind of nautical prayer.

                              Oh my own soul, put me in a solar boat.
                              Come into one of these hands
                              Bringing quietness and the rare belief
                    That I can steer this strange craft to the morning
Land that sleeps in the universe on all horizons
                              And give this home-come man who listens in his room
                              To the rush and flare of his father
                    Drawn at the speed of light to Heaven
Through the wrong end of his telescope, expanding the universe …

This moment, almost an interlude in spite of its conclusive position, suggests not only a rest from the labors of a long journey but an arrival at a place of reconciliation. This, for the poet and his poem, is the Land of Nod, the still-point in his ever-turning world. It is also the most believable writing in a book overwhelmed by its own ambition. Dickey has been among our most distinguished poets, unique, really, in terms of the energy, the emotional pile-drive of his work. Poems 1957-1967 represents one of the best ten years out of any contemporary American writer's career. The Zodiac is his first volume of poetry since the success of Deliverance. The bitch-goddess cliche may be too handy, especially as the collection of poems immediately preceding the novel (The Eye-Beaters, etc.) was decidedly uneven. But the new book, star-glazed and star-crossed, is a mistake in conception and execution. First of all, the book's, the poem's origins are borrowed. As Dickey explains it: “This poem is based on another of the same title. It was written by Hendrik Marsman, who was killed by a torpedo in the North Atlantic in 1940. It is in no sense a translation, for the liberties I have taken with Marsman's original poem are such that the poem I publish here, with the exception of a few lines, is completely my own. Its twelve sections are the story of a drunken and perhaps dying Dutch poet who returns to his home in Amsterdam after years of travel and tries desperately to relate himself, by means of stars, to the universe.” Except for a few lines. No doubt the writing is all Dickey's. Yet why confuse the substance with the suggestion? Why be so literal-minded about the sources: by setting the poem in Amsterdam, by appropriating a Dutch sailor-poet? If the poem, “with the exception of a few lines,” is completely Dickey's, why not complete the exchange—why not steal whole-heartedly and write directly out of the facts of one's own life, drunken and/or dying, instead of effecting an elliptical and artificial mode? The result of the borrowing is that Dickey is forced to create a character, to narrate a protagonist into the material, to speak of and through a third person that the poet, at critical junctures, absorbs into his own large voice. The Zodiac reads like a failed fiction, because it does not ring true. There are more than liberties at stake here; oddly enough, Dickey's poem has the feel of being made from whole cloth. As for the making of the poem, its imagination, its language, Dickey reaches beyond hyperbole to what, for want of a word, we must call superbole. For example:

                                        When the tide turns
He turns left          his eyes back-swivel into his head
                    In hangover-pain like the flu          the flu
          Dizzy with tree tops
                                        all dead, but eye going
Barely getting          but getting you're damned right but still
                    Getting them.
                                        Trees, all right. No leaves. All right,
Trees, stand
                    and deliver.          They stand and deliver
Not much …
                              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!
You've driven me nuts enough with your music of the spheres!
                    But I'll bet you know what to know:
                    Where God once stood in the stadium
Of European history, and battled mankind in the blue air
                    Of manmade curses, under the exploding flags
Of dawn …

If it sounds like bombast it must be bombast. Dickey's rationalization for the compounding, ever-expanding rhetoric is to pass it off as the hallucinosis of a drunk—“Christ, would you tell me why my head / Keeps thinking up these nit-witted, useless images? // Whiskey helps.” One of his chief means for illustrating that rhetoric is the famous Dickey-shift—that variable pause or parting in or around a line in which the white space and silence inveigh against the speech. The consequence is melodrama, as throughout the poem—the words spreading like star-charts across the page—the speaker indulges the imitative fallacy of being drunk, hung over. The art of the thing and the sobriety of the artist himself are continually called into question. Our ears almost numb, our eyes half-opened, the language demands, page after page, that we pay attention. All of the above aside, The Zodiac could have at least been a good story, but it has no plot, no vital cause-and-effect forward and inevitable motion to its “action.” Except for being inside a drunk Dutch poet's hangover, inside the self-exile of his Amsterdam room, “over the broker's peaceful / Open-bay office at the corner of two canals,” except for his short season in hell, we have too little to deal with—except Dickey's cosmic vision. And vision, of course, is what the zodiac is all about. A vision of destiny as well as design, a vision of omnipotence (“Religion, Europe, death, and the stars: / I'm holding them all in my balls, right now.”) as well as impotence (“I've traveled and screwed too much.”). A vision of the macro world in the mind of one man. Like a lot of beautiful ideas, without the complication of a story this vision rests in stasis: and without its working-out and working-through, it seems a gratuity. Ironically, for all his “polar-bearing” through his poem, there is not enough of Dickey in it—none of the particulars, none of the local terrors that might convince us that a poet of his stature stands behind it. These sixty-two pages were to be an ontological journey, and struggle, from a place of disaffection to a place of affection, out to the stars, out to those shapes that only seem to make sense, and back again, back home. The Zodiac suggests a man in real trouble, dumb drunk to the bone, shouting the walls down, writing it down.

Linda Mizejewski (essay date summer 1978)

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SOURCE: Mizejewski, Linda. “Shamanism Toward Confessionalism: James Dickey, Poet.” Georgia Review 32 (summer 1978): 409-19.

[In the following essay, Mizejewski explores the confessional poetry of The Zodiac, focusing on Dickey's poetic persona.]

Since the mid-sixties or so, one or two people at almost any English Department cocktail party have had a James Dickey story. Perhaps even more amazing than the stories themselves has been Dickey's mercurial quality that renders an anecdote from nearly every college reading and from so many personal encounters. After 1972, the stories became Jim Dickey-Burt Reynolds stories, and after January, 1977, there were tales from Carter's inaugural, but by then they were appearing in popular news magazines. Developing as a celebrity-poet, Dickey has broken from the university circuits of rumors and readings, and materialized in middle-class living rooms—in glossy coffeetable books and on the television screen, where he is likely to be reciting from his Biblical prose-poetry on a talk show.

President Carter certainly blessed an unusual inaugural poet. Unlike E. A. Robinson or Robert Frost, who had been nationally honored by Theodore Roosevelt and Kennedy, Dickey does not write an easily accessible “popular” poetry. His poems are certainly not academic, but the average reader who believes he can understand the somewhat deceptive simplicity of Frost or the small-town characters of Robinson might be confused by Dickey's elaborate sentence structures that snake like the Coosawattee and make breathtaking turns around tricky prepositional phrases. He might be disturbed by a poetry that, far from making Frost's humanizing inquiries into nature, sees man as an animal coded to hunt and survive by blood in the natural world, so that war, too, is a natural human activity. He might be disturbed by a poetry in which a middle-class, middle-aged man tries to reckon with how he had firebombed the Japanese by understanding his own sense of personal power as godlike destroyer and suburban builder—all this in semi-Biblical, Southern rhetoric.

This fine, complex poetry, in which the imagination is often the subject as well as the creator, is probably not the work of Dickey's that most Americans know. Far more have probably read his novel, Deliverance, and the fiction in Esquire. Even more than that identify him with the movie version of the novel, or know him as the publicized poet of inauguration week when Dickey, identified by the media as “the voice of the South,” interpreted the election of a Southern administration as no less than a Biblical event. Dickey has promoted not just a Southern mystique, but a Dickey mystique, and has become not just a nationally known poet like Frost, but a personality as self-mythologizing as the President's own brother.

The showmanship of the yarn-spinning and rhetoric during inauguration week is a trademark of the poet whose best work has always been charged with the presence of the master performer. The best of his Poems 1957-1967 work like an ideal, reversed ending of the Oz story: the curtain might be pulled aside for a glimpse of the professor working the levers to produce the sound effects and smoke, but the wizardry—contrived as it may be—continues anyway, and with a great deal of success. There is no demand for a return to the farm in Kansas—or Georgia—where real life is without magic and masks altogether. Instead, all sorts of bizarre and unlikely conjurings go on: a traffic jam becomes the Apocalyse, a military execution turns into an acrobatic stunt, a man's legs fall asleep and pick up the dream of the hunting dog sleeping on his feet. The artifices of showmanship and magic save us in poems such as “The Hospital Window,” “The Celebration,” “Slave Quarters,” “Power and Light.” They save us from sentimentality, pain, or self-pity. “Guilt is magical,” says the speaker at the end of “Adultery,” because guilt has been performed in the poem, exorcised by a shaman-narrator who has dissolved the walls of a motel room and extended the risks of a love affair into all the open frontiers of American history.

The presence of the poet-performer in those poems is as intense as the personal presence by which Dickey has become nationally known in the media over the past year. However, the public personality—of shaman, storyteller, good ole boy—is always that of a man who knows he is onstage and who keeps an actor's distance between himself and his audience. In the earlier poems, Dickey did likewise, always avoiding the “confessional” sort of personality found in Lowell, Snodgrass, Berryman, or Sexton. Dickey was especially critical of Sexton's work, which he found indulgent and uncontrolled. But while the public Dickey was developing as a showman, the poet Dickey was experimenting with how loosely personal his act could become. Eyebeaters showed some of this experimentation, but his most recent poetry, the book-length poem The Zodiac, shows an actor-poet who has gone as far as he can, almost on a dare, into a painful, public exploration of trauma. While Snodgrass or Lowell would have written unabashedly personal accounts of the loneliness, fear of failure, terror of mortality, and struggle with language that haunt Zodiac, Dickey opts for the shaman's mask again—this time, the mask of an historical person far removed in location and time.

In this case, though, the mask is too flimsy and the role too superficial, so that not even Dickey can play it right. Juggling with materials that he does not want to play confessionally, Dickey slips in his act and is finally unable to achieve the distance of the public, acting figure. Zodiac, which awed and puzzled most of its critics, demonstrates enough of the old Dickey eloquence and power to make it worthwhile to ask what went wrong. More than that, it asks us to examine what is perhaps the real difference between confessional and non-confessional poetry: the extent to which the speaker is onstage consciously enjoying his own performance as shaman, wizard, showman.

Zodiac has all the material for shamanistic transformations. The main character, Hendrick Marsman, is a hallucinating, half-mad poet-sailor who wants to “relate himself, by means of stars, to the universe,” as Dickey explains in the introduction. The scene is Europe in the late thirties or early forties, just before Marsman's death. Like an epic poet-hero sailing into the stars, Marsman knows he is a man in the hands of patterns and monsters created by someone or something else in the sky, and he is trying to construct a fantastic sort of metaphysics of the constellations.

But this time Dickey's conjurings fail. The power behind the poetic machinery blinks off, and the transformations never occur. Because there is often very little distance between Dickey and his subject, Marsman never becomes as dramatic as the self-performing speakers of the earlier poems. Often the metaphors are not imaginative juxtapositions but attempts by a drunken narrator to relate himself to anything. And even though Marsman is attempting to recreate a zodiac, the zodiac never becomes a real structure for his personality or imagination. The twelve sections take different scenes in a four-day span, alluding randomly to some of the constellations and signs, giving brief vignettes, and always returning to Marsman's terror of and fascination with the night sky. But there is no sense of closure to this loose history except for Marsman's impending death. When last seen, Marsman is writing and/or being firebombed, and the final affirmation of the transcendence of his art seems tacked-on in relation to Marsman's miserable, drunken wanderings throughout the other sections. Nothing in those other scenes justifies a triumph of either Marsman or the universal artist suggested throughout. In general, without the transformative magic of drama and distance, there is a sad exposure of the poet stepping out to admit it's all been just levers and smoke, and willing to give us now an “honest” account of the impossible attempt to transcend pain through language.

The transformations that do go on in Zodiac are mostly those between drunkenness, sleep, and brief periods of sobriety. Using alcoholic spiels as frames for monologues, like using dreams, allows for repetition, illogical apposition, random imagery, and quick shifts of scene. But unlike the dreamer, the drunk is also subject to misinterpretation and misperception of what is really there. Like Lowry in Under the Volcano, Dickey is relying on a belief in moments of drunken clarity and even brilliance, the ability of the drunk to come to realizations he could not have made sober. In a novel the length and scope of Lowry's, it is possible to develop a character who is a lucid and magnificent drunk. But in Dickey's poem of less than sixty pages, no character equalling the magnificence of the Consul is developed, although Dickey clearly intends to suggest an experience much wider than the historical Marsman's. As critics have pointed out, this is Dickey's most ambitious work, the epic that summarizes the themes of all his early work: the poet as part of history, man as an alien to nature and able to enter it only through the moment of the imagination, and language as the shaman's power against mortality.

Marsman, then, is romanticized as the poet-sailor to the extent that his “craft”—poetry and ship—becomes in the end the death-ship similar to the Anglo-Saxon burial ships for kings. In the last stanzas, Marsman identifies his personal struggle and extinction with the tragedy of all mortal poets attempting immortal tasks. His dramatic directives—“… put me in a solar boat … / That I can steer this strange craft to morning”—suggest the epic adventurer, too. But when Marsman hopes to “steer” to morning, he also simply wants to make it through another drunken night. So the question is whether Marsman's experience as presented by Dickey is, in fact, raised to such heroic stature—that is, if there is justification for such intimate and painful exploration of this speaker's psyche.

Facing the dilemma of how to give this kind of serious, even tragic stature to a character who is a personal and professional failure, Dickey attempts, like Lowry, to identify the “fall” of his character with the decline of western culture during the rise of Fascism and Nazism. But Dickey's background scenes, the European war setting, are only vaguely described. In most of the scenes, Marsman could actually be in any city in any historical period. We're told several times that Europe is itself at the edge of disaster, but in each instance this seems to be a momentary judgment made by Marsman in his own disastrous condition. At one point the comparison generalizes, “He goes on without anywhere to go. This is what you call Europe. / Right?” Marsman is wandering the city drunk, and we know he has no place to go, but there are no details given to suggest that all of Europe, too, is about to collapse. The observations about the historical situation seem oddly out of place, as in Part II when after telling us “His life is shot my life is shot,” the narrating voice concludes that “The gods are in pieces / All over Europe,” even though all we have seen up to that point is one of Marsman's hallucinations from the DT's. Marsman, we're told, has “been there / Among the columns:/ among Europe. He can't tell Europe / From his own death.”

However, except that we know the general time period, the idea of European decline is never fully developed. We never get the impact of a landscape like Lowry's, which is made real outside of the Consul's perceptions of it through the reports of the Battle of the Ebro, the Day of the Dead, the oppressive heat and dust, the overpowering presence of the ravine or barranca. Dickey uses a ravine, too, in two different places, but we can't be certain either is real like the real ditches all over Lowry's Quauhnahuac. Once Marsman imagines the sky as full of “gullies” with the moon itself fallen into one. But the hallucination is not very convincing, since the image dissolves into undescribed “Realities.” Marsman decides that “the key image / Tonight tonight / is the gully gullies: / Clouds make them, and other Realities / Are revealed in Heaven, / as clouds drift across.” The problem is that the metaphor seems appended rather than conjured, especially since it is self-consciously labeled by the poet Marsman as “the key image.”

As a poet, Marsman worries aloud frequently about this problem of his own perspective and “universality.” He comes across the other ravine image when he wanders the city one morning, either drunk or very hungover, and finds “some kind of / Lit-ravine” which he can't cross and which seems to “move across” him. He asks quickly, “But is it universal?”, using the word half-mockingly as he does on two previous occasions when he addresses God in poet-vs.-the-cosmos challenges. He taunts God in those earlier scenes as a “universal son of a bitch,” the creator to whom the critics can't object, the poet who is always universal. But in the third reference at the ravine hallucination, the term actually raises a serious problem in Dickey's book. It begins a long description of the zodiac, explaining how the ravine—that is, Marsman's spiritual abyss and ruin—has “been lifted from the beginning / Into this night-black— / Into the Zodiac.” Marsman's question here is significant: are his perceptions of himself in the gullies of the world and sky the hallucinations of one drunken artist, or are they symbols of a sustained tragic vision? Is Marsman's failure to “relate himself, through stars, to the universe” the failure of one mad poet or a symbol of what all artists attempt and fail to achieve?

This question is complicated by the dual nature of Marsman's crisis. His struggle for a metaphysical zodiac is therapeutic as well as artistic; he is seeking not just a spiritual framework, but a way to deal with his loneliness, alcoholism, sense of failure, and sense of his approaching death. One way to do this is to see an animistic universe which is dying with the personal self and which is full of symbols, signs, and some degree of empathy.

The constellations are the most obvious “signs,” and Marsman is especially obsessed with how they are full of “beasts,” animals and monsters that make a “scrambled zoo” similar to his personal zoo of hallucinations. Ironically, the only effective shamanistic move in the book occurs when Marsman decides to create a new constellation to fight Cancer or death: the Lobster, which sadly and comically turns into one of his creatures from the DT's and which turns on him and attacks him. The difference between this move and the metaphoric transformations in earlier Dickey poems is its self-consciousness. “Imagination and dissipation both fire at me,” Marsman says, thereby stepping out of the role of shaman and pointing to what he's doing, identifying it as just metaphor, which can't help him personally. “I didn't mean it,” he apologizes, at the mercy of his own hallucination. Unfortunately, the metaphors in Zodiac often really do control the poet rather than vice versa.

Essentially, they are personifications, attempts to identify with and humanize the world rather than transform it. The confessional poetry of Sexton uses this technique again and again as a desperate kind of therapy. In Zodiac, these metaphors are sometimes forced or heavyhanded in the struggle to appropriate the external world into the psyche of the speaker. Describing his rooms, Marsman asserts that “A flower couldn't make it in this place. / It couldn't live, or couldn't get here at all. / No flower could get up these steps, / It'd wither at the hollowness / Of these foot-stomping / failed creative-man's boards.” This is an explanation that the “boards” of the artist-perhaps in the sense of the stage as well as of “drawing boards”—have failed, but the metaphor itself fails by getting out of control, switching contexts from creative survival to the more farfetched concept of the plant walking upstairs. Stranger things have happened in earlier Dickey poems—a man is hooked up to his own house wiring, or a shark gets loose in a living room—but only in a context that prepares us for the imaginative leap gradually through tone and narrative detail. That context is missing here, and we're left only with the desperate need to personify.

This happens several times in Zodiac when the appropriateness of the metaphor is clear only in relation to Marsman's undependable perception. We must take the word of the speaker that “The fish, too, / Are afraid of the sun,” or that the “Innocence” of water is an “ultimate marigold horror.” At one point a painting “squeezes art's blood out of the wallpaper,” a bridge is a “slain canal,” and the “gully of clouds” in the sky is “a shameless place” where “the rest of nature is.” All these are equations of Marsman's misery with a more universal misery, but they are also flat assertions rather than conjurations of a credible animism. This kind of exaggerated, bombastic metaphor led Stanley Plumly to ask in a review if Dickey has perhaps gone beyond hyperbole into “superbole.”

Wayne Shumaker suggests in Literature and the Irrational that all metaphor is essentially a belief in or hope for animism. But the personification used in Zodiac shows a shift in Dickey from magic to a kind of psychotherapy, or from lyric celebration to a thinly disguised confessional poetry. Part of this is the fault of the failed distancing device, which is an intermittent third-person narrator whose tone is never clear and who is rather extraneous to what is really Hendrik Marsman's poem. While Dickey at times seems to identify with Marsman wholly, at other times this third-person voice seems straining for objectivity, judgment, even reproach.

Zodiac opens with this narrator who is clearly outside the mind and situation of Marsman, “The man I'm telling you about,” as he says in the first line. Sometimes the shift from this objective narrator to an interior monologue is obvious, as when the narrator is used to introduce a thought of Marsman's. But often the point of view is ambiguous enough to be either interior monologue or objective description, and this creates a problem in tone. We're sometimes not sure if the perceptions are the results of Marsman's limited vision or alcoholic fantasies, or are descriptions of a setting from a more removed and dependable narrator. This is actually the problem with some of the personification metaphors which might come from a paranoid Marsman or, more problematically, from the narrator who is in charge of Marsman's story.

Part of the problem is that the narrator sometimes uses the diction of Marsman, even the drunken diction, and this is a real shift from the historical voice of the opening. Before we get to the first interior monologue by Marsman, the third-person voice has already dropped such lines as “Hot damn, here they come!” to describe the DT's, and “You talk about looking: would you look at that / Electric page.” In general, though there are first-person and third-person technical points of view, the voices are identical, and it is difficult to account for the presence of the outside narrator at all. Not only are they identical, but they are not very different in diction and sociology from the speakers in some of Dickey's earlier work. Drunk or sober, Marsman more often comes across as an out-of-shape Southern ex-football player than a Dutch sailor. He addresses Pythagoras as his “old lyre-picking buddy,” and he later laments, “O flesh, that takes on any dirt / At all / I can't get you back in shape.” Even some of the images are the same as those Dickey has used to describe other personas. When Marsman “polar-bears through the room,” it's difficult not to remember the middle-aged teacher at the end of “False Youth: Two Seasons” who “skates like an out-of-shape bear” to his car.

In spite of this strained characterization of Marsman, the more important question in the end is whether the poem's form resolves the problems of the speaker. Although the twelve-part division suggests, like Lowry, a “twelfth hour” or end of a cycle, the structure of the poem is actually not a pattern of hours, months, or zodiac signs. It works instead as a looser pattern of drunkenness, ambition, self-reproach, and finally hope. While Marsman is obsessed with the zodiac, it is never actually materialized and never used as a means to structure his imagination. So the kind of resolution in the last section tries to be a closure to a structure and heroic pattern that is never really there. For the last lines of the book make a case for the triumph of Marsman, if not as an individual, then as symbol of a universal artist who might find the “instrument the tuning fork” that can create a music of the spheres which is possible “So long as the hand can hold its island / Of blazing paper, and bleed for its images.”

Without the integrity of a justifiable character and a clear structure behind it, the entire last section seems somewhat overwritten. Poetry, or at least the nobility of the poet's struggle, is affirmed in a sort of revelation like a thunderbolt: “A day like that. But afterwards the fire / Comes straight down through the roof, white-lightning nightfall, / A face-up flash. Poetry.” This also suggests a night bombing or even Marsman's death by torpedo which had been mentioned in the introduction. Throughout, Marsman asserts that poetry for him is a way of reading and writing in the night sky among the constellations. So having the sky literally fall on him can be either tragic or sadly and almost comically ironic. The problem is that the lines themselves become inflated at this point: “Poetry. Triangular eyesight. It draws his / fingers together at the edge / Around a pencil. He crouches bestially, / The darkness stretched out on the waters / Pulls back, humming Genesis.” This carries mixed connotations of a football quarterback and an epic Biblical movie. Unfortunately, Marsman has done nothing to make himself godlike enough for Genesis. In fact, one of the better passages in the book shows Marsman as poet opposing God as creator, setting up a nice contrast between creation of the universe by God and transformation of the universe through the imagination of man. “I say right now,” Marsman challenges at that point,” … like a man / Bartending for God, / What'll it be? … my old man / Was an astronomer, of sorts, and didn't he say the whole night sky's / invented?” But the invention never materializes in the poem itself, neither in any poem by Marsman nor in Dickey's romanticization of Marsman.

It is sad that the poet who criticized Sexton for her lack of control should write a long work that Harold Bloom hesitantly calls “obsessive and perhaps even hysterical.” Yet Zodiac illustrates all the hazards of confessionalism, despite its removed character and setting: the problem of justifying interest in the detailed personal problems of the speaker, the risks of using metaphor as a means of humanizing and appropriating a hostile world, and most of all, the problem of how to make the imagination transcend intense subjectivity so that there is a resolution in the art, if not in the troubled mind, of the poet.

Finally, it is ironic that the poem about poetry for which Dickey may be best remembered is in his very first volume of poetry—his elegy for Donald Armstrong, “The Performance.” Here we find many of the themes later developed in Zodiac. It is about how the poet, the man who died, and all men who know they are playing temporary roles can use the imagination to make the final surprising gesture which is the only recourse we have against death, uncertainty, and “the great untrustworthy air” in which Donald Armstrong flies as a pilot in the war. Armstrong's real, faulty acrobatic act is finished and perfected in the poet's memory and in his acrobatics of the imagination. And like the acrobatics, the stanzas and syntax are orchestrated “under pressure” in long, dazzling sentences and in a breathtaking handstand that turns reality upside down and gives us the vision that is suddenly clear and perfect, the vision of a man whose blood has rushed to his head. The background and character are entirely credible—and entirely credible, too, is the sudden backflip from the actual experience into the poetic fantasy. This is the Dickey most of us love and remember, the man who loves to dazzle his readers, “Doing all his lean tricks to amaze them,” like Armstrong's imaginary stunts. And this is the Dickey we hope to see again in his future work—for though Dickey is not a young poet anymore, he demonstrates the enormous amount of energy of the master performer who can avoid the confessional poet's trap of becoming too entangled in experience to use the magic and artifice of Prospero and Oz.

Turner Cassity (review date 1980)

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SOURCE: Cassity, Turner. “Double Dutch.” Parnassus 8, no. 2 (1980): 177-93.

[In the following mixed review of The Strength of Fields and The Zodiac, Cassity questions stylistic elements of Dickey's poetry.]

If you write in lines so long that your book has to be printed sideways, it seems to me you might well reconsider your methods. However, James Dickey has always been the least succinct of poets, and here, in a grand horizontal sprawl, is The Strength of Fields, a collection of lyrics and of adaptations from other languages. Dickey writes with undiminished vigor, but I am not sure I can say this as praise. Intellectually, he is so seldom on secure ground that he ought perhaps to proceed with caution.

His title poem, for example, is in direct contradiction to the Warren Court. It seems to say that politicians do represent trees and stones.

                              Men are not where he is
                    Exactly now, but they are around him          around him like the strength
Of fields …
                    The stars splinter, pointed and wild. The dead lie under
The pastures. They look on and help.

Perhaps President Carter, for whose inauguration the poem was written, needs livelier helpers. One is reminded of those unreadable Scandinavian novels about “The Land.” If Dickey covets a Nobel Prize, The Strength of Fields, as a title, should do it. For its purposes, it is the best since The Good Earth.

As a matter of fact, the poet's position is not vastly different from what Mrs. Buck's used to be. He has real talent, a wide public, a geographical area delineated for him by that public, and no serious critical appeal whatever. Buckhead, even when Dickey was living there, must have borne about the same resemblance to The South as the coastal treaty ports to China, or Pasadena to the Wild West. No Wonder his Buckhead Boys feel rather out of things.

Within his limits—one cannot really call them self-imposed; that would imply a sense of focus he does not have—he can be effective. “Root-light, or The Lawyer's Daughter” is a very amusing put-down of the idea of the Platonic Idea. Or would be if one could rescue it from its surrounding welter of verbiage. It is the dread Southern urge to use eight words wherever one will do. Surely it will be the punishment of the garrulous to sit in Hell at the knee of Edith Wharton's mother.

                                        She came flying
                              Down from Eugene Talmadge
                    Bridge, just to long for …
                              If you asked me how to find the Image
                                        Of Woman to last
                              All your life, I'd say go lie
                    Down underwater …
                                        Be eight years old …
                              in the clean palmetto color
                    [and] naked with bubbles,
                              Head-down … there she is.

No Georgian, I least of all, would be willing to forsake Eugene Talmadge Bridge, but the rest of the detail in the full version adds nothing.

That any just to long for
The rest of my life, would come, diving like a lifetime
Explosion in the juices
Of palmettoes flowing
Red in the St. Mary's River as it sets in the east
Georgia from Florida off, makes whatever child
I was lie still, dividing,
Swampy states                    watching
The lawyer's daughter shocked
With silver                    and I wished for all holds
On her like root-light. She came flying
Down from Eugene Talmadge
Bridge, just to long for as I burst with never
Rising never
Having seen her except where she worked
For J.C. Penney in Folkston. Her regular hours
Took fire, and God's burning bush of the morning
Sermon was put on her; I had never seen it where
It has to be. If you asked me how to find the Image
Of Woman to last
All your life, I'd say go lie
Down underwater for nothing
Under a bridge and hold Georgia
And Florida from getting at each other                    hold
Like walls of wine. Be eight years old from Folkston ten
From Kingsland twelve miles in the clean palmetto color
Just as it blasts
Down with a body                    red and silver buck
Naked with bubbles on Sunday                    root
light explodes
head-down, and there she is.

Root-light is phosphorescence, one of many spooky Southern phenomena. What has phosphorescence to do with the lawyer's daughter? Nothing. That is why I left it out. “The clean palmetto color” is of course so attractive a phrase I should like to steal it, and may.

I do not understand why he sets up the poem typographically as he does. If there is any rhythmic measure, or any non-random relationship of sentence to line, I cannot discern it. I have heard him read the poem—most engagingly—and still cannot. As a lyric it is marred by a leering resemblance to a Playboy cartoon, but it does represent the poet at his least pretentious.

“False Youth: Autumn: Clothes of the Age” (even his titles are long) shows him at his most pretentious, but may nevertheless be the most successful poem in the book. It is worth quoting in full, because, unlike root-light, its details are relevant to its subject, and do not paralyze the narrative.

Three red foxes on my head, come down
There last Christmas from Brooks Brothers
As a joke, I wander down Harden Street
In Columbia, South Carolina, fur-haired and bald,
Looking for impulse in camera stores and redneck greeting cards.
A pole is spinning
Colors I have little use for, but I go in
Anyway, and take off my fox hat and jacket
They have not seen from behind yet. The barber does what he can
With what I have left, and I hear the end man say, as my own
Hair-cutter turns my face
To the floor, Jesus, if there's anything I hate
It's a middle-aged hippie. Well, so do I, I swallow
Back: so do I                    so do I
And to hell. I get up, and somebody else says
When're you gonna put on that hat,
Buddy? Right now. Another says softly,
Goodbye, Fox. I arm my denim jacket
On and walk to the door, stopping for the murmur of chairs,
And there it is
hand-stitched by the needles of the mother
Of my grandson                    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:


Poetry is not so badly off as all that, Mr. Dickey; it needs only to be saved from its practitioners. One is tempted to say that Thom Gunn could have written the poem better, but since he hasn't, there is no point in withholding praise from the actual author. The barber pole is a real inspiration. Admittedly, I am predisposed to like any poem that savages Columbia, South Carolina. I went through basic training there. If the following line break is not random it is a stroke of genius, and the very last sort of effect one ordinarily expects to find in Dickey.

I arm my denim jacket
On and walk to the door

The defensiveness is gotten across with marvelous subtlety.

“The Rain Guitar” suffers from being a sequel to or trial run for the dueling banjos scene in Deliverance—that abyss—and from our suspicion that what a man of Dickey's age should really be playing is a ukulele. The guitar reappears in “Exchanges,” a notably bad performance. The poet, with no hint of irony, is apparently going down a checklist of cocktail party chic: smog, offshore drilling, freeways, the quality of life, and the death of whales. All too appropriate, unfortunately, for a Phi Beta Kappa poem, “being in the form of a dead-living dialogue with Joseph Trumbull Stickney (1874-1904)—(Stickney's words are in italics).” Italicizing was not necessary. It is perfectly obvious which words are Stickney's: his are the ones that make sense. In the Dickey text nothing has anything to do with anything else. You cannot call it free association because there is no association. The narrator is sitting on a bluff above the Pacific Ocean outside Los Angeles (where else?) and playing Appalachian music to a companion while worrying about environmental pollution. “We sang and prayed for purity.” A reader who will believe that will believe anything, although I should say in its defense that it is the most straightforward utterance in the poem. Compare it with this:

Day-moon meant more
Far from us                    dazing the oil-slick with the untouched remainder
Of the universe                    spreading                    contracting
Catching fish at the living end
In their last eye                    the guitar rang moon and murder
And Appalachian love, and sent them shimmering from the cliff

The operative phrase is living end. The girl, we learn presently, is now in Forest Lawn, and everything—astronauts have by now been added—is supposed to come together in an image of death. It doesn't. Nothing could get itself together after images like “birds black with corporations.” It brings one solidly down on the side of Chevron. Well, if there is anything I hate it is a middle-aged hippie.

I take this opportunity to say I personally find offshore drilling platforms the most attractive thing in any seascape. They provide a middle distance. In the bay at Santa Barbara they are like great ideographs on the oriental haze of the islands.

It would be just as easy to hatchet “For the Death of Lombardi,” a maudlin threnody for the iconic coach. It would be easy but counter-productive. We should regret instead that someone who is uniquely qualified to give us a good poem on the world of the locker room has failed to do so. Very few writers play football, and we should have our understanding enlarged if a poet could convey to us what it is actually like. My interest in endangered species is in seeing that they do not disappear from the table, but I neither hunt nor fish. I therefore owe a particular debt to Ernest Hemingway, and come away from Dickey with a sense of waste and frustration, his as well as mine.

“Lombardi” confirms what one has suspected for years: Dickey thinks he is Paul Hornung (whose autobiography, incidentally, is not to be missed; its narcissism makes poets seem self-effacing).

Yet running in my mind
As Paul Hornung, I made it here
With the others, sprinting down railroad tracks,
Hurdling bushes and backyard Cyclone
Fences, through city after city, to stand, at last, around you

The debt to John Cheever is this side of plagiarism, but only just. The real trouble with the poem is that its details are predictable. The statement of them is furiously hyped, but they are themselves predictable without being inevitable. They are exactly what I should have used in writing a poem about locker rooms, and I never go close to locker rooms.

Around your bed the knocked-out teeth like hail-pebbles
Rattle down          miles of adhesive tape from hands and ankles
Writhe in the room like vines                    gallons of sweat blaze in buckets
In the corners                    the blue and yellow of bruises
Make one vast sunset around you.

To measure their failure you have only to think of the hyena in Green Hills of Africa “racing the little nickelled death inside him,” or of the Kipling galley-slaves.

We fainted with our chins on the oars and you did not see that
we were idle, for we still swung to and fro.

The sunset of bruises is wonderfully bad, the taste of the Easter show at Radio City Music Hall brought to literature, and it appears twice.

the bruise-colors brighten                    deepen
On the wall                    the last tooth spits itself free
Of a line-backer's aging head

The tooth exemplifies the syntactical desperation to which Dickey has been reduced: something, anything, to make the obvious seem “poetic.” There is no conceivable way in which a tooth can spit itself out. The meaningless reflexive makes one see why Freshman English instructors tell their students to avoid the passive. The writing in “Lombardi,” as writing, confronts us with what three generations of modern poets have been unwilling to face: no amount of talent is going to help if the rest of your mind is a mess. Common sense is as useful in poetry as it is elsewhere.

I do not want anyone to think I underrate Dickey's talent. The best phrase in the poem is very good indeed.

the weekly, inescapable dance
Of speed, deception, and pain

It is no accident that it consists of abstractions (you can be sure in any modern poem that dance does not actually refer to dancing).

The passage on the athletes grown middle-aged ought to work but doesn't.

Paul Hornung has withdrawn
From me [sic], and I am middle-aged and gray …
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 …

I have to say, however, the champagne mixed with shower water has exactly the unexpectedness whose absence I was deploring above. As for the deodorants, well, surely it is better to stink with them than without them.

I am not familiar with the originals of the translations in Strength of Fields, but I conclude either that the translator likes long-winded poets or that he can make anyone seem long-winded, even an oriental.

But I remember, and I feel the grass and the fire
Get together in April                    with you and me, and that
Is what I want                    both age-gazing living and dead

Nothing could be further from an ideograph.

More Chinese than his Po Chu-yi is Dickey's own brilliantly observed image in “The Rain Guitar.”

eelgrass trying to go downstream with all the right motions
But one

A bit dynamic—fluid, if you like—for the oriental taste, but you will find no haiku nearly as good. Pound's Cathay, much of it, is static by comparison.

the willows
have overfilled the close garden

Alfred Jarry is here (Ubu roi; the guitar player is still going down that checklist). Octavio Paz is represented, as is Georg Heym. In English, the best of the lot is Vicente Aleixandre. I do not know him, but assume he is fashionable, as he is in the company of Evgeny Yevtushenko. I have a feeling I am using different systems of transliteration for the first and last names, but let it pass. The swordfish in “Undersea Fragment in Colons” is strikingly rendered.

Swordfish, I know you are tired: tired out with the sharpness of your face:
Exhausted with the impossibility of ever
Piercing the shade: with feeling the tunnel-breathing streamline of your flesh
Enter and depart

The Art Deco quality of the fish is perfectly captured.

It would be agreeable to say that in the translations we are at least freed of Dickey as a persona, but the voice of most of them is relentlessly first person, and we never get very far away from Paul Hornung. Still … Dickey's egoism has generated a thousand self-perpetuating anecdotes, yet the truth is, he is less imprisoned in his psyche than most poets. Whatever his poems are, they are not claustrophobic. Extroversion is an attractive thing about them, and may well account for their popularity. The poets he translates are, compared to him, closeted.

Speaking in his own voice he is a lyricist whose gift for the dramatic moment, for the accurate, vivid observation quickly rendered, is dissipated in non-structures enormously inflated. I seem to be describing Meyerbeer, and one could say that, like Meyerbeer, he will be immortal in his lifetime and for a few months after. The identification is not capricious: Meyerbeer may be said to have invented publicity—advertising—as we know it, and publicity has made Dickey one of the better poets who has ever been really popular.

Curious, therefore, that reviewers and public alike have by and large ignored The Zodiac, his magnum opus, if not his masterpiece. It appeared in 1976 in a trade edition from Doubleday and in a luxury edition from Bruccoli Clark. For the latter the author wrote an introduction that obscures as much as it reveals, and which I shall have to contradict from time to time.

I want to say at once The Zodiac is a work not just anyone could have written (so is Les Huguenots), and the question of indebtedness is to that extent moot. In basing it on “another of the same title,” however, he invites speculation. That other is by Hendrik Marsman, a Dutch poet killed in World War II. In the introduction to the Doubleday edition Dickey says “This poem is in no sense a translation, for the liberties I have taken with Marsman's original poem are such that the poem I publish here, with the exception of a few lines, is completely my own.” Prefacing the Bruccoli he says “Some thirty years ago, as a student at Vanderbilt, I read Hendrik Marsman's original.” I think he did not. I think he read A. J. Barnouw's translation of it published in The Sewanee Review in 1947, and I think Barnouw, not Marsman, is due the disclaimer. Everyone who compares the two will have to decide for himself the degree of Dickey's indebtedness. The main difference, to put it bluntly, is that Dickey's protagonist is more of a drunkard.

One can see what attracted Dickey. If Barnouw has represented the original dependably, it is the most American poem ever written by a European. Of his own version Dickey writes “The Zodiac is at the same time a vindication of the drunken, demonic poet and the desperately serious artist.” Although they were drunken and demonic respectively, there was nothing American about Verlaine or Rimbaud. Verlaine was too incompetent, and Rimbaud could have come only from the French bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century. At one point he wanted to work for the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique. The presence of Arthur Rimbaud is perhaps the one thing that could have made the problems of the French in Panama worse than they were.

A strength of the Marsman-Barnouw is that in spite of manifold opportunities it at no point evokes Rimbaud. “Its twelve sections are the story of a drunken and perhaps dying Dutch poet who retires to his home in Amsterdam after years of travel and tries desperately, by means of stars, to relate himself to the universe.” (Dickey, in his own version.)

I can spare scholars of those months of Dickey's posthumous immortality a great deal of trouble by telling them that the division into twelve sections does not mean a one to one relationship with the signs of the Zodiac. Cancer the Crab appears, but the divisions are purely arbitrary.

The Dickey gets off to an unpromising start, by sticking too close to the Marsman-Barnouw.

The man I'm telling you about brought himself back alive
A couple of years ago. He's here,
Making no trouble
over the broker's peaceful
Open-bay office at the corner of two canals
That square off and starfish into four streets
Stumbling like mine-tunnels all over town.


The man of whom I tell this narrative
Returned, some time ago, to his native land.
He has since lived, for nearly a full year,
Over the peaceful broker's offices
Which, at the corner between two canals,
Front on the square that, starfish-shaped, ejects
Its corridors into the city's mine.


The starfish is too ingenious by half, and doubly inappropriate to Amsterdam, which has neither beaches nor salt water. Nor do the tunnels improve things. Holland cannot even keep water out of its basements. Dickey had no reason to know better—except by checking his facts—but his mother lode had.

The real Amsterdam makes its appearance here:

… houses whose thick basement-stones
Turn water into cement inch by inch
As the tide grovels down.


… a row of mansions
Whose cellars stand in water masonried


One up for Dickey. It would be invidious to point out that the city is sealed off from the tide by locks, and as the canals are flushed artificially every now and then, I am prepared to give the benefit of the doubt. Most of the first section is devoted to the vagaries of the badly hungover protagonist, but the author announces his theme baldly.

The Zodiac.
He must solve it must believe it learn to read it
No, wallow in it
As poetry.

Here he does not follow the Barnouw closely enough. It says simply

The puzzling palimpsest of the common life
That he must solve and read as poetry

An attack of D.T.'s—he imagines an invasion of army ants [Author's Note: The ants are an expansion of Barnouw's “insect plague of his own thoughts.”]—delays things, but soon he is drunk and writing, and the poem rises to a passage of genuine power. It is not parallelled in the original.

Will the animals come back
Gently, creatively open
Like they were?
The great, burning Beings                    melt into place
A few billion-lighted inept beasts
Of God—

Embedded in the delirium is an article of faith any poet will have to respect.

the poem is in there                    out there
Somewhere, the lines that will change
Everything, like your squares and square roots
Creating the heavenly music.

Section II is a meditation on the nature of time, precipitated by the striking of a clock.

The whole time-thing: after all
There's only this rosette of a great golden stylized asshole

The level of diction in this section, throughout, is the uneasiest in the poem, and owes nothing to Barnouw. To credit its force I shall say I can never look at the rose-window of a cathedral in quite the same way again. Another onslaught of the shakes ends the meditation, and this time the poet imagines that he is attacked by a giant lobster, whom he considers elevating to Zodiacal status. The passage may or may not be a parody of Eliot's pair of ragged claws. In any event, the lobster is in the Barnouw.

Section III, the least effective in the poem—Dickey's and his model—is a reminiscence of travel.

That remembered Greek blue
Is fantastic. That's all: no words
But the ones anybody'd use: the ones from humanity's garbage can
Of language.

“Anybody'd,” I think, is a word practically nobody would use.

Section IV is a recovery. A poetic recovery; the narrator's liver is beyond recall. The section includes one of Dickey's more interesting conceits.

Without that hugely mortal beast          that multi-animal animal
There'd be no present time:
Without the clock-dome, no city here,
Without the axis and the poet's image          God's image
No turning stars          no Zodiac          without God's conceiving
Of Heaven as beast-infested          Of Heaven in terms of beasts
There'd be no calendar          dates          seasons
No Babylon          those abstractions that blitzed their numbers
Into the Colosseum's crazy gates          and down
Into the woven beads that make the rosary
Live sing and swirl like stars
Of creatures

The train of associations, while quite free, can easily be followed. Of course, it has Barnouw to keep it on the track. “Blitzed” is a mistake. In a poem about the heavens the root meaning, lightning, will get in the way of the Panzer divisions. The fault is Dickey's. In Barnouw the verb is “struck.”

We have in section V the first hint of reconciliation, of relating by means of stars to the universe. Barnouw's lines are quoted without alteration.

The faster I sleep,
The faster the universe sleeps

To seek in sex the meaning of the cosmos is about as intelligent as it would be to use an ephemeris as a sex manual, and I should like to dislike section VII on principle, but I cannot. I like it. The meaning could not be more clearly conveyed, and the sense of quiet at the end is very impressive.

Don't shack up with the intellect:
Don't put your prick in a cold womb.
Nothing but walking snakes would come of that—
but if you conceive with meat
that child, too, is doomed.
Are revealed in Heaven, as clouds drift across,
Mysterious sperm-colored:
There, the world is original, and the Zodiac shines anew
After every night-cloud. New
With a nameless tiredness                    a depth
Of field I can't read an oblivion with no bottom

The Marsman-Barnouw, in the casting of old barren Reason from the house, is downright priggish.

Do not sleep with the intellect,
Do not couple with a cold womb.

I incline to a view that writing is one thing and sex is another, but whatever turns you on, as they used to say in my and Mr. Dickey's early middle age.

I do not know what to make of Section VIII, and I don't think Dickey does either. In the Barnouw it gives the impression of a lyric imported from somewhere else, from Heredia, or one of the later Parnassians (nothing American here).

He goes along
The dead canal that sleeps in its bronze bed
Between the quays.

Dickey gives it the full treatment, to try to bring it in line with the rest of the poem, but nothing he does really works. First we have the Midnight Cowboy.

To city-drift leg after leg, looking Peace
In its empty eyes as things are beginning
Already to go twelve hours
Toward the other side of the clock

He takes on the canal as if he were Teddy Roosevelt.

He moves along the slain canal
Snoring in its bronze
Between docks

In another line he big-sticks the Parnassians on their own ground.

The trees are motionless, helping their leaves hold back

I can produce no hard evidence, but I have an impression section IX owes something to Tonio Kröger, in German-language courses in the Netherlands often a set piece.

… the bitter right his shyness granted her
To pass him in the street with a frigid look,
Haughtily jesting with the sinister boy
Who once had been his idol and his friend
And who had taken her away from him


Again, Dickey's only response is to hype it up.

Empty is the grave of youth


The grave of youth? HA! I told you: there's nobody in it.


One feels he has sat too long in creative writing classes where they tell you everything must be dramatized.

Section X is a love scene, and not at all interesting. Where a little sexiness would have helped, Dickey perversely adds none.

Section XI is the first intrusion of social life into the poem. The protagonist goes to a party. How he secured an invitation I find the most stimulating problem the work poses. Barnouw renders the arrival vividly, and Dickey wisely does not change it.

He polar-bears through the room

But if, as Dickey claims, he completely re-worked the “original,” why did he feel compelled to stick so close to it when no purpose is served? His worst enemy never said he did not know how to enjoy a party, and surely this is a scene in which we had rather have Dickey than Marsman. What, finally, did the Barnouw mean to Dickey? If it stuck in his mind for thirty years, and had enough force to make him compromise what is clearly intended as his artistic testament with the hint of plagiarism, it must have seemed to him a text brought down on stone tablets, but a text to be elaborated in art and lived out in life. I can think of no more convincing argument for keeping romantic poems out of the hands of the young, and for discharging agrarians who would put them there.

Easy to see that Dickey's idea of making something poetic is to add “intensity”—as if he went about with a hard gemlike Bunsen burner. In spite of his fondness for Appalachian stage effects (if one did not know Buckhead better, one would say he grew up waited on by White servants who sang a lot), it seldom occurs to him to use a homey image. The voltage would seem to him too low. On the rare occasion when he does use one, it is a disaster: the determination to say everything by way of images, be the image good, bad, or indifferent.

The garden, he thinks, was here,
Bald          a few sparse          elephant-head hairs

“Bald” is in the Barnouw, but for the elephant-head Dickey has no one but himself to blame. Nor was the bald itself necessary; I presume the Dutch word is kaal, which can also be translated as “bare.” In the Transvaal, kaalveld is bare veldt.

The concluding section has been praised, and correctly so.

Oh my own soul,          put me in a solar boat.
Come into one of these hands
Bringing quietness and the rare belief
That I can steer this strange craft to the morning
Land that sleeps          in the universe on all horizons
.....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.

If we can have an elaborate statement of a simplistic notion, Zodiac is the most elaborate and the most explicit example we have of the idea of poetry as the unconsidered utterance of the bardic genius aided in his unreason, if need be, by drink and drugs. If we take Whitman and Sandburg seriously, we have to consider Dickey, because he has more specific literary talent than either, and is by no means the phoniest of the three. His poems compare poorly with those of Hart Crane, but who knows what Crane would have written like in his fifties. I for one doubt that he could have written at all. Appalachia knows what to call such transports—speaking in tongues—and what to think of them: they are in the same category as the handling of snakes. In secular and more pretentious guise they are endemic to American poetic thought, and are not likely to go away. My own feeling is that if you wanted to invent a method to get the least out of the most talent, you could hardly do better.

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

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SOURCE: Calhoun, Richard J., and Robert W. Hill. “The Literary Criticism, Lately Neglected.” In James Dickey, pp. 124-35. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1983.

[In the following essay, Calhoun and Hill discuss Dickey's reputation and work as a literary critic.]


James Dickey's career as a literary critic began when he was poetry editor and reviewer for the Sewanee Review. There he developed something of a reputation as a “hatchet man” who deftly chopped down the reputations of poets he did not respect. Robert Penn Warren, later a friend and admirer, recalls: “When James Dickey came to my attention as a reviewer, I thought he was one of the roughest around.”1 This reputation was not quite deserved since Dickey's critical hatchet was reserved only for what he called in the first collection of his reviews the “suspect” in poetry. Dickey's reviews were perceived variously as entertaining, opinionated, sometimes harsh, displaying an excess of ego; but not, as they might well be regarded in retrospect, as important contributions to Dickey's own vision of a freer, personal, but still carefully crafted postmodernist poetry. Style and tone were admired more than substance.

There are other reasons for James Dickey's meager reputation as a literary critic. First of all, he began as a poetry reviewer, and he has continued to express his critical ideas outside formal critical performances—writing not essays but additional reviews, giving numerous interviews, and tape recording for publication one uniquely egocentric volume—Self-Interviews. Second, the personality of Dickey, his “unrepressed ego,” was always much in evidence in what he wrote, to the annoyance of some of his reviewers; the consequence of Dickey's intense subjectivity has been to obscure the importance of his contributions as poet-critic as well as the relationship of intensely held critical ideas to his poetry. Finally, Dickey has also contributed to the critical disregard for his literary criticism through his own statements about what he has done. He has, for example, disavowed his first major collection of his reviews, Babel to Byzantium, as a “full-scale critical performance,” modestly asserting that he knows “any reasonably good student of aesthetics could tear [my] ‘ideas’ apart with no trouble.”2 This pose of a dabbler has been held consistently in regard to his prose; Dickey's position has always been that his “preoccupation is with poetry, and everything else is a spin-off from that—novels, literary criticism, screen plays, whatever.”3

The reviews reprinted from the Sewanee Review in The Suspect in Poetry and in Babel to Byzantium are much less polemic than their reputation would suggest. When told of Robert Penn Warren's impression of his roughness on poets in his early days as a poetry reviewer, Dickey demurred: “Well, I'm not all that rough. I have a very naive feeling as a reviewer. I don't believe that a reviewer or a critic can really criticize well unless he can praise well. I always liked that about Randall Jarrell. He praised well. James Agee praises well. You've got to be able to like the right things to be enabled to dislike the wrong things.”4 What Dickey's statement about Jarrell ignores is that Jarrell's reputation in his early days as a reviewer was much the same as Dickey's own for roughness. Dickey's harsh reputation may have resulted from his ability to express his negative judgments wittily and memorably: “[J. V.] Cunningham is a good, deliberately small and authentic poet, a man with tight lips, a good education, and his own agonies. His handsome little book should be read, and above all by future Traditionalists and Compressors; he is their man.” (BB [Babel to Byzantium], 194).

Dickey is clearly not “their man” and he makes that abundantly clear. What he does like and praises well is less memorable, and his reasons are clear only when what he wrote then is read along with the essays in his later volume, Sorties. What he does not like in his early criticism is any kind of academicism, especially “the university-taught” garden variety poets or “the School of Charm” (BB, 10).

In his earliest Sewanee Review criticism Dickey stresses that the first step in restoring meaning to poetry is by compelling the reader's belief through establishing “the presence of a living being,” creating “a distinctive poetic voice” (BB, 107). Two other requirements are made of the poets he reviews. The poet must also earn belief, establish a connection between poet and reader, by making “effective statements, ones you believe, and believe in, at first sight …” (BB, 151). Dickey also prefers “a basis of narrative,” through describing or depicting “an action” in poetry, and regaining for poetry what it had lost to fiction (BB, 287).


The essays in The Suspect in Poetry and in Babel to Byzantium were written during the late 1950s and the early 1960s at a time when Randall Jarrell and Karl Shapiro were also in their different ways breaking with “new critical” formalism and the modernist tradition that had favored impersonality, mythology, and academicism in poetry. Dickey was in his own way nurturing the same seeds of change as Jarrell and Shapiro. Among the older generation of poets, William Carlos Williams, who had long had his differences with the Eliot brand of modernism, was an influence on the new directions being taken by Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell in the 1950s. Dickey also admired Williams at his best, but his view of Williams's poetry was somewhat different from theirs. Williams's best poems demonstrate how one can be close to the surfaces of life while avoiding the commonplace. The commonplace is clearly as foreign to Dickey's concept of good poetry as the university-oriented academicism of many modernist poets. Williams is better than his imitators because he transcends the commonplace by instant symbolization: his poetry has its magic “moments when a commonplace event or object is transfigured without warning …” (BB, 244).

Dickey not only demands that good poems of other poets be both nonacademic and nonliteral, but he also commends to his reader his own penchant for “‘the big basic forms’—rivers, mountains, woods, clouds, oceans …” (BB, 291). For Dickey it is the commitment to both “… vision and to the backbreaking craft of verse” that makes the good poet. His exemplars in this respect are Roethke, Rilke, and D. H. Lawrence, who are, he declares, the “great empathizers” and “the awakeners,” who can go beyond the commonplace and even “change your life” by compelling belief in what they write through “inducing you to believe that you were meant to perceive things” as they present them” (BB, 149). It is when poetry accomplishes this goal that it becomes the kind of magical thing Dickey believes it should be.

When Dickey attempts to describe the kind of substance he likes in poetry, he may owe something to the New Critics' praise of “tension” in poetry. Dickey's version is a preference for a tonal complexity that comes from a “sense of being glad to be alive to write that particular poem” but also from outrage at the possibility of the loss of all things that have meant much to him—a sense of “outrage that these personal, valuable things could ever be definitely lost for anyone” (BB, 281). In describing the poets he admires most, Dickey identifies his kind of tension. In Theodore Roethke the tension is the ability of Roethke to be “not far from total despair” but also “not far from total joy” (BB, 151); and in Edwin Arlington Robinson, the poet he admires almost equally with Roethke, it is his “desperately poised uncertainty” (BB, 223).

In a key essay in Babel to Byzantium, “The Poet Turns on Himself,” Dickey's concern is consistent with the emphasis in the essays in his later books, Self-Interviews and Sorties. It is in this essay that the significance of his title Babel to Byzantium becomes evident; each poet has his own vision, his vision of Byzantium. To actualize this vision he is dependent on a flow of images from the memory, even out of the subconscious, but it requires the right language and the proper form. Dickey clearly regards his own best poetic efforts and those of the poets he values the most as an attempt to find the language necessary to “incarnate” those moments which are “most persistent and obsessive” in the memory (BB, 292). Dickey was supportive of the new freedom in the poetry of the 1950s and the 1960s, but to earn his praise a poet must also be a craftsman who can maintain a proper balance between the passion of his visions and the formal demands of language. The poet must use his talent with language to find among the many tongues of Babel the right words for his Byzantium—the vision he desires to communicate. Unfortunately, as his brief reviews make clear, in his judgment, many contemporary poets fail at the one extreme or the other, producing either vision without the necessary craftsmanship or the craftsmanship without the vision. His reviews specify the failures.


The most representative essay in Babel to Byzantium, revealing Dickey as almost as much the subject of his essays as the poet he is reviewing, is Dickey's essay on Randall Jarrell. Dickey conducts a dialogue with himself as critic, who responds intellectually and judgmentally to Jarrell's poetry, and as a poet, who responds emotionally and empathetically to Jarrell's successes and failures as a fellow poet.

A reviewer who had taken careful note of Dickey's Jarrell dialogue would have been less surprised by Dickey's next book of criticism, Self-Interviews (1970), than most of his reviewers were. This book of tape talk was the product of Dickey's response via tape recorder to questions about himself and his poetry asked by coeditors James and Barbara Reiss. The volume is slender, but seldom has a contemporary poet told more about himself as author than Dickey has in this volume and in his next, Sorties (1971). The confessionalism that Dickey had denied the poet seems more acceptable to him in his own prose. The dialogue in the Jarrell essay has become monologue, the distinctive voice of James Dickey speaking on himself, occasionally at his best, but also at his worst. Self-Interviews is nevertheless valuable as a handbook of information on Dickey as poet and as repudiation of T. S. Eliot's formalism, both his doctrine of impersonality for modern poetry and his practice of expressing his critical ideas in carefully crafted essays that advance the art of that form. Dickey also seems bent on rejecting another formalist tenet, dear to the New Critics, the intentional fallacy, their exposure as a fallacy the belief that a writer's own statements about his works can exhaust the possible meanings of those works. To New Critics like Cleanth Brooks or Robert Penn Warren nothing except a close explication of the literary text by a critic can reveal the actual meaning as opposed to the intended meaning. Self-Interviews is Dickey's testimony to his belief that a poet's statements about origins and personal meanings of a work can be of value in understanding it.

Part one of Self-Interviews, “The Poet at Mid-Career,” traces the development of Dickey's creative psyche from his earliest creative efforts to the publication of his first major collection, Poems 1957-1967. Part two, “The Poem as Something That Matters,” is divided into five sections, one for each of his first five volumes of poetry. The coverage is extensive: practically every major poem Dickey has written is discussed. Dickey is descriptive of his intentions; but he is seldom prescriptive about meanings, since he is not trying to preclude anybody else's interpretation. His accounts of the origins of his poems are anecdotal and entertaining re-creations of the creative act, such as Allen Tate undertook in his classic essay on his poem “Ode to the Confederate Dead.”

Self-Interviews is nevertheless a product of Dickey's staunch faith in his memory; it expresses his belief in the importance of drawing on and building on the best of his memories that come up from out of “that strange limbo between conscious memory and the unconscious, where remembered things have what physicists call a half-life” (SI [Self–Interviews], 55).

The informal autobiography of the mind of the poet that begins in Self-Interviews and continues in the “Journals” section of his next book, Sorties, is largely an account of the connections Dickey has made in his poetry and also of his convictions as poet-critic on how these connections are best made. He indicates that he has always desired to achieve “presentational immediacy” in his poetry in the belief that this quality would lead to the kind of reader involvement with poetry that good writers of prose fiction get. In his poetry the poet will be concerned with many disparate subjects, but he must present them concretely enough to communicate to his readers a convincing illusion that there is a connection among all the different strands of divergence.

Above all, Dickey stresses the importance of memory to the poet, and he unabashedly uses himself as his own exemplar. To Dickey the poet values “remembered things,” and he cannot bear to believe that they will ever “be totally expunged” (SI, 57). He writes his poems with the intention of preserving both the memories and the passion that they occasion which permit the creation of the poem. The memories are subject to the changes that linguistic structure may necessitate, and the poet's “censor” should eliminate what might be aesthetically bad. Beyond this Dickey will not go. He is entirely opposed to T. S. Eliot's antiromantic dictum that the poet must find objective correlatives and transmute his personal emotions into impersonal artistic feelings. On the contrary, Dickey has a neoromantic faith that emotions can lead to creativity. He declares: “I want to try to conserve the passion, wind it up tight like a spring so that it always has that sense of energy and compression, that latency which is always available to anyone who looks for it” (SI, 65). He desires to preserve the instinctual life that is left to civilized man, and he envies in animals the “instinctual notion of how much energy to expend, the ability to do a thing thoughtlessly and do it right …” (SI, 60). Dickey is a neoromantic in his faith and in instinctual life and a post-Darwinian poet in his belief in the possibility of regressing and regaining temporarily the instincts and extrarational powers that man has just about evolved out of. He imagines this possibility in his poetry and in his novel Deliverance. In Self-Interviews he proclaims his faith in this resource for his creative imagination: “There's a part of me that has never heard of a telephone. By an act of will I can call up the whole past which includes telephones, but there is a half-dreaming, half-animal part of me that is fundamentally primitive. I really believe this, and I try to get it into poems; I don't think this quality should die out of people” (SI, 68-69).

One might say that James Dickey has his own version of the dissociation of sensibility between thought and feeling that preoccupied T. S. Eliot in his concern for the modern poet. Eliot saw a split between thought and feeling; Dickey sees modern man deprived of instinctual life. If this quality does die out of people, it will be a result of the premium contemporary society places on specialization. The price of specialization is “the loss of a sense of intimacy with the natural process” (SI, 68). For a more unified sensibility the poet must establish connections with the great mystery of process in nature, with “the great natural cycles of birth and death, the seasons, the growing up of plants and the dying of the leaves, the generations of animals and of men …” (SI, 68). It is this kind of connection that permits good poetry, in Dickey's view, to transcend the commonplace and become magical. Modernist poetry has been predominantly concerned with man in the modern wasteland, the city. The natural world is more important to Dickey than the man-made world. His Vanderbilt predecessors lamented the passing of an agrarian way of life in the South. Dickey laments with D. H. Lawrence that “as a result of our science and industrialization, we have lost the cosmos” (SI, 67).


The “Journals” section of Dickey's 1971 volume of essays, Sorties, is a continuation of the artistic self-analysis begun in Self-Interviews. There are, however, differences. The entries are in the form of scattered notes, and they are written at a time of actual engagement in creative work rather than in retrospect, as in Self-Interviews. The material is even more personal and intimate than in the previous volume, and as much as Dickey dislikes the term, even confessional.

Once more, Dickey deliberately avoids the formal critical performance, preferring to express his critical ideas in a more personal and intimate form than the formal critical essay permits. The form chosen is traditional, since notebooks and journals have always been an important part of a writer's creative activity even though not always intended for the public. It would not be accurate to say that Dickey does not write critical essays, for in Sorties he includes five essays written originally as lectures and for special occasions as well as a brief epilogue for the volume. Unfortunately, adverse critical responses to what seemed the deliberately egocentric presence of Dickey's own personality obscured for some reviewers the importance of the essays to an understanding of Dickey's intentions in his poetry and of his contributions to a postmodernist literary criticism. Sorties and Self-Interviews were seemingly just too much of a self-congratulatory ego trip through Dickey's own memories and critical prejudices to be taken seriously as literary criticism. The personality of Dickey in print had become almost as evident as in his enormously successful, though occasionally controversial, public readings. There was another reason for a definite note of hostility toward Dickey. As a southern poet who had not perceptibly participated in the protest movement against the war in Vietnam he had become suspect among liberals. The case against Dickey was presented by his former friend and the publisher of The Suspect in Poetry, Robert Bly.5 According to Webster a “sortie” is “a sally of troops from a besieged place against the besiegers.” Dickey had chosen the right title for another book of criticism. His new book and his reputation were both under minor siege. The quantity of Dickey's production of poetry, and in the view of some reviewers, the quality, too, had declined. Dickey was apparently giving too much of himself and writing too little of literary consequence. A judgment of contemporary criticism of poetry offered near the beginning of Sorties might be applied to his own work: “Contemporary criticism of poetry: far too much is made of far too little. The critic is attempting to be more ingenious and talented than the poem, and stands on his head to be original: that is, to invent an originality for the poems that can come to them only through him” (S [Sorties], 6).

The personal equation in Sorties is intentional, and it is of value for what it reveals about the relationship between Dickey and the critical personae that he has created. All the Dickey self-stances appear. There is the macho Dickey, who said that, if he is not an advocate of virility in contemporary literature, he would not object if assigned that role.6 He occasionally sounds like his own fictional creation, Lewis Medlock: “The body is the one thing you cannot fake. It is what it is, and it does what it does. It also fails to do what it cannot do. It would seem to me that people would realize this, especially men” (S, 4). He also appears as a Whitmanesque, intensified man as poet who would change his reader and even a good bit of his world:

What I want to do most as a poet is to charge the world with vitality: with the vitality that it already has, if we could rise to it. This vitality can be expressed in the smallest thing and in the largest; from the ant heaving at a grain of sand to the stars straining not to be extinguished.

(S, 5)

Whitman could not have asked for much more.

In striking contrast, Dickey also gives his reader a brief glimpse of a self he usually tries to conceal, that of the university professor who as a poet avoids writing academic poetry but who enjoys the professorial life. He confesses: “It is a marvelous thing, this having a house full of books. Something crosses the mind—a flash of light, some connection, some recognition—and one simply rises from one's chair and goes, as though by predestination, to that book, to that poem” (S, 5-6).

More often Dickey appears as one of the “roughs,” as a poet who prefers the open life and open forms in literature to the urban or academic life and to the closed forms preferred by modernists and formalists. He does not “like the locked-in quality of formalist verse.” Formalists desire the impression of coming “at an effect of inevitability. There are lots of other kinds of inevitability than this, and the best of these do not have the sense of claustrophobia that formalist verse has” (S, 8-9). Formalists prefer compression. Dickey makes his preference clear. “I want, mainly, the kind of poetry that opens out, instead of closes down” (S, 9).

Dickey may prefer open forms, and he admires “power” and a sense of “abandon” in poetry; but he never advocates uncontrolled or critically uncensored spontaneity. The neoromantic in Dickey may advocate openness and freedom; but the formalist, the worker with language, counters with the case for artistic control and careful craftsmanship. He tells himself to play with “confidence, power, and relaxation” and to add “abandon.” But then he adds as equally important: “To that, add precision” (S, 9). He urges himself to revise—to get it right: “Phrase it, phrase it. One cannot work too much on such a thing” (S, 10).

In still another Whitmanesque stance Dickey extols his own poetic sensibility, assuring himself that he has a greater “accessibility to experience” than even Henry James ever had and affirming his memory for those things which mean something to him. He offers himself as an example of what in the personality of a writer makes him a writer. He is his own representative poet, “born with some kind of extra sensitivity to things” and capacity “to receive impressions” and to retain them because “they mean something to him.” Things “matter” to him; he feels for them and remembers them (S, 20-21).

Not all is egotism or egocentric. Dickey is aware of writing, after a period of critical formalism, on the personality of the poet in relation to his works in a great romantic tradition, part Wordsworthian self-analysis of the mind of the poet and part Whitmanesque assertion of the importance of the self in a poetry in which a celebration of life is still possible.

Part II of Sorties consists of Dickey's largest collection of critical essays so far, six in all, and a brief epilogue. Two essays were talks given while Dickey was poetry consultant at the Library of Congress—“Metaphor as Pure Adventure” and “Spinning the Crystal Ball.” Two are reprints of reviews of biographies, of Louis Coxe's biography of Edwin Arlington Robinson,7 and of Allen Seager's biography of Theodore Roethke.8 These reviews are as much concerned with the poet as with poetry. The remaining two essays, “The Self as Agent” and “The Son, the Cave, and the Burning Bush,” were originally included in anthologies.9 In all of these essays the approach is personal and subjective, with little or no objective explication of poetic texts. The reader is given instead Dickey's opinions, which come more from his interests as a poet than from his role as a literary critic. Dickey is obviously expanding on ideas and judgments he has made in his previous interviews and reviews. The difference in Sorties is his concern for the lives, the individual existential situations, of the poets he considers compared to their goals and accomplishments, a subject that had much personal meaning for Dickey himself in the 1970s as his poetic output began to slow down. He is struck by the contradictions between the affirmative in the poems and the destructiveness in the lives of the poets.

The final essay in Sorties is one of Dickey's best. “The Self as Agent” is a significant essay on a subject of great importance to Dickey as an opponent of impersonality in poetry—the role of the self in the poem. The view here is not exactly unbridled romanticism. Dickey's romantic tendencies are once more moderated by his Vanderbilt New Critical heritage. Form is important, as is content. The “I” in the poem is more than the ordinary self. The poet's obligation is not just to tell the literal truth but rather to “make” his truth so that “the vision of the poem will impose itself on the reader as more memorable and value-laden than the actuality it is taken from” (S, 156). The theme of participation in the poem by both poet and reader is restated. His emphasis here is on what the poem does for the poet more than for the reader. A good poem is also a participation in a self-discovery. “During the writing of the poem the poet comes to feel that he is releasing into its proper field of response a portion of himself he has never really understood” (S, 157). The self is essential in the poem because it is the agent that helps the poet to “discover” his poem. Dickey's preference is for the I-poem and the I-narration because the poet in Dickey's view “is capable of inventing or bringing to light out of himself a very large number of I-figures to serve in different poems …” (S, 161). For the poet “the chief glory and excitement of writing poetry” comes from this “chance to confront and dramatize parts of himself that otherwise would not have surfaced” (S, 161). The poet is providing for his reader, through participating in a self-discovery, a sensation of emotional truth. Poetry is a kind of experiential knowledge: the poet “has a new or insufficiently known part of himself released,” and he is able to convey this knowledge convincingly to the reader as humanly important emotional truth (S, 161). If Dickey does not quite provide the rationale for such theories, appropriately for a critic who values personality, he does reiterate his personal beliefs with the conviction that comes from the experience of his own practice.

Dickey's literary criticism is a criticism of fragments—short reviews, brief introductions, public lectures, interviews, self-interviews tape recorded. He has expressed consistent attitudes, though he has not attempted to organize his critical essays as clearly around a theme, as Allen Tate, Karl Shapiro, and Randall Jarrell have done with a greater consistency. He does not rank poets though he gives candid judgments of individual poets; nor is Dickey the spokesman for any kind of great tradition in modern poetry as his Vanderbilt predecessors Tate, Brooks, and Warren were. A comparison with Randall Jarrell is apt because Dickey admired Jarrell and because, like Dickey, Jarrell broke with formalist theory and practice, restored the poet to the poem and the personality of the critic to literary criticism. Jarrell, in Poetry and the Age, and Dickey, consistently in his criticism, desire the readers to be participants in the poems they read.

Dickey's criticism is pertinent to postmodernism in poetry and to postformalism in criticism. His approach to criticism is subjective, not objective and hermeneutical, and his view of the poem is as a dramatization of unrealized aspects of the ego of the poet rather than as a self-contained or autotelic artifact. Dickey has been a determined spokesman for connections between the author and his poem without deteriorating into a poetry of literalism or of commonplaces. He seeks significant connections between persona of the poem and the reader that can compel belief in a transcendence of the ordinary limitations of the self. He is aware of the destructive forces in nature, but he regards himself as a poet like Theodore Roethke, as a celebrator of life. If Dickey is a believer in possibilities of meaning in art and in life, he is also aware of the dangers of a complete surrender to the instincts and to the emotions—of becoming like “unthinking nature.” If he is neoromantic in his preference for open forms and in his penchant for personality, he is also an advocate of balance between the demands of form and the freedom required for inspiration. In short, Dickey is for Dionysian passion but also for Apollonian control.

James Dickey's favorite myth seems to be that of Orpheus. He has used it in his poetry and in his novel Deliverance. There is also a kind of orphic stance in his literary criticism. He has a strong sense of the mission of the poet as the one with the power to make things happen in the imagination of his readers. Yet his poet, and he is his own chief example, is a grateful survivor of chaos who can still be a celebrant of life in spite of the inevitable “dismemberments” of men, not by Thracian women but by war, age, and disease.

Dickey's poems of the 1970s, though few in number, suggest a change to more objective personae who are not Dickey himself but others who serve as surrogates. Because he has written very few critical essays in the 1970s, there is no comparable discernible shift from his consistent advocacy of the subjective in poetry to championing anything like “objective correlatives” for personal feelings, although the critical essays he has written recently are less personal, less controversial, and less significant than the earlier ones.

In 1979 Dickey gave a lecture at the University of Idaho on Ezra Pound. Earlier Dickey had tended to lump Pound with Eliot as a modernist who sought to give his readers not himself but culture. Dickey's revaluation is similar to the current revisionist view that sees Pound still as an influence on Eliot and on modernism but also as an influence on a much less impersonal and freer postmodernism. What he now finds valuable is not the “academic Pound of quotation and cultural cross-reference” but rather the Pound of “the amazing image,” “the fresh clean language,” and “the sound of a voice saying something simple and extraordinary” with the tone “of a delivered truth.”10 What Dickey finds of use in this Pound is not “the shock of recognition” but “the shock of possibility.”

It is the tiny essay in the privately published Billy Goat that makes clear James Dickey's continuing commitment to his version of a Whitmanesque role for the poet, an intensified poet who establishes the necessary connections to make possible an intensified reader. There has been a slight change in terminology. He now desires an “energized man,” nothing as sensational as a man “like a creature from another planet, giving off strange rays of solar energy,” but simply “a human creature, like you, like me—like you could be, like I like to think I could be.”11

The existential literature of three decades ago was once described as “the literature of possibility.”12 That phrase would be apt for a description of the kind of freedom that James Dickey desires for poets today, certainly for himself.


  1. Warren's comment is discussed in Franklin Ashley, “James Dickey: The Art of Poetry,” Paris Review 65 (Spring 1976):70.

  2. James Dickey, Babel to Byzantium (New York, 1968), p. ix. Dickey has frequently repeated this comment. Neither in writings nor in public readings does he refer to himself as a critic.

  3. Ashley, “James Dickey,” p. 81.

  4. Ibid., p. 170.

  5. Bly, “The Collapse of James Dickey,” pp. 70-79.

  6. Kizer and Boatwright, “A Conversation with James Dickey,” pp. 3-28.

  7. James Dickey, “The Greatest American Poet,” Atlantic Monthly, November 1968, pp. 53-58.

  8. James Dickey, “The Poet of Secret Lives and Misspent Opportunities,” New York Times Book Review, 18 May 1969, pp. 1, 10.

  9. James Dickey, “The Self as Agent,” in The Great Ideas Today, ed. Robert M. Hutchins and Mortimer J. Adler (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1968), pp. 91-97; James Dickey, “The Son, the Cave, and the Burning Bush,” in The Young American Poets, ed. Paul Carroll (Chicago: Follett; Big Table, 1968), pp. 7-19.

  10. James Dickey, The Water-Bug's Mittens: Ezra Pound: What We Can Use (Bloomfield Hills, Mich.; Columbia, S.C.: Bruccoli Clark, 1980), p. 15.

  11. James Dickey, Billy Goat 2 (Clemson, S.C.: Billy Goat Press, 1979), p. 3.

  12. See Hazel Barnes, Humanistic Existentialism: The Literature of Possibility (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1959).

Ronald Baughman (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: Baughman, Ronald. “Deliverance.” In Understanding James Dickey, pp. 109-21. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, Baughman explores the theme of renewal in Deliverance.]

How Dickey changes and forms again is dramatically demonstrated in his only novel to date, Deliverance. In this work his protagonist achieves the renewal—the deliverance—for which the writer has struggled throughout his poetry. The speaker is able to find a new order, a new connection, a new sense of real well-being that becomes his passionate affirmation of life. Because the economy of language required in poetry does not allow for the expansive analysis that fiction provides, it is understandable that Dickey most fully develops this transforming function of survivor's guilt in his novel.

The ordeal shared by the four suburbanites who travel down the river in Deliverance clearly parallels that confronting the soldier in combat. In the first chapter of the novel, “Before,” the suburbanites are revealed as quite ordinary men leading quite ordinary, inconsequential lives; they, like raw recruits, have not tested their courage or themselves. During the central three chapters—“September 14th,” “September 15th,” and “September 16th”—they are brutalized both by the wild river and by vicious mountain men; in order to survive they, like soldiers, must conquer and kill their enemies and must witness death in their own ranks. Finally, throughout the last chapter, “After,” survivors of the trip must come to terms with their death encounters; they must, like combat veterans, weigh their responsibilities for the deaths they have caused and observed. Such is the process that protagonist Ed Gentry goes through as he seeks and ultimately attains deliverance.

The “Before” section of the novel establishes the individual characters and histories of the four suburbanites. Bobby Trippe, who works with mutual funds, is the figure most acclimated to city life. Popular and social, he is “a pleasant surface human being,” though Ed has once seen him blow up at a party with “the rage of a weak king”1. Bobby is the least inclined of the four to take the canoe trip through the wilds. Drew Ballinger, who seems to regard nature as a picturesque location for mountain musicians, is a solid citizen and company man: “He worked as a sales supervisor for a big soft-drink company and he believed in it and the things it said it stood for with his very soul” (9). Drew also becomes a spokesman for the laws of civilization during the trip. That he has a son bearing “some kind of risen hornlike blood blister on his forehead that his eyebrow grew out of and around in a way to make you realize the true horrors of biology” (9) should warn him about nature's defiance of man's laws; yet Ballinger remains a naïve though well-intentioned man.

Lewis Medlock, who lives on the revenues of inherited rental properties, devotes himself wholeheartedly to fitness in order to be prepared for the time when “the whole thing is going to be reduced to the human body, once and for all” (42). He wishes to test himself to see if he is capable of withstanding or triumphing over the wilderness in its most primitive state: “You might say I've got the survival craze, the real bug” (43). What he prepares for is his own immortality, his victory over man and nature and death. He approaches the experience of the weekend trip armed with primitive weapons—a bow and arrow, a knife, and a canoe. But his most important weapon, he feels, is his “values” (48), his mental attitude, which earlier had enabled him to crawl unassisted out of the woods with a painfully broken ankle. Lewis admires the “dependability” (47) of the mountain people in equipping themselves for the rigors of a natural, primitive existence, even though they are “ignorant and full of superstition and bloodshed and murder and liquor and hookworm and ghosts and early deaths” (49). Lewis becomes Ed Gentry's primary instructor in the art of surviving nature's—and man's—violence.

Ed, the narrator-protagonist, is a “get-through-the-day-man” who is “mainly interested in sliding” (41). He has reduced his work, his relationships, and, indeed, his entire life to the “mechanical”: “I was a mechanic of the graphic arts, and when I could get the problem to appear mechanical to me, and not the result of inspiration, I could do something with it. … And that, as far as art was concerned, was it” (26-27). He is pleased with the idea of the unpressured, “no-sweat shop” (13) that he and his partner run, yet the description suggests a place of little real commitment. And, in fact, he scorns would-be artists who, “like George Holley, my old Braque man,” say, “I am with you but not of you” (15). Even with his wife, Martha, who believes more in his talent than he himself does, Ed responds primarily to her “normalcy”—her “toughness that got things done,” her “practical approach to sex” (28)—rather than to the “absolutely personal connection” (26) that she has once offered. Like many of the figures in Dickey's war poetry Ed is imprisoned, but his primary cage is his sense of his life's worthlessness: “The feeling of the inconsequence of whatever I would do, of anything I would pick up or think about or turn to see was at that moment being set in the very bone marrow. … It was the old mortal, helpless, time-terrified human feeling” (18).

The nature of the wilderness that these four suburbanites enter is suggested by the mountain people they encounter in the town of Oree. Physically and mentally twisted by inter-marriage, inadequate health care, and the hardships of their lives, these inhabitants of “the country of nine-fingered people” (56) seem hostile toward the city dwellers. Drew shares a guitar-banjo duet with an albino boy who has “pink eyes like a white rabbit's; one of them stared off at a furious and complicated angle. That was the eye he looked at us with, with his face set in another direction. The sane, rational eye was fixed on something that wasn't there, somewhere in the dust of the road” (58-59). Although Ballinger and the boy make musical connection, no other sort is invited. Furthermore, as the suburbanites negotiate with—and antagonize—the Griner brothers, who reluctantly agree to deliver Lewis's car to Aintry, Ed notes the Hadeslike environment of the mountain men's garage:

It was dark and iron-smelling, hot with the closed-in heat that brings the sweat out as though it had been waiting all over your body for the right signal. Anvils stood around or lay on their sides, and chains hung down, covered with coarse, deep grease. The air was full of hooks; there were sharp points everywhere—tools and nails and ripped-open rusty tin cans … and through everything, out of the high roof, mostly, came this clanging hammering, meant to deafen and even blind.


The imagery of the description explicitly conveys the danger these men and others like them pose to intruders from another culture.

The river itself, the Cahulawassee, offers both threat and promise to the suburbanites. Like the rivers and streams of Dickey's poetry it functions as a pathway to death as well as to life. Entering the Cahulawassee, the four men note its pollution—a severed chicken's head reminds Ed of a human head—and throughout their trip the men are battered by its force. Yet when Gentry first steps into the water to free his canoe from rocks, he senses its positive power: “It felt profound, its motion built into it by the composition of the earth for hundreds of miles upstream and down, and by thousands of years. The standing there was so good, so fresh and various and continuous, so vital and uncaring around my genitals, that I hated to leave it” (75). Embracing his sexual-creative parts, the river provides his baptism into nature. This experience is confirmed by an encounter Ed has that night when an owl lands on his tent roof. He touches its talon, and he then imagines that he hunts with the bird as it repeatedly leaves and returns to his tent: “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” (89).

The connections between man and river, man and bird, signal the beginning of Gentry's movement from the civilized world into the world of nature. As he awakens next morning and prepares to hunt while the others sleep, he realizes that in this place “none—or almost none—of my daily ways of living my life would work” (93). He begins to abandon his habit of sliding; and walking through a dense river fog “exactly to my teeth” (96), he seems to disappear and then reemerge into a new state of being. However, he badly misses his bow-and-arrow shot at a deer, revealing that he is still a novice, still only partially formed.

Later the same morning comes the encounter with nature—and with nature's men—that puts Ed and his friends to their first real test. Gentry and Bobby, who share a canoe, become separated from the other pair because of Bobby's ineptness. Growing tired of fighting the waters, of “learning the hard way” (107), they decide to rest in the apparent safety of the riverbank. They find there, instead, the real threat of two mountain men whose appearance and movements suggest Dickey's earlier descriptions of snakes and sharks, his embodiments of absolute but indifferent evil:

One of them, the taller one, narrowed in the eyes and face. They came forward, moving in a kind of half circle as though they were stepping around something. The shorter one was older, with big white eyes and a half-white stubble that grew in whorls on his cheeks. His face seemed to spin in many directions. … The other was lean and tall, and peered as though out of a cave or some dim simple place far back in his yellow-tinged eyeballs.


Nature's men in nature's setting sodomize Bobby and threaten Ed. But when one of the men tells Ed to “Fall down on your knees and pray, boy. And you better pray good” (116), Gentry's prayer is answered not by God but instead by Lewis, another of nature's creatures, who shoots the older man through the chest with his bow and arrow and frightens the other man into the woods. Clearly in this setting life is reduced to its simplest terms; in the wilderness, as in combat, man kills or is killed.

What action should follow, however, is not so easily resolved by the suburbanites, and each man's position indicates the degree to which he is bound by civilization's conventional beliefs. Drew, for example, says that they should “Listen to reason” (130), that they have committed “justified homicide” (121), and that the legal system will give them a fair trial if they tell “the whole story” (121). Lewis, at the other extreme, dismisses Drew's views as “boy scoutish” (123); he declares that the men themselves are the law, that “no body, no crime” (125), and that there is “not any right thing” (123) except what they determine is right. When asked for his opinion, Bobby fulfills Ed's earlier description of his having “the rage of a weak king” by repeatedly kicking the mountain man's corpse in the face.

While the others argue, Gentry tries to define his own position by turning to the river: “I tried to think ahead, and I couldn't see anything but desperate trouble, and for the rest of my life. … I could feel myself beginning to breathe fast in the stillness. … I listened to the woods and the river to see if I could get an answer” (123-24). Like the combat veteran, Ed realizes that this death encounter will stay with him forever, and his appeal to nature further confirms the transformation occurring within him. Finally the four agree to bury the dead man, conceal their actions, and live with the guilt they share. In killing the man they have done what they had to do, they decide, and only Drew believes that confession would save them. Yet like the combat-veteran speaker in “The Firebombing,” they are uncertain about whether ultimately they should be granted absolution or sentence for their actions.

After the men have buried the mountain man and started down the river again, Ed concedes that “something came to an edge in me. … A gigantic steadiness took me over … that added up to a kind of equilibrium” (139). This equilibrium is tested by disastrous events. The men are thrown into the river, and Ed feels the life-threatening nature of his second baptism: “I turned over and over. I rolled, I tried to crawl along the flying bottom. Nothing worked. I was dead. I felt myself fading out into the unbelievable violence and brutality of the river, joining it. … I got on my back and poured with the river, sliding over the stones like a creature I had always contained but never released” (144). This experience marks his full recognition of nature's power and of men's proper relationship with it: not to fight it but to merge with it, adopt its methods. Ed's realization comes at exactly the right moment, for Drew has been killed—possibly by a shot from the cliffs above the river—and Lewis, the group's leader, has broken his leg. Ed therefore must assume command, and he feels infused with a new inner power: “I liked hearing the sound of my voice in the mountain speech. … It sounded like somebody who knew where he was and knew what he was doing” (152-53).

That Gentry has achieved oneness with nature is revealed through his climb up a mountainside to hunt the surviving mountain man, who may or may not be stalking the suburbanites. Before he begins his ascent, Ed again approaches the river:

Then for some reason I stepped into the edge of the river. In a way, I guess, I wanted to get a renewed feel of all the elements present. … I stood with the cold water flowing around my calves and my head back, watching the cliff slant up into the darkness. More stars had come out around the top of the gorge, a kind of river of them.


His vision fuses river, mountain, and stars, and as he begins his ascent, he himself connects with the natural elements. In the darkness he finds himself in a dreamlike state, one in which he becomes a wary but sensitive lover of the mountainside: “With each shift to a newer and higher position I felt more and more tenderness toward the wall. … I turned back into the cliff and leaned my mouth against it, feeling all the way out through my nerves and muscles exactly how I had possession of the wall … in a way that held the whole thing together” (163). Ed's connection with the cliff is throughout expressed in sexual terms. Furthermore, several times during his ascent he has dangerous slips; “Often a hand or foot would slide and then catch on something I knew, without knowing, would be there, and I would go on up” (177). Because his instincts are now thoroughly those of nature, he can find the secure spots without actually seeing them. He had earlier evidenced some of this same ability by making contact with the owl and its talons, but here his sense is much more fully developed.

As he attains the summit, Gentry casts himself and the mountain man in nature's predator-prey relationship: “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” (174). He thinks as the mountain man thinks—“our minds fuse” (180)—and adopts the cold “indifference” of both the man and nature. He predicts where his prey will emerge from the woods, climbs carrying bow and arrow into a tree, and, using his graphic designer's sense in a new way, creates a pattern which only the mountain man can complete. That the stranger does, in fact, enter that precise spot may at first seem an unconvincing manipulation of plot; yet Dickey clearly intends it to show how completely Ed has become nature's predator who is able to read the mind, foresee the actions, of his prey. And as the stranger steps into Ed's mechanical design, the picture becomes in a very real sense a work of art, allowing Ed to say, “I had never seen a more beautiful or convincing element of a design. I wanted to kill him just like that” (189). Gentry's shot is true, but with it he falls out of the tree and wounds himself in the side with his remaining arrow, and he has to track down the man, who has stumbled into the woods. Finding his prey dead, Ed declares, “His brain and mine unlocked and fell apart” (199); the protagonist is no longer exclusively a predator.

Whether he has killed the right man remains unclear. Ed cannot positively identify the man as his would-be sodomizer and murderer; nor can he be certain, later in the novel, that the man is the deputy sheriff's missing brother-in-law. Neither can he or the other survivors be sure, when they find Drew's body, that he has been killed by a rifle shot. Because they cannot know the truth, they decide to bury both bodies in the river and thereby avoid legal inquiries. The question of right and wrong remains, but Dickey purposely leaves it unanswered. Deliverance is not a simple morality tale of violation and revenge; it is a story of men who must learn to live with uncertainty about their own guilt or innocence. They, like the speaker in “The Firebombing,” cannot know whether they deserve absolution or sentence.

Yet in the novel, for the first time in his work, Dickey creates a figure who does achieve complete renewal. Ed Gentry outwits the authorities who await the men at the end of their canoe trip, and following a final drink of water from the river he returns to the family and the life that he feels are going to save him. However, the real salvation lies in his experiences on the river and his later appraisal of them. Ed has undergone the classic stages of survivor's guilt. He has confronted his enemy in a death encounter. He feels that he is alive because someone else has died in his place: “I had a friend there who in a way had died for me, and my enemy was there” (275). He has undergone a series of baptisms in the river and a series of exchanges helping him to merge with nature; such fusions have helped him to reorder his perspective on who and what he is. He has emerged from the fog into a renewal as a changed human being. Now he goes home to be healed and saved. Martha does help heal him physically, yet his real salvation lies within his own mind: “And so it ended, except in my mind, which changed the events more deeply into what they were, into what they meant to me alone” (274).

His deliverance alters Ed in his everyday life. He abandons his role as a “slider” and becomes instead a man with purpose. He now takes himself seriously as an artist, identifying with the office's one other serious artist: George Holley “has become my best friend, next to Lewis, and we do a lot of serious talking about art” (276). His office now displays the work of Braque as well as “headlines of war and student strikes” (276). And although Bobby returns unchanged to the “affable, faintly nasty manner he always had” (276), Lewis also learns an important lesson about himself. He discovers that “he can die now; he knows that dying is better than immortality. He is a human being, and a good one” (277). Lewis and Ed have learned how to gain real control over their lives; each now is able to become “the author of [his] own life story,”2 as Lifton phrases it.

Lewis describes his archery as “passing over into Zen. … You shouldn't fight it. Better to cooperate with it. Then it'll take you there; take the arrow there” (278). His description applies also, of course, to the lives of these two men. Rather than wrestling with questions of their personal innocence or guilt, they submit to the flow of their lives as if carried by the river that now runs only in Ed's mind:

The river and everything I remembered about it became a possession to me, a personal, private possession, as nothing else in my life ever had. Now it ran nowhere but in my head, but there it ran as though immortally. I could feel it—I can feel it. … In me it still is, and will be until I die, green, rocky, deep, fast, slow, and beautiful beyond reality.


The river becomes a private, haunting emblem of experiences that have transformed Ed Gentry, have delivered him into a new life.


  1. Deliverance (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970) 9. The page references within the text are to this edition.

  2. Lifton, Home from the War 393.

Monroe K. Spears (essay date winter 1987)

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SOURCE: Spears, Monroe K. “James Dickey as a Southern Visionary.” Virginia Quarterly Review 63, no. 1 (winter 1987): 110-23.

[In the following essay, Spears places Dickey and his work within the context of the Southern literary tradition.]

Some years ago James Dickey, who will be 64 next month, responded to an interviewer's question about the sense in which he was a Southern writer with the ringing declaration that “the best thing that ever happened to me was to have been born a Southerner. First as a man and then as a writer.” He would not want to feel that he was limited in any way by being a Southerner or was expected to “indulge in the kind of regional chauvinism that has sometimes been indulged in by Southern writers,” he said, but the tragic history of the South gave him a set of values “some of which are deplorable, obviously, but also some of which are the best things that I have ever had as a human being.” Southerners, he suggested, let their ancestors help: “I have only run-of-the-mill ancestors but they knew that one was supposed to do certain things. Even the sense of evil, which is very strong with me, would not exist if I had no sense of what evil was.”

Dickey is convinced, then, that being Southern is central to the way he thinks and feels, but doesn't want to be thought of as merely regional; he suggests that the most valuable Southern quality is a special awareness of the personal past in the sense of inheriting traditions and codes of values from one's ancestors, and a special awareness of the regional past in its full tragic meaning, including the sense of evil. But rather than continue to depend on Dickey's own statements, now that I have used him to run interference for me, let me try to define more specifically just what kind of Southern writer he is and how he is related to other Southern writers.

The obvious starting-point is his relation to the Fugitive-Agrarian groups. Except for Donald Davidson, all the Fugitives and most of the Agrarians had left Vanderbilt long before Dickey arrived; so there was no possibility of personal influence. But Ransom, Tate, and Warren had become major figures in the literary world, and Brooks, Jarrell, and others were establishing high reputations. Vanderbilt students and faculty—most of them—were proud of the connection, and the campus was alive with legends of the days when giants had walked that very earth. In this context, creative writing seemed exciting and important to a good many students, and so did being a Southerner. It seems plain enough that Dickey's commitment to poetry and his awareness of his identity as Southerner owed much both to his reading of the Fugitive-Agrarian writers and to the Vanderbilt tradition of respect for serious writing. R. V. Cassill is amusing but, I think, quite wrong when he portrays Dickey as a rebellious Young Turk who refused to conform to the Southern ruling circles by speaking “smartly about Miss Eudora and Mr. Ransom” and being “reverent about Traveler” while snickering down Whitman and the Midwesterners. In the first place, the Southern literary establishment, insofar as there ever was one, was not reverential about Traveler; Tate abandoned his biography of Lee because he had ceased to believe in him, and The Fugitive announced early that it fled nothing so much as the genteel pieties of the Old South. In the second place, Dickey was recognized early by the Southerners and usually given whatever awards they had to offer. While he never had the rare good luck the Fugitives did of close association with a group of like-minded peers, the fact that the tradition of serious writing was still alive at Vanderbilt kept him from the near-total isolation of a writer like Faulkner. A few years ago Tate went on record with the opinion that Dickey is the best poet the South has produced since the heyday of the Fugitives, and Warren has said in the South Carolina Review that he is “among Jim's greatest admirers” and in the New York Times Book Review that The Zodiac is a major achievement, worthy of comparison to Hart Crane's The Bridge.

In recent years some nostalgic epigones of the Fugitive-Agrarians at Vanderbilt have written requiems for the Southern Literary Renascence, maintaining that it has suffered death by melancholy. Their thesis is that Southern literature has been dying since World War II, when modernism triumphed over the South; and any hope is illusory. I have never quite believed in the Southern Renascence, suspecting that it was created artificially, like Frankenstein's monster, in the laboratories of academic critics; and reports of the loss of such artificial life need not disturb us. At any rate, Dickey, thank God, like Madison Jones and others of his contemporaries at Vanderbilt, and like such older Southern writers as Robert Penn Warren, Walker Percy, and Eudora Welty, doesn't know he's dead and refuses to lie down. As stubbornly as the astronomical phenomena that Galileo saw through his telescope in spite of the irrefutable arguments of his learned opponents that they couldn't possibly be there, the works of these writers continue to exist and to grow, unquestionably alive. Most of us, however we may feel about the modern world, would rather have the poems and novels than have a thesis about it demonstrated; and our own Poe has taught us to beware of premature burial. So we will be grateful that some of our writers flourish, and we will refuse to abandon hope.


While Dickey seems to have no interest in Agrarianism as a political or economic program, he shares with the Agrarians a deep concern about man's relation to nature and the distortions produced in this relation by the increasing urbanism and commercialism of our society. Dickey's true subject, however, is neither rural nor urban, but suburban. Since Southern cities are smaller, their suburbs are not wholly distinct from nearby small towns, and both maintain more connection with the country than their Northern counterparts. Compare, in this respect, those Dickey represents with John Cheever's dormitory suburbs around New York, with swimming pools linked in one giant fantasy. But both writers describe the modern nuclear family—nuclear both in being small and without the connections families used to have and in being under the threat of nuclear war. In these respects there is little difference between North and South, though the South may be slightly less nuclear simply because it is less urban.

Dickey's remarkable achievement is that he has taken his subject seriously and redeemed the word suburban from its comic or pejorative overtones. Instead of describing bored wives at the country club, adulteries in Commuterdom, hysteria and desperation breaking out from the pressures of enforced uniformity, or the absurdities of Little League baseball, he shows us a suburban world that is still in touch with a nature that remains wild, not tamed or prettified. Dickey's suburbs have no cute ceramic animals, no dear little Bambis or gnomes on the lawns, but the call of the real wild, an inner nature answering to outer. Deliverance is the most extended example, with its gradual revelation that the wilderness has always been present in the suburbs, whose security is an illusion. On the other hand, “The Firebombing” treats the homeowner's longing for security sympathetically because of his vivid awareness of its precariousness in view of what he did to his Japanese counterparts. “Dark Ones” transmutes into poetry the evening ritual of the arrival home of the commuters.

To say that Dickey is a visionary poet is a paralyzingly obvious assertion: almost every poem he writes describes a vision of one kind or another, and in recent years he has dealt explicitly with the loss of physical vision in works such as the unfinished novel Cahill is Blind. Perhaps he will become the patron or mascot of the ophthalmologists, as Wallace Stevens was adopted by the ice-cream manufacturers after writing “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.” Yet the truism is worth repeating, for it says something about his relation to Southern literature. Dickey belongs to the line of visionaries running from Blake through Rimbaud and Whitman to such modern exemplars as Hart Crane, George Barker, Dylan Thomas, and Theodore Roethke. It is noteworthy that there are no Southern names on this list, since as far as I know there are few Southern poets who could be called visionary. Tate and Warren, for example, are in their different ways primarily concerned with history, with attempting to relate the past to the present. Perhaps one reason good Southern poets have shied away from the visionary mode is that they remember how much older Southern poetry was emasculated by the necessity of avoiding politics and hence driven from reality into fake vision. The old Southern tradition of escapism and sentimentality—of high gutless swooning, to borrow a phrase from Faulkner—was certainly one thing the Fugitives were fleeing. South Carolinian Henry Timrod often exemplified this tradition, and Tate surely intended a contrast with Timrod's “Ode Sung at the Decoration of the Graves of the Confederate Dead at Magnolia Cemetery” when he wrote his own ironic “Ode to the Confederate Dead.” Timrod's “Ethnogenesis” is a kind of vision, it is true, but appallingly detached from any sense of reality: in it the new Confederacy, with its economy based on cotton and slavery, is seen as bringing wealth, moral improvement, and a better climate to the whole world.

Before Dickey, the only Southern poet who was a true visionary was Poe; and his visions, as every schoolchild knows, were very peculiar indeed. Though one might argue that Dickey's poetic rhythms are often incantatory, and intended to put the reader into a kind of trance state, they are far more subtle than Poe's blatantly hypnagogic music; and though both poets are most interested in states of consciousness beyond normal waking life, they are not interested in the same states. Much as I would like to, I don't see how I can make a case for any resemblance beyond the fact that they are both visionaries. Dickey has none of Poe's morbid preoccupation with death, his concern being rather with new and different modes of life; you can't imagine his saying that the ideal poetic subject is the death of a beautiful woman. Poe strives obsessively to make the reader feel the horror of being a living soul in a dead body, of an irreparable crack or split in the edifice of the mind, of long-ago irremediable losses. Dickey, in contrast, produces in the reader a new awareness of nonhuman forms of life, from dogs on the feet to owls in the woods and panthers in the zoo; the poems seek new forms of union, wider possibilities of consciousness. Mind and body are not separated as they are in Poe, but totally fused. Finally, Dickey gets into his poems a solid feeling of everyday reality and normal experience before moving to transcend them. It is this feeling or rendering that distinguishes him not only from Poe but from the kind of fantasy that is now so enormously popular in movies and cheap fiction. Dickey's visions have nothing in common with these self-indulgent daydreams unrelated to any kind of reality.


Dickey's most ambitious visionary poem is certainly The Zodiac, which deals with nothing less than the meaning of the visible universe. Since it is based on a work by the Dutch poet Hendrik Marsman, whom Dickey retains as speaker and protagonist of the poem, it has nothing whatever to do with the South; the point of view is distinctively European when it is not cosmic. Why would Dickey choose to adopt a persona so different from his usual one? Partly, I would guess, because the difference was liberating: writing as Marsman, Dickey has a different mask of the self and different memories. Instead of the South or the wartime Pacific, he writes as a man of an earlier European generation about Amsterdam; instead of writing as a survivor, he is now one who will die early in the same war. Even the name Marsman may have reinforced this appeal: an author with a message from outer space. But on a deeper level, Marsman's poem expresses concerns and beliefs that Dickey shares. Dickey has always been moved by astronomy and by the religious sense of “how wild, inexplicable, marvelous, and endless creation is.” His religion “involves myself and the universe, and it does not admit of any kind of intermediary, such as Jesus or the Bible.” He would like to be reincarnated as a migratory sea bird like a tern or wandering albatross. The themes of the aging wanderer returning home and so finding his own identity and of the poet's reexamination and reaffirmation of his poetic faith and vocation—we might call them the Ulysses and Lycidas archetypes—must have appealed to Dickey with peculiar force in the Dutch poem. Imitating Marsman, then, frees Dickey from his usual self and gives him a fresh start at the same time that it provides him with a way of expressing some of his most deeply felt concerns and beliefs from a different perspective. By transforming the language, he makes Marsman's poem his own. Giving it a tone quite different from Marsman's and with far more dramatic power and variety, he makes it emphatically contemporary and personal. Through this process of expansion and dramatization, Dickey's poem becomes about twice as long as Marsman's.

The central fact about the protagonist is that he is a poet dedicated to the belief that poetry reveals ultimate truth and that it comes from sources above or beyond the rational intellect. Under the pressure of impending catastrophe—for he feels that he has wasted and misused his life, and he sees his world moving swiftly to destruction in World War II—he reexamines this visionary faith. The drama consists in his struggle to clarify and reaffirm it. Like all poets who conceive of their art as lamp rather than mirror, he worries that the light will die with the guttering lamp and vacillates about the reality of what it reveals; but he has the additional problems of distinguishing the hallucinations produced by delirium tremens from reality and of reconciling a knowledge of modern astronomy with belief in the significance of the zodiac. The zodiac may seem a curiously archaic and implausible locus of poetic faith; but it is its age and mythological richness that make it the supreme test case of the relation between man's imagination and God's. To believe in its significance is to believe that the universe is not meaningless, that there is a connection between the little world of man and the great world of the stars, between inside and outside.

To show the difference between Marsman's poem and Dickey's, let me quote the conclusion, in which the main themes are recapitulated. Here is Marsman (no doubt rather flatly translated):

O spirit, grant to this small hand
The calm and quiet resolution
To steer the ship on to the morning land
That slumbering waits and each horizon's bar.
And give that he who listens to the swish
That sweeps along the waving of the planets
And through the whirling of the emerald sea
May tune the instruments upon the fork
Which at the touch reveals the structural form
Of the immemorial European song
That sounded at the dawn of cultured life,
Whose course began upon the azure sea
And shall still undulate through the west world
As long as the afflatus spans around space
A firmament of intellect and dream.

And here is Dickey's version, a triumph of what Lowell called imitation:

Oh my own soul, put me in a solar boat.
Come into one of these hands
Bringing quietness and the rare belief
That I can steer this strange craft to the morning
Land that sleeps                    in the universe on all horizons
And give this home-come man who listens in his room
To the rush and flare of his father
Drawn at the speed of light to Heaven
Through the wrong end of his telescope, expanding the
The instrument                    the tuning-fork—
He'll flick it with his bandless wedding-finger—
Which at a touch reveals the form
Of the time-loaded European music
That poetry has never really found,
Undecipherable as God's bad, Heavenly sketches,
Involving fortress and flower, vine and wine and bone,
And 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.

Poets of other persuasions do not seek meaning in the stars. Auden could say cheerfully, “Looking up at the stars, I know quite well / That for all they care, I can go to hell,” and Warren that the stars “are only a backdrop for / The human condition” and the sky “has murder in the eye, and I / Have murder in the heart, for I / Am only human. We look at each other, the sky and I. / We understand each other. …” Visionary poets, however, affirm that there is a relation, that the stars are saying something to man. Just what they say is, naturally, impossible to state in cool discursive prose. But Dickey's essential affirmation would seem to be essentially the same as that made by his visionary predecessors, from Blake through Hart Crane and the Dylan Thomas of Altarwise by Owllight: the analogy, or identity, of the poetic imagination and the divine power that created the stars. For this symbolic affirmation, the zodiac works better than Brooklyn bridge.


To say that visionary poets do not age well is an academic understatement or litotes. Rimbaud gave up poetry for gun-running at the age of 19, and Hart Crane leaped into the sea at 30; Dylan Thomas drank himself to death at 39, and Roethke, after increasingly harrowing bouts of mania and depression, in his fifties. Blake and Smart, under cover of madness, made it into their fifties. But except for Whitman, who was only in one sense a visionary poet, it is hard to think of any who attained the age of 60. Dickey's achievement in surviving not only two wars but the special hazards that beset his kind of poet is, then, a notable one: like Faulkner's Dilsey, he has endured.

Dickey has not only remained very much active, but he has continued to grow and develop. His latest volume, Puella, seems to me to mark his entrance into a distinctive new stage. In Puella there is a shift from the cosmic vision of The Zodiac to a very different kind of vision that might be called domestic. The poet is not tamed but gentled as he lovingly describes what Hopkins called the mundus muliebris, the woman's world inhabited by the daughter-wife figure whose girlhood he relives. At the risk of embarrassing Dickey, I might suggest a large and vague parallel with the change in Shakespeare's career from tragedies like Lear to romances like Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest, with their themes of reconciliation, fulfillment, the joy of recovering what was thought to be lost forever. Deborah in these poems has something in common with Marina, Perdita, Miranda, and other such young girls in these plays; with Yeats' Dancers and the daughter for whom he wrote the great prayer; and with the young girls in Hopkins—in “Margaret, are you grieving” and the “Echo” poems, for example. (I am beginning to sound like those 19th-century studies of the girlhood of Shakespeare's heroines; but that is the mood of the book, with its charming epigraph from T. Sturge Moore: “I lived in thee, and dreamed, and waked / Twice what I had been.” If the word mellow had not been preempted by Doonesbury's Californians, it would be hard to avoid using it here. This is also the first time the word charming has been conceivable as a description of Dickey's poetry.)

The girl in the poems is intensely herself, yet she is also representative of all young girls, as the title Puella suggests. She is pictured in scenes that are archetypal, sometimes rites de passage, sometimes with mythical or historical contexts; sometimes heraldic as if in medieval tapestry, sometimes playfully absurd as if in a modern folk-naïve painting. While the poems are obviously very personal, they exhibit a new kind of formality, both in the speaker's attitude toward his subject—affection tinged with gentle humor, folk ceremoniousness, a degree of detachment making possible fresh appreciation of physical beauty—and in the verse itself. Dickey has always treasured the “wildness” aspect of Hopkins, as did Roethke—“Long live the weeds and the wildness yet!”—but these poems show a new sense of the beauty of formal sound-patterns that is often reminiscent of that poet. There is a tenderness, a delicacy, a fresh appreciation of the beauty of the visible universe that seem to owe something to Hopkins while being also strongly individual.

The beginning of “Heraldic: Deborah and Horse in Morning Forest,” has an epigraph from Hopkins and is a kind of homage to that poet:

It could be that nothing you could do
Could keep you from stepping out and blooding-in
An all-out blinding heraldry for this:
A blurred momentum-flag
That must be seen sleep-weathered and six-legged,
Brindling and throwing off limbo-light
Of barns. …

In another, Hopkins' verse-techniques are used to describe Deborah's piano-playing:

With a fresh, gangling resonance
Truing handsomely, I draw on left-handed space
For a brave ballast shelving and bracing, and from it,
then, the light
Prowling lift-off, the treble's strewn search and
wide-angle glitter.

As for playful folk-ceremony poems—a world apart from what some critic calls the “country surrealism” of “May Day Sermon”—there are “Deborah and Deirdre as Drunk Bridesmaids Foot-Racing at Daybreak” and “Veer-Voices: Two Sisters under Crows,” in both of which the titles are enough for present purposes. But I cannot resist quoting the end of my favorite poem in the book, “Deborah in Ancient Lingerie, in Thin Oak over Creek.” This is both a vision, at once tender and absurd, of Deborah in her “album bloomers” diving into the creek, and a ritual acted out in the poem itself:

… 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

The poems move from the realism of “Deborah as Scion,” where she is seen “In Lace and Whalebone” thinking of the kind of looks she has inherited—“Bull-headed, big-busted … I am totally them in the / eyebrows, / Breasts, breath and butt”—to the visionary heights of “The Lyric Beasts,” where she speaks as “Dancer to Audience” and becomes a kind of goddess challenging the audience to “Rise and on faith / Follow.” In a sense, I suppose the book is Dickey's reply to the radical feminists, for Deborah in it is both herself and Dickey's ideal modern woman, enacting her archetypal feminine role in full mythic resonance, but not enslaved or swallowed up by it. If so, Kate Millett and Adrienne Rich may eat their hearts out!

I have not mentioned many qualities in Dickey that might be called distinctively Southern, on the ground that they are large, vague, and obvious—more obvious in the novel Deliverance and the two books about the South, Jericho and God's Images, than in the poetry—but perhaps they should be summed up briefly. A strong sense of place is the first, as in the poems about Cherrylog Road, kudzu, chenille, the Buckhead boys, the woman preacher, and the lawyer's daughter whose dive from the Eugene Talmadge Bridge brought revelation from the burning bush. Love of story-telling, and hence of communal myth, is important, and from this it is a short step to love of ceremony and ritual both within the family and with other life-forms, from the Owl King to Puella. Dickey's humor is more frequently present than most people seem to realize, but its most characteristic form is the preposterous lie or grotesquely implausible vision which outrages the reader but then turns out to be, in a deeper sense, true. Like most Southerners, he has a strong religious sense: his poems are often sermons or prayers or invocations. But his creed might be called natural supernaturalism, or fundamentalism so fundamental that it concerns man's relation to all other life forms.

As we have seen, Dickey has little significant relation to earlier Southern writing; it would take a truly ingenious academic to show how he was influenced by Sidney Lanier! Poe seems to be his only Southern predecessor in being a genuine visionary; but he was a very different kind: whereas Poe's visions are of horror and death-in-life, Dickey's are of larger modes of life. Dickey is, in fact, so far from being a regionalist in any exclusive sense that the spiritual ancestors most prominent in his recent poetry are that New Englander of the New Englanders, Joseph Trumbull Stickney, who lies behind the wonderful poem “Exchanges”; the Dutch poet and sailor Hendrik Marsman, who lies behind The Zodiac; and the English Jesuit G. M. Hopkins, who lies behind Puella.

In contrast to more recent Southern poets like Tate and Warren, Dickey has not been interested in communion with other humans through acceptance of the human condition but in getting beyond ordinary humanity to participate in the life of nonhuman creatures and in more-than-human forces. His essential subject has been exchange or metamorphosis or participation mystique between man and wild animals, fish, or birds; or, in Zodiac, stars and the mysterious universe in general. Since the rational mind is a hindrance, or at best irrelevant, to this quest, his poems represent extreme states of consciousness: intoxication, terror, rage, lust, hallucination, somnambulism or mystical exaltation. His concern is not the limitations but the possibilities of human and nonhuman nature, not history but vision.

As I have tried to suggest, his latest book, Puella, constitutes a new kind of vision, back from the cosmic extremities of The Zodiac to the human and domestic world. The figure of the daughter-wife is suffused with a new tenderness, gentleness, and humor, and the verse takes on a new formal musicality. A Jungian would say that the girl in these poems is an anima-figure; but whether the sense of fulfillment and joy in these poems comes from integration of the personality or from some deeper cause, I will not attempt to decide. Nor will I comment on the fact that Deborah is not only Southern but South Carolinian; Southern chivalry toward ladies who have the misfortune to be born elsewhere forbids it. But I will risk the charge of Southern chauvinism by saying that the book is a most notable contribution to Southern letters.

William W. Starr (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: Starr, William W. “Alnilam: James Dickey's Novel Explores Father and Son Relationships.” In The Voiced Connections of James Dickey: Interviews and Conversations, edited by Ronald Baughman, pp. 258-62. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, which was initially published in 1987, Starr considers the major thematic concerns of Dickey's Alnilam.]

James Dickey's second novel, Alnilam, is definitely not another Deliverance, which created a storm of acclaim and readership when it appeared seventeen years ago.

But that's just fine with Dickey, author of two dozen literary works and holder of a host of prizes to go with them.

… The University of South Carolina poet-in-residence and a Columbian for nearly two decades said, “This is no Deliverance 2 or Son of Deliverance. I'm not going to do that kind of thing. People will just have to take it for what it is.”

And what Alnilam is—once the reader gets by a title that catches in the mouth—is a massive, ambitious, seriously focused novel that at times soars with the majesty and power of Dickey's imaginative writing. It deals with “big” issues: the nature and sources of power, leadership, faith, and the relationship between fathers and sons.

“I'm sixty-four now, and I figure I don't have infinite time left to me, so I wanted to get these things out and deal with them in the novel,” Dickey explained in an interview at his Lake Katherine home almost eleven months after a scary experience with brain surgery.

He had suffered severe headaches and vision problems for several months last year before doctors diagnosed a massive blood clot and ordered brain surgery. The June 30 operation followed within days of his becoming the first inductee in the new South Carolina Academy of Authors. Today, Dickey says his recovery is complete.

“I was going blind in my left eye,” Dickey recalled, perhaps with a touch of irony. The principal character in Alnilam—Frank Cahill—is a man who goes blind early in the novel.

“Cahill is an inarticulate, redneck carpenter, who acts only for himself,” Dickey said. And yet it is Cahill, and his determination to understand the son he never knew, who ultimately opens the doors for the exploration of large-scale, powerfully articulated themes in Alnilam.

Dickey's story is set in World War II. Cahill—who has become blind as a result of diabetes—and his ferocious dog, Zack, head for the small town of Peckover, N.C. That's the location of an Army Air Corps base where his son, Joel, apparently has died in a flight training accident.

Why Cahill is in Peckover is not clear—especially to him. For while Joel had listed him as next of kin, Cahill has never actually seen his son, having separated from the boy's mother at the time of Joel's birth.

Once at the base, Cahill talks with the officers and cadets who knew Joel. From them, he pieces together the story of his son's brilliant but oddly enigmatic and charismatic personality, and the mysterious and ultimately disturbing meaning of Alnilam.

The son's spellbinding, perhaps fanatical hold over his fellow cadets—even after his presumed death—is both puzzling and challenging to Cahill.

The father struggles to grasp the impact of Joel's continuing authority and relationship to his peers and those who commanded him. Readers who confront that same mystery may unravel the key to Alnilam as well, Dickey said.

“The nature of power, one man's power over another, is a very mysterious thing, and it has always fascinated me.

“It doesn't take a whole lot to exercise power over people. The leadership concept is varied, but there are certain similarities in all forms. One of those is that leaders possess a great deal of charisma, and the other is an enigmatic quality.”

The question for readers is why these young cadets act the way they do, even to the extent of forming a secret society (named Alnilam, after the central star in the belt of the constellation Orion) that could undermine the chain of command.

And why would they do that with no more apparent reason than their relationship with the charismatic, enigmatic Joel?

“The answer, of course, is that's exactly why they behave the way they do. And that's the core of Alnilam. If readers can get that, they have the central point of the novel,” said Dickey, who flew night fighter missions in the Pacific during World War II.

Many readers who come to Alnilam may not be prepared for what they find. The sprawling novel—nearly seven-hundred pages, more than twice as long as Deliverance—lacks that earlier work's sustained intensity. Alnilam is a “bigger” novel in every sense, however, in its heightened vision and profound thematic concepts.

It also features an audacious, dramatic typographical layout that may at once confuse, startle, and illuminate. Dickey calls it “my great experiment.”

In Alnilam, Dickey seeks to combine the inner vision of the blind man with the visible world of those around him—a James Joyce-like attempt to embrace the seen and the felt simultaneously. To convey that, a number of pages are split in parallel columns, the bold words on the left side embodying Cahill's sensations and the right side depicting what is actually happening in the sighted world.

“It's a double point of observation, internal and external vision,” Dickey said.

Some early readers of the novel have found it initially confusing but adapted to it. Others, including a reviewer in Publishers Weekly,1 describe it as “merely awkward.”

Regardless of the reaction to such techniques, the novel is getting a big publicity push from Doubleday. The huge New York-based publishing house is issuing Alnilam in a substantial first printing of 100,000 copies later this month, and reportedly is spending six figures for promotion.

There's plenty of talk, but no details, about movie rights.

And since Dickey is a national literary figure, he's in demand for interviews by major publications in advance of the book's official release date.

Dickey, who has seldom shied from publicity, seems to relish the experience and is eager to talk about the novel.

He said he isn't concerned that some readers will find Alnilam a little tougher going than Deliverance.

“A writer has to go with his imagination,” he said. “You're not really an artist if you try to give the people what they want. Because most of the time they don't know what they want until they get it.”

Sometimes that applies to the author as well, for Dickey has worked at the idea of Alnilam off and on for thirty-seven years, trying to get it in the shape he wanted.

“I wrote it at intermittent times going back to 1950. I started when I was teaching at Rice Institute (now Rice University) in Texas. I remember I went out on the grassy part of campus and opened a brand new notebooklike ledger because I once heard Thomas Wolfe wrote in those. I had bought one figuring what worked for him might work for me,” Dickey told a Doubleday interviewer.

“I was writing a lot of poetry at that time, not very good poetry, so I put the novel aside. I took it up again when I lived in the south of France in 1954, but the story wasn't clear in my mind. I only knew it had to do with a man who lost his son in a training accident in the early days of World War II. But after I wrote about his journey to this small town where the air base was I didn't know what would happen. But I kept my notes, and eventually the story began to develop and I finished it in early 1986.”

In its final form—incomplete portions were published twice in Esquire2 magazine, the first in 1976—Dickey's novel examines the shape of relationships between fathers and sons, but with a twist.

Usually it is the son who comes to an understanding of himself through an exploration of the father's life. In Alnilam, the father discovers the truth about his son.

“But also I like to hint in a couple of places that the son is trying in his own way to bring his father to him. So the novel may be seen in some ways as a reciprocal search under the strangest of circumstances,” Dickey said.

“Also, it's hinted that the son has been trying to figure out ways to come in contact with the father he has never seen, because, after all, the son might not be dead. He's been in a crash, but his body has never been found.”

Early readers of the novel seem in agreement that Alnilam contains some of Dickey's finest prose ever.

Always a poet first, Dickey evokes his poetic foundations strongly throughout the novel, particularly in his writing about the blind man's world and the grandeur and heart-pounding excitement of flight.

“I have tried to give strong emphasis to the mystique of flying,” he said. “I try to give the reader the physical sensation of flying on the human body. Being on a jet is like being in a hotel lobby twenty-thousand feet up. But in one of those small trainers you truly get a sense of being precariously sustained in another element, the air, that you're not supposed to be in, and yet one in which you have some kind of control over.”

Dickey's editors at Doubleday—he's had seven during the creation of Alnilam—have been unstinting in their expressions of support and praise for the novel. And Dickey is grateful for their counsel in the editing process.

But he also made it clear that the direction and style is his and his alone—and it has always been that way.

He cited an incident in the late 1960s when he had completed the manuscript of Deliverance, and confronted the editor-in-chief at his publishing house, then Houghton Mifflin.

“He read the cliff-climbing episode in the novel and told me he thought it was entirely too long, that it shouldn't be more than one page. I said um-hum not very enthusiastically. And he said of course maybe I'd like to talk to another editor about it, although it's rare for a first-time novelist not to accept the advice of an editor-in-chief.

“Anyway, I went to see the other editor, who was younger, and he read it and told me the cliff-climbing scene couldn't possibly be cut, in fact it ought to be even longer. I told him ‘Now you're talking!’ and that's the way we left it.”

Dickey said he is prepared for the public's and critics' verdicts on Alnilam, but he seems comfortable with his accomplishment. It is a work that extends his imaginative novelistic craft into new dimensions, and he's eager to get out and talk with readers about their reactions.

“I'm not going to tell people exactly what it means. I don't write deliberately to provoke mystery, but I do try to invest my stories and poems with many layers of meanings. Each reader can find his own, make his own interpretation. That's what's really important about a novel or a poem: what you can take from it.”


  1. 231 (17 April 1987), 65.

  2. “Cahill Is Blind,” Esquire, 85 (February 1976), 67-69, 139-144, 146; “The Captains,” Esquire, 107 (April 1987), 176-178, 181-182, 185-186.

Angelin P. Brewer (essay date fall 1990)

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SOURCE: Brewer, Angelin P. “‘To Rise above Time’: The Mythic Hero in Dickey's Deliverance and Alnilam.James Dickey Newsletter 7, no. 1 (fall 1990): 9-14.

[In the following essay, Brewer perceives the storylines of Dickey's two novels as interpretations of the passage of the mythical hero as detailed in Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces.]

Ed Gentry and Frank Cahill, protagonists in James Dickey's novels Deliverance (1970) and Alnilam (1987), are called to make a journey. The common pattern of these journeys depicts the three steps in the mythic hero's passage: a withdrawal from the real world, a penetration to a power source, and, finally, a life-enhancing return. Completion of the journey, with its psychological and physical dangers, renders the individual heroic. Chosen by men seemingly confident of their own immortality, Lewis Medlock and Joel Cahill, respectively, Gentry and Cahill initially appear as disciples of these self-styled Christ-figures who wish to transcend the physical. Medlock, who builds his body into an almost indestructible shield, excels as an outdoor sportsman, always in search of mental and physical perfection. Joel Cahill, on the other hand, achieves the immortal perfection by inhabiting the minds of others. His disappearance before Alnilam even opens secures his future existence in the memories of the other young airmen at the base.

Ed Gentry and Frank Cahill undergo changes through certain tests. To pass the attendant challenges of the river and the air, Gentry and Cahill must connect with living, natural forces that will alter their lives. Each man instinctively and purposely creates an emotional bridge between himself and nature that transcends reason, effecting a change in the two mythical heroes such that subsequently there is an appreciation of life. Finally, life has renewed consequence for each man.

Gentry's and Cahill's tests are phases of the mythic hero's passage detailed in Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces. The hero's quest, the rites de passage, includes a departure, an initiation, and a return. In the departure, the hero abandons his membership in society and embarks on a journey that draws him into a relationship with mysterious forces: “No matter what the stage … of life, the call rings up the curtain, always on a mystery of transfiguration—a rite, or moment of spiritual passage, which, when complete, amounts to a dying and a rebirth” (Campbell 51). This summons may be denied originally; however, in order to complete his passage the hero must shed his ego, becoming newly available to the world. To avoid self-disintegration, the heroic figure responds to his calling by turning inside himself in order “to be born again” (Campbell 91), ultimately permitting renewed consequentiality into his life. Rebirth signals the crossing of the first threshold when “the hero moves in a dream landscape … where he must survive a succession of trials” (Campbell 97).

The initiation that both Gentry and Cahill undergo is a readjustment of the hero's emotions with a consequent gain of freedom over fear. As Campbell states, “This is the release potential … which anyone can attain—through herohood” (151). The hero, a potentially superior man, crosses many thresholds in order to transcend limitations, which restrain a character's development, and establish spiritual growth. In the tests that challenge the hero's temperament, timing is crucial because changes cannot occur until the individual has proven himself worthy.

The return of the hero “from the mystic realm into the land of common day” (Campbell 216) allows for renewed humanity. At times the hero finds leaving the bliss of his new-found world difficult; however, he soon discovers “the two worlds, the divine and the human … are actually one” (217). The mythological is merely an extension of the human realm and only those capable of such unity may touch the divine. By virtue of their survival, Gentry and Cahill are heroes who have discovered this sense of unification that allows for a redefined reality.

Gentry's heroic journey in Deliverance, for instance, details his passage from American suburbia to turbulent waters over a period of three days and depicts his rediscovery of self. Life has become routine, and he feels at times his job as art director at Emerson-Gentry has more control over him than he has over it: “It seemed like everything just went right by me,” Gentry thinks, “nothing mattered at all. I couldn't have cared less about anything or anybody” (Deliverance 27). His existence lacks consequence; he is simply a “get-through-the-day man” (41). Medlock, who plays at being a survivalist and believes himself equal to if not stronger than anything, provides the break through the monotony in Gentry's life. He devises a canoe trip to test physical restrictions and Gentry, compliant, goes along.

On the morning of September 15, Gentry doubts his intentions of joining the trip, a condition typical of the mythic hero: “The routine I was used to pulled at me,” he thinks; and yet, “something in me rose daringly above it, full of fear and feeling weak and incompetent but excited” (26). Medlock assures Gentry that his body has immeasurable power and that, when called upon, it will prove to be a great asset: “It's what you can make it do … and what it'll do for you when you don't even know what's needed” (29). By allowing Gentry into his confidence, Medlock has accepted him as a sort of personal disciple.

The hero myth stresses, as does Deliverance, the use of the body as a means toward survival. For Gentry, the river embodies such a test. In a canoe, however, Gentry is uncertain as to how to govern the river's current. He fumbles with his paddle and consequently loses the canoe's balance. Yet after several hours and a few beers, he develops a feel for the water and instinctively settles into a “good motion” (73). This feeling matures into a deeper understanding comparable to Frank Cahill's sixth sense regarding the air in Alnilam. For example, Gentry is able to forecast the river's lack of drive, patterns in speed, and the location of falls, rapids, and curves. This “terrifyingly enjoyable” (145) union with the river, that differentiates Gentry from Medlock because of the connection made with a living, natural force, qualifies him as a participant in the mythic hero's journey.

Gentry's designation as the hero in passage takes place as the men emerge from a canoe spill; Drew Ballinger, another participant on the journey, is found to be missing, and Medlock has fractured his leg. Recognizing Gentry's superiority as hero, Medlock whispers hoarsely to him: “It's you. It's got to be you” (150). As such, Gentry initiates an escape the next morning. Prior to departure, he will have climbed the gorge looming over them to abduct and kill Ballinger's murderer.

The cliff converts Gentry's trip into a passage of the hero. The juxtaposition of man and force, displayed by Gentry's connection with the gorge, is the second phase of the rites of passage. In order to determine the cliff's power, Gentry walks to its gorge side and places his hand onto the cliff's earth, believing, “I might be able to feel what the whole cliff was like, the whole problem, and hold it in my palm” (160-161). The climb lasts the entire night as Gentry journeys from one foothold to the next. Utterly uncovered to the night, he perceives his nakedness as an exposure to death, aware that his losing grip would signal a fall. Thus, he concentrates all his efforts into “becoming ultrasensitive to the cliff” (163). Knowing the rock wall as fervently as he knew the river is obligatory to Gentry's survival: “I turned back into the cliff and leaned my mouth against it, feeling all the way out through my nerves and muscles exactly how I had possession of the wall at four random points in a way that held the whole thing together” (163). This intimacy, almost sexual, Gentry shares with the cliff elates him: “My heart expanded with joy at the thought of where I was going and what I was doing” (161). Medlock's belief that the body, when summoned, will perform beyond ordinary expectations proves accurate, for Gentry is held “in the air by pure will” (165). Dickey has recently asserted, “I see illusion in the world as one of the basic motivating factors in it” (Letter). The illusion of Gentry's actual penetration with the cliff is necessary because it permits a sense of consequentiality.

The final section of Deliverance, entitled “After,” presents Gentry's rebirth as a Christ-like hero rising again on the third day. With his beard, he appears haggard, but his emotions are enhanced due to his connection to death in the water and on the cliff. This connection has resulted in Gentry's appreciation for life: “The river underlies … everything I do. It is always finding a way to serve me, from my archery to some of my recent ads and to the new colleagues I have been attempting for my friends” (275-276). For Gentry, life has renewed consequence. He is the mythic hero of the story because of his departure from his home, his connection to an elemental force, and his return as an altered man. Commenting in an interview, Dickey notes: “If there's any literary or mythological precedent for Deliverance, it comes from a review … by Stanley Edgar Hyman on a number of books on myths and rituals, and he quotes Van Gennep's ‘rites de passage’ and cites ‘a separation from the world, a penetration to some source of power, and a life-enhancing return’” (Arnett 295). Thus, Gentry's mythological passage to heroism seems reinforced.

Like Deliverance, Alnilam depicts a character's entrance into a new world where life-enhancing powers permit larger understanding. Frank Cahill's journey exemplifies the three steps in the mythic hero's passage in a more complex way than does Ed Gentry's journey. The three days of the canoe trip clearly define the hero's withdrawal, penetration, and return in Deliverance; however, the separation of these stages is less clear in Alnilam. Cahill's blindness, caused by diabetes, represents a new world, and the realm he eventually enters is the air. “The air itself,” claims Dickey, is “the real protagonist” (Letter). Cahill's devotion to his swimming pool and its refinement, as later to his seeing-eye dog, Zack, provide him with a connection to the world, but they do not satisfy the need for meaning in his life.

Consequentiality, a vital part of the hero-myth, is necessary for Cahill to acquire a renewed existence. Capturing knowledge about the disappearance of his twenty year-old son, Joel, provides a purpose in the elder Cahill's life. After travelling to Peckover, North Carolina, he begins to perceive his son as an extraordinary individual through the eyes of others at the base where Joel trained. A navigator recalls Joel's characteristic instinctiveness: “When I came to this place a couple of months ago, … your boy … described the inner feeling of all things working for you, according to a mystery. … Cadet Cahill was not exactly on to something, but he was getting on to something. … Things seemed to come together for him” (Alnilam 153-154). Followers of the younger Cahill's beliefs, who refer to themselves as Alnilam, are distraught about Joel's untimely death; however, they perceive Cahill's blindness as a degree of instinct and decide to initiate him into their membership.

The initiation process, several tests that grade Cahill's intuition, are phases of the mythic hero's initiation. Alnilam's objective is to control the air surrounding an aircraft, to travel with the air. Knowledge of that element lends an understanding of the meaning of life for them: “Your principle of order comes back … and if you keep hold of yourself, the order holds up” (216). In Alnilam, Cahill must penetrate the air and make it move with him: “An airplane is … like … a bird, a big one. … You're ridin' it, and it feels everything, up, down, and to the sides. It feels everything that's in the thing it's in, the air, and you feel it through the plane. The air is different from the ground. The way you move is so different. … It's personal” (138). Connection is the second stage of the hero's rite of passage.

Cahill's nature, like Gentry's, enables him to enter the second passage of the mythic hero: Initiation. Cahill must connect with an element of power, in this instance, air. The Alnilam group realizes that air provides “complete knowledge” (311); to know air intimately offers a man superhuman characteristics. Thus, Cahill and the frenzied young men of Alnilam want to test this conclusion. In a Link Trainer, where simulation of an aircraft's flight patterns is provided, Cahill is instructed to act as pilot. The machine's illusion allows Cahill momentarily to touch the divine, as he feels himself “coming to a point, of penetrating, as if flowing upon some river” (337). Two pilots on the base, Captain Faulstick and Captain Whitehall, who flew in wars bringing each close to death, emphasize the all-powerful knowledge of air. Faulstick comments that, even in combat, one may experience an intimacy with the air: “It's private. … It stays with me. … I'm just left with it; that's all. I'll die seeing it” (211). Flight also alters Whitehall: “I don't feel closed in nearly so much anymore. … Maybe that's one reason you don't think about death when you're on a mission, except your own, and the main feeling when you're on the way back in life; it's a life feeling” (216-217).

The return of the mythic hero becomes a needed, culminating connection that alters him in some way, and it is predicted that Cahill will return rejuvenated: “And one big thing you're gonna get. … It'll come to you. … It'll go on with you, all the way till you die” (283). A part of this return is his final test, piloting an actual airplane called a Stearman. During the flight, kept secret by the Alnilam group, Cahill is given directions on how to fly by a civilian instructor, McClintock McCaig. Anxious at first as to direction, eventually Cahill levels the Stearman accurately thousands of feet above the ground. He refers to his instinct to handle such power as “distance-hearing”: “His distance-hearing—or instinct, sixth sense, or something else—developed further. … This was the thing he sought” (489-490). Almost instantly, however, the plane has possession of Cahill: “I've got this thing now,” (492) he thinks; “Cahill started for the fire, calling. … [He] climbed and screamed … with tremendous muscular strength, and unguessed energy, a vision worth the pain” (495). After the penetration and recovery of the plane, Cahill is brought closer to death and, ironically, to life.

Leaving the experience, Cahill returns to his life as he knew it before the connection, the moment signifying the return of the mythic hero. Not surprisingly, he is now able to identify with people, despite the tragic death of his dog during a parade and air show. In contrast to Cahill's beginning journey, where his sole companion is Zack, he now innately needs people in his life. As Dickey notes, “Frank Cahill is different at the end of Alnilam; not greatly different—he still has his iron will and his truculence—but changed in some essential ways. This is partly shown by the fact that he does not plan to get another dog. … It is also signified by the fact that he wants to take Hannah with him, and establish some kind of life with her, though they are both seriously impaired. … He is a little more humanized, and less fanatical, and because of this he may possibly come to understand his enigmatic son in ways not possible before” (Letter). Cahill, like Gentry, transforms himself into a force as mysterious as the force made in his connection.

Dickey's heroes, Ed Gentry and Frank Cahill, surpass ordinary men because they have escaped ordinary life. Their lives are enriched from a sense of consequence, the establishment of significance and meaning. Beyond the boundaries of society and upon his return, a man's psychological make-up is transformed into that of an heroic individual. This journey marks the moment of deliverance for a man. And in that one moment lives possibility.

Works Cited

Arnett, David L. “An Interview With James Dickey.” Contemporary Literature 16. Summer 1975: 286-300.

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

Dickey, James. Alnilam. Garden City: Doubleday, 1987.

———. Deliverance. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970.

———. Letter received by author. 26 October 1989.

Ronald Schmitt (essay date fall 1991)

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SOURCE: Schmitt, Ronald. “Transformations of the Hero in James Dickey's Deliverance.James Dickey Newsletter 8, no. 1 (fall 1991): 9-16.

[In the following essay, Schmitt maintains that Dickey provides an ironic treatment of the mythical hero in his novel Deliverance.]

According to James Dickey himself, the source of the novel Deliverance was a 1949 review essay in the Kenyon Review by Stanley Edgar Hyman which mentions both Joseph Campbell's Hero With a Thousand Faces and Arnold Van Gennep's Les Rites de Passage (Eisiminger 53). According to Hyman, “… as students of myth we must separate from the world, penetrate to a source of knowledge, and return with whatever power of life-enhancement the truth may contain” (qtd. in Eisiminger 53). Dickey himself documents his interest in myth and its importance to modern man:

The parts of the universe we can investigate by means of machinery and scientific empirical techniques we may understand better than our predecessors did, but we no longer know the universe emotionally. It's a great deal easier to relate to the moon emotionally if the moon figures in a kind of mythology which we have inherited, or maybe invented, than it is to relate to it as a collocation of chemical properties. There's no moon goddess now. But when we believed there was, then the moon was more important, maybe not scientifically, but more important emotionally. It was something a man had a personal relationship to, instead of its being simply a dead stone, a great ruined stone in the sky

(Self-Interviews 67).

Such an interest in man's role in nature and identification with mythic concepts and patterns such as those outlined by Campbell can be seen throughout Dickey's poetry as well as in the novel Deliverance. Because of this fascination with nature in the midst of a technological world, many critics assume that Dickey starts from nineteenth-century transcendentalist/romantic concerns (Foust 201). His personal interests in camping and bow-hunting also contribute to the notion that Deliverance is primarily a macho adventure novel which embraces such naive principles as noble savagery and heroic survivalism.

However, for a number of critics, including me, the ironic components of Deliverance emerge as clear indicators that, instead of creating a male fantasy of wilderness adventure, this novel is involved in questioning the applicability of romantic conceptions of man's relationship with nature in the modern world. Linda Wagner, recognizing the romantic relationship, says, “Deliverance can be considered a kind of gothic, even bitter Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (112). The idea that man can, as Lewis Medlock believes, return to some difficult but ultimately noble state of primitivism and again become one with nature is revealed as a lie in this novel. To Dickey, the lie is important. He says:

But I really began to develop as a poet, at least according to my own particular way of looking at things, when I saw the creative possibilities of the lie. My parents were very much against lying in any form. But I think lying, with luck sublimely, is what the creative man does

(Self 32).

As Chet Taylor points out, “deliverance is a lie; Deliverance is not” (63). What Deliverance (the novel) does do is to create an unresolved and unresolvable tension between the seductive myth of the heroic quest-romance to the cleansing and enlightening initiation of the wilderness, and modern man's irreversibly civilized and mechanized state of alienation from the wilderness.

Dickey's many ironic treatments and reversals of romantic notions of the wilderness have been observed by various critics. The notions of Nature as a “tender, feminine, submissive” force subjected to man's rape (Love 182), the “primitive” forest dweller as more noble and moral than civilized man (Taylor 59), and the survival of the fittest in nature (Davis 226) are all reversed in Deliverance, thereby plunging the reader into a wilderness as fearsome as the one in the novel: the wilderness of moral relativity. Nature, despite our best attempts at myth-making, has no concern whatever with man's laws and moral principles. Man, now increasingly alienated from any but peripheral contact with nature, finds his constructed illusions of order and meaning shattered when he enters the wilderness. When man turns from the wasteland of his mechanization to the wilderness, he often finds only another wasteland, one with which he is now unfamiliar and in which he is even more alienated. While primal connections can be revitalized and result in growth, there is no deliverance: from the city, from the wilderness, or from ourselves. The myth of deliverance through wilderness adventure is, like the model which haunts Ed's thoughts, “a pleasant part of the world, but minor. She is imaginary” (235).

I would like to suggest another ironic treatment, not of romanticism in this case, but of Dickey's acknowledged source of Deliverance, Campbell's Hero With a Thousand Faces. Specifically, I suggest that the characterizations of the four central figures in Deliverance—Ed, Lewis, Bobby, and Drew—can be seen as ironic modern manifestations of Campbell's “transformations of the hero,” namely, the hero as warrior, the hero as lover, the hero as emperor/tyrant, and the hero as world redeemer/saint (334-356). What is shown through these characterizations is the impossibility of modern man's achieving cultural initiation, much less archetypal heroic status, through the wilderness experience. The mythic rituals which modern technological man must devise to define manhood and heroic status are necessarily different from previous cultures, especially primitive, non-technological ones. We can no longer say that “the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero path” (Hero 25). Since our everyday survival no longer depends on skills involving an intimate understanding of nature and because our technological world grows ever more distant from the natural world, achieving an autonomy unimaginable even one hundred years ago, our mythic quests for identity no longer follow the path of the ancient mono-myth.

Lewis Medlock, the survivalist of the group and initiator of the canoe trip in Deliverance, indicates his awareness of the schism between modern man's experiences and experiences of a truly unadulterated wilderness:

If everything wasn't dead [he says], you could make a kind of life that wasn't out of touch with everything, with the other forms of life. Where the seasons would mean something, would mean everything. Where you could hunt as you needed to, and maybe do a little light farming and get along. You'd die early, and you'd suffer, and your children would suffer, but you'd be in touch


Ed Gentry, the narrator, on the other hand, sees Lewis' survivalist beliefs as a “fantasy life” (46), yet admits to being “so tanked up on your river-mystique that I'm sure I'll go through some fantastic change as soon as I dig the paddle in the first time” (49). The desire for technological man to “make a kind of life that [isn't] out of touch with everything” and renew the primal and mythic connections with nature described above by Dickey's statements about the moon, is an extremely seductive myth in its own right and one which he never discards in his writing as entirely fallacious. Indeed, Dickey's own feelings about the characterization of Lewis represent the simultaneous revulsion and attraction which Ed feels at the start of the novel. In an interview with Bill Moyers, Dickey describes Lewis as “full of philosophical platitudes” and agrees with Moyers that when Lewis says, “I think the machines are going to fail. I think the system is going to fail, and a few men are going to take to the woods and start over,” this is a “wish” of shallow empowerment comparable to the violence perpetrated by “nothings” like Sarah Moore and Lee Harvey Oswald (Dickey, Night (95). Yet, in an address given at the University of Virginia in June 1973, Dickey indicates an ambivalence about Lewis' character:

As I originally conceived him, I wanted to make him a figure both attractive and a little repellent, with his authoritarian manner and clear-cut bodily superiority to the other characters. But as I got more deeply into the character of Lewis, an odd thing began to happen to the author. I began to sympathize more and more with what Lewis was making me make him say. And what is even stranger, I began to admire him tremendously

(Dickey, Night 180).

Clearly, the argumentation between Ed and Lewis is an ongoing argument within Dickey (and within many men in the modern world) between an attraction to the empowerment of the survivalist's “preparedness” (Deliverance 44) and the intellectual realization of the elements of fantasy inherent in such a myth.

Lewis is clearly the hero as warrior in Campbell's schema. It is the quest of this type of hero to conquer the “tyrant” of the world which Campbell says represents the “status quo.” Thus, “the ogre-tyrant is the champion of the prodigious fact, the hero the champion of creative life” (Hero 337). The prodigious fact in Deliverance is the death of the wilderness represented by the imminent flooding of the valley in which the Cahulawassee River runs, a flooding that will result in what in the movie is described as “one big, dead lake.” It is also, ironically, a form of man's control and power over nature's forces. This control is clearly abhorrent to Lewis, despite the fact that he also seeks control and power. The image of the map at the start of the novel, and Ed's feeling that “all streams everywhere quit running” (7) when Lewis paused in explaining something, is a brilliant metaphor for the survivalist's armchair illusions of control and power. The brutal fact that all streams will soon quit flowing as a result of man's technology and not his personal will is more than Lewis can bear.

So, as Campbell describes, the hero's adventure begins “only when villages and cities have expanded over the land” and the monsters or tyrants which dwell beyond the village's outskirts and prohibit the community's growth must be “cleared away” by the hero (337). The irony and reversal in Deliverance, of course, is that the status quo has already won; the human community has expanded so much that it eradicates the primal dangers which Lewis seeks out to test his manhood and establish his identity.

Despite Lewis' greatest attempts at preparedness, he is shattered by the wilderness experience he initiates. While it is true that his one act of heroism, the killing of the first mountain man, saves the lives of Ed and Bobby, the act, rather than establishing his heroic status, must be hidden and remain a perpetual secret among the men. Lewis returns to society “a great, broken thing” (182) with a permanent limp. Referring to the canoe in which he has lain, useless and a burden to the other men for half of the trip, he says, “I want to get out of my coffin, this fucking piece of tin junk” (195) which is modern technology, a coffin for men like Lewis. Ed says of Lewis at the end of the book, “He can die now; he knows that dying is better than immortality. He is a human being, and a good one” (235). No longer the mythic warrior hero in his own or the other's eyes, Lewis joins the “soft-jowled suburbanites” (Dickey, Night 95) to live out his life.

Bobby Trippe can be seen as an extremely ironic reversal of Campbell's hero as lover. The bride to which the hero is entitled after the slaying of the monster or tyrant is for Campbell the symbolic manifestation of life energy released from the tyrannical hold of the status quo: “She is the maiden of the innumerable dragon slayings, the bride abducted from the jealous father, the virgin rescued from the unholy lover” (342). Bobby, rather than being the hero who abducts the bride, is himself rescued from the unholy lover, but only after he is violated. This violation makes Bobby a pariah and an embarrassment for the remainder of the trip, especially to Ed who admits that “he felt tainted to me” (111).

In the clearest instance of gender typing in the book, Ed refuses to see any value whatever in Bobby's clear role as nurturer in the novel. Instead, Ed continually describes Bobby as “dead-weight” (234). When Ed goes up to kill the second mountain man he perceives Bobby as a coward because he “can't even shoot a bow” (132). He is even ready to kill Bobby for leaving later than he is supposed to. Bobby emerges from the novel as the male having the most traditionally “feminine” attributes: He is raped rather than being the rapist, he cares for Lewis while Ed goes off to do the “man's work” of killing, and he is physically weaker than the others. Thus, much to their disdain, while the men think that they have left the women behind to go on this quest, it is clear that they are wrong. As Campbell says of the woman the lover hero finds on his quest, “She is the other portion of the hero himself—for each is both” (342).

The image of what was traditionally the raper, man, being raped is also a powerful metaphor appropriate to our modern times. All the men in this novel are “raped” by the river in terms of physical violation and subjugation. They are also emasculated by the technological society from which they came. But, as Davis points out (226), the belief that the strongest will survive in nature is inverted in Deliverance. Bobby, the weakest, is the least hurt of the men at the end of the trip. Chet Taylor may be right in observing that “Perhaps he who submits to violation is the model of the modern survivor. We seem a long way from Darwin's survival of the fittest, or are we? Conditions for survival have changed with civilization. Perhaps Bobby is now the most fit” (62).

Ed Gentry emerges as an ironic modern version of Campbell's hero as emperor/tyrant. As Campbell points out, the heroic quest is an ongoing cycle, for as the hero vanquishes the status quo to liberate the society's life energy, he becomes the new status quo which must in turn be vanquished. The ways in which the hero chooses to represent his status as cultural symbol determine whether he is regarded as a benevolent emperor or a tyrant to be usurped. Yet, either way, the hero who returns to lead his people has made some atonement with the Father, who is “the invisible unknown”; thus, “The hero blessed by the father, returns to represent the father among men” (Hero 345, 347).

In Deliverance, the Father is clearly the wilderness itself, the river. It is also clear that Ed, especially in the pivotal cliff-climbing scene, attains the closest thing in the novel to a communion with the natural world. The overtly sexual language involved in Ed's climb up the cliff (151) perpetuates yet reverses the sense of physical violation which the river has accorded the men. Ed achieves a heightened consciousness (120, 157) as well as a temporary, primal, animal state (167-170) through his “fusion” with nature and the mountain man whom he kills. Ed seizes the scepter of control from Lewis and takes over as the leader of the men on the remainder of the trip as well as afterward, during the police investigation. But accompanying Ed's heroism are both a negative movement toward tyranny in his attitude toward Bobby and a barbarism to which he nearly succumbs after killing the mountain man. Still, when Ed says, at the close of the novel, that the river now “ran nowhere but in my head, but there it ran as though immortally” (234), he can be seen as the hero who returns to represent the Father among men and “Since he is now centered in the source, he makes visible the repose and harmony of the central place” (Campbell, Hero 347). His artistic creativity is revitalized upon his return for, as he says, “The river underlies, in one way or another, everything I do” (234).

But, of course, the irony of Ed's heroic status is that it must remain a secret to himself. There is no repose for him. The symbol of the emperor hero, Campbell says, is the “scepter of dominion, or the book of the law” (345), but the men must forever shrink from the law. Ed the hero, who should have returned to redefine the law as the men did after killing the first mountain man (108-110) says at the end: “There is still a special small fear in any strange automobile headlights near the house, or any phone call with an unfamiliar voice in it … (233). The only control which Ed maintains is in the lie which he, Bobby, and Lewis must perpetuate about the events which have occurred: “My lies seemed better, more and more like truth; the bodies in the woods and in the river did not move” (215).

Finally, Drew Ballinger can be seen as both the hero as world redeemer and the hero as saint in an ironic sense. Campbell notes that while some heroes might return to represent the Father as “emissary,” the ultimate hero is the one who realizes that “I and the Father are one” (349). Thus, this hero reconciles the contradictions and dualities of the world knowing that “The hero of yesterday becomes the tyrant of tomorrow, unless he crucifies himself today” (Hero 353). Drew, described by Ed as “the best of us” and “the only decent one; the only sane one” (186), cannot accept the men's relativistic redefinition of the law. In answer to Lewis' statement—“There's not any right thing”—Drew says, “You bet there is. … There's only ONE thing” (107). In death, Drew's eyes are described as “seeming to see out of the open water, back into the mountains, around all the curves of the river, infinitely” (183). The other men, while they feel they need to know whether Drew's gunshot wound was fatal, can never be sure it was. There remains an indeterminacy in Drew's death, as much a suicide as a murder.

If the “repose and harmony of the central place” is made visible in any man, it is in Drew, whose guitar playing with the albino boy “emphasized nothing, but through everything he played there was a lovely unimpeded flowing that seemed endless” (55). Unable to reconcile the duplicity and non-harmony of this world and of the other men, and having given the world a glimpse of the harmony at the central place, Drew becomes the hero as Saint, described by Campbell:

The pattern is that of going to the Father, but to the unmanifest rather than the manifest aspect: taking the step that the Bodhisattva renounced: that from which there is no return. Not the paradox of the dual perspective, but the ultimate claim of the unseen is here intended. The ego is burnt out. Like a dead leaf in a breeze, the body continues to move about the earth, but the soul has dissolved already into the ocean of bliss

(Hero 354).

The irony of Drew's death is the reaction of his wife to his death. She says to Ed that “It's all so useless” (230), and indeed it is. No world redemption is achieved through the death of this good man, for all remains a secret. There are only Ed's “nightmares and night sweats to come” (187) in thinking of Drew's calloused fingers sinking into the river.

What these characterizations, and their sometimes bitterly ironic resemblance to heroic mythology like that described by Campbell, suggest is that modern, technological man cannot travel the same path as our ancestors in attempting to discover what it means to be a man (or woman). We must write new myths. Far from being a macho adventure novel, Deliverance calls into question the entire notion of heroism as it has been established through the centuries in the many manifestations of the initiating epic journey to the wilderness. As Campbell says at the end of Myths To Live By,

Our mythology now, therefore, is to be of infinite space and its light, which is without as well as within. Like moths, we are caught in the spell of its allure, flying to it outward, to the moon and beyond, and flying to it, also, inward


Perhaps, as with Ed, we must be content with the notion that now the rivers run nowhere but in our heads, but there they run as though immortally.

Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1949.

———. Myths to Live By. New York: Bantam, 1972.

Davis, Charles. “The Wilderness Revisited—Irony in James Dickey's Deliverance.Studies in American Fiction 4 (Autumn 1976): 223-230.

Dickey, James. Deliverance. New York: Dell, 1970.

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

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

Eisiminger, Sterling. “James Dickey's Deliverance: A Source Note.” American Notes & Queries 19 (Nov/Dec 1980): 53-54.

Foust, R. E. “Tactus Eruditus: Phenomenology as Method and Meaning of James Dickey's Deliverance.Studies in American Fiction 9.2 (1981): 199-216.

Love, Glen. “Ecology in Arcadia.” Colorado Quarterly 21 (1972): 182.

Taylor, Chet. “A Look into the Heart of Darkness: A View of Deliverance.James Dickey: Splintered Sunlight. Ed. Patricia De La Fuente. Edinburgh, TX: Pan American University, 1979. 59-64.

Wagner, Linda. “Deliverance: Initiation and Possibility”. Modern Critical Views: James Dickey. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea, 1987. 107-118.

Gordon Van Ness (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: Van Ness, Gordon. “Other Prose: Jericho, God's Images, Wayfarer, and Southern Light.” In Outbelieving Existence: The Measured Motion of James Dickey, pp. 101-11. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House. 1992.

[In the following essay, Van Ness surveys the central thematic concerns of and the critical reaction to Dickey's nonfiction.]

In a 1974 article discussing his efforts and those of painter Hubert Shuptrine to produce a major book about the South, Dickey declares,

I want to write how it feels to be in this place, the South. The essence of it. The mood of it. How it feels to be there on the coast … to go there today and stand looking out over the marshes. And why it feels that way. Every place has its own quality of strangeness. Which is really uniqueness. That's what we want to capture. In paintings and words. The feeling of places.

(Logue 186)

Jericho: The South Beheld (1974), the book that resulted from the project initiated by Southern Living, was a commercial success and a critical failure. Following the publication in 1970 of The Eye-Beaters,Deliverance, and Self-Interviews, a book where Dickey examines his own life and poetry, he issued Sorties the following year, which contains his journals and several essays. All were intended for a scholarly audience. Critics consider The Eye-Beaters, published by Doubleday, and Deliverance, issued by Houghton Mifflin, major works, and Self-Interviews and Sorties, both by Doubleday, significantly address Dickey's own career as well as the contemporary literary scene in general. However, Jericho and God's Images (1977), published by Oxmoor House, the book division of The Progressive Farmer Company, are oversized books in which Dickey combines his writing with illustrations for a collector's edition market. Later volumes in the seventies also reveal Dickey's interest in this specialized audience: The Enemy from Eden (Lord Jim Press), The Owl King (Red Angel Press), In Pursuit of the Grey Soul (Bruccoli-Clark Press), and Head-Deep in Strange Sounds (Palaemon Press). These small publishing companies, often concerned with luxury editions, appealed to a less scholarly market than Dickey's major works.

Bowers-Martin (1984) sees the books published in the mid-seventies as transitional in Dickey's career. The Zodiac (1976) culminates his exploration of “transcendence through the idiom of the creative lie” (144), which constitutes his central thematic concern. Its “exaggerated horizontal shape” (144) suggests the large coffee-table books that immediately precede and follow it. Moreover, like The Zodiac, based on Barnouw's translation, Jericho and God's Images derive from other sources, the former from traditional Southern culture and the latter from the Bible. Yet The Zodiac, while logically grouped with Dickey's serious poetry because of its theme, also evidences the poet's interest in a specialized market. The poem's working manuscript was sectioned and bound into special-edition volumes; these Bruccoli-Clark collector editions were then sold by private subscription at $400 per book. Bowers-Martin, noting the specialized market intended by Jericho and God's Images, declares that neither book denies Dickey's theme of transcendence, but they explain the drastic turn in his publishing history. During the seventies Dickey failed to discover subjects and themes around which to create a new experimental poetry. Because The Zodiac concludes the poetic idiom he had been exploring, his inability to depict transcendence through a new technique led to Jericho and God's Images, which are “attempts to get extra mileage from what has worked before” (145).

Yet Jericho is only partly successful because Dickey fails to use “the main sources of his power” (145), including his own artistic control of the transcendent experience. In the introduction the poet asks the reader to become a “beholder,” someone who can

enter into objects and people and places with the sense of these things entering into him. What starts out as a deliberate act of attention ends as though he were not so much performing a rendition of Reality, but that a living action were being perpetrated on him.

While this approach poetically succeeds with “The Beholders” in Falling by fusing the personae and their surroundings, the implication in Jericho is that Dickey himself cannot impart “that energy, that transcendence” (145), particularly when he asks the reader to provide the imaginative vision requisite for such a fusion of inner and outer states: “You, reader, must open up until you reach the point … of sensing your locality pour into you simultaneously through every sense.” Dickey additionally eliminates the need for the creative lie, the very means by which he has previously provided transcendency and thereby given the reader, for example, a sheep child, two young lovers living in the mist around their wrecked motorcycle, a stewardess who lives only as she prepares to die, and blind children who attempt to see the origins of the race. In Jericho he takes traditional stories and asks the reader to view them in a heightened manner, an approach which undercuts his ability to lie creatively.

Dickey uses the persona of a seabird to view the South as the Promised Land. While hovering, swooping, or changing forms, the bird becomes whatever is necessary for each experience, but it always remains the same narrator, accompanying the reader in a series of “flickers.” These experiences combine with actual landings as the bird touches Southern soil, a technique anticipated by the book's epigraph from Joshua: “Loose thy shoe from off thy foot; for the place whereon thou standest is holy.” The first flicker occurs at St. Augustine, the South's oldest city, when the persona notices an oyster shell. Its condition, Bowers-Martin declares, establishes an important element in Dickey's fusion—the union of the natural and man-made worlds (146). Observing the shell, the bird says: “It is not lying on a beach, half-embedded in sand, but is jutting from a wall at an angle it never had in the sea.” Such a conjunction is often repeated, as when the seabird flickers to Mobile's gardens: “No matter how close to them we are, no matter whether we help them grow or kill them, they are forever beyond us, these flowers.” Southerners themselves exhibit this dichotomy in the way they lead their lives, partly grounded in their past dependence on the land and partly lived in an increasingly industrialized future.

Jericho concludes with a warning about the frailty of this fusion on which the new South rests. In Birmingham, Vulcan, the god of steel who provides the foundation for the Promised Land, says to the bird and the reader, “All this hardware I make: well, don't tell those new high-rising buildings of Jericho I told you; men used to call me Mulciber. You know what that means? The softener. They might get jittery. I might fall off this hill.” Bowers-Martin believes this ending flicker reveals the elements of danger, repose, and joy that he also attempts to incarnate in his poems (147). Yet following these flickers, Dickey withdraws, leaving his audience to unify the experiences themselves: “Come down, reader, and be whole here.”

Yardley's (1974) criticism seeks to define the larger nature of Jericho, asking whether the book is art or literature or “anything more than a colossal instrument” (43). Shuptrine's drawings are skillful, but they are also “imitative and sentimental” (43); Dickey's language “rolls” (43). Yet Jericho offers only a “sanitized and idealized” (43) South. Tailored to accommodate the readers of Southern Living, it is a book “for regional chauvinists to wallow in” (43), honoring only those qualities that affirm the Southern myth and ignoring those aspects that do not.

Critics quickly observed the extensive promotional campaign that accompanied the book's publication and which stressed not simply its size and Southern focus but also the magnitude of the sales effort. As Yardley does, they just as quickly faulted the content of Jericho. Evans (1975), for example, notes the book's big size (12 1/2 by 16 inches) and weight (7 pounds), its large first printing (150,000 numbered copies), and its extensive press release, which announced that the printing of Jericho required “28 carloads (one million pounds) of paper and 31 miles of cloth” (4). Such commercialism suggests “the poet decided to give himself over to the Alabama Chamber of Commerce” (4). Jones (1976) details the successful marketing strategy and campaign, arguing that the book's commercial popularity owes not only to the thorough testing and execution of a direct-mail campaign and the intense regional pride of Southerners but also to a national trend for nostalgia and a return to the land (250). Yet Evans, conceding that Jericho captures the South's haunted sense of pride and defeat, sees the failure to mention the Negro struggle for freedom as a major omission. Rather than presenting the civil rights movement, the book captures “the South that white Southerners think they live in” (4). Evans does acknowledge Dickey's awareness of the racial problem, citing his 1961 essay “Notes on the Decline of Courage.” There he describes the black 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.

(Babel 258-59)

Later in Self-Interviews Dickey also states, “One must not be coerced … into writing about nothing but contemporary events; the larger forms of nature are still there. Not only the Watts and Washington riots exist, but the universe exists as well” (70). Dickey consequently is on “defensible ground” (5), Evans believes, when choosing those experiences that move or interest him, but Jericho is “an interpretative history” (5) whose announced theme is “The South Beheld.” That such a book omits the civil rights movement, therefore, “shouts with Dickey's silence” (5). Furthermore, he omits discussion of the decline of Southern values and specifically the region's new homogeneity. The book's commercial success, despite these flaws, owes to the attitude it promulgates, a nostalgia that confirms the white Southerner's view of himself as a citizen in the Promised Land. It assures him that he lives in “a white paradise without any recognition of a paradise lost” (5).

Lacking such a pronounced political focus, Donald's (1975) lengthy review challenges the use of the word “collaboration” to describe the Shuptrine-Dickey relationship since each traveled his own way through the South by different means and recorded what each thought significant. As Dickey writes, “We have made no attempt in this book to have paintings and words coincide.” Donald notes that, beside the obvious differences in their portrayals, one visual and the other verbal, Shuptrine views the heart of the South as the mountains, particularly those of North Carolina, since over one-third of his paintings derive from these and another one-third from the adjacent states of Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina (185). Dickey's scope is larger, “fourteen or so states,” he writes, asking the reader to follow in

a gigantic spiral, going … first along the Gulf Coast, through the bayous and over the Delta and the Great River, then into the huge and bewildering and heartening blue of West Texas, then north to Arkansas, through Kentucky and West Virginia and Virginia, briefly down to the South Carolina coast … through Appalachia into Atlanta.

While Shuptrine's artistic focus is the countryside and country people, Dickey concentrates on small-town life. As Dickey himself remarks, Shuptrine is an artist “struck by things,” while he himself excels not so much with the trees, dogs, and dwellings of the South as with its people—the faith healer, the bank robber, and the mill woman. Yet Donald believes both artists share a common vision of the South as the Promised Land. Within their respective mediums, what appears is their love of the land and the sense that the idealized Southern life they present is dying or already dead. While containing humor, Dickey's language is “elegiac” (186), and his rhetoric, while celebrating the South, has “a dying fall” (186). These characteristics appear, for example, when he depicts the owner of a garden of azaleas: “He stands with both hands in the time-shade, bowed down with his money, exhausted with the income and upkeep of ancient Jericho, with the expense, the overhead of flowers, of old ladies fainting with vegetative rapture.” Dickey more directly suggests the decline of the Old South when he writes: “This is a land of ghosts, and we feel nowhere come-truer than in a cemetery.” Shuptrine's paintings express the same mood, the same sense of “a world in its final autumn” (186). Therefore, Jericho is not so much “a preview of the Promised Land but a nostalgic glance at Paradise Lost” (187).

Steadman (1975) faults Jericho both for artistic reasons and for its overstated assertion. While the text exhibits virtues of vitality, strong imagery, and a “sensual immediacy” (9), it nevertheless reveals a lessening of the intensity and sense of abandon that characterizes Dickey's poetry. Though Shuptrine's watercolors remarkably mirror Dickey's style, their concentration and emphasis on detail occasionally resulting in realism or something beyond realism, his paintings “do not penetrate beneath the visual to provide any deeper meaning” (9). Yet the book's principal danger lies in the reader believing Jericho more than it is, a problem Dickey compounds in his introduction by calling it “two deep views of Jericho, that will not come—or come together—again.” The title, together with his statement that he and Shuptrine have “beheld” the South and offerred it with a “Biblical intensity,” suggests that Jericho mythologizes the region more than it actually does. Dickey writes that the “landscapes, seascapes, mountains, rivers and people … are our significance.” However, the book fails both to depict the South's inextricable relationship with the past and, more importantly, to “cohere into a larger, expansive theme” (9).

More recent criticism, however, views Jericho as both a creative achievement and a product of Dickey's business acumen. Calhoun and Hill (1983) acknowledge Dickey's turn from his proclaimed mission as poet to a prose work intended for a popular audience and offerred by small publishing houses concentrating exclusively on luxury editions. The focus suggests either that Dickey was unable to explore familiar themes in creatively new poetry or that he could not finish Alnilam. The novel was finally published in 1987, but he had originally titled it Death's Baby Machine and detailed certain of its scenes as early as Sorties (1971). Yet this new direction also reveals Dickey's capacity “to ‘make connections’ with different kinds of readers” (121), showing many of the motifs previously apparent in his poetry, fiction, and criticism. Jericho depicts Dickey's Southern heritage, his ability to see clearly and poetically the details of the Southern landscape, and his “Agrarian love of the land” (121). The major change dictated by the new popular audience is Dickey's abandonment of “his role of poet of the expansive imagination” (121). No longer does he compel belief in situations and personae beyond the commonplace; rather, the reader assumes the imaginative task, instructed by Dickey to go “deeply into human life … of our particular segment of the world and what it offers … to those familiar with it by birth … and those who come to the South as strangers.” Perhaps because of the reversal of previously expected poet-reader roles, as well as the absence of the usual Dickey persona, Jericho succeeds only in parts; good images and inescapable scenes occur only infrequently. Calhoun and Hill additionally note the quantity of literary allusions, including ones to John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Donald Davidson as well as echoes of Dickey's own poems, a fact especially surprising since Dickey remains critical of “academicism” (122).

Like Jericho, God's Images (1977) has attracted almost no lengthy, critical study. Reviews were mixed, and later critics compare it unfavorably to Jericho. Less ambitious in size, though not in artistic intent, it contains fifty-three prose-poems that not so much re-interpret as re-present particular Biblical texts from individual perspectives. A similar number of etchings by Marvin Hayes accompany these re-presentations. Marty (1977) believes Dickey's text faithful in intent to the Biblical motifs it depicts, but while some passages are rich, others become too poetically sensual. Hayes's drawings, at once technical and imaginative, combine the literal with the visionary. When both artists “aspire least they accomplish most” (13). DeCandido (1978), however, considers Dickey's passages “oddly secular” (154), stating that they lack a “palpable spirituality” (154) because the emphasis shifts from God to the figures that present the Biblical story, characters moreover that are “predominantly masculine” (154). Admitting the prose is crafted and deeply felt, the review strikes a feminist approach, noting the absence of Judith, Esther, and Mary Magdalene from the portrayals and observing that Ruth and Mary are only “shadow and symbol” (154). God's Images narrows the Bible to “the worldly visions of two men” (154), a comment which ignores Dickey's own statements in the book's foreword:

To an artist such as Marvin Hayes, or to a poet, such as I hold myself to be, these images have unfolded in us by means of the arts we practice. These are our images of God's Images. … These then, in this book, are some of the images from the inner kingdoms of two men. … Hayes and I do not wish to supercede or in any way substitute our interpretations of the Bible for yours. These are crucial to you, and therefore vital and living. We should like to think, though, that we may be able to give an added dimension to your own inner Bible and enrich your personal kingdom of God, there where it lies forever … within you.

DeCandido fails to give Dickey the choice of his material.

Other reviews, however, were not influenced by political correctness. Publishers Weekly (1977), for example, states that Dickey's imaginatively subjective prose complements the etchings, which blend “realism with a disciplined sense of formal beauty” (Johnston 63). The reviewer notes the sincerity of both artists, particularly Dickey, whose effort was compelled by the death of his first wife, Maxine Syerson, a fact the poet acknowledges in the foreword: “She was all her life a devoted dweller in the Bible, and now, through the flowering tomb, she resides among the superhuman reality of God's images.” Booklist (1977) and American Artist (1977) similarly see the collaborative interpretations of Dickey and Hayes as felicitous. The former asserts that Hayes's strength lies not only in his innovative approach to depicting well-known stories (the Crucifixion, for example, is shown as a reflection in Mary's tearing eye) but also in “the grace and economy of their realization” (344). Dickey lends this artistic interpretation an “emotional accompaniment” (344), often assuming the voice of the person he depicts, a technique which poetically reflects upon the visual meaning. This collaboration, American Artist observes, effects “a significant religious contribution for modern readers” (Preiss 26).

Oxmoor House, anticipating possible controversy from the book's unusual perspectives, established an advisory board of Biblical scholars, both Jewish and Christian, to assure that the portrayals were faithful to scriptural materials. Despite the offense taken by DeCandido, Christian Century (1977) sees God's Images favorably. Hayes's etchings bring a “new comprehension of biblical ideas” (1173), and Dickey's prose, “florid and reverent at once” (1173), reinforces the themes. Writing in Theology Today, Dillenberger (1979) raises questions about a literary work that depicts a religious subject. Hayes's etchings offer a series of select, dramatized vignettes, literally presented but without a comprehensive understanding of the Bible. Lacking such a unified overview, both artist and poet substitute piety. The illustrations sometimes evoke the theology of the sixties, as when in “Second Coming,” Jesus becomes a tiny figure walking through a wide field of flowers. The “Crucifixion” has bathos, not pathos, although others like the “Death of Absalom” effectively present “the small, enclosed, compressed image which operates visually much as the epigram does verbally” (509). Many pictures, moreover, reveal an evasiveness about sexuality, with the figures seeming either castrated or purposely sexless, a troubling tendency since other sketches reflect the decade's more liberal attitudes. Too often, Dickey's prose passages must explain the disparity between the picture and the Scripture which accompanies it, breaching the incompatibility as if the poet's role were interpretive. Dillenberger questions the relevancy of the panel of church experts whose names and credentials are listed in the frontmatter, suggesting instead a group of advisors from art and literature, because God's Images is literary, not theological, in its focus.

Calhoun and Hill (1983) view God's Images as more academic than Jericho because within Dickey's text lie the voices of Milton, Blake, and the translators of the King James Bible, not just certain past and present Southern poets. However, the varied narrations undermine the “conversational vigor” (122) inherent in a work with only a single narrator. Moreover, unlike Jericho, God's Images has no unifying thesis. Rather than trying to justify the ways of God to man, Dickey attempts to rework the images in his own poetic idiom. Trying to recover the common, unrecognized culture within his readers, however, Dickey actualizes Biblical images that, as he writes in the foreword, are “buried and live in us.” While the poet in Jericho seeks to establish a shared Southern connection between poet and painter on the one hand and artists and their readers on the other, he endeavors in God's Images to broaden this intent to include Protestantism. Because of such purposes, both books become more than mere commercial enterprises.

Bowers-Martin (1984) extensively examines God's Images, both as it compares specifically to Jericho and more generally to Dickey's major themes and artistic techniques. Unlike Calhoun and Hill, she sees these books as a decided retreat from previous efforts. Dickey eliminates the need for the creative lie by randomly presenting stories with which the reader already is familiar and admitting in the foreword: “We all have our images of God, given to us by the Bible, which is the Word of God. These images are ours, and in calling them up in our minds we are living witnesses of the fact that ‘the kingdom of God is within you.’” Yet in believing that his interpretation of the reader's personal images will engender a heightened understanding of each Biblical story, Dickey relies not on his own creativity but rather these preexisting stories. The fusion of the reader's inner state with the larger Kingdom of God, therefore, lies not with the poet but with his audience. Moreover, unlike the earlier book, God's Images lacks a unifying narrative voice; the episodes remain fragmented. In such poems as “The Sheep Child,” “May Day Sermon,” “Falling,” and “Madness,” the strong narrative voice compels belief by combining first-person immediacy with third-person objectivity, but Dickey now resorts “to whatever voice strikes him” (148). Sixteen of the twenty-nine Old Testament scenes use the omniscient narrator, while only six of the twenty-three New Testament episodes do, a statistic accounting for the former being the weaker section because it fails to provide what Lieberman (“Notes on James Dickey's Style” 1968) calls the feeling of “heightened reportage” (63). While exceptions to this in the Old Testament do exist, such as the account of Jacob's wrestling with an angel or of Joseph and the coat of many colors, these episodes for the most part fail to depict the fusion of inner and outer states. Each scene seems isolated and still, as if constrained within its own boundaries, an immobility that “negates the motion, the energy, that allows Dickey's best ideas to work” (149). Though the Old Testament section exhibits his main theme of transcendence, it remains “a gathering of fragmented thoughts” (149). The New Testament stories, however, allow Dickey more latitude to create the fusion of forces because Christ embodies the union of God and man. Additionally, Jesus is the speaker in five of the episodes and the subject of most others, which enables the reader to know him through experiences related by other voices. For example, Mary comments on her son's birth: “He is mine, or at least half of him is mine. … I cannot understand any of this, but I do know I hold in my lap a child who comes from me. … God needs a human mate to bring forth a human child.” Christ possesses a double vision, seeing both into the world and beyond it, allowing him a serenity derived from knowing what other men through God may become. This attitude of becoming is the foundation of Dickey's work. He alludes to this theme in the foreword when he notes “the fabulous world we all have fallen from, and toward which we are always falling, not backward in time, but forward toward that moment when each story, each image of God will be found, will happen again.”

In an interview in the spring 1976 issue of the Paris Review, Dickey refers to any effort other than poetry as a “spin-off” (Ashley 81), adding: “The main thing in poetry is the discovery of an idiom and the exploitation of it over an area of thought for a long period of time” (81-82). Bowers-Martin sees Dickey as successful here because the creative lie has remained the idiom through which he has successfully explored transcendence (150). However, in the interview Dickey also declares, “A poet's pages are filled up with what he's done, that he can live on and trade on; but he has got to find some way to love that white empty page, those words he hasn't yet said” (76). Here, God's Images fails because it does not fulfill Dickey's stated hopes as a poet. The scenes are merely “his old pages repackaged, and the process diminishes their quality” (151).

Dickey returns to the South in Wayfarer: A Voice from the Southern Mountains (1988), the subtitle indicating the continued use of his cultural and family heritage. The unnamed narrator greets a wayfarer he encounters at the book's opening. Superstitious and wise, he has lived his life in the Appalachians. When the traveler becomes sick, the narrator uses mountain medicines to restore his health, taking the wayfarer on a figurative journey as he talks about the food, geography, customs, handiwork, folklore, and music. He asserts, “We ain't got everything, but we got somethin'.” As with Jericho and God's Images, the book is a collaborative effort, with William Bake's photographs not so much adhering to the story as cohering. The 178 pictures, primarily from the Southern Appalachians and particularly that section of the range from North Carolina, also strangely includes photographs from Texas and Oklahoma.

Reviews are almost nonexistent and generally superficial. Adams (1989) briefly compliments Dickey's “charming text” and Bake's “fine photographs” (120) and observes that the setting is appropriately never identified. Starr (1988) also views the joint effort as beneficial, declaring that the pictures reveal “an explorer's sense and an artist's eye” (1F) and comparing Bake to Monet and Wyeth. The people he captures belong only to the mountains; they are “constant, sturdy, quietly dignified” (1F). The pictures, however, are rarely correlated to Dickey's prose passages, most being grouped at the book's conclusion where they serve as “a visual epiphany” (8F).

Van Ness's (1989) essay-review more substantially discusses the book's dramatic development, declaring that Wayfarer “is not, or at least not only or even principally” (31) a coffee-table book. Bake's photographs create “an emotional immediacy,” while Dickey's understated language presents truth as “an imaginative connection” (31), linking the reader to what the Appalachians are in and of themselves, “their spacial and metaphoric fullness” (31). To do so, Dickey guides the reader on an heroic journey to recover what modern man has lost. As the narrator declares in “Departure,” for example, speaking of mountain people, “They got ways of knowin'.”

Dickey has always celebrated the individual who either begins over or who returns to a source and who must therefore relate what he has learned. That voice often appears suddenly in the narrative as the poet follows his own personae. Chance occurrences begin a poetic search for the forces that govern life, a search revealing “man's awful responsibility to drive toward self-discovery and self-determination” (32). The encounter between the anonymous narrator and the wayfarer, therefore, presents a familiar Dickey concern—the confrontation between an individual and a force larger than himself. In Wayfarer that other is the Southern mountains. While Dickey has poetically treated aspects of this subject before (for example, foxhunting and quilting in “Listening to Foxhounds” and “Chenille,” respectively), the narrative framework of Wayfarer allows for greater breadth of treatment to depict what Van Ness calls “a larger natural inclusiveness in the world” (32). Consequently, when the speaker asserts, “It don't matter why it comes, but it does; it comes on through, and it's done been put into both of us, don't you see,” Dickey moves beyond a discussion of family blood lines into “the lines of connection that link all men to the land and the natural impulses, the human need, to create and re-create what one sees and hears in the world” (32).

While The Zodiac and Puella also concern the artistic impulse and depict an individual seeking an exchange, Wayfarer differs in several respects. Not only does it attempt to have the visual and the verbal mediums interrelate, but its speaker also acts as an intermediary or guardian spirit, a guide who imparts to the adventurer certain protective amulets, as when the narrator gives the wayfarer a fairy stone shaped “like a cross” and which brings “good luck.” As a result of his experiences, the traveler becomes “the new priest, a man who has been both outside and in” (32). His decision at the conclusion to speak for the first time, quoting Ransom's “Antique Harvesters,” shows that he has undergone mythic rites of passage. Having crossed a threshold and penetrated forgotten truths, he poetically offers up what he has learned as he now prepares to return.

Southern Light (1991), Dickey's latest collaborative effort, attempts to capture through a poetic prose and the color photographs of James Valentine the distinctive qualities held in and projected by light. Valentine's 188 pictures dominate the book, which sections a day into dawn, morning, noon, afternoon, and evening and examines the world as light defines it during those times. In the introduction Dickey urges the reader to undertake the imaginative connection himself, a similar surrender critics like Bowers-Martin fault in his other oversized books. “Enter light,” Dickey says,

as though you were part of it, as though you were pure spirit—or pure beholding human creature, which is the same thing—to become part of light in many places and intensities, to make it something like a dream of itself with you in it; that way you will be seeing by human light, as well as by the light shining since Genesis.

Unlike his previous mixed-media works, the prose text does not complement but anticipates Valentine's photographs. Their subtle textures and startling vibrancy demand confrontation, while Dickey's description establishes the uniqueness of the respective moments captured by the camera. When at dawn, for example, light causes the things of the world to come into themselves, Dickey invites participation by singling out what one might personally hold in perspective: “In all remoteness you have a hand, as everything sharpens, attunes: sharpens toward. If you want more leaves, beckon, and they come.” In evening, he asks how successful the encounters have been and reminds the reader of the special quality of what light makes possible: “Nothing like it ever given, except by means of Time. This time, this day.” The artistic intent seeks to allow a physical and emotional confrontation by having the words defer to the photographs and yet prepare one to experience them. Dickey establishes this collaborative dependency when, speaking of the creative impulse present throughout all human history, he states in the introduction: “The cave artist and the photographer, standing for all others, want to see not through but into: want you to stay with and in the work, and for it to stay with you, for it is in its very essence a form of ritual magic.” While Dickey guides the reader's journey through the twenty-four hours Southern Light captures in words and pictures, he paradoxically remains less tangible a presence than in Wayfarer, despite his use of the imperative and despite the latter's narrative, which often subsumes Dickey's voice. However, as in all his efforts, his principal concern is the sense of consequence derived from human communion with the world.

Dave Smith (essay date spring 1994)

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SOURCE: Smith, Dave. “James Dickey's Motions.” South Carolina Review 26, no. 2 (spring 1994): 41-60.

[In the following essay, Smith views Dickey in the context of a Southern writer.]

With the death of Robert Penn Warren, the mantle of preeminent Southern poet seems destined to fall to James Dickey. Wendell Berry, Donald Justice, Eleanor Ross Taylor, and A. R. Ammons are all worthy candidates, but each has deemphasized a Southern identity in ways Dickey has not. Much has been written about James Dickey that is misinformed, silly, or plainly wrong, especially in the latter half of his career. The critical profile ranges from a dismissive, apparently political, condescension to a sycophantic cheering. In A History of Modern Poetry, David Perkins writes tersely of Dickey's “Southern narratives” and implicitly of the facile local color some readers regard as characteristic of Dickey's poetry. Charles Molesworth and Neal Bowers are more expansive but, essentially, view Dickey as a charlatan and boor, extending Robert Bly's early attack on Dickey's poetry for what such critics oppose as socially and politically objectionable opinions. At the other extreme, Robert Kirschten ends his book James Dickey and the Gentle Ecstasy of Earth: A Reading of the Poems with an unbridled partisan cheer when he writes “Long may James Dickey be the slugger of creative daring and commitment to poetry so that we may continue our circle and sing.”

Whatever the nature of critical response to Dickey, I think a predisposition to matters “Southern” plays a role. To outsiders, Southern culture, if those are not self-contradictory words, remains renegade, bogus, mysterious, often buffoonish. The South has long and variously paid the cost of its disjunction from other regions of the United States. Even the election of two presidents from the South does not easily convince the Southerner that equity or respect has arrived. Just as New Yorkers may imagine a South Carolinian to be fully a product of swamps and hokum, the South Carolinian—any Southerner—believes plus ca change to be the rule. His children, if possible, will be sent as far northward to college as money and ability permit. His novels will appear in New York. He will accept, reluctantly, the Northern standard as definitive.

The Southern poet, like the cottonmouth water moccasin, does not travel well and thrives mostly at home. James Dickey has often enough been treated by his press as exactly what Bly called him, a “great blubbery southern toad of a poet.” Moreover, both in his poetry and out of it, he has confirmed the persistent view of the almost oxymoronic Southern poet, and not least by playing the role of the redneck sheriff in Deliverance. One has only to think of Donald Justice or Archie Ammons to note how different and how melodramatically poetic has been the role Dickey has played.

A Georgian who has lived most of his adult life in South Carolina, Dickey mounted his career in the 1960's and 70's, not merely upon rhythmically fresh and experientially different poems, but also on often corrosive opinions of the poets currently favored by one contingency or another. His success, and exuberant pleasure in his success, seemed unrestrained to many at his frequent stops along the poetry reading circuit. Indeed, Dickey's personal conduct on the circuit has generated an apocrypha about him not unlike that of Dylan Thomas. Dickey's advertising-man acumen rightly counted on notoriety to carry his poetry to an audience not often touched by academic meekness, but it may well be that his outlaw image among academics has underwritten the image of the Southern poet as inherently inferior and crude. Nevertheless, audiences that have turned out in hundreds to hear him from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon, have found in Dickey a true grit not found in surreal fantasies, metric cosmologies, confession, therapy, or counter-culture meetings. Dickey's poetry seemed like life in the last half of the twentieth century—imperiled, dangerous, unprogrammed, abrupt.

Dickey speaks frankly from inside a male, individual, exuberant, and joyous experience. “The Performance,” “Walking on Water,” “At Darien Bridge,” not his most celebrated poems but each standing as a chronological step in his art, are stations toward the roaring joyride of “Cherrylog Road,” a ride which reaches apotheosis in “The May Day Sermon to the Women of Gilmer County, Georgia, By A Woman Preacher Leaving the Baptist Church.” The mystic lift-off from an apparently ordinary dramatic situation that might occur in any reader's life is a formidable trope employed by Dickey. Out of the ashes of momentary, mortal circumstance, Dickey offers the reader what religions have always offered, what “The Salt Marsh” shows: “… your supple inclusion / Among fields without promise of harvest, / In their marvelous, spiritual walking / Everywhere, anywhere.” It is the joy of those who discover consequence in human connections such as the truckdrivers hymned in “Them, Crying” because they feel for “Those few who transcend themselves, / The superhuman tenderness of strangers.

Dickey's is a poetry far from ignorant of the dead, the hurt, the maligned, the abandoned peoples who are the common interest of lyric American poetry, but his investigation and his investment have nevertheless been in transcendent joy. His poems seek a good time, and they do it on middle-class terms. They are scarcely marked by the gloom of the American poet's self-conscious rehearsal of personal problems from Lowell's New England dance card to Sharon Olds's sexual abuses. His story is upper tier Southern, a bourgeois search for life after success: up from the fens of suburbia, to a university of modest name, discovery of imagination's life, a coven of writers, war and survival, a new and scrupulously-to-be-examined life, books published, a teaching eminence, more books. Had Randall Jarrell played football instead of tennis, he might have been this poet.

Until the publication of The Whole Motion: Poems 1945-1992, there was no abundant evidence in Dickey's books for what Emerson, in his note to Whitman, called a “foreground.” The poems gathered under the title “Summons” now show how assiduously Dickey labored to present from his first published work a different sound in his poem. Yet even in the earliest poetry there is little of the historical Southern self-awareness and mea culpa whose breastbeating, in dark Faulknerian tones, constituted the “burden” of consciousness which would appeal, and does appeal, to generations of specialists. That it might not prove attractive to the educated, general reader, Dickey saw well enough. He set out to transform the pastoral lyric tradition by combining it with a heroic quest for a Southern self who would be, as Fred Hobson has described him, “the unburdened Southerner.” Hobson, writing specifically of Barry Hannah and young Southern fictionists, might be saying of all Southern poets what Cleanth Brooks seemed to say in citing the disinclination of lyric to attach to a determinate landscape and purview—that there is no such cat. Hobson says in The Postmodern Writer in the South that “not only do family and past mean nothing to him, the South and his identity as Southerner, he insists, mean nothing to him either. The South of his remembrance … isn't mysterious, isn't violent, isn't savage, isn't racially benighted, isn't Gothic or grotesque, isn't even interesting.”

The trajectory of Dickey's quest, as poems evolved structure, has moved from outside to inside, from emblematic anecdote treated narratively to experienced states of being, known lyrically. The scene, typical of the pastoral poem, has been the wood world or the sea world, nature, because it hosts the unknown and, traditionally, nurtures the spirit. Put bluntly, Dickey like Emerson, like Poe, like Keats has gone outside to find answers to questions echoing on the inside. As with all romantic and lyric poets, the problem was ever how to make intuited consolation, the joy of asserted consequence, credible to readers. What he has done, it now appears in his seventieth year, is to have commanded a formidable rhythmic shift whose expression has baffled as many of us as it may have dazzled.

Whether James Dickey is or is not a “Southern” poet may seem irrelevant to the matter of rhythm. The usual definition of the “Southern” is a historical consciousness aware of a great civil loss and a fearsomely burdened future; the location of story, as Flannery O'Connor put it, at the intersection of time and place where the clash and consequence of values may most effectively appear; the portrait of people unlikely to benefit from schemes of improvement but driven to suffer them; the environmental effects of rural reality, as the South has known it; the context of violence and violation—these are all to be found in Dickey's poetry. But so, too, is the presence of season, the confident cyclic regularity of living which suffers change and yet endures. The rhythmic nature of being Southern, though it may be something much older and deeper, is Dickey's subject and strategy in the work of his most recent decade.

Change continues to occur so fast we scarcely assimilate what it is. The physical landscape of the South has everywhere become an ugly memorial to greed and profit, every town and village marked at ingress and egress by the fecal-like stain of fast food dispensers, gas stations, auto lots, the Arabian knights of neon. Suburbs rise overnight to create instant slums which themselves breed every conceivable social ill. Yet the evidence of a past still alive is everywhere, too. There are living daughters of Confederate veterans in Richmond, the very last literal connection to that war. My own grandfather, who died at age eighty-eight this past winter, like many worked a lifetime without benefit of a formal education. He became an aeronautical engineer, who as a boy had hoboed a train to see the first automobiles. Sam Walton, an Arkansas man of the fields, transformed the South by harvesting Wal-Marts everywhere, creating appetites as well as an exchange of goods and ideas whose end we can't guess. The Agrarian ideal that early informed the classics-tutored imaginations of Southern poets has been lately expressed by Walter Sullivan who says, “Life lived on the farm is more authentic than life lived in the city, because the rural experience teaches the nature of reality.” One end of change much observed by Dickey's poems is the waning of Walter Sullivan's reality.

Freb Hobson is probably correct that writers from the South increasingly attend to a new, urbanized experience, the life they are actually living. But that no South, remembered or lived, is of any interest to contemporary Southern writers seems hardly demonstrable in the work of the region's poets. Their South is more, not less, violent, broken, grotesque, disintegrating, present, and interesting. It may not even be inhabited as much by Southerners—people who want to know what they are, and why; people defined by the consequence of a place. The once stable culture Fugitives found so severely altered remains alongside, not instead of, the South that constituted the “burden.” Southern poets, like writers of fiction, feel obligated to examine what is around them, what is inside them. Their interrogation takes a different path, but it remains an interrogation, even literally so in the voice of Robert Penn Warren. Ransom stroked and cooed. Tate fussed. Davidson nattered.

Dickey's voice, from his earliest poems, has possessed remarkable ventriloquial ability and is capable of calibration for effect, at times admonishing, assertive, but also evangelical with a range of wailing, crooning, wall-bursting rhetoric. The cast of characters through whom he has spoken, while not infinite, displays operatic range: a king, warrior, hunter, fisherman, fish, bird, wild boar, wolverine, leopard, quarterback, musician, woman preacher, womanchild, lifeguard, and others. Dickey's poems, being mysterious conduits for special speech, give back vital messages to the wobbling world, a message of solidarity and continuity from a scene of human engagement with natural force. Even the most patent “nature” reverie summons its authority for speech from an intuited scheme of order known both to Milton's “Lycidas” and to Poe, an order in jeopardy. This visionary role encourages Dickey in a self-appointed status as the civic voice of his tribe; he urges upon the people virtues to be celebrated for civilization and for vitality.

This twin-celebratory imperative has, I think, brought Dickey's poetry to a gulch it has not always transcended. The lyric hasn't the equipment or scope for a patient portrait of social ills and their remedies. Without being an epic chronicler of national states (one reason for the contemporary argument about whether lyric can be successfully political), the lyric poet feels he must contend against all risk for the biggest stakes. Dickey once told me he hadn't and wouldn't ever write “anything small.” Although small may have meant physical length, I understood it to mean poems not adequately ambitious to speak of and for the soul of the tribal life. His specifically regional and “big” poems mark Dickey's “Southernness.” “Hunting Civil War Relics at Nimblewill Creek,” “Snow on a Southern State,” and, later, “Sled Burial, Dream Ceremony,” “Slave Quarters,” and “Two Poems of Going Home” are variant examples.

The will to assume a civic voice characterizes a number of poems that began to appear with The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy (1970) where the line-tempered and stanza-restrained form Dickey had refined to award-winning acuteness yielded to poems whose visual dimension is irregular and whose aural experience one must call, in general, loud. “Apollo,” “The Strength of Fields,” “The Olympian,” and “For a Time and Place” reveal Dickey assuming the venerable role of poet for the republic, broadcaster of answers. It is, I think, the wrong role for Dickey who seems here at his most bathetic and transparently bad. He is bad because he loses his skill for rhythmic delicacy, not because he abandons his narrative gift. He is bad because he fails to employ language as an act of discovery, a door into that wood world whose secrets the pastoral poet always unlocks. Dickey bangs dully, laboring more and more mightily, as if noise will overcome deafness, as in “For the Running of the New York City Marathon”:

I am second
Wind and native muscle in the streets          my image lost and discovered
Among yours:          lost and found in the endless panes
Of a many-gestured bald-headed woman, caught between
One set of clothes and tomorrow's:          naked, pleading in her wax
For the right, silent words to praise
The herd-hammering pulse of our sneakers,
And the time gone by when we paced
River-sided, close-packed in our jostled beginning,
O my multitudes.

Whitman, of course, would have smiled at this.

Even here, however, is the gist of Dickey's greatness, the seed of “right, silent words to praise.” Dickey is at his best when he abandons pretension to social and cohesive opinion, when he strikes off to find and celebrate the rural life which until his generation was dominant in the South. Indeed, Dickey's interest is most fervent for the pre-rural, wild landscape, the Adamic scene of long scars to our bodies and dark fears to our souls. This may well define the Southern poet, and Dickey in particular, as an American example of what Seamus Heaney has called a “venerator.” Dickey's quest has been to locate and report the sites of sacred energy which are the unploughed and unknown thickets our myths, legends, and souls regard as compelling, maternal, and tutorial.

The poet-venerator who praises the natural seems inevitably a pastoralist. More often an elegiac than an epic or dramatic writer, he means to concentrate emotive power to evoke immediate and strong response. It is a poetic attitude necessarily more backward-facing than forward, for it laments change that erodes the durable and the good by which we have so long flourished; yet it is also a poetic attitude whose interrogative aspect is less divorced from political and social engagement than we might suspect. To praise the past against a corrupted present is to lodge complaint against the causes and conditions of the corruption. As the portrait moves toward articulated vision, the transcendent and mythical scheme presses more vigorously into the receptive consciousness of the poet. The poem seeks to distill everything to essences beyond which no consciousness can go, the very process undertaken by Dickey's poems in books after the mid-1970's. Two possibilities open for the poet, one formal, one scenic. In evolving toward a poetic sound, Dickey found himself with gifts of the venerator but attracted by the imperatives of a republican voice, a divided duty as it were. The retraining needed to resolve that dilemma results in the characteristic (and not very Southern) sound of poetry Dickey has written in the 1980's and 1990's as collected in Head-Deep in Strange Sounds: Free-Flight Improvisations from the unEnglish (1979), Puella (1982), and The Eagle's Mile (1990).

Paul Ramsey, a Southern poet whose tastes tend toward the conventionally metric Anglo style, has written, provocatively, that “the metrical history of James Dickey can be put briefly and sadly: a great lyric rhythm found him; he varied it; loosened it; then left it, to try an inferior form.” The rhythmic form Ramsey so admired was not found by Dickey so much as forged by him for his need. It flashes in the twenty-five poems of “Summons” with which Dickey opens The Whole Motion: Collected Poems 1945-1992. Stanzas from “For Robert Bhain Campbell” illustrate:

I like him; I love him,
I shall soon sit cold in an office,
Hearing the sea swing, the dead man step:
The sun at sunset in the mind
Never falls, never fails.
There is Berryman's poem, where you were a bird.
And I, an unsocial man,
Live working for some kind of living
In a job where there is no light. But
I can summon, can summon,
And your face in my mind is hid
By a beard I read you once grew.

An intense voice, wanting both intimate and chanting registers, swings through uncertain feet that sound at moments smooth and at moments about to collapse. But the last three lines display what Ramsey had in mind, a mesmerizing rhythm exactly embodied in the line statement, whether trimeter or tetrameter, syllables falling with firm yet delicate motion that is the anapestic shape for which Dickey's poetry would become known. Very shortly, one imagines, Dickey's sense for the line would have revised stanza one this way:

In an office, hearing
The sea swing, the dead man
Step the sun at sunset
In the mind, never failing.

Dickey's short line with a faintly incantatory quality has a talent for bodying drama inside the mind, a consciousness which moves easily backward and forward in time. Aggressive, sensitively receptive, it rocks with a feel of speed but also with grip and vision. By 1962, in Drowning With Others, Dickey had learned the subtleties inherent in this form, not least lean, agile stanzas in five and six lines, clusters of perception, and leaps from the real to the mystical, as in “Fog Envelopes the Animals”:

Fog envelopes the animals.
Not one can be seen, and they live.
At my knees, a cloud wears slowly
Up out of the buried earth.
In a white suit I stand waiting.

While four of the five lines make bold statement, a firm sonic progression of tetrameter creates a background sense of reluctant movement common in confronting the unknown. Each line proceeds as a consequence of the factual line one, though nothing else appears factual because of the shimmery, slightly and oddly formal syntax which makes “and they live” a soft cry of discovery, makes the cloud out of the earth seem a spirit, and makes the white suit of the speaker the ritual dress of the about-to-be-changed. Here, Dickey's trademark anapests create the three-pace phrase which retards an energy always threatening to bolt. Thus “and they live” holds back momentum and permits discovery, as “At my knees” sets it up.

By the mid-1960's Dickey mastered variations of the anapestic rhythm. They were needed to avoid the inherent monotony of his stichic incantation, a weakness especially troublesome for one of the two kinds of poems he wanted to write. Dickey had from the start an exceptional narrative talent, an ability to bring life to a scene, to color it, expand it, and cinematically make it move. The short line enabled that feel of immersion, the stress pushing ahead and the double drag of anapest retarding. The action of statement was realistic and external, assisting movement, and with it Dickey saw how to tap into moments of mythic reach. Here are two first stanzas that illustrate: “When the rattlesnake bit, I lay / In a dream of the country, and dreamed / Day after day of the river …” (“The Poisoned Man”). “Beginning to dangle beneath / The wind that blows from the undermined wood, / I feel the great pulley grind …” (“In the Marble Quarry”).

Dickey's ability to blow up ordinary scenes into posters of experience, an ability that would force his work farther from the domestic arena and into such wilderness as might be left to an urbanized South, created a need for a line form which did not risk monotony and did not delay progression through temporal and spatial levels. Dickey wanted form capable of what he called, after Whitehead, “presentational immediacy.” The poems of Buckdancer's Choice (1965), widely seen as his best book, restlessly range through the irregular lines and stanzas (his gap space device appears) of “The Firebombing” to the long-line quintets of “Reincarnation” to the scrupulous sculpted quatrains reminiscent of Herbert in “The War Wound” to the wall of words in “The Shark's Parlor” and “The Fiend.”

Dickey had worked himself into possession of many rhythms, none of which sufficed entirely for the tune he wanted to play. Nothing better illustrates Dickey's rhythmic hunt for the sound than his worksheets held by Washington University. Here are the first eight lines of “The May Day Sermon to the Women of Gilmer County, Georgia, By A Woman Preacher Leaving the Baptist Church,” in the first draft, then called “Sears.”

The wide-open dance of motes.
The swinging sand of the motes.
The wide-open dance,
The swinging sand of dust.
That other glory shall pass.
The stable wanders over the earth.
And at night, in the animal's sleep,
The stable wanders over the earth.

The initial lines fumble with that peaceful image of dust as if Dickey can't find a way through tranquillity to his violent tale of paternal and religious abuse, and indeed the struggle lies between potentially soporific iambs and anapests, all jarred by trochees. But by line six a stability arrives as the anapests set a dominant pace, one Dickey will couch in longer lines only in the very last draft before publication. Buried in the lines which seem sculpted by a worshipper's intensifying in-breath and out-breath, the surge and drag of Dickey's old trimeter works into, parallels, sometimes counters an older tetrameter whose sound is a rhythmic composite of Anglo-Saxon beats and King James idiom. With this shift of form, of rhythm, Dickey explodes his poem toward a hybrid and mystical parable of joyful ascension:

Open          to show you the dark where the one pole of light is paid out
In spring by the loft, and in it the croker sacks sprawling and
Themselves into place as it comes          comes          through spiders dead
Drunk on their threads          the hog's fat bristling          the milk
Snake in the rafters unbending through gnats to touch the last
Alive on the sun with his tongue          I shall flickering from my mouth …

Ramsey was certainly correct in observing that Dickey had “loosened” the rhythm. He did so to liberate the poem from its own success, the solid “click” of the trimeter lyric as in “The Heaven of Animals.” Doubtless, the gain for Dickey was simply pleasure in stepping outside reader expectations, his own included. This will to change and change again seems, in retrospect, characteristic of Dickey's writing, as it was of Robert Penn Warren's. Having disguised and modulated his initial rhythm with the new spread of lines, increasingly other aspects of Dickey's treatment of language became manifest. In some respects language became his primary subject. He cultivated syntactic reversals, suspensions, word-fusions, print gimmicks, clausal ambiguities, and enjambments that left comprehension hovering mid-margin like annotation. “The Eye-Beaters,” in fact, employed the poem's margins for authorial commentary. Dickey transformed verbs into nouns, nouns into adjectives, adjectives into phrases. He played loose with syllable counts; he truncated sentences to fragments; he made lines of single words. He generally abandoned stanzaic regularity, allowing the words to determine rhythm visually by sometimes sprawling, sometimes marching, always defining their function in their management of the white space of the page.

The result of Dickey's improvisations was to move his brand of poem visibly away—as it had already removed itself thematically—from the more conventional contemporary poem. It was not unusual to hear, even among Dickey's partisans in the late seventies, that he was becoming hermetic. In truth, because of their interiority, their will to shift inner and outer forums, Dickey's poems had never been very accessible, but they became ever more oblique as he cut the reader's connectors and transitions, offered few clues to relationships, or left unnamed what he was talking about. Still, his tales spoke more than ever in the voice of what he had called “the energized man,” and nowhere more so than in The Zodiac (1976), a poem about poetry and language as much as it is about anything. The energized man, as far as Ramsey and traditional formalists were concerned, was a howler. And was passion enough to justify the willful obliquity of such lines as these from “Root-light, or the Lawyer's Daughter”?

That any just to long for
The rest of my life, would come, diving like a lifetime
Explosion in the juices
Of palmettoes flowing
Red in the St. Mary's River as it sets in the east
Georgia from Florida off, makes whatever child
I was lie still, dividing …

Dickey made formal experiments jam more and more intense life into the poem, the poem as enactment. Desiring to wed fiction, poetry, and film, Dickey was reflecting a break between himself and his more traditional predecessors in Southern poetry. Only Warren evinced anything like the formal trials Dickey attempted, and Warren never escaped the critical estimate of being a fiction writer who traveled in the netherland of poetry. Dickey, with the publication of Deliverance,Alnilam, and now To the White Sea, runs a similar risk with the Southern literature industry. But it is his poetry, surely, and its innovative motions that make him important both as writer and Southerner.

Dickey, to use Fred Hobson's word again, is unburdened by any great sense of classical obligation. The pressure exerted upon his formal choices comes not from an antiquarian standard but from an attempt to accommodate contemporary experience in a living language. Allen Tate said the problem for the modern was not that he had no form, but that he had too many. Dickey's problem has obliged him to understand that his engendered form would have to avoid the monotony his early and middle lyrics seemed headed toward. But the new form must also enable clear shifts away from the direct narratives which undergirded his accomplishment and reputation.

The nature of what constitutes a Southern narrative may best be known to the person who receives it as such. If the benchmarks of Southern fiction are applied, then one supposes there must be violence, warfare, sexual encounters, pursuit of a wild creature in the wood with an accompanying recalibration of the spirit's experience. If the dominant subjects of the poems are family members, dysfunctional or otherwise, and if the stories invoke the memory that composes a sort of compound of law and expectation for the family, then the grid definition for Southern literature may qualify poems as Southern narratives. But I see no reason why “In the Waiting Room,” Elizabeth Bishop's poem about a visit to the dentist, or Adrienne Rich's “Diving Into the Wreck,” an undersea divagation, might not be equally Southern, excepting, of course, neither poet identifies the landscape employed as Southern and, in any regional sense, the landscapes do not function as actors. When there is nothing definitively Southern in subject matter, we may wonder to what extent rhythmic patterns define what is Southern. Poet James Applewhite has suggested (in “The Poet at Home and in the South”) a relationship clearly Southern between tropical weather and slowed, indigenous poetic rhythm.

With landscape as rhythm and a form evolving to minimize the narrative, squeezing it between the lines, Dickey's most recent poetry arrives at a new phase. I mean by rhythm, now, what Warren meant in Democracy & Poetry when he wrote that rhythm is “not mere meter, but all the pulse of movement, density, and shadings of intensity of feeling.” Dickey's reason for the change, insofar as it may be a personal choice, cannot be known; we can see, though, that his interest in peopled dramas has lessened (though it is not entirely abandoned) in favor of an interest in states of being realized through intense, and, after Puella, drastically shorter nodes of language. Puella is an odd interstice, as I think is The Zodiac, for its poems attempt to speak in the voice of Dickey's second wife, Deborah, hence as dramatic monologue, and they attempt the coherence of a bildungsroman or a portrait much like an autobiography, a fictive self self-made.

These poems are unsuccessful heroic quests, narratives of a speaker whose goal must be an emergence from darkness into a treasure-hoard of bright knowledge. For all of Dickey's story skills, neither Puella nor The Zodiac sustains a beginning-middle-end clarity and progress that we will pay to watch all the way through. I think neither voice is so credibly itself as it is Dickey's, pitched, squeaky, noddingly thrown. The life-plot in each poem is so subordinated to a massing of language appropriate to Dickey's interest in states of passionate being that confusion results. Nor does a lift-off occur, transporting us to revelation. Both poems are never “small” but they try too hard to be “big.” In them may be seen the manner of Dickey's late poetry, its richness and a manner arguably Southern, observably a different rhythm, and yet visibly the result of a shift meant to realign Dickey's formal strategies with his continued search for an inwardly intensified consciousness and an outwardly pressurized rhythm.

Without study of his worksheets and drafts, no definite date can be assigned for the emergence of the lyric sound characteristic of everything Dickey has published since 1976. The poem of this sound shows a baffling, edged sense of incompleteness, arbitrariness, and rough-born form that some have regarded as proof of a failed talent. Although there is no doubt the late poems are tougher going, I think Dickey's last collections are no less and probably more referential, accessible, and reality-based than John Ashbery's. But the rhythmic pitch is different, as in this excerpt from Puella:

With a fresh, gangling resonance
Truing handsomely. I draw on left-handed space
For a brave ballast shelving and bracing, and from it,
then, the light
Prowling lift-off, the treble's strewn search and wide-angle

In this five-line passage from “From Time,” Dickey buries his statement (“I draw on left-handed space”) in a haze of unpatterned syllables which make an appositional elaboration, a stretched and gliding poetic sound which features three suspensions or caesuric swirls. Dickey recognizes that his poem resists referential access, so he provides a subtitle (“Deborah for Years at the Piano”). The passage cited is, otherwise, unresolvably ambiguous—yet feels rhythmically persuasive as it works by accretion and momentum, prose principles, and alludes to carpentry, stress forces, and photographic effect all to reinforce a sense of “measuring” in the reader. The laid-in quality of language intense with intention but struggling to maintain movement explains the frequent verbals. To the extent that the lines exist to be commentary on what it feels like to play piano, they are registers of inward awareness, slowed thought imitating act and look.

The registration of states of being, of conditions of feeling, as the emphatic enactment of poems appears to migrate toward a form which employs greater ellipsis, compression, and density, all provided for not through symbol so much as through the word-function shifts which Dickey favors, a truncated and often spatially isolated or dramatically enjambed statement for which the usual expectations are frustrated, subverted, and altered. He removes the scaffolding of dramatic circumstance and blurs the occasion of speech, leaving primarily a language of emotive intensity, a sort of curriculum for the soul's exuberant epiphanies. The Eagle's Mile (1990) reads, even for a long-immersed Dickey partisan, with a difficulty unmatched by any previous work. But that difficulty has always been a part of Dickey's artistic project and it seems transient for steady readers.

Head-Deep in Strange Sounds: Free-Flight Improvisations From the unEnglish appeared in 1979, a baker's dozen poems, each carrying such handrails as “after Alfred Jarry,” “near Eugenio Montale,” and “from the Hungarian of Attila Joszef, head crushed between two boxcars.” Are they translations? Imitations? Some sort of shared composition? I think it matters primarily that they are poems which seek a form-sound in the translation experience of European poets at the same time and in much the same way that James Wright and others did, and do so by breaking the chronological-anecdotal structure, linear and clear as ancestral verse, seeking a dream-fusion of states of being, a braiding in which the inhibitions of usual form and practice may be escaped, and in which looming death-shadows can be cheated by colloquy. It is also a form which permits Dickey to speak of emotion as well as of a citizen's public experiences, about, as he says “the evil / of just living …”; or of the magic of the language of numbers “from the frozen, radiant center / Of that ravishing clarity you give. …”

Double-Tongue: Collaborations and Rewrites, the final section of The Eagle's Mile, contains nine poems very similar to those of Head-Deep, each displaying the phrase-making power that has made Dickey a notably epigrammatic poet as well as an image creator with the skills of a jeweler, a power reenfranchised by the brevity, spatial sculpting, and concentration characteristic of this later work. With compressive form, Dickey has vitalized landscapes as historical and evolutionary witnesses. In “Lakes of Värmland,” he eulogizes and releases Viking warriors “in water turned to brass” by old wars, his precursors, of whom he says “I wish to gather near them …,” a discourse as doomed and moving as that of “The Seafarer,” that Anglo-Saxon call to the quest tinged and poignant with late-life's hard wisdom. Indeed, the common landscapes in these poems are rife with danger, with cold, height, inhospitable trials, the blank mercilessness of rooms of air a man comes to—“No side protected, at home, play-penned / With holocaust. …” Dickey's late season poetry has left him with a chilling view, sometimes vistas, of mortal experience, one which does not always offer consequence for the yearner, though it has cyclical inevitability, which Dickey seems to regard as a sort of master rhythm to which man must seek to fit himself. For that, the poet's pastoral yearning has never been quite enough to satisfy Dickey, though he has deep roots in the agrarian and Southern awareness of elemental cycles. Landscapes contain now, it would seem, the full evocation of final ends he wants. In the talky but, perhaps, undeniable “Farmers” he says:

When love gives him back the rough red of his face he dares
To true-up the seasons of life with the raggedness of earth,
With the underground stream as it turns its water
Into the free stand of the well: a language takes hold
And keeps on, barely making it, made
By pain: the pain that's had him ever since school,
At the same time the indivisible common good
Being shared among the family
Came clear to him: he disappears into fog …

His old habit of conducting big matters from the civic podium forces Dickey to assert what he does not dramatize, the noble and exemplary synchronization of environment and manhood, deed and principle. The Southerner knows this ordinary farmer, praised into mystical junction with the elements, knows that language of pain and sacrifice; this is an old mainstay in the program of heroes. But Dickey's landscape here has less rhythmic conviction than the Burma Shave rhetoric somewhere behind it.

The new rhythm of landscape, an image strategy, antirational and associational, born of his interest in European modernist poetics, frequently permits Dickey the immediacy and dream-like intensity of consciousness receiving stimuli unmediated. Yet the form also weakens under statements made bluntly, as if they were without need of coloration, extension, appositional naming. “Gila Bend,” a memory of pilot gunnery training in World War II, recalls the scene of “a cadaver / On foot” and it is really scene, not human dilemma, which commands the poem's energy, a desertscape of “… small-stone heat / No man can cross; no man could …” survive to “rise face-out”:

Full-force from the grave, where the sun is down on him
Alone, harder than resurrection
Is up: down harder
Much harder than that.

The slight comic bravado in the last line undermines grim memory because the poet appears manipulative. One is hard-pressed not to feel the trochees, triply repeated as “harder,” slide into lapel-grabbing. The same intensity, however, leads in The Eagle's Mile to an unusual feel of colloquy with natural forces (often personified), and you feel strongly the renewed energy in elemental and religious imagery such as that of birds, flight, and upward soaring. Poems praise yearning for heights. As Dickey says in “Eagles,” about ambition, “The higher rock is / The more it lives.” If you feel your suspension of disbelief faltering before hierarchical ordering which Dickey loves, it is worth recalling that boasts functioned in our tribal memory and literary heritage to defend against self-defeat as well as to illuminate destiny. The stance of the aged warrior gazing at eternals, willing survival, reappears when Dickey writes: “Where you take hold, I will take / That stand in my mind, rock bird alive with the spirit- / life of height …”

When the heroic imperative wanes and the pastoral waxes, Dickey locates himself at edges of change. “Circuit,” “Daybreak” and “Two Women” are all poems of beaches, apparently the Atlantic off South Carolina. Dickey's beaches are sentient forms constantly remaking themselves (as the soul does) with “their minds on a perfect connection” which, when you are upon them, allow you to “meet yourself …,” even to make a kind of ultimate prayer: “Stretch and tell me, Lord; / Let the place talk. / This may just be it.” The colloquial side-of-the-mouth tone of that last half-line has become a staple finishing line for Dickey, where it cuts against the profound statements of revelation which he favors.

Perhaps it is elegiac praise for places he views as junctures of meaning and consequence which is the most Southern aspect of Dickey's poetry. Place has historical consciousness; there he locates rhythmic and final realities. There is a great sweetness he is adamant to express, and a singing quality in these poems, which Dickey has always had but not pared to such efficient presentation as in the violent “Night Bird,” narcissistic “Daybreak,” playful “To the Butterflies,” and in the second half of “Two Women”:

Early light: light less
Than other light. Sandal without power
To mark sand. Softly,
Her hair downward-burning, she walks here, her foot-touch
The place itself,
Like sand-grains, unintended,
Born infinite.

The liquid balance that sounds, with l's, the hieratic entry and imagistic power of this woman evokes Genesis, Eve, and Helen. Poe would have approved. With the poetry in The Eagle's Mile, Dickey fuses image medallions with compact narrative. The roaring rhythms of his mid-career lyrics slow to write less and get more said. A fine page architect, Dickey's effects range from list to epitaph. Even the civic witness he has long coveted works in “The Eagle's Mile,” a poem ode-like in celebrating the masculine and democratic virtues of Justice William Douglas, an outdoorsman and master of Hopkins's “cliffs of the mind.” Dickey sees Douglas's spirit riding over the last wilds of North Georgia, making contact with sources of origin that R. P. Warren would certainly have applauded, even if Tate and Ransom might have suspected an Adamic blindness:

Catch into the hunted
Horns of the buck, and into the deepest hearing—
Nerveless, all bone, bone-tuned
To leaves and twigs—with the grass drying wildly
When you woke          where you stood with all the blades rising
Behind you, and stepped out
possessing the trail …

Beside this man-on-the-trail solitary, Dickey stacks a poetry of tenderness in “Daughter,” which few could so convincingly modulate, from a father's gladness at the delivery of his daughter to an exaltation of the guiding powers of life. It begins in the touch of a small finger:

To him: not father of God, but assistant
Father to this one. All forests are moving, all waves,
All lava and ice. I lean. I touch
One finger. Real God, roll.

Dickey's poetry has turned autumnal but it is not gloomy. He has lived and lives as an unregenerate warrior in act and in spirit, a joy-seeker, a minister for whatever world he can act for and in. Richard Wilbur's phrase “the mood of manhood” describes what Dickey enacts in poetry. He rejects conventional structures and visions of the contemporary poet who answers only by dim light. Dickey's pastoral depends on heroic enterprise, on out-of-shape Rocky-like runners (“The Olympian”), on a middle-aged man's fantasy of foiling an assault by stripping the thief of his weapon (“Spring-Shock”), on watching a snowfall that may be someone's “very great winning hand” (“Snow Thickets”). In all places and times, Dickey believes, manliness connects to consequence, a way, a courage of behaving by which we can see, as “Expanses” tells us, that “a man comes; / It's true, he's alive. …” To know that is to frame acceptance, a submission to the rhythms of being, and finally “Brother: boundless, / Earthbound, trouble-free, and all you want— / Joy like short grass.”

Urban America breeds few readers of poetry who favor the old-fashioned man at the heart of The Eagle's Mile, a man who forged a life from wilds we don't have much of now, a man for whom the hard scenes of memory speak the unspeakable, one whose destiny is not accusation, guilt, burdened consciousness, but is to live without sophistry. That is Dickey's motion, however, one inseparable from the environmental awareness of his Southern experience. In “The Little More,” a sort of catechism, he describes the marginal quality of time between boyhood and maturity, the immortal moment that cannot truly be said, but may be seen as “Joy set in the bending void / Between the oars” of a rowed craft. Joy, all boys must learn, is the lure of living, the quest's end. It can come only to the boy, Dickey believes, who submits to evolving a competent self. “The Little More” finds Dickey's hero emerged from the wilderness, paternally wise, offering what Dickey has always had in abundance, appetite and the power to “carry,” which is simultaneously a metaphor and a faith:

Boy who will always be glanced-at
and then fixed
In warm gazes, already the past knows
It cannot invent you again,
For the glitter on top of the current
Is not the current.
No, but what dances on it is
More beautiful than what takes its time
Beneath. Running on a single unreleased
Eternal breath, rammed
With carry, its all-out dream and dread
Surging bull-breasted,
Head-down, unblocked.

The public cadence of exhortation and the private cadence of knowledge—to be and to know—are in the Southern poetry of James Dickey, as mysterious as our destiny. From the pastoral to the prayerful to the final “all-out” labors of the heroic athlete, James Dickey praises. It is not athletic success that Dickey covets for us, but what he calls an “Eternal breath / rammed with carry,” which has to be pregnant destiny, and more, a little more, as he says. He celebrates consequence, the order within all other orders, and motions, which men and women who give their lives to poetry bear upon the page as the issue of life. Life's issue, as he might say, is everything. It is local rhythm. It is many motions braided in one.

Ronald Baughman (essay date spring 1994)

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SOURCE: Baughman, Ronald. “James Dickey's Alnilam: Toward a True Center Point.” South Carolina Review 26, no. 2 (spring 1994): 173-79.

[In the following essay, Baughman examines the symbolic meaning of the settings in Alnilam.]

James Dickey's second novel, Alnilam, concentrates on three major settings that serve as symbolic constructs within which the principal character pursues transformations in his life. The first setting, an Atlanta amusement park that Frank Cahill, the novel's protagonist, builds as a perverse version of the Garden of Eden, illustrates his fall from or rejection of human society—of family or other human relationships. The second setting, an Army Air Corps training base during the early years of World War II, where Frank searches for information about the fate of his only son, is yet another closed environment, but one in which a highly organized group of air cadets endeavor to ascend beyond the realm of ordinary human experience into a mystical state associated with revolution and nihilism. These two settings represent extreme opposites in the continuum of human society—the first enclosing a purposely isolated middle-aged man whose failure is that of the human heart, the second enclosing a community of visionary, messianic, and potentially dangerous youths, whose failure is that of the human intellect. The third setting, Boyd McLendon's Peckover Hotel, populated by a variety of figures who live near or work on the air base but who are not a part of the air-cadet society, becomes the center point between the two extremes. Within this third setting Frank gains a degree of community that has before eluded him and that is the result of learning about himself in the process of learning about his son. Achieving this center point, a marriage of heart and mind, Frank attains his own personal version of Alnilam, the central star in the belt of the constellation Orion.

Complementing the symbolic settings in the novel are sets of paired images—past and present, sight and blindness, sugar and insulin, water and blood—that further illuminate Frank's search for the truth about Joel and, more importantly, about himself. His struggle begins within his own body when Dr. Ghil warns him that the blood coursing through him is contaminated: “A Niagara of sugar is pouring through your system every hour. We can hold that at bay with the insulin … but you'll have to walk a nutritional tightrope one that balances you between insulin and sugar” (15). Frank's life-altering internal struggle is thus conveyed through the images of blood and water, insulin and sugar; and because he cannot maintain balance on this particular “tightrope,” he ultimately sacrifices his eyesight. In his blind state, Frank ironically achieves a clearer vision of how to find the balance, the center point in his life Moreover, the image of blood introduced in the protagonist's struggle with diabetes is expanded as he confronts the outside world. In each setting Frank considers the nature of blood ties and witnesses of some sort of blood sacrifice, thereby clarifying his proximity to personal and communal harmony.

Frank's early life, when he is healthy and sighted, is characterized by an almost pathological estrangement from others: “After graduation from high school, Cahill had wandered Atlanta, working at whatever carpentry jobs came along. The wandering, the aimlessness, were right for him. … He had met Florence Acree when buying flowers for his mother's funeral; she was the one who had tried to become more than simply an interruption in his existence of measuring, nailing, wandering, and looking without thought” (75). Yet his marriage to Florence, like the other early involvements he unseemingly and thoughtlessly engages in, is “listless” (78) and mechanical; he prefers his own “lonely arrogance” (7) to the bother of “company of any kind” (78), including that of his wife, who leaves him when she is pregnant with their only child.

When Frank puts down roots, creates a permanent structure, he does so, ironically, by constructing an amusement park, though “he [has] no sense of humor” (78). The complex includes a swimming pool, a skating rink, a game room, and “an elaborate half-completed maze-like building … called the Honeycomb” (7); the park is surrounded by a high wooden fence with two towers “like those in minimum-security prisons” (76), from which he watched but remains aloof from daily activities. Like Daedalus, Frank considers himself a master carpenter and maze-builder, though, unlike his Greek prototype, he does not wish to escape from this self-imposed prison.

Instead, Cahill envisions his walled-in park as a Garden of Eden, though one permeated by a dark undertone of unconventional sexuality and complicated by a rubber snake called Buster. Frank and his assistant, Ruiz Alonso, create a game of chance by placing a two-way mirror in one of the women's dressing stalls. When an unsuspecting victim selects this stall in which to undress, Frank and Ruiz voyeuristically observe her undressing and being terrified by Buster. This scene of detached sexual enjoyment associated with unfeeling power over another is reinforced by another scene in which Frank tears off the damaged toenail of a girl swimming in his amusement-park pool. While mechanically making love to his wife, Frank recalls the swimming pool incident, which heightens his sexual intensity, an intensity that has “nothing to do with Florence” (79) and everything to do with his recollection of “the strange vibrancy there in his place between the girl's body and the faint image of her blood dissolving in the water … and this when he was deep inside his wife” (80). In this part of his life, “in his place” of the walled, prison-like, perverted-Eden amusement park, Frank regards human connection with a detachment that makes blood, water, and vision—indeed, life itself—virtually meaningless to him.

Frank Cahill's movement toward a true center point begins when he goes blind and hears soon thereafter of the presumed death of Joel, the son he has never seen. Stripped of his normal sight, Frank learns to depend upon his other senses, “dreams and memory” (90), and imagination, to guide him to a clearer vision of his son's life and his own. Ironically, his quest for Joel leads him into a setting that both parallels and directly opposes the amusement-park setting he is leaving.

The World War II Army Air Corp training base at Peckover, North Carolina, is an enclosed compound that in many ways resembles Frank's “minimum-security prison” amusement park. McClintock McCraig, one of Joel Cahill's instructors, musing about the layout of the base, emphasizes the abundance of athletic fields, playing courts, and swimming pools. Yet this playground, like Frank's, is surrounded by a wooden barrier, in this case of fir trees. The trees “gave off a steady church-dark and enveloped whoever entered or stood among them with silence and an atmosphere of … some quick, final thing to happen. … It was the unity, McCraig thought, the entire secrecy of the fir trees, the compacted quiet that changed you as it took you in. … He was—had come to be—aware of a sense of privilege, for the secrecy of the field inside the forest was his own secret, he felt, more than anyone else's (114-15). McCraig's sense of the secret power of the training-base location parallels Frank's sense of the secret power of his own amusement-park location; both settings tend to enforce change—the abandonment of normal human values—upon those who enter them.

The training base houses within its enclosed confines a group of revolutionary cadets, of whom Joel has been the messianic leader. The group has adopted the name Alnilam, since Alnilam is “the star at the center of the belt of Orion, which is the most obvious of the winter constellations in the Northern Hemisphere. … It has to be a moving center. … The central star. … The moving center. … It carries you with it, and yet it's always the center. You follow. Everything follows, and holds together” (154).

The motif of centrality is vital to this group, believing, as its members do, that they are the center point of a rebellion against the military bureaucracy that attempts to make the individual “the perfect system-slave” (330). Instead, the cadets envision themselves transformed through their rebellion, as Joel's journal reveals, into a new, mystical, superhuman state: “There is only one victory, and the main thing about it is that when we get it we'll throw it away, and live in a world of nihilism and music. We'll be weightless, in the Second Body, the Old Brain, but still control the ground under our feet” (409).

Though Frank is drawn to the Alnilam group—its members see his search for his son as preordained by his blood ties to Joel, and they regard Frank as a surrogate father to them all—he is always mystified by and wary of the cadets' motives. For if Alnilam promises to elevate its members above the ordinary into a state of artistry and “precision mysticism” (111)—“Navigation was really a form of poetry. So was mathematics in general” (443)—it also enforces a notion of centrality in which the individual is ironically subordinated to the group. Thus, the idea that the “moving center … carries you with it. … You follow. Everything follow” (154) takes on a more sinister meaning—that of mindless, unfeeling adherence to a group.

This identification of the Alnilam cadets with a totalitarian system is reinforced by a pattern of blood sacrifices involving or caused by the group. Joel Cahill is regarded as messiah both because he is the intellectual/spiritual leader of the Alnilam revolt and because he has presumably died in a fiery plane crash. Wrapped in a quilt by the suggestively named farmer Luther Bledsoe, who attempts to help him, Joel leaves a bloody silhouette of his upper body on the quilt's “cathedral window” (271) design before mysteriously disappearing. Joel is clearly associated with the martyred Christ and Christian imagery in this scene, and the cadets have undeniably developed a cult around his memory as sacrificed leader—one who has left behind not only a bloody shroud but also a holy book, his journal.

Joel has also left behind Hannah Pelham, a woman who has been his lover and, in a very real sense, a victim of his power. Hannah invites Frank Cahill to have dinner with her, and on the way to her house, he and his wolf-like guide / guard dog, Zack, are attacked by five neighborhood dogs that Zack savagely slaughters. This bloody scene is juxtaposed with a following one in which Hannah and Frank have dinner and then sleep together. Yet their sexual experience consists primarily of sadomasochistic whipping, a form of sexual activity that Joel has taught her, Hannah explains. Frank's quest for Joel thus leads him through a massacre of beasts to an unconventional, violent sexual encounter, actions that tend to attach the recurrent images of blood and perverse sexuality to the messianic Joel.

Moreover, during the planned chaos of the cadet revolt, further blood sacrifices occur. Zack is cut to pieces by propellers while trying to guide Frank, disoriented by a sugar-insulin imbalance in his blood, through a maze of planes crashing into each other on the airfield tarmac. Captain Faulstick, a veteran bombardier who has become a friend of Frank's, is killed when an airplane collides with his own plane. Following this carnage, Cadet Shears, one of the principal figures of the Alnilam group, promises to bury Zack but dismisses Faulstick's death as “Regrettable. … He just got in the way” (665). The cadet's indifference to the death of an admirable military veteran and “good man” confirms Frank's earlier assessment of his own son: “he was now more certain than not that there was a side of his body that he would not have liked” (433). Frank realizes that Joel and the other Alnilam cadets have misused their powers. They have created a community that has been inspired by lofty ideas but that has become inhumane, bloodthirsty, and unfeeling. They have, in short, embraced a fascism not far removed in its cold, totalitarian nature from the fascism they are being trained to combat. Caught in the bounds of their training camp and in the constructs of their ideology, the Alnilam group finally represents to Frank a system in which both community and intellect have failed.

Boyd McLendon's Peckover Hotel, the novel's third major setting, represents Frank's center point in which heart and mind are balanced harmoniously. The hotel, located outside the air base, is a maze-like construction that Frank, significantly, has little trouble negotiating, unlike the maze of mystical, conspiratorial ideas he encounters inside the base. In the hotel McLendon provides Frank lodging, food, drink, and conversation—social amenities that he has not fully experienced in the other two settings. Yet a far more meaningful connection between these two men helps Frank form a basis for companionship that he has scorned in the past. McLendon, like Frank, is alone because he has lost his wife and family. Yet his relationship with his wife has apparently been an affirmative one, ended not by estrangement and abandonment, as Frank's marriage has been, but by death. “‘Everybody's dead!’ McLendon said, slowly but not bitterly. ‘My wife, Shirley Dell, died about six years ago. … She bled to death in the hospital. Before that I had twins, a boy and a girl, but they died fast’” (188-89). McLendon's lack of bitterness over the deaths of his loved ones, his apparent satisfaction with meaningful blood ties, with fulfilling relationships however brief, counters Frank's sense of emotional alienation from his own wife and son.

At McLendon's table, Frank participates in his most important discussions, those with two war veterans, Captain Lennox Whitehall, who now teaches navigation at Peckham air base, and Captain Claude Faulstick, who instructs the cadets in the theory of flight. Whitehall, Faulstick, McLendon, and Frank form “a special group” (194) founded on mutual respect; yet this group supports and praises individuality, unlike the Alnilam cadets, who subjugate the individual to the group. Furthermore, Whitehall and Faulstick lament their present plight of “wandering-around among these boys” (196), drawing a clear distinction between themselves as seasoned veterans and the inexperienced novices they train; these mature men have developed their ideas about flying and the military through their combat experiences, their blood sacrifices; whereas the Alnilam cadets base their theories on pure intellectual and mystical speculations.

Moreover, Whitehall's most significant reflections are presented not to the cadets but rather to the other mature adults at McLendon's table. Unlike the young member of the Alnilam group, Whitehall tempers the solely intellectual by voicing the emotional center of his war experiences. Because of his navigational skills during a particularly bloody mission in the South Pacific, Whitehall has saved the lives of his crew members. When Faulstick comments that the saved men must have “loved you after that,” Whitehall replies, “Love me? Do you think that really comes into it? Gratitude? Respect? Awe, maybe, even? You're kidding when you say love, Faulstick, but you may just be right” (214). Whitehall has saved the lives of his comrades by relying on himself, his intelligence, his skill; but he has not separated himself from—elevated himself above—the needs, of others. In a statement reminiscent of Whitman's “I was the man,” Whitehall declares, “I was the guy, and they were the others, and we didn't die. We want out to kill people, and we must have killed a good bunch of them … and the main feeling when you're on your way back is life; it's a life feeling … you want to become a doctor, or a saint. You want to do good for little children. … You don't want anybody to be lonely or scared” (217). Whitehall's declaration illustrates that the Alnilam cadets have aspired to achieve but finally have failed to comprehend: that the individual can rise above the ordinary yet still have compassion for others, that the heart can be as important a source of power as the intellect, that the two finally cannot be separated if the individual is to survive.

Frank absorbs the lessons of this “special” society—the amenities McLendon offers, the message of comradeship Whitehall provides, and the compassionate understanding that Faulstick voices—and expresses it in terms of his own experience: “They had come here, to this hot room, this whiskey and meat, because of him. He rallied to himself as he had always done since the total of his blindness, as the center, the reason for the disembodied voices that called themselves humanity, wherever he was” (197). Through his new vision in blindness Frank encompasses their experience and their message and, in doing so, connects with them to discover both himself and the humanity he shares with them.

Initially, Frank's cold, distorted heart keeps him confined within his self-created prison / park. His distance from others marks his extreme position outside the community of man. In order to resurrect his dead son, at least in his own mind, Frank moves into the secretive world of an opposing yet equally extreme social unit. At the Peckover air base, Frank confronts a system that attempts to crush and subjugate the individual, primarily through an unfeeling, tyrannical intellect gone mad. Finally, the protagonist achieves a harmonious balance between these extremes at McLendon's Peckover Hotel. In this setting Frank Cahill experiences a renewal to life once he discovers a balance between the mind and the heart, between the individual and society; he thus reaches the center point that is his own Alnilam.

Work Cited

Dickey, James. Alnilam. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1987.

Ernest Suarez (essay date winter-summer 1994-1995)

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SOURCE: Suarez, Ernest. “Deliverance: Dickey's Original Screenplay.” Southern Quarterly 33, no. 2 (winter-summer 1994-1995): 161-69.

[In the following essay, Suarez juxtaposes Dickey's novel with the film version of Deliverance.]

James Dickey and director John Boorman battled over the making of Deliverance to the point that Dickey was asked to leave the set. To Dickey's chagrin, Boorman cut the original screenplay's first twenty-five pages, altered scenes and changed the film's ending in order to create a more commercially palatable product. After the film was finished, Boorman felt that he had influenced Dickey's product to the extent that he claimed co-authorship, which would have entitled Boorman to approximately $250,000. Though the Screen Writers' Guild eventually adjudicated in Dickey's favor, and though the film received much critical acclaim and generated Dickey a huge amount of publicity, Dickey has continued to express dissatisfaction with the movie. Dickey's primary objection resides in Boorman's handling of characterization, as the director's emphasis on creating a taut, thrilling adventure film left little room for what Dickey calls “the psychological orientation—the being of the characters, their interrelations, their talk with each other, the true dramatic progression … it is not the film as I would have it … though something which resembles the original story remains, the texture, the field of nuance, the details, characterizations, dramatic buildup and resolution as originally conceived are lost; nothing but the bones are left” (Screenplay 156-57).

Dickey's remarks are not surprising because of his longtime preoccupation with the psychological dimensions of primitivism, a phenomenon he has explored in To the White Sea, his screenplay of Call of the Wild, “Reincarnation II,” “Approaching Prayer,” “The Fiend” and many other poems. In Deliverance, Dickey creates four differing characters, all suburbanites, and plunges them into a situation in which they must battle nature (including primitive man) for survival. By emphasizing how each character behaves, Dickey demonstrates how returning to a primal condition can be simultaneously horrifying and enlivening. Unlike Boorman, who wanted to get the canoers on the water as quickly as possible in order to quicken the film's pace, Dickey desired to use the opening scenes to create a complex relationship between the characters and, particularly, within Ed.

Unlike the movie, which begins with shots of the flooded river and the dam's construction, highlighting the vanishing wilderness, the screenplay echoes the novel's opening scene, with the four main characters drinking beer in a tavern while looking over a topographical map. Dickey uses this scene, as well as others that Boorman cut, as a lens through which to interpret the wilderness episodes, especially those involving Ed's reversion to a feral state, a transformation which the film ignores. Whereas in the film the characters first appear fully outfitted, in the mountains and driving towards the river, the screenplay uses the tavern scene to distinguish between them, first through close-ups of Lewis's muscular hand pointing to coordinates on a map, followed by an emphasis on how his attire—“an expensive sport shirt”—differs from the others' business suits. Dickey also suggests that “one of the three men—anyone but LEWIS—occasionally glances at the behind of one of the waitresses in sheernet tights” (2). However, when “the waitresses pass the table, he (LEWIS) is the one they look at” (3). Lewis is clearly the center of attention, as well as in control:

I'll go along. For some reason I always do. But what are we proving, Lewis?
Maybe nothing, maybe everything. Now tell me the truth, buddy. You ever regret going with me?
(hesitating just a little, but not much): No, but sometimes I've had the shit scared out of me. Like when it was your idea to put our lights out in that cave “to hear the very sound of the earth,” as you said, and then couldn't get them back on.
But we got them back on, didn't we?
Finally, but my God. … I'll take the river.
Well, by damn, let's do take it! I need to get out some. I'm getting too soft. I can't even climb the steps to my office without worrying about a heart attack. I just stand at the top panting.
They tell me that this is the kind of thing that gets hold of suburban dwellers once in a while. But most of them just lie down till the feeling passes.
And when most of them lie down they're at Woodlawn before they think about getting up.
I mean, the whole thing does seem kind of crazy.
(looking down): All right. Let me demonstrate. What are you going to be doing this afternoon?
Oh … most likely I'll see a couple of new people about mutual funds. I have to draw up some papers and get them notarized.
How about you, Drew?
Hire some more route salesmen. Our newest carbonated miracle is not selling like we want it to. The whole soft-drink market is in a slump now, especially our share of it. Somebody's got to find out why.
Take some photographs for Kitts Textile Mills. Kitt'n Britches. Cute girl in our britches stroking her pussy. A real cat, you understand.
(with a tolerant grin as he leans back): Too bad. But have I made my point?


This exchange situates Ed between Lewis and the other two characters. Unlike Lewis, Ed and the others are “average” Americans, but Ed's relationship to Lewis implies that Ed possesses the desire to move beyond his current circumstance. However, for Ed the escapades with Lewis represent a diversion from daily monotony; for Lewis they also serve as preparations for a future in which “the machines are going to fail, the political systems are going to fail, and a few good men are going to take to the hills and start over” (19). Though Lewis is the scene's focal point, Dickey specifies that viewers should “see this scene as though … sitting in the position occupied by Ed” because he wants the audience to share Ed's fascination with—and difference from—Lewis (2). In this manner, Lewis functions to provide insight into Ed's psyche, setting the contours of the transformation Ed undergoes when he becomes both predator and prey.

The screenplay's next scenes continue to emphasize Ed's psychological state, as the description of Ed sauntering back to his advertising agency indicates:

A full, middle-distance shot now as ED begins to walk, and we see him, occasionally pulling at the stickiness of his jacket, walk along in an unorganized but plentiful procession of secretaries of all ages, most of them with exaggerated hairdos and tasteless summer clothing. If desired, the camera can pick out some of these faces in close-ups, showing a gum-chewing young one, a middle-aged one with a toothpick in her mouth, and various other unimaginative, commonplace, hopeless everyday female human beings going back towards doing what they have to do.

ED moves along in this procession, uncomfortable but resigned to it; but, though he goes along quietly, it should be obvious that, though he can stand it, he dislikes it.

A closer shot as a large leaf comes down. He stops for a moment and looks up, and as another leaf falls, he catches it in his hand.

Close-up on leaf, which is beginning to turn with autumn. ED's hand travels briefly around the edge of the leaf. He discards it and walks on.

Long shot of ED in procession of women, which, it is now obvious, is heading for a big, modern office building. At the fountain in front of the building where one of the women tosses in a coin, the procession divides, and in this division there is something both comical and ceremonial. ED goes around the fountain in his part of the line and enters the building.


Dickey accents Ed's relationship to the civilized, a circumstance that threatens Ed's masculinity. The women, costumed in “exaggerated hairdos and tasteless summer clothing,” are used to represent society's artificiality. The series of adjectives—“unimaginative, commonplace, hopeless everyday”—employed to describe them provides a sharp contrast to the realm of masculine adventure that Lewis inhabits. Details ranging from the “stickiness” of Ed's jacket to the meditative moment of grasping the leaf, as well as his place in the “procession,” suggest Ed's anxiety that he is wasting his life by becoming an automaton groveling for coins. When he enters the “antiseptic” building, he is told that “nothing interesting” has happened, and, glancing at advertising layouts, he experiences sensations of “disgust, boredom, fed-upness” and “simple ennui” that convey “futility, well-financed boredom, uselessness, unorganized tedium” (7-8).

However, in the midst of this suburban sterility Dickey interjects a moment used in later scenes to suggest Ed's desire for something beyond his present circumstance, as well as to indicate the illusory dimensions of his desires. When Ed enters the studio where the Kitt'n Britches advertisement is being shot, the young model

manages to convey, through the way in which she gets up, that she is doing it for ED, and for no one else in the whole world. There should be no professionalism in this, no standard glamour, but just a simple and private act of giving.

In close, very close on the girl's face, and then right into her right eye, where there is a curious-looking but unforgettable fleck of gold.


Unlike the scene where he is walking to the office, here Ed is not just another body in a procession but the focus of someone's attention. In contrast to the secretarial horde, the model is pictured as genuine, with “no professionalism,” “no artificiality.” The “unforgettable fleck” in the woman's eye also establishes the moment's uniqueness for Ed, who responds to the robed woman's sexuality.

After several shots highlighting the model's eroticism and Ed's fascination with her, the script fades to a scene of “practical sexuality,” Ed's and his wife's bedroom on the morning of the canoe trip. Dickey employs Martha's appearance and sex to further define Ed's emotional condition. In contrast to the model, “Martha moves towards” Ed in “a movement we can see is entirely habitual” and she “is definitely not glamorous,” “her head wrapped in a towel” (10). As Martha reaches for a jar of vaseline, Ed grumbles.

Do you always have to be so surgical about it? (But he likes this about her, and she knows it.)
(knowing this is something that she can do): What do you expect from an exsurgical nurse? Any nurse can tell you that sex is not romance. It's practice. Whatever helps, helps.
Ok. Ok. Do your thing.
(after a short silence): Which way do you want it honey?
Why don't you turn over this time.
Will do.
What follows now I will leave to the discretion and ingenuity of the director and the cameraman. There should be a confused but quite definite suggestion of sexual intercourse, not ecstatic but rhythmical and orderly. There might be a cut or two of MARTHA's bare back heaving and the sound of her muffled sexual voice coming from the pillow.
Out of this should come, as though called forth, an ectoplasmic image of the girl in the studio, and then a close-up of her face and then her eye, as she appears in Ed's mind. Through and beneath this might also still be suggested the heaving of Martha's back, as she dutifully labors.


Similar to the way that Dickey locates Ed between the adventurous Lewis and the more commonplace Bobby and Drew, he places Martha between the model and the secretarial mass. She is not “artificial,” but neither is she exotic, a distinction stressed by her attitude towards sex and the description of the sex as “not ecstatic but rhythmical and orderly.” But, like Dickey's use of Lewis, Bobby and Drew, the distinctions between the female characters are less revealing about them than about Ed. Ed's choice of having Martha “turn over” so that he cannot see her face during intercourse and his fantasy about the model as Martha “dutifully labors” reinforce how he feels about his own existence—he wants change—and foreshadow his eventual realization of Martha's value.

Having established Ed's psychological state, the scenes following the bedroom episode begin to illuminate the reversion motif. The characters (Ed and Lewis in one car with Drew and Bobby following in another) drive through suburbia, onto two-lane rural highways, and into the mountains, a sequence which Dickey uses to indicate “that they are moving towards more primitive people, wilder scenes” (18). As the cars climb up the narrow mountain roads, Ed, who has been “alternately sleeping, dozing, and waking,” becomes increasingly aware of danger, a process described as “sinister but exciting,” making Ed “wake up fully.” When Lewis begins to espouse his survivalist philosophy, Ed “wakes up even more fully,” indicating that, despite his cynicism, dormant aspects of his nature are beginning to stir:

Oh, I don't care anything about all that, Lewis. You ought to know that by now. I'm a get-through-the-day man. I'm not a great art director. I'm not a great archer. I like the way I live well enough.
LEWIS (confidently):
We'll see. (he pats the dashboard as though it represented all manmade things) You've had all that office furniture in front of you, all these years: desks and bookcases, and filing cabinets and the rest. You've been sitting in a chair that won't move. But when that river is under you, all that is going to change. There's nothing you do as vice-presidenct of Emerson-Gentry that's going to make any difference at all, when the water starts to foam up. Then, it's not going to be what your title says you do, but what you end up doing. You know, doing. (19)


Oh, I don't know. If you wanted to, Lewis, you could go up in the hills and live right now. You could have all those same conditions. You could hunt. You could farm. You could suffer just as much as if they dropped the H-bomb. You could even start a colony.
It's not the same. Don't you see? It would just be eccentric. Survival depends—well, it depends on having to survive. The kind of life I'm talking about depends on its being the last chance. The very last of all.


Lewis's claims intrigue and unsettle Ed, who goes on to question Lewis about life in the mountains. After their conversation Ed “shrugs, tries to relax again and doesn't succeed” because, in an indefinite manner, the survivalist scenarios that Lewis has posited, like his encounter with the model, speak to a fundamental part of his being. And, indeed, Lewis's observation that “when the river is under you, all that is going to change” is confirmed by an exhilarating first day of whitewater canoeing, as well as by the horrifying experiences of the second and third days in the wilderness.

Boorman's elimination of the screenplay's early scenes caused the suburbanites' encounters with the mountain people to lose subtlety and psychological impact. Though the screenplay and the movie employ the same basic cast of mountain characters, the film highlights these characters' grotesquery, whereas the screenplay uses their grotesquery to develop the reversion motif. As a result, in the film the implications for Ed's sense of himself and of his civilized existence are severely diminished. For instance, Dickey uses Ed's conversation with Lewis during the drive to suggest the nature of Ed's transformation in the rape scene, which Dickey asserts should “be filmed from” Ed's “point of view, with the camera reeling and tracking unexpectedly and violently” (63-64). After Lewis shoots the hillbilly with an arrow, Dickey calls for:

Close-up of Ed as he rises, transfigured by terror and by the turn events have taken. He is beastlike with the power of having the gun. He wraps the string the gun uses for a trigger around his hand and swings the barrel to cover the woods and everything in it: to be able to blast whatever will come.

Now we go back to a full shot of the man (the hillbilly that Lewis shot) as he falls to his knees and then to his side, rolling back and forth, spitting and gritting his teeth. Then he gets, with awful comic seriousness, back onto his feet again, this time with his lips red with blood and drooling saliva and blood. He turns towards the woods and takes a couple of halting steps toward them, and then seems to change his mind and turns back to ED, holding out one hand like an Old Testament prophet about to divulge a secret to one of the chosen.


Lewis's claim that “survival … depends on having to survive” (22) resonates throughout the scene: the trip changes from a journey that enables Ed to fantasize about shedding suburban angst to a situation that genuinely awakens dormant energies, but at a substantial cost. The shock of Bobby's rape and of his own near-rape by truly primitive people “transfigures” Ed, making him “beastlike” by releasing his aggressive urges. Indeed, Dickey's description of the dying man moving towards Ed “like an Old Testament prophet” stresses that the suburbanite has been initiated into a new condition, for he has attained an awareness which will later enable him to kill.

The screenplay's early episodes also inform Dickey's treatment of the main characters after the canoers decide to conceal the hillbilly's body. Bobby and Drew, the two most contentedly civilized characters, are completely ineffectual in the wilderness, where civilized mores do not apply; Drew, who wants to call in the police and rely on the system, is murdered and Bobby is paralyzed by fear. By foregrounding Ed's initial differences from Bobby and Drew, as well as the changes in Ed that have taken place during the journey, the connection between Ed as a fantasizing, discontented city man and as a creature who is both predator and prey becomes apparent, a point suggested by Dickey's use of the model during the cliff climbing scene:

(mumbling profoundly): What a view. What a view.
He lies watching, and we watch with him. Nothing happens for a while. Then we might have a very brief, nearly subliminal image of the girl model in the studio: just her face, superimposed on the river. From the little we are able to tell, she is looking inviting and enigmatic, as mysterious as the river and the wilderness itself. Then she is gone, and we are not sure we have seen her at all.


Dickey associates Ed's feeling towards the model with the river and the wilderness, implying that the same energy that caused Ed's discontent with social conformity feeds his instinctual urges. In the movie, Ed appears to be gambling out of desperation and succeeding through willpower and luck; there is no sense that his essential nature has changed. But in the screenplay, like the novel, Ed's experiences take on a mystical quality, a near-religious dimension, which is reflected by Dickey's instructions that Ed should appear “absolutely crucified on this cliff,” and that when Ed reaches the top he seems “not completely mortal or even human” but “more Godlike, or demonic.” The climb makes him “infinitely more sensitive to the feel of things than he's been before,” resulting in “a profound sense of exaltation” (98).

Dickey's description of Ed as “Godlike, or demonic,” and the terror and “exaltation” he senses, also reveal the paradoxical qualities of Ed's transformation. When Ed's mind merges (“I'm going to do just exactly what I would do if I was him.”) with the hillbilly's, it becomes clear that he has shucked civilization's artificiality, but, again, with results that he never supposed. After Ed shoots the hillbilly through the throat with an arrow, the screenplay, unlike the movie, describes Ed hunting him down, following the “blood spoor like a dog would” (104). When he finds the body, he is “fascinated,” as he takes his knife and issues a “low growl,” indicating that he is on a predatory level. As he hovers over the dead man, “the audience cannot possibly know what Ed is going to do … he could do anything,” but “shaken by his own incipient violence,” a Beatles song and an advertising jingle pop into his mind, signaling the beginning of his return to a civilized condition (106).

The concluding scenes that Boorman excised return to the suburbs, starting with Ed's drive back from the mountains, a sequence that shows him moving “gradually back into his own territory, his own life.” This continues until he pulls “into his own driveway,” where he gets out of the car, “takes his knife and belt … slings them deep into the suburban woods behind the house, and takes Martha in his arms,” indicating his awareness of his previous life's value (146). Dickey reinforces this through Martha's rebandaging of Ed's wounds:

Is this what you call romance?
No. I never called it romance. I call it love, actually. It includes enemas and cleaning up after a man's vomit. (pointing to ED's side) Us wives and nurses know it includes this.
What about wine and roses?
(smiling a tough, practical, loving smile): We get those, too.
Yes. That's the real thing I guess. All of it. (pause) Look, let me go see Drew's wife. Then I'm coming back to sleep for a week. Right with you. Right with you.


Ed's visit to Drew's wife underlines the tremendous cost of the knowledge Ed attains, but in contrast to Ed's fantasy about the model while he had sex with Martha, he now affirms her reality and importance. She is not a fantasy, but a “tough, practical, loving” part of his life, a realization brought about, at least subconsciously, by the rape, when he and Bobby were the victims of others' desires for sexual adventure. Indeed, the screenplay's closing scene, which shows Ed and Lewis shooting arrows at targets while Ed's son skis on the lake created by flooding the river, echoes Ed's assertion in the novel that the “river underlies, in one way or another, everything I do,” a point the screenplay suggests by interjecting “an ear-splitting scream, a scream exactly like Bobby's in the forest when he was raped” into the work's closing moments (274-75, 151). The scream comes from Ed's son (though this is not immediately apparent), and “could be a terrible human cry of pain,” but as the closing shot pulls away it becomes evident that the boy's cries are of “exultation,” capturing the paradoxical nature of Ed's wilderness experience (151).

Dickey's screenplay, like his fiction and much of his poetry, reflects his tendency to explore situations that may positively enhance an individual's capacity for experience and/or lead to devastating consequences. Unlike Boorman's film, which concludes with Ed having a haunting nightmare, Dickey's concluding scenes focus on the ways that the weekend journey have altered Ed's relationship to himself and his surroundings. At the office Ed's creative energies are reignited, for he now works “busily … seems vigorous and very much in place,” but he must live with the thought that Drew—“the best of us … the only decent one”—lies under the lake on which Ed's son skis (150).

Whether Dickey's version of the film would have been as successful as Boorman's depends on one's valuative criteria. Dickey's Deliverance would be much longer, not only because of the additions to the work's start and conclusion, but because scenes, such as Ed hunting the hillbilly, would be more detailed and complex. In an age of shortened attention spans, such demands would likely diminish the film's commercial appeal, as Boorman was no doubt aware. However, the original screenplay does more accurately reflect the Dickey ouevre, particularly its preoccupation with an individual's relationship to nature, humanity's potential for violence, and the connection between the instinctual and the imaginative, concerns that have made Dickey one of America's most compelling writers for four decades.

Works Cited

Dickey, James. Deliverance. Boston: Houghton, 1970.

———. Deliverance (Screenplay) with “Afterword.” Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1982.

Martin Bidney (essay date fall 1995)

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SOURCE: Bidney, Martin. “Spirit-Bird, Bowshot, Water-Snake, Corpses, Cosmic Love: Reshaping the Coleridge Legacy in Dickey's Deliverance.Papers on Language and Literature 31, no. 4 (fall 1995): 389-405.

[In the following essay, Bidney underscores the relationship between Dickey's Deliverance and the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.]

I'd like to be some sort of bird, a migratory seabird like a tern or a wandering albatross. But … I'll have to keep trying to do it, to die and fly, by words.

—James Dickey, Self-Interviews 79

“I like to work my mind, such as it is,” said James Dickey to Francis Roberts in 1968, “to see what I can get out of it and put into it. As John Livingston Lowes revealed in that wonderful book on Coleridge, The Road to Xanadu, if these things are in your mind, Lord knows what amalgams you can get out of it” (Baughman, Voiced 44). Two years later, in his 1970 novel Deliverance, Dickey demonstrated his capacity to produce not only a visionary “amalgam” of the sort he found laid out in Lowes but, more surprisingly, a richly suggestive pattern of allusions to the work of Coleridge himself. In what follows I would like to offer a brief “Road to Deliverance,” exploring that neo-Coleridgean pattern and its (re)visionary implications.

Dickey has elsewhere made clear his fondness for Coleridge. It has been noted (Baughman, Understanding 84) that the last line of the war poem “Bread” (“I ate the food I ne'er had eat” [Dickey, Poems 266]) varies “It ate the bread it ne'er had eat” from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (l. 67 [text in Poetical Works 2: 186-209; hereafter AM referenced by line number]). And in 1965 Dickey expressed to an interviewer from Eclipse the ambition to produce in his own verse “a sense such as if you stumbled on the village idiot, and he began to mutter amazing things to you, and, like in ‘The Ancient Mariner,’ you could not help but hear …” (Baughman, Voiced 23).1Deliverance, as the title of my essay implies, is firmly anchored in the thematic pattern of “Mariner.” But “The Eolian Harp” and “Dejection” and “Kubla Khan” will be seen to play a role as well; Dickey has done many and varied things with the legacy of his wise but troubled mentor.

Daniel B. Marin, the one critic who refers explicitly to “Ancient Mariner” in the context of Deliverance,2 writes that the tone at the book's conclusion is “quiet and maybe even melancholy. I am reminded of Coleridge's Wedding Guest: ‘A sadder and a wiser man / He rose the morrow morn,’ though not exactly. Is it that the note of ‘pure abandon’ Dickey reaches so wonderfully in the poetry can never be sung here in the darklight, in the ‘darkness visible’ of Deliverance?” (Calhoun 116-17). My own feeling about the contrast between the endings of “Mariner” and Deliverance is rather the opposite of Marin's: I find Dickey more disposed to conclude on a note of comradely reassurance. Coleridge's aged sailor must endlessly retell the tale of his crime in an immortal repetition compulsion that is rightly styled “Life-in-Death” (AM 193). By contrast, Dickey's narrator Ed Gentry is not possessed by the vision of his narrative; the story is his possession—not something he owns up to guiltily, but something he owns proudly: “The river and everything I remembered about it became a possession to me, a personal, private possession, as nothing else in my life ever had. Now it ran nowhere but in my head, but there it ran as though immortally” (Deliverance [hereafter D] 281).

This is no Life-in-Death but a far pleasanter kind of immortality. Ed Gentry tells us that his hero-friend, Medlock Lewis—likewise no guilt-ridden intrusive presence but comfortingly called “a human being, and a good one”—refers to Ed confidentially as “U. C., which means—to him and me—‘Unorganized Crime,’ and this has become a kind of minor conversation piece at parties, and at lunch in the city with strangers” (D 283). Unorganized Crime of this smoothed-over sort, when juxtaposed to the Mariner's paranoid guilt obsession, seems a fraternal joke, or a whimsical authorial wink at the visionary tradition: “U. C.” = “You (and I) see.

Yet the sad wisdom invoked by Marin is deep-rooted in Dickey's book as well; indeed, the entire conflictual structure of the work is Coleridgean. Every reader of “Mariner” feels the unresolved tension between the explicit transcendent message of cosmic love and the punishing prophetic burden of the driven wanderer who is forced to preach it, the difficulty of separating divine revelation from cruel fate, heavenly truth from purgatorial reality. Dickey's two epigraphs epitomize a similar unresolved tension between metaphysical meaning and the sense of ungovernable chaos, as the biblical Obadiah reveals a meaningful moral order (“The pride of thine heart hath deceived thee”) while the philosopher Georges Bataille blames the inescapable conditions of human life itself for our frustrations (“Il existe à la base de la vie humaine, un principe d'insuffisance”).

This is the same tension or conflict that generally divides analyses of Dickey's book into two groups. Some critical accounts of Deliverance have emphasized the heartening messages apparently conveyed: “penetrating insights into the political values forged by the American experience” (Redenius 286), “the alleviation of fears associated with the omnipotence of thought by making restitution for hostile, destructive wishes” (Hamilton 404), or the “discovery, in extremis, that the sole means of controlling anxiety is through the imposition of aesthetic order” and “the maintenance of civilized values” (Glenday 156-57). Other analyses have just as emphatically portrayed the overwhelming power of evil or “darkness visible” in Deliverance—the idea that the narrator's “being-beyond-himself is the result of an act of transgression” (Tschachler 87), or the analogous potentials for evil revealed in both heroes and villains (“The ‘countrified jerk’ in the city who wants a girl's buttocks in his ad is a part of Ed himself, and his domain is deep in Ed's unconscious”; “The cat that claws the girl's panties in Ed's dream and the owl that rips the canvas of Ed's tent anticipate the bestial man who commands Bobby to ‘drop them panties’” in the scene of sexual violence [Endel 622]).3

What the pattern of Coleridgean allusion accomplishes is to dramatize all these conflicting tendencies and thereby to heighten the visionary drama of Deliverance. We shall see that here, as in “Mariner,” images of spirit-like bird and flashing water-snake each embody an ambivalence; juxtaposed, they create still further conflict. The motifs of multiple corpses and cosmic love, taken from Coleridge's enigmatic epos of terror and transcendence, are enlisted in the service of Dickey's equally vivid moral-metaphysical chiaroscuro. Additional themes—dulcimer and sacred circle from “Kubla Khan,” wind-played musical instrument and dancing diamonds on the main from “The Eolian Harp,” as well as the motifs of rottenness, water tracks, angels, fire-water unity and the moving moon from “Mariner”—give Deliverance a pervasively Coleridgean ambiance and make it a major neo-Romantic re-envisioning and revision.

“Revision” is the key word here, for it is not only the reassuring tonality of the ending that (as I have suggested) distinguishes Deliverance from “Mariner.” Rather, this changed conclusion indicates a noticeable shift in concern—from the psychodynamics of persecution to the ambivalences central to (human) nature. Only through the extremely risky unleashing of a desire for violent victory does Ed attain the transcendent insights of pantheistic oneness. As Heinz Tschachler has shown, this is a troublesome dialectic traceable in part to Georges Bataille: in Deliverance as in the thinking of Bataille, only when the “principle of individuation” is put at risk (as a result of the individual's risking his life) are hidden continuities exposed to view and feelings of sacred merger briefly attainable (Tschachler 83-85). By strategic alterations and re-orchestration of Coleridgean motifs Dickey makes this thesis vivid and its exemplum ineffaceably present to the imagination.

As Lewis, with evangelizing fervor, outlines to Ed his project for a canoeing venture, the latter worries at one point that “he's going to turn this into … A lesson. A Moral” (D 14); here Ed shows the same discomfort with “morals” that Coleridge showed when, responding to Anna Barbauld's complaint that “Ancient Mariner” lacked a moral, the poet famously countered that it had “too much” of one (Table Talk 31 May 1830 in Works 4:324). Ed buys into the trip, mainly out of boredom induced by routine; when his wife asks, “Is it my fault?” he says no but thinks to himself that “it partly was, just as it's any woman's fault who represents normalcy” (D 37). Ed likes his wife well enough; it's just that married life has the fault of being normal: in “Mariner” the Wedding Guest was obliged to direct his imaginative attention to something a good deal less normal than weddings, and in Deliverance the same priority is given to an extraordinary experience promised by a man. Lewis's surname, “Medlock,” has in fact a striking resemblance to “wedlock,” but what Lewis offers in proposing his expedition for a group of four men is a venture in platonic male bonding, a male adventure trip that will temporarily replace the routine life Ed leads in wedlock (an idea hideously parodied, of course, in the eventual rape committed by the rural stranger). One may find a bit of misogyny in this humdrum picture of marriage, but if so, it is a problem Dickey shares with Coleridge.

The chief attraction of the trip for Ed, as sportsman, is not canoeing but hunting with a bow; only in the film version is a crossbow used, certainly an additional contribution to “Mariner” thematics.4 Allusions to the motif of the albatross are also oblique, but they are multiple, varied, and ingenious. The alb-syllable, an etymon for the whiteness of the white bird, appears, along with the birdlike motif of music, when the “albino boy” Lonnie plays banjo in a duet of magical beauty with Ed's and Lewis's co-traveler Drew (D 68). Playing with Lonnie makes even the back of Drew's neck express “sheer joy” (D 69): the albino conveys a sudden and profound inspiration, like that suggested by Coleridge's quasi-supernatural white bird.5 Each of the albino's eyes is singular in its strange independence, as they focus in different directions; soon afterwards, another singular eye, the “glazed” and “half-open” eye of a chicken's head, appears to the travelers in a stagnant patch of river downstream from the poultry plant (D 86). So even if no albatross is killed in Deliverance, the singular eye of the bird-related albino appears to us soon in a metamorphosed form of death.

Bird allusions abound in the first part of Deliverance; for example, a certain Mr. Holley, Ed's subordinate in his design consulting firm, turns “one of Braque's birds into a Pegasus” (D 26), and Lewis Medlock himself rather strikingly resembles a bird, with his “face like a hawk,” beakish “long-nosed” profile, and “whitish patch up toward the crown of his head” (D 20). C. Hines Edwards, Jr. has specifically studied the prominent and recurrent owl-theme, noting the contrasts it embodies: the owl is at once bird “of prey” and “bird of wisdom,” conventionally an “ill omen” and yet used in the book to suggest both nature and—in the form of the owl-shaped wind chime—civilization (Edwards 96-97).

But two Coleridgean insights need to be added to this. First, the repeated mention of the “ringing of the owl on the other birds, in Martha's wind-toy at home” (D 269—and see D 35) brings the bird motif together with the Aeolian harp motif, betokening Coleridgean inspiration: wind chimes are modern suburbia's answer to the Aeolian harp. Second, the owl that repeatedly visits Ed during the night—and whose frightening “stony toe” Ed even learns to touch without fear—resembles a familiar spirit, a haunting presence familiar yet uncanny in its incessant departures and returns: “All night the owl kept coming back to hunt from the top of the tent” (D 98), just as the Coleridgean albatross, “every day, for food or play, / Came to the mariner's hollo!” (AM 73-74). In its quasi-supernatural uncanniness, in its friendly association with the wind-generated music favored by Coleridge, and in its ambivalent implications, Dickey's owl-symbol, like the musical albino, shares the enigmatic nature of the Coleridgean Mariner's albatross. Even in its size the owl is exceptional, closer to the ungainly dimensions of the Coleridgean bird—a “big night bird—surely it was very big, from the size of the nails and feet” (D 97).

The ambivalent implications of both albatross and owl are in part covert: the Mariner has no way of suspecting that if he kills the albatross 200 sailors' deaths will result; and Ed, who spends the night pleasantly imagining the owl's hunting feats on its various flights, does not imagine that the huge “talons” which had so terrifyingly punctured the roof of his tent (D 97) are foreshadowings of the lex talionis, the pitiless rule of retribution or Law of the Claw that will govern the latter part of the men's violent adventure. But in both the Coleridge and Dickey narratives, an atmosphere of nausea is quickly induced by the recurrent use of the theme of “rot” as the tales proceed. After the Mariner kills the bird, “The very deep did rot: O Christ! / That ever this should be!” (AM 123-24). After the rural villain commits his rape of Bobby, the adventurers find themselves “by a sump of some kind, a blue-black seepage of rotten water,” and when Lewis kills the rapist and tries to bury the body, the earth has turned into sheer rot: “There was no earth; it was all leaves and rotten stuff. It had the smell of generations of mould” (D 141-42). In both stories, intimations of unfathomably deep corruption overwhelm the soul and body.

Yet it is not long before the moon provides, for both Coleridge's and Dickey's protagonists, a moving emblem of visionary hope. Life-in-Death has won the Mariner's soul; Drew has been murdered by the rapist's cohort. Yet the Mariner, at least, has triumphed over Death itself; and Lewis and Ed have worked out their plans for both defense and retribution—they, too, can somehow glory in “pure survival” (D 167). The moon, betokening hope, is evoked with strikingly similar language in the two works. Coleridge's marginal annotations describe a “silent joy” in the scene where “The moving Moon went up the sky, / And no where did abide: / Softly she was going up …” (AM 263-65; emphases added). And Ed tells us his “heart expanded with joy” as he watched while “the moon was going up and up …” (D 167; emphases added). It will only take another moment, in both narratives, for the climactic water-snake epiphany to arise in moonlit glory.

Let us look first at the Coleridgean precedent, which Dickey will vary in a composite epiphany consisting of four brief episodes. In the light of the just-ascended moon, says the Mariner,

I watched the water-snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white,
And when they reared, the elfish light
Fell off in hoary flakes.
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.
O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware. …

(AM 273-76, 280-85)

Traditionally cursed, the seeming symbol of evil is revealed as in its unfamiliar way wholly divine. Serpentine horrors can now be seen as inseparable from the life-power, the fertility and wisdom and immortality, that mythic traditions world-wide have rightly credited to the coiled ouroboros.

In Dickey's four-phase moonlit epiphany all the appearances of the water-snake are metaphoric. But they are overpoweringly real. And note the evocative borrowings already in phase one:

Despite everything, I looked down. The river had spread flat and filled with moonlight. It took up the whole of space under me, bearing in the center of itself a long coiling image of light, a chill, bending flame. I must have been seventy-five or a hundred feet above it, hanging poised over some kind of inescapable glory, a bright pit.

(D 169; emphases added)

Coleridge's “fire” is Dickey's “flame”; the Mariner's snakes that flashingly “coiled have become Ed's “coiling image of light”; moonlight fills the water in both scenes. Dickey wants no loss of symbolic ambivalence in the transfer: he insists on the image of the snaky abyss in his “bright pit.” Inescapable glory is wedded to acceptance of the lowest.

In fact, a few pages later the light spreads out on the water “eternally, the moon so huge on it that it hurt the eyes” (D 178), just as the Mariner speaks soon afterward of the blinding lightning descending from moon-level as “a river steep and wide” (AM 326). And when “angelic spirits” (AM marg. to 346) come down instantly to enter the bodies of the dead and one of these spirits even helps the Mariner as they pull together “at one rope” (AM 343), a precedent is set for a vivid metaphoric wording in Dickey's analogous multiphase epiphany: “The thought struck me with my full adrenaline supply, all hitting the veins at once. Angelic. Angelic. Is that what it means? It very likely does. And I have a lot of nylon rope …” (D 176). Coleridge writes of water-snakes and heavenly angels in the literal language of suspended disbelief, of high gothic dreamwork; Dickey's snakes and angels are metaphoric, observing the conventions of lyrical-psychological prose. But it is still visionary prose—vatic, and Coleridgean.

The third phase of the metaphoric water-snake epiphany returns to Coleridge's original depiction of the snakes:

What a view, I said again. The river was blank and mindless with beauty. It was the most glorious thing I have ever seen. But it was not seeing, really. For once it was not just seeing. It was beholding. I beheld the river in its icy pit of brightness, in its far-below sound and indifference, in its large coil and tiny points and flashes of the moon, in its long sinuous form, in its uncomprehending consequence.

(D 177; emphases added, except for “beheld,” italicized by Dickey)

Words like “mindless” and “indifference” and “uncomprehending” recall the Mariner's blessing the snakes “unaware”; the “large coil” and “long sinuous form” make the serpent-image gloriously present in an emphatically Coleridgean way; the “tiny points and flashes of the moon” on the water clearly recall the “hoary flakes” of moonlight and the multiform “flash” of reflected moon-fire from Coleridge's sacred scene. Ed's experience is a visionary triumph—an act of not mere seeing but beholding—in itself. But reading it with Coleridge in mind heightens its vibrancy and reveals it as a worthy homage to a suitably complex and many-sided master.

The fourth and final phase of the neo-Coleridgean epiphany repeats and underlines the main motifs—awe, the life-force, the moon, the metaphoric snake, the visionary light:

Fear and a kind of enormous moon-blazing sexuality lifted me, millimeter by millimeter. … I looked for a slice of gold … in the river … something lovable, in the huge serpent-shape of light.

Above me the darks changed, and in one of them was a star. On both sides of that small light the rocks went on up, black and solid as ever, but their power was broken.

I was crying. What reason? There was not any, for I was really not ashamed or terrified; I was just there. … Lord, Lord. The river hazed and danced into the sparkle of my eyelashes, the more wonderful for being unbearable.

(D 182-83; emphases added)

Ed's mysterious sense that the “power” of the rocks was “broken” by the visionary light makes us remember how “The spell begins to break” in Coleridge's marginal annotation to the line, after the water-snake epiphany, in which the Mariner finds himself finally able again to worship (AM marginalia to 288). “That selfsame moment I could pray,” says the Mariner—the precedent for Ed's joyous, awed outcry, “Lord, Lord.” The fact that the river “hazed and danced into the sparkle” of [Ed's] eyelashes” (emphases added) alludes to yet another epiphanic scene: recall the speaker in “The Eolian Harp,” who stretches his limbs at noon “Whilst through my half-clos'd eyelids I behold / The sunbeams dance, like diamonds, on the main” (“The Eolian Harp” 36-37; emphases added). Dickey has conflated two scenarios of Coleridgean glory.

Coleridgean revelation also sheds a closely related light on Ed's foolhardy but heroic adventurer-mentor, Lewis Medlock. For all his miscalculations and improvidence, Medlock is deemed worthy of transfiguration for a moment in a clever variant of the Mariner's water-snake reverie. We remember that when the water-snakes glided through the moonlit waves, “every track / Was a flash of golden fire”: the tracks of the glorious creatures seem wondrously to unite the incompatible elements of fire and water. The same word, “track,” the same motif of tracks in the water, and the same quasi-miraculous union of the fiery and the liquid (“red” for fire and “blue” for water) are motifs reworked in Ed's wonderstruck portrait of his mentor:

Everything he had done for himself for years paid off as he stood there in his tracks in the water. I could tell by the way he glanced at me; the payoff was in my eyes. … The muscles were bound up in him smoothly, and when he moved, the veins in the moving part would surface. If you looked at him that way, he seemed made out of well-matched red-brown chunks wrapped in blue wire.

(D 110; emphases added)

The “Mariner” variation is ingenious, unobtrusive, and effective. In the vivid and often coarse tale that constitutes Deliverance, Dickey has lost none of the delicate allusive subtlety that distinguishes him as lyric poet.

When Coleridge somewhat perversely insisted to Mrs. Barbauld that “Ancient Mariner” had too much of a moral—that it “ought to have had no more moral than the Arabian Nights' tale” of the merchant who, during a snack, tosses a nutshell aside and is accused of murder because a genie claims the shell has put out the eye of the genie's son (Works 4:324)—Coleridge was mistaken. The cosmic love moral, as we may call it—

He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all

(AM 612-17)

—is crucial to the poem's enduring fascination, which lies precisely in the tension between the Mariner's moment of transcendence and the immense, absurdly disproportionate price he has to pay for it. Such paradoxes afflict and bless and puzzle all of us. James Dickey's Deliverance likewise takes account of them, building on Coleridge's insights, not on his arbitrary or irked disclaimers.

There are many cosmic love or universal empathy passages in Dickey's narrative, suitably presented in the context of the four-phase water-snake epiphany: for example, as he moves up the steep escarpment, Ed begins, as it were, to “make love to the cliff”; as he inches upward he moves “with the most intimate motions of my body, motions I had never dared use with Martha, or with any other human woman” (D 182-83).6 But the central, most striking passage of paradoxical empathy is the one in which Ed opens up to a strange transpersonal oneness with his enemy, precisely the man on whom he will wreak revenge with a bowshot for the murder of Drew:

I had thought so long and hard about him that to this day I still believe I felt, in the moonlight, our minds fuse. It was not that I felt myself turning evil, but that an enormous physical indifference, as vast as the whole abyss of light at my feet, came to me: an indifference not only to the other man's body scrambling and kicking on the ground with an arrow through it, but also to mine. If Lewis had not shot his companion, he and I would have made a kind of love, painful and terrifying to me, in some dreadful way pleasurable to him, but we would have been together in the flesh, there on the floor of the woods, and it was strange to think of it.

(D 186)

This cosmic empathy feeling recurs repeatedly in ever-changing forms: a few pages later we read, for example,

The needles were filling slowly with the beginnings of daylight, and the tree began to flow softly, shining the frail light held by the needles inward on me, and I felt as though I were giving it back outward.

(D 193)7

Even after he has killed the offender, Ed feels that “His brain and mine unlocked and fell apart, and in a way I was sorry to see it go. I never had thought with another man's mind on matters of life and death, and would never think that way again” (D 205). The precedent for these seemingly inconceivable unities disclosed in existential crisis may be found in “Mariner,” but the Coleridgean revelation is elaborated and multiply varied in Deliverance.

It would not be easy—to say the least of it—for Ed “to get used to the idea that I had buried three men [the rapist killed by Lewis, then Drew, and finally Drew's murderer] in two days, and that I had killed one of them” (D 237). But the neo-Coleridgean fascination of Ed's narrative would not exert its hypnotic force without both of the factors that constitute the book's reason-challenging antinomy, its tragic enlightenment: multiple corpses and cosmic empathy; deadly peril and lifegiving love—a quasi-mystical or pantheist transcendence that arises from an existential test, pushing aside the principle of individuation to reveal unimaginable continuities, unsuspected and not always gratifying oneness.

It is in the light of this antinomy, finally, that we should read the “Kubla Khan” and “Dejection” allusions in the earlier part of Deliverance—which I have postponed for separate treatment for that reason. These unmistakable allusions begin when Lewis tries to interest Ed in the folkloric riches of mountain music: “there are songs in those hills that collectors have never put on tape. And I've seen one family with a dulcimer” (D 50). “If those people in the hills,” retorts Ed skeptically, “the ones with the folk songs and dulcimers, came out of the hills and led us all toward a new heaven and a new earth, it would not make a particle of difference to me” (D 50; emphases added). In this wittily allusive interchange we not only hear an echo of Coleridge's “damsel with a dulcimer” (“Kubla Khan” 37) but also an ironic reference to the “new Earth and new Heaven” which Imagination gives us by “wedding Nature to us” (“Dejection: An Ode” 68-69)—as it does when Aeolian harps (which are wind-dulcimers, emblems of the harmonious unity of spirit/breath and world) function properly.

The Coleridgean irony grows into a dreadful grotesquerie after the villainous rapist, mortally wounded by Lewis's avenging arrow, goes into “convulsions” that resemble the visionary seizure of the shaman-figure depicted in “Kubla Khan”:

He took a couple of strides toward the woods and then seemed to change his mind and danced back to me, lurching and clog-stepping in a secret circle. He held out a hand to me, like a prophet.

(D 125; emphases added)

The verb “danced” and the “secret circle” make us think of Coleridge's “Weave a circle round him thrice”—a circle woven precisely through ritual dance; the “lurching” and “convulsions” of the dizzily dancing victim recall the “flashing eyes and floating hair” of the shamanistic seer in “Kubla Khan,” his being possessed in a state of seizure, a fit—precisely the mad ecstasy of a “prophet,” as Dickey says (see “Kubla Khan” 51, 50). All this relates with horrific irony but all-too-evident appropriateness—via the mountain “dulcimer” motif—to the evil archetype of the “demon-lover” (“Kubla Khan” 16).

Yet there is a Coleridgean tragic tenderness, as well, in Dickey's final symbolic depiction of the criminal-victim's farewell: “He held out a hand to me, like a prophet. …” In a context of Coleridgean allusion, the word “prophecy” refers to no specific predictions or forecasts; rather, it points to some transcendent insight or awareness of ultimate value: here, the prophetic insight acquired—even by a bestial villain—at the threshold of death is unspoken, perhaps unspeakable. The Ancient Mariner, too, was a prophet, though a reluctant one, like Jonah, or like Paul. It may, indeed, be best to end our comparative journey with this final instance of an epitomizing symbol of deep kinships that can never be fully articulated, a symbolic gesture that serves as testimony to a neo-Coleridgean seed of enlightenment arising from crisis and trial, a “bright pit.”


  1. Interestingly, in Dickey's “The Eye-Beaters,” “The dramatic situation is indicated in the first of the marginalia of the poem (a technique recalling ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’ by Coleridge)” (Calhoun and Will 96).

  2. Though I find no Coleridgean studies of Deliverance, a Wordsworthian one is Guttenberg passim. Guttenberg, however, does not adduce specific detailed verbal allusions to Wordsworth as I have attempted to do for Coleridge; such minute particulars are important if one wishes to establish a pattern of influence and appropriation. I also think Coleridge's gothic dream-poem is more relevant than Wordsworth to the ambivalences in Dickey's narrative; as important as the “pattern of redemption” are the terrors, the grotesqueness, the psychological price.

  3. Another useful pair of complementary contrasts is that between Robert Armour's depiction of the four men in Deliverance as archetypical American Adams (after the model of the well-known book by R. W. B. Lewis—see Armour passim) and Ronald Schmitt's presentation of the men as ironic reflections on Joseph Campbell's four hero-types, with which Dickey was demonstrably familiar: the hero as warrior, lover, emperor/tyrant, and redeemer/saint (Schmitt 10).

  4. It is worth noting here that in R. Barton Palmer's analysis of both book and film, the latter appears significantly more “pessimistic” (Palmer 10).

  5. It bears emphasizing that there is nothing merely casual or contingent in Dickey's choice of an albino as emblem of inspiration; he calls the symbol to our minds again later in the adventure: “I thought of Drew and the albino boy picking and singing in the filling station” (D 159). Apropos of specifically musical inspiration, John Jolly calls attention to some fascinating phrasings that suggest Drew's own typological relation to Orpheus (Jolly 103-05 and passim).

  6. Foust's phenomenological essay on the primacy of touch in Deliverance is valuable (passim), but his polemic against any idea of Romanticist “merger” (see especially 200-03) as in any respect relevant to the novel is unjustified. A subjective experience of imaginative merger may be phenomenologically described; Foust's approach and the neo-Coleridgean one employed in my essay are quite compatible.

  7. The dizzying paradoxicality of the experience, however, includes not only Ed's unity with the killer-enemy but a kind of artistic pride. When Ed, describing how he felt when aiming his bow, says, “We were closed together, and the feeling of a peculiar kind of intimacy increased, for he was shut within a frame within a frame, all of my making” (D 197) one feels that Ed, as artist (he is an advertising designer by profession), savors the power and pleasure of framing some truly fearful symmetry. The Ancient Mariner, of course, is prophet of God's love, a teacher of empathy, but as compulsive narrator he is also self-obsessed, a trapped, obsessive visionary narcissist. Other modern American prose refashioners of “Ancient Mariner” (Sherwood Anderson, Harold Brodkey) have chosen to intensify and grotesquely parody this component in the Coleridgean protagonist's mentality (see Bidney 1990, 1994). Dickey is exceptional in not playing up the aspect of narcissism.

Works Cited

“An Interview with James Dickey.” Eclipse 5 (1965-66): 5-20. Rpt. Ronald Baughman, ed. The Voiced Connections of James Dickey: Interviews and Conversations. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1989, 12-27.

Armour, Robert. “Deliverance: Four Variations on the American Adam.” Literature/Film Quarterly 1 (1973): 280-85.

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

———, ed. The Voiced Connections of James Dickey: Interviews and Conversations. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1989.

Bidney, Martin. “An Unreliable Modern ‘Mariner’: Rewriting Coleridge in Harold Brodkey's ‘The State of Grace.’” Studies in Short Fiction 31 (1994): 47-55.

———. “Refashioning Coleridge's Supernatural Trilogy: Sherwood Anderson's ‘A Man of Ideas’ and ‘Respectability.’” Studies in Short Fiction 27 (1990): 221-35.

Calhoun, Richard J., ed. James Dickey: The Expansive Imagination. Deland, FL: Everett/Edwards, 1973.

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

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. The Complete Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 2 vols. Volume I: Poetry. Ed. E. H. Coleridge. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1912.

———. Complete Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 7 vols. New York: Harper, 1856. Dickey, James. Deliverance. Boston: Houghton, 1970.

———. Poems 1957-1967. New York: Macmillan, 1958.

———. Self-Interviews. Recorded and ed. Barbara and James Reiss. New York: Dell, 1970.

Edwards, C. Hines, Jr. “Dickey's Deliverance: The Owl and the Eye.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 15 (1973): 95-101.

Endel, Peggy Goodman. “Dickey, Dante, and the Demonic: Reassessing Deliverance.American Literature 60 (1988): 611-24.

Foust, R. E. “Tactus Eruditus: Phenomenology as Method and Meaning of James Dickey's Deliverance.Studies in American Fiction 9 (1981): 199-216.

Glenday, Michael K. “Deliverance and the Aesthetics of Survival.” American Literature 56 (1984): 149-61.

Guttenberg, Barnett. “The Pattern of Redemption in Dickey's Deliverance.Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 18 (1977): 83-91.

Hamilton, James W. “James Dickey's Deliverance: Midlife and the Creative Process.” American Imago 38.4 (1981): 389-405.

Jolly, John. “Drew Ballinger as ‘Sacrificial God’ in James Dickey's Deliverance.The South Carolina Review 17 (1985): 102-08.

Marin, Daniel B. “James Dickey's Deliverance: Darkness Visible.” In Richard J. Calhoun, ed. James Dickey: The Expansive Imagination. Deland FL: Everett/Edwards, 1973, 105-17.

Palmer, R. Barton. “Narration, Text, Intertext: The Two Versions of Deliverance.The James Dickey Newsletter 2.2 (1986): 1-11.

Redenius, Charles M. “Recreating the Social Contract: James Dickey's Deliverance.The Canadian Review of American Studies 17 (1986): 285-99.

Roberts, Francis. “James Dickey: An Interview.” Per/Se 3 (1968): 8-12. Rpt. Ronald Baughman, ed. The Voiced Connections of James Dickey: Interviews and Conversations. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1989, 41-49.

Schmitt, Ronald. “Transformations of the Hero in James Dickey's Deliverance.The James Dickey Newsletter 8 (1991): 9-16.

Tschachler, Heinz. “Un principe d'insuffisance: Dickey's Dialogue with Bataille.” Mosaic 20 (1987): 81-93.

Ihab Hassan (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Hassan, Ihab. “The Spirit of Quest in Contemporary American Letters.” In Rumors of Change: Essays of Five Decades, pp. 187-207. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995..

[In the following excerpt, Hassan contrasts the two main characters—Ed and Lewis—in Dickey's novel Deliverance.]

In contrast to Bellow's and Mailer's fictions, James Dickey's Deliverance (1970) seems less a quest than a brutal tale of survival. The reader may wonder: deliverance from what? From moral complacencies, social pieties, perhaps from civilization itself? The clues are scattered, and in one place they become nearly explicit. Making love to his wife on the morning of his fateful adventure, the narrator, Ed Gentry, imagines—he is on the whole steady, unimaginative—the golden eye of a girl, a studio model: “The gold eye shone, not with the practicality of sex, so necessary to its survival, but the promise of it that promised other things, another life, deliverance.” Another life, deliverance: there lies the book's knot, which links its two heroes, Ed Gentry and Lewis Medlock, doubles.

Ed—all are called by their first names—is practical and forthright, given to the task at hand; Lewis is visionary. Lewis seeks immortality and learns finally to settle for death. In the interim, he trains himself implacably, trains his instincts, will, and powerful body, to survive an atomic holocaust in the Georgia woods. He insists on turning the canoe trip of four urban businessmen into a moral, a life principle, a way, a provocation to everything Western civilization has achieved in three thousand years. He wants to recover something absolutely essential and in doing so to perform some superhuman feat that beggars eternity. But Lewis breaks his leg early on the trip—again that wound—and Ed pulls the survivors through after two murders and one death by drowning.

The scene is perfectly set for the encounter between nature and civilization, instinct and law, within the West itself. An entire region of the north Georgia wilderness is about to drown, turned into a serviceable lake. The Cahulawassee River, with its horrendously beautiful whitewater rapids, must vanish. Ageless hillbilly cemeteries must be moved to higher ground. Marinas and real estate developments will appear on the dammed lake. On the eve of their departure, the four white, married, middle-class men pore over a colored map of the region, intuiting the secret harmonies of the land, thinking that, henceforth, a fragment of the American wilderness will survive only in archives and the failing memories of old woodsmen.

Excepting Lewis, though, these businessmen are unfit to venture; they have learned to meet existence mainly on legal, domestic, or social terms. Still, they sense obscurely an alternative to their humdrum lives. “Up yonder,” Lewis tells them, life demands to be taken on other terms, as they discover in scene after harrowing scene, in encounters with the stupendous force of nature (the rapids) and malevolence of man (hillbilly outlaws). Yet, too, they experience a strange happiness at the heart of violence. Three of them survive, irrevocably altered.

Dickey's novel is a masterpiece in the poetry of action and menace. Relentlessly, it renders, in a prose at once tight, elusive, and earthy, the atavism and terror of two autumn days in the Georgia woods. The book spares no detail in the struggle of life for itself. But the book also reveals instants of subtle intimacy, moments of pure being. Having climbed, with bare hands, the sheer face of a gorge to kill a man at daybreak, Ed suddenly exclaims:

What a view. What a view. But I had my eyes closed. The river was running in my mind, and I raised my lids and saw exactly what had been the image of my thought. For a second I did not know what I was seeing and what I was imagining; there was such an utter sameness that it didn't matter; both were the river. It spread there eternally, the moon so huge on it that it hurt the eyes, and the mind, too, flinched like an eye. What? I said. Where? There was nowhere but here. Who, though? Unknown. Where can I start? … What a view I said again. The river was blank and mindless with beauty. It was the most glorious thing I had ever seen. But it was not seeing, really. For once it was not just seeing. It was beholding. I beheld the river in its icy pit of brightness, in its far-below sound and indifference, in its large coil and tiny points and flashes of the moon, in its long sinuous form, in its uncomprehending consequence. What was there?

Perhaps this is the selflessness of every mountaineer, every adventurer, at his moment of truth, healing all wounds.

Dickey prefixes an epitaph from Georges Bataille that proposes a “principle of insufficiency” at the base of human existence. The radical lack may underlie all life as perceived by human beings. Something is always buried, hidden, lost to us: murdered bodies lying under forest leaves, the forest itself flooded beneath a lake, hillbillies invisible, colonized within their own state, some part of our own nature, concealed and irreclaimable. Ed and Lewis—Ed becomes Lewis—manage to discover this perilous part of existence and manage through great pain to reclaim it. But they must also face the ordinary world again, which Ed sees, at the end, in the image of a policeman: “When we reached town [the policeman] went into a cafe and made a couple of calls. It frightened me some to watch him talk through the tripled glass—windshield, plate glass, and phone booth—for it made me feel caught in the whole vast, inexorable web of modern communication.” The feeling passes, for Ed possesses the river permanently: “Now it ran nowhere but in my head, but there it ran as though immortally.” So ends his quest.

Keen Butterworth (essay date spring 1996)

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SOURCE: Butterworth, Keen. “The Savage Mind: James Dickey's Deliverance.Southern Literary Journal 28, no. 2 (spring 1996): 69-78.

[In the following essay, Butterworth provides an interpretation of the psychological aspects of Deliverance.]

On the dust jacket of the first edition of James Dickey's Deliverance an eye peers out through a surrounding cluster of hemlock fronds. It is not the poison hemlock shrub of Socrates, but the benign water-loving hemlock tree (Tsuga canadensis) of our Appalachian forests. It would grow in abundance, probably in virgin stands, along the Cahulawassee, the fictional river on which most of the story of Deliverance takes place. The fronds provide the screen of Nature from which the eye looks out. The eye's blue iris is the color of the sky—or of clear deep pools of water. The white ball is the color of clouds—or of turbid falling waters. The skin around the eye has the green cast of deep forests. Is it the eye of the murderous mountaineer? The eye of the narrator Ed Gentry? Of some Nature spirit or pantheistic god? Is it the eye of the author? Probably it is all of these, for it is the eye of the book itself.

In lectures and readings Dickey often quotes the final statement of Rilke's poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo”: “You must change your life.” (Du muss dein leben andern.) This, says Dickey, is what all important art demands, and certainly this is the effect that Dickey wants his work—poems and novels—to have on his readers. I am reminded of the warning Boehme gives at the outset of one of his books: he asks his readers to go no further unless they are willing to make changes in their lives that the book will call for; if they are not, then reading the book might be bad for them, even dangerous. Readers of Deliverance might heed a similar warning, for the novel records a harrowing descent into the abyss, the dark chasm of our own psyches; and the change Dickey calls for is in our understanding of ourselves as human animals whose genetic origins lie in a dark but certain past. Unless the reader understands the violence of the story as it relates to his own psyche, then the effect of the novel might indeed be dangerous.

Denn da ist keine Stelle, die dich nicht sieht.” This assertion which precedes the final statement of Rilke's poem seems even more to the point: “There is no part that does not see you.” We stand naked before the naked work of art. It sees us—and if we have the stomach for it, we see ourselves, through reflection and contrast—for what we are: flawed, incomplete creatures; and we must change, or, at least, accept the imperative to change.

Flawed certainly, but to say we are incomplete may be misleading: our incompleteness often results from our refusal to accept a part of ourselves, an innate part of our psyches, which we are afraid to claim. Under the intimidating light of modern civilization, we hide our shadow, our instinctual selves, not only because we distrust it, but also because John Locke and the Enlightenment have convinced us that it does not exist. The Puritan/Manichean ethos has taught us to project it conveniently elsewhere—as the devil, or on some darker complexioned race. Yet from time to time we feel the Aurignacian Man lurking just beneath our skins, and that scares the devil out of us; so we turn him out, or push him back deep into the recesses of our psyches, where we will not have to face his reality at close hand. To that subterfuge of modern man Dickey says his No—not in Thunder, but to the roar of mountain water. In the poem “Falling” the protagonist strips away her clothes, the integuments of civilization, to the roar of wind, as she falls from womb to grave, discovering—or inventing—in the process who she is. In Deliverance Dickey strips himself bare by breaking the psyche down into its component parts and testing them in a baptism, a trial by water, original water, near the source, not yet damped by the controls of civilization: the uterine font, launching the quartet of characters forth into a new life where only the fittest will prevail.

And so the eye of Dickey's book sees us: subdued creatures of an urban-industrial civilization, separated from Nature—save our own; and that nature-in-ourselves we cannot understand because of our isolation from the natural world which could furnish the analogies necessary for understanding. The rise of civilization, Carl Jung tells us, has been the history of the rational mind's successive gains against the instinctual, until we scarcely recognize ourselves as part of the natural world at all, but rather, in the Christian redaction, as separate creations altogether. The problems caused by this sublimation have been enumerated and analyzed by modern psychology. In Deliverance those problems, and perhaps a solution, have been dramatized.

Deliverance. From what? From the murderous mountain men? From the primordial dangers of the river? Certainly these are the most obvious referents of the title. But there is also the implication of a deliverance from the enslaving monotony of modern urban life. And, beyond that, to a deliverance from the parts of ourselves which also hold us in a kind of bondage, which thwart self-knowledge and consequently hinder our pursuit of vitality itself.

Dickey has discouraged symbolic readings of his novels and poems because he wants to emphasize the importance of story and storytelling, which he feels are too often devalued by modern theory and practice. Whatever meaning, in the abstract sense, his work might suggest has grown out of narrative action. This is certainly a healthy corrective to synthetic theories deriving from Poe and tracing their development through the symbolists, T. S. Eliot's objective correlative, to the postmodern practices of the anti-novel, where effect (or idea) is the first consideration and the synthesis of materials to produce that effect second: narrative thus becomes tertiary—a means of effecting the synthesis, often by inventive but unnatural means. Dickey opts for Nature. He would agree, I think, with Landor's old philosopher: “Nature I loved, and next to Nature Art.” For Dickey empirical experience is authentic, salutary. His mode is thus mimetic, but informed by the esemplastic imagination.

Form and metaphor, Dickey says, must grow out of the material. But then, too, we know that the imagination of the artist is attracted to those materials in which form and metaphor inhere. First, the basic structure of Deliverance is archetypal: Descent and Return—as old at least as The Gilgamesh, and tracing its lineage upward through The Odyssey, The Divine Comedy, King Lear, Faust, Moby-Dick. There are some who hold that it is the basic structure of all great narrative. It is certainly the emphasized structure of Deliverance. Then, there is the river—the great mystery and power of water: life-giving but dangerous, vitalizing, primarily feminine in its associations. American literature is obsessed with water, whether it be Cooper's and Poe's and Melville's oceanic expanses, or Twain's and Faulkner's rivers. Water is life—vast and deep in the collective oceans, flowing and inexorable in its journey from highlands to estuary. But Dickey's Cahulawassee differs significantly from Twain's and Faulkner's Mississippi. It is the river of origins, chaotic and primitive. The Mississippi has tremendous power, but it is a gathered power, belied by its placid surface. The Cahulawassee is anything but placid; it is too original and unsophisticated to disguise its energy as it plunges through the rapids and gorges of North Georgia. It represents life untouched by the civilizing hand of man, or even by the tempering forces of Nature itself. The river is raw and wild.

On the other hand, there is the opposing metaphor of the dam being built at Aintry, which will cause the submersion of the river as it floods the valleys and gorges through which the characters of the novel travel. The dam is a symbol of man's abstractions, of Bergson's geometric order. As an architectural structure, it is like man's laws, his mores, his religions, his arts, which he uses to subdue and control the wild and primitive vitality in himself. As the waters rise behind the dam, they will subdue the wild river, diffuse its power, and cover over the rugged landscape it has wrought. Finally, it will create a placid, monotonous surface, and the wild river will be only a personal memory of those who have experienced it, or a cultural memory of those who have heard or read the stories told by their forebears. Like the dam, the shaping forms of civilization do not so much create order as they effect a monotonous peace which allows man to go about his daily business without threat of disruption. Instinct and passion are sublimated for the sake of society and progress.

Dickey illustrates this monotonous peace in the first section of the novel. In this prologue entitled “Before,” Ed Gentry, the narrator, goes through his daily routines as an advertising executive and suburban family man in Atlanta. By the standards of modern society, it is a good life, but dull and feminized: when Ed returns to his office from lunch, he realizes there is not a man, save himself, on the street, only a bevy of women. His business, though prosperous, is mediocre: it cannot even strive for excellence, lest it out-class the market and thus lose accounts. His wife Martha is a generous, sympathetic woman, but their sexual coupling indicates that romance and adventure have long since departed their marriage. The only excitement Ed experiences is caused by the gold fleck in the eye of a nearly nude model his agency has employed. The eye is different, mysterious—it seems to represent the flaw in humanity, in the human condition, which can be beautiful and fascinating, particularly when found in an object or person approximating perfection. It is a symbol of mystery and exotic possibility. Her eye seizes Ed's imagination, and its image comes back to him several times during the course of the novel; but it offers only a temporary relief from the general boredom of his life.

At an unconscious level, Ed seeks deliverance from the monotony and tedium of this urban-suburban life. Yet he hesitates to go on the trip his friend Lewis Medlock has planned down the Cahulawassee. Adventure seems hardly worth the trouble of disrupting the comfortable apathy of his life, just as a passionate pursuit of the girl with the golden eye would disrupt his impersonal business relations. But he goes nevertheless because of the contagious enthusiasm of Lewis: psychologically, it would be more difficult for Ed to refuse Lewis than to go along with him. Thus, in a way, even here, Ed is choosing a path of least resistance. He is seduced by Lewis's enthusiasm: when Lewis rolls the topographical map out on the table for Drew, Bobby, and Ed to see, he makes the trip sound like pure romance. The map, however, gives no more idea of what the actual terrain is like than a textbook in anthropology allows us to understand the life of an ice-age hunter. It is an abstraction, another of the reductions by which we separate ourselves from the concrete reality of things and events. There are only two ways of confronting and understanding that reality. Direct experience: the way of Ed Gentry. Or by an act of the imagination: the way of Dickey, the poet-novelist.

What happens to the characters during their ordeal on the Cahulawassee, and what they learn from that experience, is directly related to the personalities they reveal during the course of the narrative. Drew is a corporate executive with a highly developed sense of social and moral order. He is an organization man, but in the best, not the pejorative, sense of the term. He is also a family man with a strong sense of duty. His love of music, which has a mathematical order and logic, but also an emotional warmth, reflects these qualities in him. Even his last name, Ballenger, might suggest balance. Because of this highly developed sense of order and social morality, Drew is not able to cope with the chaos of the primitive drama in which he is forced to participate. Consequently, he is destroyed.

Bobby, on the other hand, is violated, but not destroyed. He is a social being also, but without the ideals of Drew. Whereas Drew is an executive with responsibility and position, Bobby is the salesman who has to sell himself, to please and win others, at whatever cost to his own integrity and pride. He also lacks discipline, as revealed by Ed's memory of his blowing up at a party. He is the softest, effeminate and porcine, and the quickest to complain. Thus, Bobby cannot protect himself from the violation of his being by gratuitous evil, represented by the two mountaineers, Stovall and Benson. But he does survive that violation, because his moral lassitude (some might call it flexibility) allows him to.

Lewis Medlock, the enthusiast and instigator of the trip, is quite different from either Drew or Bobby. He is a man of independent means, directly indebted to no one. He can develop his individuality at will—which he does, and thus comes to believe in his own invincibility. He has become expert at every athletic activity he pursues—archery, fly-casting, weight-lifting—and insists on doing everything his own way. He even believes that he can survive a nuclear holocaust, if it comes. As Ed says, Lewis thinks he is immortal. Perhaps Lewis is weakened by his overspecialization and hubris. In the course of the ordeal he is humbled by his experience and forced to realize his vulnerability and mortality. He is a changed and wiser man when he returns to Atlanta.

Ed is the most successful of the four men in coping with his experience, probably because he is the best all around, and the least specialized. He also has more imagination, more of a power of empathy or negative capability, than the other three. He is able to understand moral relativity and adapt to the unexpected very quickly. He also establishes a rapport with nature in a short time, even though almost totally ignorant of her ways before this adventure. His flexibility allows him to enter into the drama of survival of the fittest and call on reserves deep inside himself to predict and destroy his enemy. As a result of his experience he realizes the violence that man, himself included, is capable of committing, but he can also take pride in his ability to enter the primitive world on its own terms and survive if not triumph over it. “Deliverance” at this level takes on a new meaning: it suggests that Ed has been delivered from the terror of his primitive ordeal and the realized savage in himself. When he returns to Atlanta, he has a new understanding of himself and an appreciation of the values and amenities of civilized life. His experience has indeed been a “recreation,” in a way he could not have suspected when he drove north out of Atlanta with Lewis: it has been a “re-creation” of the life of his distant ancestry—tribal, or even pretribal, man. The routines, the manners, the trivialized human encounters of modern life—these are the price we pay for our deliverance from the terrors of primal chaos. But our realization and memory of that terror can give meaning, and poignancy, to the tedium of our daily lives. This is the lesson Ed Gentry has learned, and his memory will keep that lesson alive. Ed has, indeed, “changed his life.”

Dickey's use of characterization to structure and inform Deliverance suggests other possibilities of interpretation as well. From a certain angle of vision, the four main characters appear to be four aspects of the author's own personality. In fact, they might be classified in psychoanalytic terms. Bobby has certain characteristics of the id: he is concerned with his own immediate comfort and gratification; he is impulsive, almost totally lacking in self-control; he is androgynous, undifferentiated, social without a social conscience. Because he lacks anything like a “higher” consciousness, we might say that he lives on an animal level, the level of instinct, much as the id operates within the psychic totality. (In this regard, the mountaineers, Benson and Stovall, who rape Bobby, probably murder Drew, and threaten to kill Lewis and Ed, might be seen as elements of the libido, an unchecked and undifferentiated sexual energy which is frightening and destructive until brought under control by the psyche.)

Lewis, on the other hand, can be seen as the ego: he is concerned with his own survival as an individual, not with the survival of society; he values his relative independence from the economic institutions of society; of all the characters he is the most in touch with external (physical) reality; he is disciplined, but only in activities related to his personal fitness for survival. Before the ordeal on the Cahulawassee he believes, as Freud said of the ego, that he is “immortal.”

Drew is like the superego: he is social-institutional man; his values are the internalized codes of his civilization; his reactions are not instinctive, but they are reflexive, because in him the internalization of values is so complete that they operate on an unconscious level. (I am avoiding here the question of how much of social consciousness is innate and how much learned. The modern science of ethology has indeed shown that a large part of what we might call “superego” is instinctual and present in many of the mammalian species. But for the purposes of the analysis here I am assuming that consideration irrelevant.) Drew places more value on corporate and social well-being than on his own. His highest allegiance is to the articulated principles, such as law, that make civilization possible. His love of music might seem an anomaly, but it is not. Music mediates and formalizes the instincts and passions through the orderly arrangement of tone and rhythm, and thus allows “civil” communication. It expresses our human interrelatedness: like the other arts it is one of the highest expressions of our sense of community.

Ed Gentry is the psyche: he takes charge over the other components of the personality, because none of them, by themselves, is adequate to meet the demands of the ordeal, which require the totality of self for survival. As narrator, Ed is the mediator between the other characters and the external world (represented by the reading public), just as the psyche must be the mediator between the various components of the personality and its environment. Ed is adequate to the task; thus, the self, though much battered and altered, prevails. An interesting development, however, is that Bobby (the id) disappears: although the id survives, the ordeal has dispatched it so that the psyche no longer has to deal with it directly. The id has been chastened and brought under control; it is sufficient only that the psyche remember that the id still exists.

On the other hand, Drew, the superego, does not survive. The implication here is that an automatic, reflexive code based on societal values cannot survive when it ventures beyond the protective boundaries of the civilization that evolved those values for its own preservation. In the primal chaos outside those boundaries, the superego is not only irrelevant; it is also a hindrance to survival. Thus it is destroyed. This does not mean that the superego is without value. As Ed says at the end of the novel, Drew was the “best” of the bunch of them. Because of the psychic violence of the ordeal, the superego cannot survive as an autonomous component of the self, but it can be valued in memory as a valuable principle.

Although this Freudian structure may not be immediately obvious, once discovered it seems too precise not to have been a consideration during composition. In my own conversations with Dickey, however, he has denied that he was conscious of this division of the Freudian paradigm among the four characters of the novel. If this is so, an interesting possibility is raised: Freudian metaphor has become so imbedded in modern thought that it often functions today at a subliminal level.

An indication that Dickey consciously intended the four major characters to represent aspects of himself is the distribution of his vocations and hobbies among them. The narrator Ed Gentry is an advertising executive in Atlanta: Dickey had been a highly successful advertising executive in Atlanta and New York during the late 1950s. Lewis Medlock lifts weights and is an expert archer: Dickey was an athlete who took his weightlifting seriously, and during the 1950s and 60s he became an expert field archer—an accomplishment he has been quite proud of. Drew Ballenger is a guitarist: Dickey's house is filled with guitars, both 6- and 12-stringed varieties; during the 1960s he practiced on the instrument religiously and became a technically proficient musician, and he still plays with much enjoyment today.

That leaves only Bobby Trippe to account for: he has no talents except his sociability; his name suggests the porcine and unsavory; his behavior is childish, cowardly, and embarrassing. It seems that Bobby represents that undisciplined and sometimes ludicrous part of the self that we all wish to be rid of. And that is just what Dickey does in the course of the novel: dispatch Bobby to regions where he will not be an embarrassment to Ed and Lewis.

If the four characters represent aspects of the author, the novel can then be seen as metaphor for Dickey's own life. He leaves the security of a good position in advertising and a comfortable middle-class family existence to enter the imaginative life of the poet. That life requires a descent into the abyss of being to find the sources of imaginative energy. Horrors lurk there, but discovery of the hidden self can be exhilarating. The poet finds in the depths and recesses of the conscious and unconscious mind the primitive well-springs of the poetic imagination. Support for this interpretation can be found in the sleep-dream motif of the novel. Before the adventure, Ed plunged deeply into sleep each night, probably to renew contact with the unconscious sources of vitality. But something has always kept him from remembering what he dreamed; his internal censor will not allow the dreams' contents to rise to consciousness. On the trip with Lewis to the Cahulawassee, Ed moves in and out of sleep, as though he is about to enter a dream. And indeed he does—a nightmare out of man's primitive past, violent and lawless. And this time he brings the dream back into the light of consciousness by telling us about it, just as the poet Dickey is objectifying and dramatizing, through metaphor, his descent into his own elemental self.

Deliverance is not an American Heart of Darkness. Unlike Marlow, the American hero does not beat a paranoiac retreat when he encounters the primitive aspects of his own psyche; rather he approaches those manifestations, with trepidation perhaps, but also with fascination and a desire to understand their meaning and value. Natty Bumppo, Ishmael, Huck Finn, Isaac McCaslin, R. P. McMurphy, all embrace their shadows. (Both Hawthorne and Henry James are primarily European in their attitudes toward the shadow, and are thus exceptions to the generalizations I am making here.) The instinctual self turns out to be a source not only of vitality but also of some of man's most admirable traits. In Deliverance, however, there is no Chingachgook, Queequeg, Jim, Sam Fathers, or Bromden, because Dickey's vision has passed beyond the Puritan/Manichean psychology that begot the shadow. Dickey's psychology is more modern, more complex, for the instinctual self rises from within when called upon to meet the challenge of survival. Projection is evident only in Ed's mildly paranoiac attitude toward mountain people in general, and in the symbolic projection of evil onto Benson and Stovall, in particular. Nonetheless, Deliverance stands in the tradition of Cooper, Melville, Twain, Hemingway, and Faulkner. It is also indebted to the primitivism of Jack London, particularly to The Call of the Wild, for which Dickey wrote the screenplay of a 1975 television production. The American work that Deliverance stands closest to, however, is Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Both are explorations of the modern psyche in similar motival and symbolic terms. The major difference between the two works lies in the authors' attitudes toward knowledge. Poe's residual transcendentalism takes for granted that ultimate knowledge lies outside the self, in a realm whose shadowy existence can be sensed only through the intuition. If for Dickey transcendental knowledge exists, it is not a concern of either his poetry or fiction. Knowledge in Deliverance comes from within, from the shadowy regions deep in the individual psyche. For Dickey, it would seem, the only access to that knowledge is through action, the recreation of archetypal experience, the realization of dream. The act may entail actual participation—or it may be realized in the creation of art. In both, the archetypal is externalized and made concrete.

For many of us, an opportunity to participate in archetypal experience like that described in Deliverance is unavailable or improbable. And if it were available, most of us would be unequal to the ordeal of confronting and absorbing its terror. Furthermore, unless we are writers of the order of Melville or Faulkner or Dickey, we shall never realize such experience effectively through imagination. That is why the artist is of extraordinary value to our modern culture: he has the imaginative power and will to break through the conventions that blind us to the nature of reality outside those conventions—and to the darker regions of our own psyche, which, again, convention urges us to suppress or ignore. The great writer is our Perseus who confronts and overcomes the bright Medusa of existence, the Gorgon which we all contain within ourselves—for the Medusa is the consummate Anima figure, in all her beauty and hideousness. The writer's mirror-shield is his art. In it he sees Life, he sees Us—thus inviting us to see ourselves. He also invites us to grasp, with him, the Sickle of Knowledge and slay the Gorgon. If we have the courage to accept that invitation and sever the petrifying head, then Pegasus flies free and our lives are changed. That is the only kind of knowledge that gives meaning to the tedium of our daily existence, and allows us to rise occasionally above it to perform a heroic action—or at least to understand the nature of heroism.

Terry Thompson (essay date December 1998)

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SOURCE: Thompson, Terry. “Cahulawassee: The Bend Sinister River in Deliverance.English Language Notes 36, no. 2 (December 1998): 44-8.

[In the following essay, Thompson considers the “heraldic symbolism” found in Dickey's Deliverance.]

Originally published in 1970, Deliverance, James Dickey's first and most popular novel, has been much lauded for its poetic description of nature and for its vivid narration of a harrowing canoe trip down a wild Georgia river by four would-be outdoorsmen from Atlanta whose adventurous weekend getaway quickly turns into a bloody nightmare once they discover “the primordial dangers of the river.”1 Their overly romanticized view of nature—and what might lurk in it—is shattered by their encounter with human savagery and depravity, including torture, rape, and murder. The naive quartet of urban Nimrods learn through blood trial that, as D. H. Lawrence once argued, “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.”2

Although lambasted in the early seventies by numerous social and political critics for its machismo and violence, Deliverance became a huge best-seller since “The plot had the ingredients for a surefire success, the old adventure story of hunter and hunted in a modern setting, with urban men forced to regain primitive instincts in order to kill and survive.”3 Furthermore, the many “Mythological and archetypal readings, even Jungian interpretations, suggest that Dickey … caught in this novel something far more than the average adventure story” (Calhoun and Hill 118). This wild river journey is “as old at least as The Gilgamesh,” and its literary lineage extends “through The Odyssey, The Divine Comedy, King Lear, Faust, Moby-Dick,” and well beyond (Butterworth 71). It is a riveting tale of personal growth gained by meeting challenge, of great wisdom earned by spilling blood. In short, “Deliverance provides an initiation which … is brutal and adolescent. …”4 The three suburbanites who survive the ordeal, much like Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Aeneas, Ishmael, et al., will be forever changed by their frightening journey; they will never again view the world or their fellow man with the same dull eyes.

Just as in so many memorable novels, such as A Tale of Two Cities, Pride and Prejudice, The Portrait of a Lady, and Moby-Dick, the opening lines of Deliverance provide important background information as well as foreshadow what the plot holds for the reader; the first person narrator, Ed Gentry, describes an uncooperative topographical map of north Georgia spread out on a bar room table:

It unrolled slowly, forced to show its colors, curling and snapping back whenever one of us turned loose. The whole land was very tense until we put four steins on its corners and laid the river out to run for us through the mountains 150 miles north. Lewis' hand took a pencil and marked out a small strong X in a place where some of the green bled away and the paper changed with high ground, and began to work downstream, northeast to southwest through the printed woods.5

Although the topography of this “map anticipates the land's and the river's energy,” the wild waterway is quite unremarkable; the Cahulawassee will, like all streams, eventually find its way to the sea or some other large body of open water.6 However, there is a very subtle bit of heraldic symbolism in the compass directions provided in the narrator's description: the fifty-mile stretch of river chosen for the ill-starred canoe trip runs precisely bend sinister—from upper left to lower right—on the colorful map the four men study so carefully in the opening scene. This subtle allusion, so very early in the novel, to medieval heraldic devices dovetails elegantly with the idea, suggested by numerous critics, that Deliverance offers a modernized, urbanized treatment of the archetypal male quest story, a journey tale as old as Moses, as violent as Beowulf, as noble as Arthur.

The beginnings of heraldry as we know it are relatively well documented: it “originated independently in western Europe and in Japan, in each case in the twelfth century.”7 Although modern day heraldry is seen by some as merely an affectation of the idle rich or an arcane hobby, it actually developed from military necessity: “When body armour prevented recognition of leaders, the need arose for signs by which to distinguish them” (Pine 31). According to Bruno Bernard Heim, a noted authority on coats of arms and their history, “The supreme law of heraldic design is visibility, arising from the need to see clearly the charges on the shield and helmet in order to recognize their bearer even from a distance and in the heat of battle.”8 However, because of the proclivity of some European kings and princes to “scatter their seed,” as it were, “the arms of the illegitimate sons [who often far outnumbered the legitimate heirs] were made to carry some charge or alteration to show that there was some reason which debarred inheritance by their users, whilst there remained those entitled to bear arms without the mark of distinction.”9 In other words, bastard sons had to add to their family crests the bend sinister device—two parallel lines drawn from the upper left to the lower right—to symbolize their illegitimacy.

However, the association of the bend sinister with bastardy's taint is not especially germane to Dickey's tale; it is not the main reason for the subtle reference. Rather, there is another meaning inherent in the left-to-right and downward-flowing stretch of the Cahulawassee River, a meaning that is much more symbolically pertinent to the novel; in many ancient cultures—and a few modern ones—the whole left half of the body was considered unclean, was, in fact, the side of the Devil. Hence, it was labeled the “sinister” side in heraldic language, deriving from the Latin for “on the left.” Today, however, the word “sinister” has expanded in meaning to include anything frightening, threatening, evil, wicked, or foreboding. It is to this dark and ominous meaning that the map directions in the opening paragraph so obliquely allude.

Many early cultures believed that Satan lurked—quite literally—just behind a person's left shoulder; from there, he constantly observed human behavior to detect a sin or transgression or moment of weakness. The old superstition that the spilling of salt was horribly unlucky—because of salt's great value to early cultures—led to the practice of tossing a pinch of the spilled condiment over the left shoulder and directly into Satan's eyes. The resulting temporary blindness would enable the person to escape the Evil One and avoid a sure spell of bad luck. Even today, in some societies, children who appear to be born left-handed are forced to become right-handed—occasionally by having their “wrong” hands bound up as tightly as a Chinese maiden's feet. The belief that the left side of the body harbors wickedness is nothing if not persistent.

For over eight centuries—from King Richard the Lion Hearted10 to Sir Winston Churchill, from dispossessed Scottish lairds to the latest nouveau riche Londoners, from country club crests to blazer buttons—formal heraldry has continued to play an important role in Western life, albeit an increasingly smaller one: “Thanks to its brilliant colors, its power of suggestion, and the rich store of symbols it has accumulated, the noble art of heraldry has been a source of deep and mysterious enchantment for many people down the ages” (Heim 9).

Given James Dickey's detailed description of the segment of the river selected by the four Atlantans for their amateurish and bloody fling with the north Georgia wilderness, the novelist's cryptic allusion to a medieval heraldic device adds an extra touch of meaning to an introductory paragraph that is already richly layered with subtle irony and careful inference. The over-confident quartet of urban knights-errant do not understand the veiled warning in their chosen topography; thus, they suffer the terrible consequences of uneducated and unskilled questing along the Cahulawassee, a left-handed and sinister river.


  1. Keen Butterworth, “The Savage Mind: James Dickey's Deliverance,The Southern Literary Journal 28.2 (1996): 71. All subsequent references to these sources will be documented parenthetically within the text.

  2. D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (New York: Viking, 1964) 62.

  3. Richard J. Calhoun and Robert W. Hill, James Dickey (Boston: Twayne, 1983) 108.

  4. Henry J. Lindborg, “James Dickey's Deliverance: The Ritual of Art,” The Southern Literary Journal 6.2 (1974): 90.

  5. James Dickey, Deliverance (Boston: Houghton, 1970) 13.

  6. Daniel B. Marin, “James Dickey's Deliverance: Darkness Visible,” James Dickey: The Expansive Imagination: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Richard J. Calhoun (Deland, FL: Everett/Edwards, 1973) 108.

  7. L. G. Pine, International Heraldry (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle, 1970) 20.

  8. Bruno Bernard Heim, Heraldry in the Catholic Church: Its Origins, Customs, and Laws (Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, UK: Van Duren, 1978) 12.

  9. Arthur Charles Fox-Davies, The Complete Guide to Heraldry (New York: Bonanza, 1978) 509.

  10. Reverend Charles Boutell, Boutell's Heraldry, revised by C. W. Scott and J. P. Brooke-Little (London: Frederick Warne, 1963) 121-22. This book was originally published in 1863.

R. S. Gwynn (essay date summer 1999)

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SOURCE: Gwynn, R. S. “Subject Matters.” Hudson Review 52, no. 2 (summer 1999): 323-31.

[In the following excerpt, Gwynn compares Dickey's work and declining critical reputation to that of the Georgian poets, especially Rupert Brooke.]

No group of poets has suffered worse at the hands of posterity than the Georgians, whose poems were collected in five eponymous semiannual anthologies. The last of these had the misfortune to appear in the same year as The Waste Land, and after Eliot, Edith Sitwell, and Middleton Murry had finished mopping the floor with it, the Georgians were consigned to the back matter of the history of modernism. Of their number, none has been devalued more than Rupert Brooke, who is remembered chiefly as the poster boy for British army recruitment, the result of the great popularity of “1914,” the sonnet sequence he wrote in the last year of his life. Brooke, who by all accounts was intelligent, handsome, charming, a bit facetious, and a fearlessly outspoken Fabian in matters political, would doubtless have been appalled by the reasons for his posthumous fame. But, to readers familiar with Sassoon, Graves, and Owen, his lines comparing a foredoomed generation's call to the trenches to “swimmers into cleanness leaping” seem hopelessly, even criminally naive.

A shame in a way, for the poetry on which Brooke built a not inconsiderable reputation accurately captures that lulling decade before the Great War, an era which, if the huge success of Titanic is any measure, large numbers of us still privately embrace (Those tea dances! Those great hats!). It must have been an auspicious time for a rising young poet, especially if, like Brooke, one had the necessary prerequisites of social standing, the right school ties, a bit of money, and rather more of talent. The typical Brookean/Georgian poem celebrates the long mornings at the country house, mowed lawns and overgrown gardens, the declamation of one's latest strophes over crumpets and croquet balls with even the fish “fly-replete, in depth of June, / Dawdling away their wat'ry noon.” Even what Brooke later called “all the little emptiness of love” rarely breaks the calm; one's most fervent passions are reserved for “the cool kindliness of sheets, that soon / Smooth away trouble,” and no matter seems more pressing than that notorious closing question, “And is there honey still for tea?” Reading the Georgian anthologies provides quick transport into the servants-at-the-ready realm of Merchant-Ivory—sans conflict, bad weather, and the Great War lurking in the shadows.

I dredge up this ancient matter for a reason: if the work of many contemporary poets is any indication, we are in the midst of a Georgian revival. The weekend has become the setting in which our poets thrive. Who can blame them? They live in comfortable times; the issues that impelled them thirty years ago to take to the barricades lie far behind. They are loath to resurrect their checkered pasts or to jeopardize their futures by confessing present sins. They may have lived through the whirlwind but now seem content to cultivate their gardens—not imaginary ones with real toads in them but real ones flourishing with everything but imagination. They desperately need the challenge of urgent subjects but cannot urge themselves to look for them outside their own privacy fences. We have slipped from the Age of Causes to the Age of Cozy; if Thoreau were to survey the current scene, he might be forced to conclude that the mass of men lead lives of quiet.

If James Dickey, whose selected poems [The Selected Poems] 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 memoir 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.

Dickey once said, “The whole tragedy of the American poets of my generation is that they were afraid to change. …” Dickey's own example provides one effective counterargument to that, for his changes in retrospect seem invariably for the worst.

Henry Hart (essay date winter 2000)

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SOURCE: Hart, Henry. “James Dickey: The World as a Lie.” Sewanee Review 108, no. 1 (winter 2000): 93-106.

[In the following essay, Hart addresses the problems in researching Dickey's life story, asserting that “nearly everything Dickey said about his life was an embroidery of fiction and fact.”]

When James Dickey died on January 19, 1997, most of the obituaries—from the six-column one in the New York Times to the shorter ones in Time and Newsweek—paid tribute to the big, life-loving, hard-drinking bard who had written the best-selling novel Deliverance. The eulogists pointed out that he had been a star college football player, a combat pilot with one hundred missions during World War II and the Korean War, an advertising executive for the Coca-Cola company, a tournament archer and expert bow-hunter, a National Book Award-winning poet, a poetry consultant at the Library of Congress, a popular professor, and an author of poetry books, coffee-table books, literary criticism, novels, and children's books. In Dickey's hometown newspaper, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, David Kirby announced that “A boozy, bold ‘Dylan Thomas of the South,’” had died, and that Dickey had “staked out the position of premier tough-guy writer that Ernest Hemingway had held in the previous generation.” Kirby also contended that Dickey was an aesthete and impersonator in the tradition of Oscar Wilde.

During a memorial service at the University of South Carolina, the novelist Pat Conroy remarked on Dickey's personae and impersonations as well: “He tried to live a hundred lives and succeeded in living about 95 of them. No American life has been so restless in its pursuit of expertise in so many fields. A whole city of men lived in that vivid, restless country behind James Dickey's transfixing eyes.” Because Dickey aspired to be a Jeffersonian Renaissance man as much as a Rabelaisian hell-raiser, Conroy expressed sympathy for the recorder of his life: “Pity the biographer of James Dickey. If this biographer … gets all of the far-flung outrageous stories on paper, then the life of James Dickey will make Ernest Hemingway look like a florist from the Midwest. This is a promise, not a premise, a certainty, not a guess.” If Dickey had modeled his life on Hemingway's, he had also sought to outperform the great performer.

By the time of Dickey's death, at least six writers had proposed gathering “the far-flung outrageous stories” into a biography, but Dickey had declared as early as 1980 that he would authorize no biography. In interviews he allied himself with T. S. Eliot and Matthew Arnold in opposing such a book, and in private he did what he could to keep the biographical hounds off his trail. “No one will ever be able to reconstruct my life. It is more complicated and more unknowable than of Lawrence of Arabia,” he wrote in a journal published in 1971. If Dickey confounded researchers, he also courted them by saving almost every scrap of paper he wrote on and every scrap that was ever written to him. To make them accessible to the public, he began selling his papers to Washington University in 1964. In 1993 he sold so many letters, manuscripts, notebooks, military documents, teaching materials, appointment books, financial statements, and other records to Emory University that it took 233 boxes and about 100 feet of shelf space to contain all the material. About five years later, Emory bought many more papers that had been stored in Dickey's house when he died. Hundreds of his letters had already made their way to other archives around the country. In these various havens I have found lines of poetry Dickey scribbled on Applebee's napkins, a little book about toothpaste and toothbrushing he assembled when he was five years old, love letters he received from Atlanta girls when he was a teenager, his international Playboy key, and even a sixteen-ounce can of Budweiser beer.

For all his half-hearted objections to potential biographers, Dickey loved to read biographies, and in his essays, most notably those he wrote on Lawrance Thompson's Robert Frost: The Early Years and Allan Seager's The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke, he laid out a blueprint of the kind he most admired. In his review of Thompson's book, focusing on Frost the man versus Frost the myth, Dickey could have been addressing his own hagiographers when he cautioned Frost's: “‘Beloved’ is a term that must always be mistrusted when applied to artists, and particularly to poets. Poets are likely to be beloved for only a few of the right reasons, and for almost all the wrong ones: for saying things we want to hear, for furnishing us with an image of ourselves that we enjoy believing in, even for living for a long time in the public eye.” He praised Thompson for scrutinizing Frost with both approbation and disapproval: “As partial as it is [toward Frost], Dr. Thompson's account is yet the fully documented record of what Frost was like when he was not beloved: when he was, in fact, a fanatically selfish, egocentric, and at times dangerous man; was from the evidence, one of the least lovable figures in American literature. What we get from Dr. Thompson is the … construction of a complex mask, a persona, an invented personality that the world, following the man, was pleased, was overjoyed, finally, to take as an authentic identity, and whose main interest, biographically and humanly, comes from the fact that the mask is almost the diametrical opposite of the personality that lived in and motivated the man all his life.” Dickey concluded: “Looking back on Frost through the lens of Dr. Thompson's book, one finds it obvious that the mode, the manner in which a man lies, and what he lies about—these things and the form of his lies—are the main things to investigate in a poet's life and work.”

In reviewing Seager's biography Dickey restated his position. Although he entitled his review “Roethke: The Greatest American Poet,” he was anything but fawning. He drew attention to Roethke's egotism, drinking, violence, and insanity; but his worst offense, according to Dickey, was his pathetically unbelievable lying, which Dickey witnessed on a trip to Seattle in 1963:

[Roethke] would enter into a long involved story about himself. “I used to spar with Steve Hamas,” he would say. I remember trying to remember who Steve Hamas was, and by the time I had faintly conjured up an American heavyweight who was knocked out by Max Schmeling, Roethke was glaring at me anxiously. “What the hell's wrong?” he said. “You think I'm a damned liar?”

I did indeed, but until he asked me, I thought he was just rambling on in the way of a man who did not intend for others to take him seriously. He seemed serious enough, for he developed the stories at great length, as though he had told them, to others or to himself, a good many times before.

Dickey fell into a bitter silence as he listened to Roethke's long-winded, self-centered tales. Although Roethke wanted him to corroborate the lies in order “to help protect him from his sense of inadequacy, his dissatisfaction with what he was as a man,” Dickey refused. “My own disappointment,” he remembered, “was not at all in the fact that Roethke lied, but in the obviousness and uncreativeness of the manner in which he did it. Lying of an inspired, habitual, inventive kind, given a personality, a form, and a rhythm, is mainly what poetry is, I have always believed. All art, as Picasso is reported to have said, is a lie that makes us see the truth.”

For Dickey, Roethke embodied his masterly lies in his poems, and while he commended Seager for explaining the biographical context—the “glass house”—in which the poems grew, he attacked those responsible for imposing limits on Seager's book. “Something is wrong here,” Dickey commented. “One senses too much of an effort to mitigate certain traits of Roethke's, particularly in regard to his relations with women. It may be argued that a number of people's feelings and privacy are being spared.” Because of Seager's reticence Dickey believed that “a whole—and very important—dimension of the subject has thereby been left out of account.” For those who preferred a whitewashed, mythic Roethke, Dickey had harsh words: “It is no good to assert, as some have done, that Roethke was a big lovable clumsy affectionate bear who just incidentally wrote wonderful poems. It is no good to insist that Seager show ‘the good times as well as the bad’ in anything like equal proportions; these are not the proportions of the man's life. The driving force of him was agony, and to know him we must know all the forms it took.” Dickey blamed Seager's reluctance to tell the whole truth on Roethke's wife, Beatrice, and attacked her for placing obstacles in Seager's way.

Writing a biography is a complex business, especially when your subject or your subject's family and friends are still alive. It was Oscar Wilde who noted that the biographer added one more fear to the prospect of death. Wilde also said that the great writer has many apostles, and usually it's Judas who writes the biography. In her book about the numerous problems facing Sylvia Plath's biographers, Janet Malcolm called the biographer a professional burglar. I would add to the list of epithets the name of Adam. Many biographers begin their perilous adventures in relative innocence—in an adorational Eden. Out of a fascination with their subject's writings, they want to pluck the apple that contains the secrets, or seeds, of their subject's life and art. Biographers quickly realize that there are some people who would rather they left the apple alone. Much biographical information, after all, is private knowledge, forbidden knowledge, harmful knowledge.

Out of my own enchantment with Dickey's early work and curiosity about his life, I wrote Dickey around 1992 that I planned to write his biography. He never responded, but mutual friends told me of his dismay. Over the next four years, partly because he realized I was persevering with my research, he warmed to the project. About a year before he died, a Dickey scholar, Gordon Van Ness, told me that Dickey wanted to speak to me. Since I had been working on the book for several years, and since I feared he might try to restrict or block it, I made my first phone call to his house with great trepidation. When I told him my name and where I was calling from, there was a pause, and then he nearly shrieked: “Henry Hart! That's not your name!” He made up a menacing name that sounded like a character's in The Godfather: “You're not Henry Hart. You're Henrico Corleone! You're a hit-man for the mafia!” (In two months, after telling me that he read Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan books as a boy, he signed some of his letters to me “Bolgani, the Gorilla,” presumably because Tarzan had killed the gorilla.) To my great relief, despite his discombobulating jokes that portrayed me as his executioner, Dickey expressed little animosity toward my project. But he obviously had worries, the main one being the way I would address the romanticized versions of his life that he had aired so free-spiritedly in conversations and publications.

Although Dickey liked to ridicule T. S. Eliot's self-conscious aesthete, J. Alfred Prufrock, he shared Prufrock's need to “prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.” In an anecdote about his first poetry reading, which he said he had approached with diffidence and fear, he admitted in 1989: “The public image, whatever that may be, notwithstanding, I'm really a rather shy person. It made me very nervous to get up in front of even as few as ten or fifteen people. My wife noticed how nervous it was making me. We were on a relatively modest salary at the time at a small West Coast experimental school [Reed College, where he taught in 1963], and even though I got a couple of hundred dollars that we very much needed for a week's work, I just didn't know if it was worth what I was going through to get it.” Dickey finally told his wife that he would decline the offer to read at Oregon State. When she advised him to relax and just be himself on stage, he responded: “But what self, which one?” To mask his insecurities, he confessed that he “had to invent a self” and chose for his model the “big, strong, hard drinking, hard fighting” Ernest Hemingway. He added: “Nothing could be less characteristic of the true James Dickey, who is a timid, cowardly person.”

Right after telling this story to the interviewer, Ernest Suarez (and it was a story; he had given numerous poetry readings before teaching at Reed), he named Hemingway and T. E. Lawrence as the twentieth century's “two great invented selves, people who wished to become other than they really were and who wrote and acted out of the assumed personality.” He could also have included William Butler Yeats, who once argued: “All happiness depends on the energy to assume the mask of some other life, on a rebirth as something not one's self, something created in a moment and perpetually renewed. … The poet finds and makes his mask in disappointment, the hero in defeat.” Like his self-conscious and self-inventing forebears, Dickey regularly chose to overcome disappointment and defeat by creating and then flaunting heroic masks. When he wrote that no biographer could do justice to his life because he was more complicated than Lawrence of Arabia, what he meant was that he wore more masks and played more roles than Lawrence. To close friends like Paula Goff he confided that he was “the sum of all the roles he played”—a sum that, presumably, no one would ever be able to tally.

On July 15, 1996, during my second phone conversation with Dickey, he again brought up the matter of lying. He wanted to know what I planned to call my biography. I said I might call it James Dickey: A Rage to Live after a couplet from Alexander Pope's “Epistle to a Lady” that he greatly admired: “You purchase Pain with all that Joy can give, / And die of nothing but a Rage to live.” He thought for a moment, and then said: “No. Henry, we've got to shake them up out there. We've got to call it: James Dickey: The World as a Lie.” The title reminded me of a line from Schopenhauer quoted by one of Dickey's favorite writers, Joseph Campbell, in The Mythic Image. (I learned later that he had borrowed the phrase from the title of a poem by Paula Goff.) The world of time and space, Schopenhauer proposed, was “a vast dream, dreamed by a single being, in such a way that all the dream characters dream too.” What Dickey meant was what Schopenhauer meant: the world could be viewed as a dream or lie or invention—something created mysteriously and majestically out of the void—in which all the characters dreamed or lied, too. The Greek word behind poetry is poesis, “a making,” and Dickey implied that we all are poets or artist-gods making or “making-up” the world. With a childlike sense of wonder, as well as with the many sextants he bought as an adult, he obsessively contemplated the stars and cosmic origins. With his head in the heavens, he laughed like a mystic comedian at the mundane facts at his feet.

Nearly everything Dickey said about his life was an embroidery of fiction and fact. Trying to comprehend his penchant for tall tales and cavalier behavior, friends and foes alike attributed it to his southernness. “Most Southern literature comes right off the front porch,” Dickey once said. “[It arises from] people sitting and talking, long-windedly, but always willing to listen to each others' stories because they've all got good ones to tell.” Dickey's conviction that he was free to invent his past and future as he chose also had foreign sources—the existential writings of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. In a televised conversation with Bill Moyers, Dickey once recalled listening with rapt attention to a Sorbonne lecture by Camus “about the Existentialist proposition that we no longer have any supernatural sanctions …, that man is essentially what he has made of himself. The famous Sartrian formula—Man is free to act, but he must act to be free—was pretty much the subject of that evening's lecture.” Skeptical of this libertarian position, Moyers asked Dickey if all acts were therefore permissible. Dickey fudged. It depended, he said, on the quality and quantity of the actions. On other occasions he boldly proclaimed that in a universe without traditional sanctions he, as a poet, could say, do, and make of himself whatever he pleased.

In his controversial endorsement of lying, Dickey found a sympathetic ally in Oscar Wilde, who bemoaned with his usual wit what he called the “decay of lying” in modern letters:

One of the chief causes that can be assigned for the curiously commonplace character of most of the literature of our age is undoubtedly the decay of Lying as an art, a science, a social pleasure. … Lying and poetry are arts—arts, as Plato saw, not unconnected with each other—and they require the most careful study, the most disinterested devotion. … The fashion of lying has almost fallen into disrepute. Many a young man starts in life with a natural gift for exaggeration which, if nurtured in congenial and sympathetic surroundings, or by the imitation of the best models might grow into something really great and wonderful. But as a rule he comes to nothing. He either falls into careless habits of accuracy … or takes to frequenting the society of the aged and the well-informed. Both things are equally fatal to his imagination.

Unleashing the imagination without concern for conventional truths or morals was a goal of fin-de-siècle aesthetes. It was also a goal of James Dickey.

Dickey considered his long novel, Alnilam, his most significant work partly because it was to be his most extensive exploration of the imagination's ability to transform facts into captivating lies. The two main characters, Frank and Joel Cahill, reinvent the world in ways Dickey espoused. In a lengthy abstract for the novel and its projected sequel, Crux Australis, Dickey wrote of his alter-ego Joel:

He evidently has some notion of a society which he calls “circulatory,” or “cyclic.” The society would depend very heavily on role-playing and lying. Joel believes that lying exercises the creative and imaginative faculties, and, when indulged in on either an individual or a group basis, raises the consciousness of the party or parties concerned. The process is what Joel calls “continuous invention,” and he believes, apparently, that such systematic practice of fabrication will create a new human world and the transfigured world of the human ability to fabricate. There is a kind of sketchy notion to the effect that there will be “truth areas,” where empirical fact is rigorously adhered to and communicated truthfully. This is the area that will enable the state to function. All the citizens are indoctrinated both to truth and invention, so that they can be circulated in and out of both areas, as the state desires. It might even be a kind of law that one must spend equal time in both, or perhaps more time in the “invention area” than in the “truth area,” but surely, some time in both. The real basis for the mind or imagination of the state will be in the invention area, where people are constantly exercising their creative abilities by making up stories about themselves, about their neighbors, about anything and everything there is. People would soon learn to live with this, Joel says, exploit it, and rejoice in it. It is a kind of freedom human beings have never before had on a large-scale, systematic basis. There might be a kind of hierarchy of lying here where one class of “inventors” would be compelled to enter the truth area or indicate by some sign or other, in case vital or necessary information was required, that this was indeed truth. The rest could be lies, but the highest group of all, the group that corresponds to the philosopher-kings or sages are those that need make no sign as to whether what they say is true or whether it is fantasy. These are the master inventors, and the state reveres them.

Joel's conception of utopia turns Plato's Republic, with its truth-telling philosopher-kings, on its head. “What shocks the virtuous philosop[h]er,” Dickey would say with John Keats, “delights the camelion Poet.”

For Dickey the world was a theater in which he bestowed upon his multitudinous selves the costumes and actions of high or low drama. In his poems he often wrote about kings, and in his life he played mad or bad or good king with equal gusto. When asked what Dickey was really like, a friend from his advertising years, Al Braselton, answered: “Which Dickey?” He professed to know four Dickeys—Jamey, Jim, James, and Jimbo: “Jamey, the nickname he was given by his family in early childhood, is the Proust-like preternaturally-aware poetic sensibility who misses nothing and remembers everything.” Jim is “the friend and good companion,” who is embarrassed by Jamey's sensitivity and determined to avoid all literary affection. James is “the writer … who keeps himself in a most secretive manner.” Jimbo is “the celebrity,” the larger-than-life figure out to prove to a culture biased against poets that he is no “sissy.” As if to outdo his friend's assessment, Dickey usually boasted that he had a whole troupe of personae. “Everyone is several Walter Mittys,” he told an interviewer in 1967. To another interviewer he confided: “Everybody has in himself a saint, a murderer, a pervert, a monster, a good husband, a scoutmaster, a provider, a businessman, a shrewd horse trader, a hopeless aesthete. … There are all kinds of contradictory selves. Essentially, the most exciting thing for a writer, especially a young writer, is to get as many of these energized as he can, to let the monster speak as well as let the prospective husband speak.” Assessing Dickey's contradictions, his sister-in-law, Patsy, once wrote: “Jim created James, the mad nobleman living in an impenetrable fortress of legend. Then with Viking ruthlessness, with outrageous pleasure, James slew Jim, the man who could create life in stone. Then there was only James Dickey.”

Everyone who followed literature after World War II heard stories about Dickey's outrageous and even unlawful behavior. To a certain extent he emulated his peers who suffered from what he called “the occupational hazards” of poetry—alcoholism, mania, suicide, and depression. Referring to Hart Crane, Dylan Thomas, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, and Sylvia Plath (as he often referred to Theodore Roethke, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Delmore Schwartz, and Weldon Kees), he told a Playboy interviewer in 1973:

I think there is a terrible danger in the over-cultivation of one's sensibilities, and that's what poets are forced to do in order to be poets. You will find that poets, almost without exception, are cast into the most abject despair over things that wouldn't bother an ordinary person at all. Living with such an exacerbating mind and sensibility gets to be something that one cannot bear any longer. In order to create poetry, you make a monster out of your own mind. You can't get rid of him. He stays right with you every minute. Every minute of every day and every night. He produces terrible things—nightmare after nightmare. I'm subject to having them no less than any of the rest of them. But I don't fool myself. I know what's doing it. Writers start out taking something to aid the monster, to give them the poetry. Poets use alcohol, or any other kind of stimulant, to aid and abet this process, then eventually take refuge in the alcohol to help get rid of it. But by that time the monster is so highly developed he cannot be got rid of.

While Dickey seemed bent on outmonstering his fellow monsters, he also subscribed to the notion that poetry is an act of redemption and atonement. He transgressed knowing that his sins would inspire poems, that he could purge his sins and gain forgiveness through writing. If he pledged his soul to the devil, he believed that in return he would acquire Faustian power. He justified the hazards of poetry-writing by saying that “the moments of intensity which do lead to delight and joy and fulfillment are so much better than those that other people have.”

One of the insidious effects of alcoholism on writers is the way it can dissipate creative and critical faculties while bolstering delusions of greatness. Dickey's literary career reached its zenith in the 1960s and early 1970s—before alcohol and other forces eroded his judgment. The poet and editor Peter Davison summed up the critical consensus in an Atlantic Monthly essay in 1967 when he argued that, of all the contemporary poets, only Robert Lowell and James Dickey deserved the title major. During this period Dickey became a literary celebrity. Life and Time published profiles of his life. He appeared on the Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, and Dick Cavett shows. He could count as friends such writers and politicians as William Styron, Norman Mailer, John Updike, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Robert Penn Warren, William F. Buckley, Jimmy Carter, and Eugene McCarthy. He commanded the highest fees of any poet on the reading circuit; and, like Dylan Thomas before him, he titillated, scandalized, and mesmerized his audiences. For the poet who aspired to be a notorious poet maudit or the Roaring Boy alcohol was an enabling tonic. About Dickey's drinking the poet Richard Wilbur observed:

Especially among Southern writers, after a little Daniel's or Dickel, one hears Jim Dickey stories having to do with outrageous and alcoholic behavior at this place or that. I have seen a bit of such behavior, and have heard tell of it from people who do not fabricate or embellish. It seems to me that I understand … what goes on in Jim at such times: an impatience with the correct and civilized self, a wish to be unbounded. Norman Mailer, and Norman Mailer's fictional heroes, often feel challenged to do precisely the wrong thing, and I suspect that Jim has sometimes said to himself, “What is the worst thing I could say or do at this moment?” There is a relation, I think, between the breaking-out character of some of his actions and the breaking-out character of some of the poems we published [at Wesleyan University Press] during Jim's days with Wesleyan: certain poems seem to violate the poet's own sense of the normal and possible, offering preternatural events not as truths but as exciting fabrications.

If alcohol fueled Dickey's engines during the 1960s, helping him become one of the most sensational performers on the poetry circuit, during the 1970s many critics felt those engines were spinning out of control.

With every advancing year Dickey liked to say that he was the oldest adolescent alive, and those who witnessed his bad behavior at poetry readings agreed. On these occasions the Dionysian boy usurped the throne from the Apollonian adult. Although he was famous, fame did little to appease his vanity and ambition. He lied and cavorted out of a desperate need for love, even while recognizing that his monstrous conduct repelled people as often as it entranced them. Adulation from those who enjoyed his flouting of taboos was a balm to his conscience. Gradually, however, his Dionysian and Faustian excesses estranged his family and friends, especially after the death of his first wife, Maxine. Dickey's son, Chris, has told the story of family suffering in his memoir, Summer of Deliverance.

James Dickey's bibulous exploits were not his whole life, even though, as Dickey said of Roethke's agonies, they came to dominate it. While Dickey could be cruel and egocentric to the point of solipsism, he could also be a sensitive, understanding, and hilarious companion. Of the many eminent poets from his generation who taught in universities, he was one of the most charismatic and encouraging, as almost all his students attest. His unaffected manner could make the shyest admirer feel at ease, just as his curiosity and empathy could make the same person feel that whatever he or she had to say was eminently important. He could be extraordinarily generous to beginning writers. Barnstorming around the country to read to the humblest community-college or high-school audience, he was a hugely successful ambassador for poetry, and by insisting on high reading fees he helped other poets as well as himself. His vast knowledge of literature, which his memory kept at the tip of his tongue, had few rivals among writers of any age. While his detractors were legion, few could deny the uniqueness and sheer fecundity of his talent.

James Dickey's story, like Jay Gatsby's, was in some respects a quintessential American tragedy. Both men kicked free of judicious restraints in pursuing their dreams of wealth, fame, and romance. Dickey's quest for “something commensurate to [Gatsby's] capacity for wonder” led inevitably to a pitiful denouement. It is no wonder that as an old man reflecting soberly on his life, Dickey identified himself with Gatsby and Fitzgerald in the poem “Entering Scott's Night,” which the New Yorker published shortly after Dickey died. The books he published in the 1960s and early 70s ensure Dickey a place among the exemplary ghosts in Fitzgerald's night. The books that followed, while demonstrating a noble willingness to take risks with different genres and styles, are testaments to the cautionary tale of flawed genius that was James Dickey's life.

Jeffrey Meyers (review date May 2000)

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SOURCE: Meyers, Jeffrey. A review of Crux: The Letters of James Dickey, by James Dickey. New Criterion 18, no. 9 (May 2000): 69.

[In the following unfavorable assessment, Meyers derides the errors in and superficial treatment of Dickey's collected letters.]

Virgil's Aeneas, weeping over the frescoes that depict the fall of Troy, voices the tragic sense of life that animates all poets: “Tears in the nature of things, hearts touched by human transience.” In “Resolution and Independence,” Wordsworth describes the wrenching extremes of a poet's moods:

But, as it sometimes chanceth, from the might
Of joy in minds that can no further go,
As high as we have mounted in delight
In our dejection do we sink as low.

James Dickey (1923-97), handsome, blond and blue-eyed, formidably energetic, large, and larger than life, scaled the heights. College athlete, air force navigator, advertising executive, guitarist, archer, hunter, teacher, performer and poet laureate, winner of a Guggenheim fellowship and a National Book Award, he covered the Apollo launching for Life and read his poetry at President Carter's inauguration. He made more money from his writing than any American poet of his time. In 1996 his income was $187,000, his assets $800,000, and he was “practically a conglomerate.” But he knew the tears of things, and caused a good many of them to be shed. He was a tragic figure who exclaimed: “I am a haunted artist like the others. I know what the monsters know.”

Dickey has been ill served, even betrayed, by his son, by his literary executor, and by his biographer, who show little understanding of his genius or the reasons for his agonizing suffering and sharp decline. Christopher Dickey's memoir, Summer of Deliverance (1998), by turns hard-boiled and mawkish, first accused Dickey of killing his wife, Maxine, and then turned Iron John into Jello Jim. His literary executor Matthew Bruccoli was a longtime colleague at the University of South Carolina. But Bruccoli's selection of Dickey's letters is superficially introduced and inadequately annotated.1 He misses the reference to Gertrude Stein's description of Pound as a “village explainer” and in his notes says that Denis Donoghue is American, rather than Irish, and that Stansky and Abrahams edited, rather than wrote, their two-volume biography of the early Orwell. The letters are painfully repetitive and, lacking a proper context, sometimes baffling. They emphasize Dickey's boastfulness, flattery, and condemnation of rivals as well as his brazen self-promotion.

I first met Dickey in 1981 and corresponded with him for ten years. At his best, I found him extremely witty, ironic, even mock-heroically self-deprecating. He wrote that when he missed a shot at a buck, “the arrow rattled around in his antlers. He seemed, literally, to be playing with the thing.” When he left his advertising firm, his colleagues lamented like “Priam weeping over the body of Hector.” Recalling the once fashionable (and now taboo) outdoor statues of little black grooms, Dickey provocatively threatened to invite James Baldwin “out here, dress him in livery, and make him stand on the lawn in front of my house.” At Reed College, where he briefly taught, “everybody has a beard except one or two of the girls.” When his old sports car caught fire, he was “Surrounded by more blue-black smoke than Satan when he fell or was pushed from the crystal battlements of Milton's heaven.” Of a divorced daughter-in-law, he remarked: “everybody in the family loved [her] but Chris.” And on a tiny commuter plane to a small town in Carolina, he solemnly asked the stewardess: “What movies do you have on this flight? And when do we land in Tulsa?”

Dickey's plodding biographer, Henry Hart, toiled on his book for six years,2 seems to hate him, and takes every opportunity to gloat over his boorish behavior and many misfortunes. Hart's ponderous style and priggish moral superiority replace Dickey's verve and panache. To Hart, he is simply the Great Liar. Even the photos in the book make him look fake. As a boy in high shoes and leggings, Dickey pedals furiously on a bicycle that's resting on its stand, and in the Poe Museum he writes with a stuffed raven on his shoulder. Always eager to blame, Hart claims that “The Faustian consequences of [Al Braselton's] friendship with Dickey were divorce, alcoholism, bankruptcy, a son's suicide, and his own near suicide.” Four-hundred pages later, Hart quotes Braselton's telling Dickey “what a profound and beneficial influence you have been on me” but does not explore the contradiction. Hart obsequiously calls Bruccoli an “acclaimed biographer” and “renowned Fitzgerald scholar.” But who, apart from Bruccoli himself, ever acclaimed him? Like Bruccoli's Fitzgerald and Jay Parini's Steinbeck, Hart's biography lays a dead academic hand on this marvelous material and transforms Dickey's tragedy into soap opera or farce.

Hart dives into Dickey's massive archive and, like most American academics, serves up everything he's found, including two pages on a meeting with Eliot that never took place. Instead of bringing the cast of characters to life, Hart provides repetitive and stupefying catalogues of courses and grades, people and places (listing every stop on every reading tour), which are neither interesting nor illuminating and bring the narrative to a grinding halt. The book, printed in extremely small type, would have been better if cut by one-third. It's much more difficult, in fact, to write a short biography than a long one. The best lives, like Michael Ignatieff's Isaiah Berlin, are selective and analytical.

Hart's book is filled with errors. Half-a-dozen foreign words lack diacritical marks; he misspells the Japanese Dai-Ichi Hotel and the Marunouchi train line, Conrad's Marlow, Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby, and T. E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom, as well as Ernst Junger, Winfred Overholser, Vernon Scannell, Dwight Macdonald, Budd Schulberg, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt—even Stamford, Connecticut.

Hart has a shaky grasp of modern culture. He claims that the popular tourist sites—Naples, Capri, and Pompeii—are “unlikely spots” to visit and that Losanna (the Italian name for Lausanne, Switzerland) is in Italy. He states that Swift came to Ireland in the early seventeenth (instead of early eighteenth) century and died in 1715 (instead of 1745). He attributes to Oscar Wilde a quote by Lord St. Leonards; misstates the first name of Sir James George Frazer; says H. G. Wells, who died at the age of seventy-nine, lived into his eighties; maintains that Mary Welsh was Hemingway's third (not fourth) wife; gives the wrong title of Mann's tetralogy Joseph and His Brothers; calls the American biography Journey to the Frontier a “British novel”; misquotes Frost's “I only go when I'm the show”; ignores the fact that Dickey's 1966 view of the “dark Frost” was based on Lionel Trilling's essay of 1959; and thinks the Ph.D. is an honorary degree (it might have been in his case).

Worse still, Hart's remarks on literature, like Dickey's stray arrows, are wildly off the mark. He compares Dickey's sensual second wife to Dante's Beatrice; says Ernest Dowson's exquisite lyrics are antiquated and hackneyed; states that the swan in Yeats's poem on Leda is “camouflaged”; absurdly likens Proust's refined Marcel to the rough hero of Dickey's failed novel Alnilam; refers to the nonexistent “criminality of artists” theme in The Magic Mountain; attributes “monstrous appetites” to the ascetic hero of Doctor Faustus; maintains that Jake Barnes's war wound in The Sun Also Rises “complicates” his sex life (!) and that Harry's vivid memories, which sustain him during his agonizing death in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” are a “series of drunken lies.” Hart doesn't realize that Dickey was invited to the White House to meet Leopold Senghor because the African statesman was also a distinguished poet. He misses many important allusions that give depth and resonance to Dickey's work. “Noli me tangere” comes from John 20:17, “a new heaven and a new earth” from Revelation 21:1. “Nature red in tooth and claw” comes from Tennyson's In Memoriam, the “Demon of the Perverse” from Poe. Dickey's “Here lies one whose name was writ on fifty-seven thousand freshman papers” parodies Keats's famous epitaph. “But where's the bloody horse?” comes from “On Some South African Novelists” by Roy Campbell—who had a great deal in common with Dickey. “Muss es sein? Es muss sein!” (misquoted by Hart) has nothing to do with Dickey's German grandmother; it's the epigraph from Beethoven's String Quartet No. 16, Opus 135, which Randall Jarrell used as the epigraph to his first book, Blood for a Stranger. Dickey's description of his fear of wartime flying—“the mechanics with a hose [had] to clean the shit out of the cockpit”—strangely foreshadows the shocking conclusion of Jarrell's “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.” Quoting Dickey's “The fox knows many things, but the groundhog knows one big thing” (he was born on Groundhog Day) without noting the allusion to Isaiah Berlin's The Hedgehog and the Fox, Hart misses both the wit and the context of the aphorism. Berlin attributed the phrase to the Greek poet Archilochus; Hart, muddled as always, calls it “an old Russian proverb.”

Hart's subtitle should have been “Life as a Lie” for he runs his thesis into the ground and takes pleasure—hundreds of times—in exposing Dickey's lies. Hart, however, is also gullible. He traces Dickey's “origins to Richard Talbot, a Norman baron who came to England with William the Conqueror” and assumes all his (often self-serving) informants have told him the truth. Dickey, who was not on oath and preferred the imagined to the real, exclaimed: “I'm an artist. I make the truth.” Despite his considerable achievements (he wasn't a pilot but did fly 120 combat hours in the Pacific and won five Bronze Battle Stars), his ego demanded the creation of a mythical life, a Hemingway-like legend and a series of invented selves that attracted readers and sold books. Refusing to distinguish between fact and fiction, history and fantasy, for his imagination sparked all of them, he liked to make up stories to hoodwink and entertain. The humorless Hart ignores Dickey's deliberate outrageousness and desire to shock. Impatient with his civilized self as well as with his repressed and respectable audience, Dickey often thought: “What is the worst thing I can say or do at the moment?”

Such a complicated character, however appalling his behavior, cries out for understanding and elucidation. Instead, Hart solemnly and inexorably lists his deceits. Dickey's lies spring from deeper motives than the desire to scandalize. Like so many American writers, he had a strong mother and weak (or absent) father. He called his wealthy father, who raised fighting cocks and owned a lot of real estate in Georgia, an “unsuccessful lawyer, a born loser.” But he desperately wanted to impress his father, who disdained poetry, with his own outdoorsmanship and military prowess. Dickey also had to compete with his dead—and therefore perfect—older brother as well as with a younger brother who was a much better athlete. When reality was insufficient, as it usually was, Dickey—like Hemingway and Malraux—created myths. As Dickey wrote of his semblable et frere Theodore Roethke, his favorite American poet,

these lures and ruses and deceptions did enable him to exist, though painfully, and to write; they were the paraphernalia of the wounded artist who cannot survive without them.

In one agonizing scene, witnessed by an artist who illustrated Dickey's extremely lucrative coffee-table books,

Dickey was lying on the floor, cursing, and banging his fists up and down, and the girl [in his bed] was saying, “That's all right, Jim. I know you can do it.”

Dickey once told me that a biographer should be “an investigative reporter of the spirit.” But Hart, ignoring the spiritual element, is as heartless as a cosmetic mortician. Describing this scene, he merely concludes, without a trace of sympathy or compassion: “Exhaustion and alcohol had once again rendered Dickey impotent.” I hope Hart will never have to confront the demons of drink, marital strife, and disease that destroyed Dickey, but if he has to, I doubt that he could face them with Dickey's stoicism and courage.

In his self-reflective essay on Roethke, Dickey asked:

Why all this insistence on being the best, the acknowledged best, the written-up best? … And why the really appalling pettiness about other writers like Lowell, who were not poets to him, but rivals merely? … His broad, boyish face had an expression of constant bewilderment and betrayal, a continual agony of doubt.

Yet Dickey himself, creating a Roethkean persona of a poet who hung around with tough guys and was pretty tough himself, brought his aggressive and competitive instincts, reinforced by sports and business, into the world of poetry. Like a cornered buccaneer, he angrily cut and slashed a path through his rivals.

Like Yeats, who on Swinburne's death confidently declared himself “king of the cats” or John Berryman who uneasily asked, when Frost died, “It's scary. Who's number one? Cal [Lowell] is number one, isn't he?” Dickey proclaimed himself capo di tutti capi after Berryman threw himself off a cold Yankee bridge and Lowell became crackers. But Dickey was not, despite his ungenerous letters, entirely negative. He could bless as well as blast and admired his early masters: Hopkins, Crane, Tate, and Dylan Thomas. As Hart concedes, Dickey praised “Geoffrey Hill, Philip Larkin, W. S. Graham, and Jon Silkin among the British; John Berryman, Howard Nemerov, and Theodore Roethke among the Americans.” His critical missiles, though ungracious, were devastatingly on target. Jarrell was sentimental, self-indulgent, and self-pitying; James Merrill, with whom Dickey maintained an uneasy truce, often was a “chocolate-frosting of a poet”; Anthony Hecht was tiresome in his empty elegance. Anne Sexton, obsessed with “the pathetic and disgusting aspects of bodily experience,” he wittily lampooned as “Ragtime Annie.” John Updike was (and is) superficial, unoriginal, and too negative—slick and prolific, but devoid of content.

Hart gives endlessly repetitive, mind-numbing accounts of how Dickey, living up to his reputation as a hell-raising poet, became drunk, lecherous, out of control—breaking up furniture, parties, and marriages while reaping the sexual rewards of poetic fame. When, by force of will, he suddenly stopped drinking but refused to take drugs to ease his withdrawal, he suffered a seizure, bit off part of his tongue and nearly bled to death. Incisive about his own failings but unable to help himself, Dickey observed:

People say that the good feeling that alcohol gives you is false—but all you have to do is live a human life to know that, in many instances, a false good feeling is better than none at all.

Hart doesn't explain that when Dickey's later poetry failed to correspond to his self-generated hype and the burden of honors he'd received, the old navigator lost his bearings and tried to obliterate his sense of unworthiness with alcohol.

Dickey's two marriages were disastrous, but Hart does little to explain his powerful bond with these two most important women in his life. His first wife, in Maxine Syerson, was the illegitimate child of a Danish immigrant, who abandoned her mother just after she was born. Hart vaguely describes her as “gracious, funloving, and capable of running the practical business of a household,” and cryptically adds that her “efficiency was evident in her ‘practical approach to sex.’”

After Maxine bore two sons, began to drink heavily (partly because of Dickey's adultery), and gained a lot of weight (“Hast thou seen the white whale?” Moby-Dickey would ask when she entered the room), she had for him “the sex appeal of a walrus.” She became frigid; he became impotent with her and continued to consort with other women. But, completely dependent on her, he always came back. She was “the last of the poet's wives who could stick it out,” and preferred to be Mrs. James Dickey than Ms. Nobody. In 1976, after twenty-eight years of marriage, Maxine suffered a massive internal hemorrhage (there was so much blood on the floor that Dickey first thought she'd been attacked by a burglar) and died at the age of fifty.

Dickey's marriage two months later to the beautiful Deborah Dodson (she was twenty-five and he was fifty-three) was even more of a nightmare. Deborah became a heroin addict, pawned Dickey's possessions, stole his medicines, and was violently threatened by her criminal suppliers. She had drug-induced seizures to match his alcoholic ones. After smashing Dickey on the head with a heavy frying pan and causing a massive blood clot that needed an emergency operation, Deborah had to be committed to a mental institution to save her own life—and his. Despite the traumatic marriages, Dickey’s children turned out remarkably well. Christopher became a successful author and the Paris bureau chief for Newsweek, Kevin, a professor at Yale Medical School. Bronwen, abandoned by Deborah and brought up by Dickey, went to Choate and published a touching obituary of her father in Newsweek.

After teaching brilliantly at Rice, Florida, Reed, and San Fernando State, in 1968 Dickey finally got a permanent post at the University of South Carolina—another third-rate university in an extremely dreary town. His precipitous decline began right after the astonishing success of his novel Deliverance, which had sold 1.8 million copies by 1973, and of the superb film (for which Dickey wrote the script and played the redneck Sheriff Bullard) based on his book. Hart fails to note that Dickey's deterioration coincided with his long, tedious years in South Carolina.

Dickey's serious health problems began in 1980 with a major operation for a hiatus hernia. His intestine had strangled his esophagus, which made it much easier to drink than to eat. After the doctors “challenged the Dark Man with their short knives” his weight suddenly dropped from 250 to 190 pounds. His blood clot operation was followed in 1994 by a severe case of hepatitis, which attacked his liver and nearly killed him. After a long struggle, he was finally finished off by fibrosis of the lung.

Hart does not ask, let alone answer, the big questions about Dickey's life. What accounts for his self-destructive streak and sharp decline? Pride, arrogance, egoism, vanity, and perhaps some hidden tragic flaw certainly contributed to his demise. Perhaps, in America, the rewards for success are too sudden and too ample, the penalties for failure too great. As Hemingway, a negative model for Dickey, bitterly observed in Green Hills of Africa, nearly everything can hurt a vulnerable writer: “Politics, women, drink, money, ambition. And the lack of politics, women, drink, money, and ambition.”

Finally, we must ask, how good is Dickey's best work? Two of his novels are first-rate. William Styron, who says more in a sentence than Hart does in fifteen pages, wrote, “[I] began to see how Deliverance, which I had so admired as a novel, was in a sense an allegory of fear and survival”—a Heart of Darkness for our time. Hart misses the point of the greatly underrated To the White Sea when he claims that its “puerile machismo soon turns pathological.” On the contrary, the hero of Dickey's intensely lyrical and dramatic novel achieves transcendence through a mystical identification with nature. He is not meant to be a pleasant fellow or a virtuous man. Shot down in wartime Japan, he is—like the hero of The Call of the Wild—an expertly trained, self-reliant, and necessarily ruthless survivor.

Dickey's best poems, published in his first five volumes between 1957 and 1967, include “May Day Sermon,” “The Performance” (about the beheading by the Japanese of a captured American airman), “The Firebombing,” “The Sheep Child,” “Adultery,” “Encounter in the Cage Country” (inspired by Rilke's “The Panther”), and “Falling” (about a stewardess who was sucked out of a plane). These deeply moving poems express Dickey's transfiguring imagination, delicate sense of music, courageous tenderness, and capacity for wonder. They “strike the reader,” as he said, “down through the more obvious levels of his being into the hidden and essential ones.” Dickey's reputation, battered by his letters and biography, now seems at a low ebb. But, ten years from now, we may come to appreciate him more. The greatest postwar American poets may not be the manic confessionalists, Lowell and Berryman, but the more joyous and affirmative Roethke and Dickey.


  1. Crux: The Letters of James Dickey, edited by Matthew Bruccoli and Judith Baughman; Alfred A. Knopf, 574 pages.

  2. James Dickey: The World as a Lie, by Henry Hart; Picador, 811 pages.

Henry Hart (essay date spring 2000)

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SOURCE: Hart, Henry. “James Dickey: Journey to War.” Southern Review 36, no. 2 (spring 2000): 348-77.

[In the following essay, Hart investigates the ways in which Dickey's wartime experiences affected his poetic sensibility.]

During the spring of 1945, Radar Officer James Dickey was hard at work composing poems and reading Louis Untermeyer's poetry anthology and Shakespeare's sonnets. He paid particular attention to Untermeyer's selection of Ernest Dowson's delicate, antiquated lyrics, and tried to imitate them in his own poems. He liked Dowson so much that he asked his mother on May 29 to find his Dowson collection, copy out several poems, and send them to him. He also asked her to send a biography of Dowson by Mark Longaker, and grew furious when she suggested, after having bought the book, that she might return it to the store. To show Dowson's beneficial effects on his style, he mailed her one of his imitations:

I having found in you more than dreams
more sunlight than pride or wine
huddles in the heart, now sanction,
before diaphanous memories bequeath us
to nothingness effete—
the sun winking
the slow radiance
dissolving the lean shadows—
all glorious things
in utter loveliness stand
held in an instant fleeting to darkness

It was Dowson's sentimental melancholia and his gift for phrase-making that made him attractive. “It's funny,” Dickey remarked after the war, “that a minor 1890s versifier could have been such a phrase-maker such as everybody and his brother could have picked up on. ‘Gone with the wind’ comes from Ernest Dowson. ‘Wine and woman and song’ and ‘days of wine and roses’ come from him. ‘Faithful … in my fashion’ comes from him.” During the war, the nostalgia for wine, women, and song gripped Dickey's emerging poetic sensibility.

Few would have expected Dickey to feel kinship with the sickly, hashish-smoking esthete who had read Latin poetry at Oxford, dissipated the rest of his short life in seedy taverns near the London docks and Paris markets, and written a few quaint poems about girls he dared not touch. Dickey seemed surprised by his Dowson infatuation, and in his sonnet “Dedication, To Ernest Dowson,” which began a pamphlet of poems he wrote in the Philippines, he tried to analyze the Victorian poet's spell on him:

No mighty invocation, this, O weary singer
Who had no thundrous tongue to hurl
Defiance at Time, only one song to linger
After you, treader backward from the world
Toward oblivion, what then, have you left us
We who lift our lyres to Milton's praise
In smoky halls, why in lowered tones discuss
One who only sang of listless days,
Of weakened waters, of virginal devotion
And unrequited love; a young French girl.—
Why this, O weary, why this forward seeking motion
And the quiet-frenzied nostalgia in one loose curl?
This, Ernest, in thy song shares memory
Who ever lost his love, who lost her not like thee?

Dickey admits to sharing Dowson's idealization of purity, an idealization that leads, paradoxically, to decadence. He may have been thinking of his asexual love for Gwen Leege, and how his nostalgia for her overshadowed his desire for other, more sexually inclined women. The poem also evinces a longing for the archaic diction of poets like Milton. Dickey's later scorn of Milton as one of the great “stuffed goats” of English departments derived from a need to dispel his early influence.

Dickey's Poetical Remains, as he humbly called his pamphlet, was little more than juvenilia. Awash with sentimental pining and sententious philosophizing, the poems are interesting mainly for the light they throw on Dickey's emotional state—his homesickness, his sorrow over lost loves, his disillusionment with the military, his morbid cynicism, and his yearning for “easeful Death” and other forms of oblivion. A poem titled “Dirge” typifies his angry brooding:

So much have I been lined, tagged, asked questions to
Preceded by one, followed by another, that I am past
Sickness or indignation, and apathetically acquiesce.
In much
The same manner shall I die, shoved unquestioningly into line
Awaiting my turn.
Through dull eyes, I have seen, however
That life is no better or worse than war; the only difference being
That life makes no pretense of heroics over death, is not methodical
And takes longer.

To the jaded poet, life, war, and death all seem to partake of the same mechanical futility. Before long, Dickey renounced Dowson's hackneyed diction and aimed for a vivid, visceral way of addressing the war.

To gain practice in a more empirical style of writing, in March 1945 Dickey volunteered to replace Philip Porter as squadron historian. Until late May, Dickey kept track of the 418th's activities and also typed orders for citations and awards bestowed by General George Kenney, who commanded the Far East air forces. As might be expected, Dickey's prose in the squadron history has an elegance and Gothic tinge absent in chapters by his predecessors, but there is little remarkable about his accounts of combat missions and camp life until March 16, when a calamity occurred that resonated in Dickey's imagination for the rest of his life. He wrote:

A most unexpected and tragic occurrence befell the Squadron when 2nd Lt. DONALD H. ARMSTRONG … and his observer F/O JAMES J. LALLY … high-speed-stalled close to the ground over the Jap strip at St. Jose, Panay, and crashed northwest of the field. … [The plane] was found to be almost completely demolished except for a small portion of the crew nacelle. The entire Squadron awaited apprehensively the guerrilla radio operating near San Jose, for the plane had gone down between Japanese and Filipino-held positions. Finally the guerrillas informed us that Armstrong had been killed and Lally, badly injured, was in the hands of the enemy. There has been no further news to date.

The accident happened on a daylight flight back to Mindoro after the squadron had flown night cover for a convoy making its way to Panay, an island about a hundred miles southeast of their base. Relieved by day fighters, Armstrong decided to buzz the runway on Panay. One of the only eyewitness reports of the accident came from Herbert Vaughn, radar operator for Second Lieutenant Spencer Porter, who had been flying alongside Armstrong. In his diary Vaughn recorded how both crews had flown over Panay to look at some bombed Japanese airplanes:

Both planes went down to buzz and get a better look. Lt. Armstrong and F/O Lally made a sharp turn and crashed into a bunch of coconut trees. We circled and saw that the plane didn't burn. We could see that it was torn all to pieces and could see no sign of life. I don't know if they landed in Jap or Guerrilla territory as they are fighting around there.

As it turned out, they had landed in Japanese territory.

Though Dickey remained aloof from many of the night fighters, he identified with Armstrong's offbeat ways and usually insisted that Armstrong was his best friend in the squadron. “He was an enthusiast,” Dickey said—like Lewis Medlock. He was particularly saddened by Armstrong's death because only a few nights before, the lieutenant had invited him to watch the film Laura. To Dickey, the gesture proved that Armstrong cared for him. Others in the squadron remembered Armstrong as a kind of free-spirited “nut” whose marital turmoil in the States contributed to his erratic behavior. If he planned to strafe the Panay airstrip, he did so without orders, since that job was usually delegated to day fighters. In any case, the strip was insignificant; only a small enemy force inhabited the area. Harold Whittern, who was with the 418th at the time, had a different explanation for Armstrong's decision. Armstrong, he said, had an attack of diarrhea in the air, tried unsuccessfully to relieve himself out the plane's window, and then decided to land: “He called control tower giving his reasons for landing. He was totally unaware that it was held by Japanese.” He didn't live long enough to find out whether the strip was safe.

After the war Dickey again and again transformed his original report of Armstrong and Lally's plane crash, all the while pretending he was repeating the facts. In 1984 he told an interviewer that Armstrong was “making a raid on the islands south of us called Panay. … He misjudged the distance. He hit the ground and tore up the airplane. He and an observer were taken out and kept prisoner for a night and beheaded the next morning. The Filipino guerrilla forces on the island radioed almost a blow-by-blow description of the whole proceedings. We knew almost exactly what happened.” On September 19, 1945, six months after the crash, Spencer Porter and Herbert Vaughn returned to Panay on a fact-finding mission. The Army Air Corps wanted to declare the two men officially dead. At first failing to uncover any new information, Vaughn and Porter finally located, in the town of Iloilo, American intelligence reports based on interrogations of the captured Japanese who had participated in or witnessed the executions. Vaughn said the reports “described how [the Japanese] found the crashed airplane with the pilot dead. Lally was hurt but alive. They took him to their camp but would only doctor his wounds when told to do so by an officer.” The Japanese subsequently beheaded Lally.

According to Darrell Campbell, who was also privy to the reports, the Japanese suspected Lally of belonging to a secret intelligence outfit: “When the Japanese became aware that the Americans were invading Panay, they decided to execute however many prisoners they were holding. According to their records, they dug a long trench, bound all of the prisoners, blindfolded them, forced them to kneel on the edge of the trench, & then beheaded them one by one with a Samurai sword.” George Kamajian recalled grislier details of Lally's and Armstrong's fate. “Their remains,” he said, had been “buried to their shoulders,” and their “heads had been used for bayonet practice.” Besides Armstrong and Lally, the 418th lost no crews to crashes or executions during Dickey's tenure. Because of its uniqueness, the incident came to symbolize for him all the horrors of war. Crashed planes and severed heads haunted much of his later writing.

Dickey began mythologizing Armstrong and their friendship as early as June 1946, when he wrote about the dead pilot for an introductory composition and literature class at Vanderbilt. In his short essay “Tacloban,” which describes his February 5 stopover on Leyte during his trip to Mindoro, the two men take a wistful stroll through the debris on the beach:

After awhile Armstrong lit a cigarette. The smoke curved up and back into the plane. He sat on an old barracks bag, his feet propped on the door, motionless, elbows on his knees, his long, thin hand holding a cigarette. I had seen him like that … many times all the way through flying school and at bars in the States trying to pick up girls and be gay with them after his wife had left him, but this time there was a difference. He looked out toward the ships, and I watched him, thinking that he was the best friend I had, and while we were sitting there it started to rain, softly at first and then more fiercely until we could not see the ocean any longer. But we sat quietly and did not speak.

The dark, rain-soaked, wreckage-strewn landscape in which weary comrades commune without speaking owes much of its atmosphere and style to A Farewell to Arms. And like Hemingway, Dickey manipulates the facts. The stopover on Leyte had been hot, humid, and mosquito-ridden. Hot sun and short tempers, however, did not fit the lugubrious mood Dickey wanted to create. The two men may have taken a stroll on the darkening beach after dropping off their equipment in the transient camp, but other details in Dickey's account are inventions. They had not been together “all the way through flying school”; they had met at Hammer Field, where Armstrong was piloting planes and Dickey was teaching radar. In addition, fellow aviators there said it was Armstrong who left his wife and not vice versa. What is significant about the early vignette is not its truthfulness but its revelation of Armstrong's melancholy (he seems disillusioned with both love and war) and Dickey's adoration of him. The affection seems largely one-sided. Armstrong simply gazes at the ships while Dickey gazes at him.

Another of Dickey's early treatments of the incident was an unpublished short story from the '50s, “The Eye of the Fire,” in which Armstrong and Lally appear as Beaumont and Laster. Here Dickey abides by the facts: The pilot is killed in the crash, and his radar observer is beheaded after being captured. Later the story turns into a revenge fantasy not unlike the beginning of To the White Sea. Dickey's persona, Nettles, drops two napalm bombs on the school building where he suspects Laster was interrogated and tortured. The most famous account of Armstrong and Lally came in Dickey's poem “The Performance,” published in 1959. In this retelling, Armstrong rather than Lally is beheaded, and Dickey celebrates his friend as a Christlike hero. In his introduction to the poem in Self-Interviews, Dickey adds to Armstrong's mystique by claiming that he was the sort of night fighter who switched on his automatic pilot and slept while returning from missions. Other pilots in the squadron dismissed this claim as “hogwash,” and also dismissed Dickey's claim that “Almost every word of ‘The Performance’ is literally true.” They never saw Armstrong practicing “[t]he back somersault, the kip-up,” or “the stand on his hands,” which the poem recalls, and rarely saw Dickey and Armstrong together. (Dickey was the one who did the handstands, on one occasion injuring his right foot.) Reiterating a common perception in the 418th, Vaughn said: “Dickey was a loner and to my knowledge did not have any close friends.” Only in his imagination was Armstrong his “best friend in the squadron.”

Why was Armstrong so important to Dickey? And why did Dickey turn the pilot into a mythical hero executed by sadistic enemies, when in fact his own recklessness caused his death? Dickey idolized Armstrong because Armstrong was a risk-taking, fun-loving man who had succeeded where Dickey failed; he had become a pilot. In Dickey's imagination, Armstrong resembled one of Hemingway's pleasure-seeking heroes who dies tragically. As Dickey knew from his days at Hammer Field, Armstrong was prone to romantic tumult; he had vicious fights with his wife, moved out of their apartment, drank a lot, and started picking up women at bars. Armstrong provided Dickey with a mirror in which he could see himself in larger-than-life proportions. He served as a model for Dickey's stories about himself as a cavalier night-fighter pilot. He also provided a model for Dickey's fictional enthusiasts—from Medlock to Joel Cahill to Muldrow—whose hubris precipitates catastrophes.

Much of “The Performance,” in fact, draws attention to the way Dickey revises Armstrong's life by re-envisioning it. In the first scene, the narrator turns from the actualities around him and stares into the blinding sun so that, paradoxically, he can envision the pilot as he wants:

The last time I saw Donald Armstrong
He was staggering oddly off into the sun,
Going down, off the Philippine Islands.
I let my shovel fall, and put that hand
Above my eyes, and moved some way to one side
That his body might pass through the sun. …

By poem's end Dickey has transformed Armstrong into an archetypal being who dies, reduces his executioners to penitential tears, and rises again “in kingly, round-shouldered attendance.” The poem typifies the “mythical method” that made Dickey's early work so powerful. With incantatory rhythms and apocalyptic conceits he absorbed from Dylan Thomas, Dickey creates a moving elegy that admits to its ahistorical methods. Meddling with the facts, however, had its risks. (At Kenyon College in January 1981, Dickey even maintained that he had witnessed the beheading of Armstrong.) When Stanley Logan heard Dickey read “The Performance” near his home in New Mexico, he was appalled by the way Dickey had treated the incident. Logan, who had followed the military investigation of his dead squadron-mates, recalled that the war-crimes trial of Lally's executioners was the first of its kind. Logan wanted Dickey to write more about the criminal treatment of Armstrong and less about his visionary apotheosis. For his part, Dickey was aware of his dubious enterprise. With his shovel in hand at the poem's beginning, he intimates that his methods are culpable, that he—like the Japanese executioners—has violated Armstrong by burying him in his grandiose style.

If Logan had heard the other poem Dickey wrote about Armstrong and Lally, “Between Two Prisoners,” he would have been doubly incensed, because here Dickey equates the Japanese executioners with the prisoners, and bestows on both parties a mantle of saintliness. As in “The Performance,” he abandons historical accuracy and projects his own poetic preoccupations onto the doomed night fighters so that they become indistinguishable from himself. His principal goal is to explain how his poetic imagination grew during his prisonlike experience in the Philippines, and he uses Armstrong and Lally as convenient vehicles. Contrary to what the poem claims, the two men were not imprisoned in a schoolhouse, they never saw visions of angels inscribed on the blackboard, and they never communicated “in a foreign tongue, / All things which cannot be said” (Eliot's flame-tongued saints do that in the Four Quartets). In statements like “I watched the small guard be hanged / A year later, to the day, / In a closed horse stall in Manila,” Dickey creates a semblance of historical truth, but his “watching” is imaginary rather than actual; a year after Armstrong's and Lally's deaths, the war was over and Dickey was in America preparing to go to Vanderbilt.

The deaths of Dickey's fellow aviators may have set off a new round of anxieties about his own mortality. According to Darrell Campbell, “Jim was always worried that some sort of medical dilemma might befall him.” Adjutant General Golembieski sent a disturbing message from the War Department in Washington on April 6: “Request [Flight Officer] Dickey be given a new final type physical exam with particular attn to chest. … Exam will include report of stereoscopic Xrays of chest, report of exam by chest consultant and report of comparison of all available chest Xray films preferably over period of more than six months.” Since his mother had heart trouble, Dickey may have worried that he was also afflicted. And with his tentmates he repeatedly talked about his brother's death, as if fearing he might contract a similarly fatal disease. He was relieved when his chest X-rays turned up nothing unusual.

With death always hovering near, the proper attitude toward life became a topic of strident debate between Dickey and his pilot. Dickey watched Bradley lose weight from worrying about his broken marriage, and once again declared his opposition to the institution. He also aired his opinions in letters to his mother:

I don't think I will ever get married. I have developed a genuine horror of it that I frankly believe I will never overcome. Love is one thing, but habit and seeing your loved one deteriorate and fade with the passing years and not be able to do anything about it, to raise a family of squealing troublesome children, which I am certain I shall care absolutely nothing about, and fall into the ruinous decay of married life, is another. To court public opinion and conventionality are not enough temptation to lead me to such a life.

Dickey wrote his mother he planned to pursue “the joys of single bliss forever!!!!!” On the same day, he sent a letter to his brother about making love to a Red Cross worker in New Guinea the previous week. Throughout the spring Dickey kept up what he called his “monthly tirade against the joys of wedded bliss.” On April 2 he concluded that marriage was suitable only for drudges: “All the married mediocrities drone ‘You'll see, there's nothing like it.’ To which I can only reply (silently) ‘You poor damned fools!!’” Men who married sought shelter from life's rich possibilities, he fumed, and were “moral cowards.” “If I ever form any lasting attachment for a woman,” he added, “it must be someone who would not only live with me openly sans ceremony, but insist upon it. … At any rate, I'll not wed any female mountebank who trades in her carefully hoarded virtue for a lifetime of security: a sorry bargain, at best.”

Four days later his mood changed. Now he confided, “I find myself debating the merits of this girl or that girl, and am finally and always driven back to the only yardstick I ever had, my own mother.” He considered Jane Davis a possibility, but he leaned more toward the honey-haired Peg Roney. He admired her athleticism (she played tennis and rode horses), her artistic interests (in 1941 she acted in plays), her wit, and her beauty. Roney had been elusive, however, so Dickey repeatedly asked his mother to call her and urge her to write him. Dickey concluded in his letter to his mother: “I do not think I could ever love any girl more than I love you.” His maternal yardstick would determine that all marriage candidates came up short.

At the end of March, Dickey and the other night fighters started flying protective cover for a big task force that was about to bombard and invade Legazpi, on the northern island of Luzon. From April through June, combat flying was minimal. During lulls between missions in early spring, the men organized a trap-building competition to purge their camp of vermin. A six-foot iguana had slithered over Dickey while he napped on his cot (George Kamajian eventually killed it), but rats were the chief menace. When not designing rat traps, Dickey nursed his literary ambitions by writing imitations of Shelley and Shakespeare, participated in simulated combat—“war games”—each Friday, prepared for the rainy season by building a wooden floor to his tent, and helped construct what he called in the squadron history “a grade ‘A’ boozing place” for the officers. The local brew—sixty-five-proof Manila whiskey—was the drink of choice, although other brands were available. Dickey, surprisingly, showed little inclination to drink. In a letter to his mother about the party to open the officer's club, he said: “Almost everyone in the squadron but me drinks like mad. I just can't see it, though. Anyone ruined by liquor must really be a weakling.” Although his drinking habits changed after the war, his condemnation of those “ruined by liquor” remained constant.

In late April, Dickey received the good news that he might be made second lieutenant (he had failed to make the rank the first time). A memo sent to the commanding general of the 85th Fighter Wing on May 5 was full of praise for his integrity and ability. According to the memo, Dickey had amassed a total of twenty-six missions, and fifty-nine hours and forty-five minutes of combat time, in the Pacific. A form revealed that he had received no wounds. Heartened by his imminent appointment, Dickey was ecstatic when he heard on May 8 that the Allies had declared victory in Europe. Nevertheless, the Pacific war persisted. Dickey wrote his brother on May 19 that his squadron was now bombing Formosa. Captain Sellers had made the long trip, and so had Dickey and Bradley. These exhausting missions only increased Dickey's fears of getting shot down and captured. Having heard that a downed pilot from another squadron had been taken prisoner and burned alive, he assured his brother on May 23: “Everything you hear about the Nips is true. They are really brutal. I wish we could kill them all.” His attitude changed little after the war, and in To the White Sea he unleashed a character on the Japanese who also wanted to “kill them all.”

His fears of getting wounded materialized on May 27, but under friendly circumstances. While most of the officers were enjoying a rowdy beerfest in the club, Dickey and several others, returning from Manila in a C-47, careened off the Mindoro runway at ninety miles per hour and ended in a ditch. He wrote his father on May 28 that he had “pretty well smashed” his left hand, while others had been “cut up pretty bad.” Though Herbert Vaughn contradicted this account in his diary (he wrote: “No one was hurt but the plane was ruined”), Dickey did suffer a minor cut. In his poem “The War Wound,” in Buckdancer's Choice, he referred to his small, moonlike scar with embarrassment: “I lie with it well under cover / The war of the millions.” Yet in Self-Interviews he boasted of the scar: “I was given the Purple Heart for it because it was suffered in action. … I was sitting in the co-pilot's seat and when I reached up to protect myself, my hand was cut on the instrument panel.” None of his military records acknowledges Dickey's Purple Heart or his service as a co-pilot.

Dickey's attitude toward the war vacillated as unpredictably as his attitude toward marriage. Sometimes he cowered, retreating to his cot to find escape in books, but at other times he seemed to enjoy the war, partly because he believed his feats in the air surpassed those of his brother on the track. He wrote his mother in June: “It sure seems funny for Tom to be worried about how far he throws his left arm down the track and running the 100 one tenth of a second faster when I have seen airplanes going 500 m.p.h. crash into each other and guys all shot to hell, and guts hanging out and dead Japs lying rotten in the sun.” Dickey had more reason to believe he was outdistancing his brother when, on June 5, his promotion to second lieutenant was officially approved. He also learned, on June 9, that the squadron would soon depart for another island. To make sure he had enough to read at his new station, he asked his mother to buy and mail him four dozen books. The letter he wrote looked like an acquisitions order from a librarian. He asked for Sigmund Freud's General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, Will Durant's The Story of Philosophy, Philip Henry Goepp's Great Works of Music, Thomas Bulfinch's Mythology, W. J. Oates's The Complete Greek Drama, Bernard Guerney's A Treasury of Russian Literature, Ross's Fundamentals of Boxing, and Charles Darwin's Origin of Species and Descent of Man. He asked for poetry books by W. H. Auden, C. Day Lewis, Trumbull Stickney, Kenneth Patchen, Richard Aldington, Dylan Thomas, Robert Penn Warren, R. P. Blackmur, Stephen Spender, and Randall Jarrell. Soon he told his mother to send Faulkner's The Marble Faun & a Green Bough, As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, and Salmagundi. Earlier in the spring Dickey had confessed to his mother that he had “no other interest (as a profession) than writing” and that “if there were more money in poetry” he would “quite naturally” turn to it. His appetite for books was insatiable as he laid the groundwork for his writing career. When he became famous his detractors liked to lampoon him as a philistine; even this early, nothing could have been further from the truth.

As missions grew longer and more stressful, Dickey's animosity intensified—toward the war, toward civilian commentators at home, and toward life in general. He despised the jingoism of propaganda films and those on the sidelines paying lip service to soldiers' patriotic deeds. They were “not fit to shake the hand of any of the men on Iwo, Leyte, or any of the rest of the Pacific deathtraps,” he said. As for those Americans who wanted to keep fighting the Japanese even after their surrender was all but certain, Dickey said his comrades in the Pacific hated them more than the Japanese. At times, however, he sounded like the sort of “Hollywood patriot” he ridiculed. “Do not think I am working myself into a paroxysm of patriotic fervor and losing myself in a lather of words,” he wrote his father on June 5, but then he proclaimed:

America is the hope of the world. There has never been anything like us and never will again. And when we fight for America, there is something bigger than a country, bigger than men banded together against each other. And that is the freedom of the individual. Men have struggled toward it for many thousands of years. … This war is a thing surpassing the Crusades, and the Saracen wars, and all the great religious wars and political wars and social wars ever waged. On its outcome will hinge the entire future of civilization.

Dickey mimicked one of the oratorical lawyers from Classics of the Bar because he knew his father would approve.

As Dickey reevaluated his past, he appeared at times to be moving toward scholarly monasticism. Among his renunciations would be women, track, and football. In this sour, ascetic mood, he indicated that all he wanted was solitude to read and think. On June 13 he told his brother, “I'll let you be the athlete of the family. I never was much good anyway.” In a June 18 letter to his mother, he proclaimed his disgust with his past:

When I get home I am through having a good time. Peg [Roney] and all the rest of them can go to hell. I'm never going to run again or play football or anything else like that. I have been fooling myself long enough. I am going to school and just study for the rest of my life and work hard. I despise work and I hate to study but after this I will go crazy if I don't do something. I never did have a very good time anyway. I don't get any enjoyment from drinking and I never got anything but despair from anything I ever really wanted to do.

I realize that I have made everybody at home very unhappy by my actions in the past, and this makes me feel pretty bad. I am truly sorry, but it is just the way I am. I wish I was some other way, but I am not. I am just different from other people, I guess.

I don't care much for fame now. I guess I wore it all out wishing for it before. It doesn't matter. All I want is for people to leave me alone.

At the end of this dyspeptic letter, he told his mother that Tom was worth fifty Jims. In a letter a few months later, though, he mocked Tom's major in physical education at LSU and his goal of coaching a high-school track team. In his pursuit of a writing career, he hoped to prove he was worth fifty Toms.

In June, Dickey had other matters on his mind besides books and his future writing. He prepared to leave Mindoro for the island of Okinawa, which had witnessed gruesome fighting since April and would not be declared secure until June 21. The Allies had chosen Okinawa as a base from which to launch air and sea attacks on Japan. Shortly before flying there, some of the night fighters landed on Tinian, an island near Guam from which huge B-29s had been firebombing Japanese industry since the end of 1944. Tinian would be the base from which Muldrow departs at the beginning of To the White Sea. Dickey and his pilot never landed on Tinian, but they flew to Saipan, which was close, and undoubtedly heard stories about the B-29s roaring into the air with their heavy payloads.

On July 4, Dickey participated in a less deadly assignment by flying cover for the initial landings on Borneo, southwest of Mindoro. Eight crews flew from Sanga Sanga, aiding the invasion convoy of two hundred warships. Five days later Dickey and his pilot touched down on Okinawa and proceeded to their assigned campsite twelve miles from the beach. Strewn over the ground from a recent battle were helmets, canteens, rifles, and gas masks. Once the debris had been cleared, the ground echelon set up tents, and everyone gathered for an unappetizing meal of Spam and bully beef. Dickey recalled the dugouts and caves nearby: “It was just absolute chaos, absolutely. There was a place up in back of our area which was all coral caves and where the Marines and infantry had just gone … with flame throwers. There were Japanese guys sitting up there in what must have been a machine-gun emplacement just incinerated. Just black.” A soldier named Easy returned from the caves with a handful of gold teeth he had knocked from a corpse with the butt of his carbine.

The first night on Okinawa was nightmarish. According to Bradley, who had temporarily replaced Sellers as squadron commander:

At the south end of the island, near Naha, the fighting was still going on and the Japs were being pushed into the sea. We did not take the north end of the island until much later and the Japs were sneaking through the American lines to make their way to what they considered refuge. On their way up they would often try to steal food from the camps. … There was a full moon, and there were a lot of bushes with a steep precipice just beyond the edge of the camp. About midnight a shot rang out just two tents away. Before I could get my pants on, everyone was shooting at what they thought they saw in the bushes. It was a sleepless night.

One soldier discovered he had pitched his tent on a rotting Japanese corpse pressed into the mud by trucks and track vehicles. If Dickey needed Gothic subjects for his writing, there were plenty here. One of the first papers he wrote at Vanderbilt described the carnage of Okinawa.

To make the situation worse, forty-mile-an-hour winds soon assailed the campsite and toppled the soldiers' tents. The inclement weather and ghastly locale exacerbated Dickey's ill temper. In letters home he fired salvos at his parents, as if hoping they would join him in his misery. “If I was religious I could not stand this life here. Don't ever talk to me again about ‘God's justice,’” he wrote his devout mother. On July 28, Dickey and Bradley left their hellish surroundings on their first “night intruder” bombing and strafing mission over Japan. The target was Kanoya, on the southern coast of Kyushu. According to Dickey, these missions were the result of a new policy conceived by Commander Sellers, whom he called “an alcoholic guy … ambitious for himself and for the squadron.” Dickey added:

A lot of people … didn't like that because they were used to things being the way they were under Carroll Smith. But Sellers wanted us to go out. He wanted us to take it to them. I was not at all averse to that. … In fact, I wanted to do it. I took every mission I could find, with Bradley or with anybody else. If they wanted to fly I went with them. I had twice as much time as any R.O. in the outfit.

In fact, Sellers was not an alcoholic, no major shift in strategy had occurred, few in the 418th complained about the intruder work, and Dickey did not compile twice as much flight time as the other R.O.'s. A slight change in tactics did occur, however, in which Dickey played a small part. Sellers wanted to keep Japanese planes on the ground rather than risk fatalities in dogfights, and he had Bradley and Dickey deliver this plan to the one-star general at Okinawa's wing headquarters. The general approved it. As a result, the 418th spent a good deal of time circling Japanese airfields and then strafing targets on the way home.

In July, Dickey had a relatively easy schedule, with only twenty-two hours in the air. He flew routine convoy covers and patrols as well as intruder missions to Kyushu. In early August, as Dickey and his squadronmates scrounged lumber to build two houses over the rain-soaked earth and fretted about numerous Japanese planes flying over their camp at night, they did so with the conviction that the war would soon end. Rumors of a surrender increased after President Truman, Winston Churchill, and other leaders met at Potsdam on July 26 and issued an ultimatum: Japan must agree to a unilateral surrender or face complete destruction. Fearing the zealous militarists surrounding him, the Japanese premier, Suzuki, refused to respond. On the morning of August 6, 1945, Colonel Paul Tibbets flew the Enola Gay over Hiroshima, a city known for its shipbuilding factories, electrical works, and other industries. His bombardier dropped the first atomic device—a uranium bomb named Little Boy. The ensuing inferno killed about seventy thousand civilians and soldiers, wounded about eighty thousand more, and incinerated roughly 80 percent of the city's buildings. Thousands later died from radiation. With a mixture of dread and relief, the 418th listened to radio news about the blast. Years after the cataclysmic event, Dickey said: “I remember coming in from a mission and somebody telling me that the United States had just dropped a bomb on Japan that was the equivalent of twenty thousand tons of TNT. We thought it was just some sort of extra-powerful type of dynamite. We didn't know. Everybody was mystified by it. I don't think we knew it was an atomic bomb for several days.” Dickey and his fellow aviators gazed in disbelief at newspaper pictures of Hiroshima's charred rubble.

Despite this lethal blow, the war continued. On August 7, the 418th registered a rare “kill.” As Vaughn noted in his diary, a pilot “reported that he had shot down a Jap plane as it was about to land at Kumamoto. That was the first plane that our squadron has gotten in eight months.” Dickey's stories of knocking planes from the sky like the Red Baron were just that—stories. Three days after the bomb fell on Hiroshima, a plutonium bomb named Fat Man, which had also been flown from Tinian, fell on Nagasaki, killing about thirty-five thousand and wounding thousands more. Dickey recalled, “We were all up that night. They told us not to go over there, on the west side [of Kyushu]. We just thought maybe the third fleet was up there and they were afraid of us tangling with some of their night fighters or something. But really they were keeping us away because they dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki.”

The 418th had been bombing the city of Kumamoto, sixty miles from Nagasaki, and on the night of August 9 some of the men decided to fly over there to see if the fires were still visible. According to Bradley, “Jim and I were over Fuchu the night after Nagasaki was bombed and we were very careful not to go into any clouds in the area. I couldn't at that time believe that it would have been that dangerous.” Dickey could see smoke over Nagasaki from the plane.

In a 1978 interview with a veterans' newsletter, Dickey placed himself closer to the blast: “I was flying above Nagasaki when they dropped the second atomic bomb. Nobody knew exactly what had been going on. … We didn't know that the secret of the universe was involved.” Dickey gave his imaginary flights over conflagrations a more permanent form in his novels—in Joel Cahill's disastrous flight over a fire at his Air Corps base and in Muldrow's similarly ill-fated sortie over the flames of Tokyo. In fact, Dickey kept his distance from all such infernos.

Dickey may have had another reason for associating plane crashes with enormous fires. Close to the time of the explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he and Bradley, on a routine mission, nearly collided with a Japanese plane. The near miss had more to do with an argument between Dickey and his pilot than with hostile intent. Such embarrassing events always provoked colorful accounts from Dickey, who said that he and Bradley had an opportunity to shoot down two enemy planes:

Bradley told me that he had a visual on the aircraft. They were in … night formation and they had wing lights on. They were not showing any IFF [Identification: Friend or Foe]. So they were either Allies or they were Japanese, and we were going to fire. … I had run a real good interception on them, real good, the best I ever did. Bradley said, “I got them; I got them.” But he didn't want to fire the gun because it might mess it up and we were way out, a thousand miles from home base. We didn't want anything happening. So we navigated with the air-to-air radar, which you have to do in a special way. And so Bradley had miscalculated the closure rate and he went right in between them. Next thing, I looked around and they were behind us and they could've shot us right out of the sky. … Bradley screwed it up. We could have had two kills right there; they were sitting right there. Minimum range, attack position, everything, and he just went right through them. … Bradley panicked. … He took evasive action. … I regret that to this day.

After the near miss, Dickey expressed his disgust to Robert Herzberger and other squadron members. The memory still rankled years later, when he incorporated the incident in Crux.

Stanley Logan, who flew on the same mission and spoke to Dickey right after they landed, recalled a very different sequence of events:

After Dickey picked up a radar blip, he kept telling Bradley to “throttle back” again and again as he recognized a continuously high overtaking speed. Because they didn't cooperate well, Bradley discounted the commands (“You're crazy; they can't be going that slow!”) and was slow in throttling back. They had slowed to 100 mph or less when they overtook and flew between two Jap biplanes, assumed later to be Jap Air Cadets up for night training.

The “enemies,” Logan said, were unarmed. Bradley was similarly dismissive of Dickey's version of the botched dogfight:

I looked down below me to the right and saw a single plane with running lights on. I was sure that it was a Black Cat [a top-secret B-24 used for Allied night work], but we went in on it anyway. The plane turned out its lights but Jim had locked onto it. He kept telling me that we were closing too fast—I had my throttles all the way back and had dropped flaps but just as I got a good visual we whizzed by him just a few inches below him, it seemed, and instantly the tail warning device went off, set off by the plane that we had just shot past. The plane was a very slow biplane with floats that couldn't have been traveling over 90 miles an hour. I took some evasive action but when we turned back to pick him up again we couldn't do it so we finished our mission and came home. I was so sure that the plane would be a Black Cat that I possibly waited too long for a more perfect visual. I did see the exhaust earlier and he would have been a sitting duck had I fired—I guess I was too cautious because some Allied planes had been attacked by our own planes and I didn't want to make that mistake.

By his testimony, then, Dickey was impetuous, overeager to register a “kill.”

The mission report filed with the squadron clarifies some details that Dickey later embellished. On August 8, Bradley and Dickey had strafed and bombed Kumamoto, with “nil observed results.” While over Shiraiwa Yama they saw two enemy aircraft flying at four thousand feet:

Upon obtaining visual, pilot immediately closed in with throttles clear closed and overshot as he held fire in attempt to identify the planes. As pilot passed the bogeys, he recognized them as bi-planes. Upon completing first pass, P-61 sighted another bogey passing head-on off his port wing. Pilot then started to make 360 degree turn to second pass on the bogeys, but discovered another plane, believed to be an enemy night fighter, was on his tail. P-61 took 20 minutes of evasive action and the bogeys were gone when P-61 shook enemy plane off tail.

In the official report, Dickey's plane was more pursued than pursuing. His imagination, however, refused to accept the unflattering truth.

During the last few days of the war, Dickey practiced some small-scale firebombing that would lead to one of his most controversial poems. Until then, Dickey's grandiose claims notwithstanding, he and his squad-mates had done little bombing of any kind. Most of this work was done by B-24s, which were flying from a strip not far from Dickey's base, and by the B-29 “Superforts,” which in the spring and summer were flying from Tinian and adjacent islands. General Curtis LeMay had decided in the late winter of 1945 to load B-29s with oil-and-napalm incendiaries, and to alter conventional policy by attacking Japanese cities at night. The raids were devastating. On the night of March 9, 334 B-29s lifted off from Tinian and other islands in the Marianas and flew to Tokyo. The napalm bombs and resultant fires killed more than 83,000 people and wounded 41,000 others. A quarter of the city's buildings—nearly 267,000—went up in flames. One million civilians were left homeless. During March, LeMay ordered four more night raids, on the cities of Osaka, Kobe, and Nagoya. Between June and August he ordered sixteen more on fifty smaller industrial towns. In To the White Sea, Dickey bore witness to the holocaust created by these bombs.

In his poem “The Firebombing”—famous partly because it elicited a vociferous attack from the writer Robert Bly—Dickey pretends to be one of the pilots who took part in LeMay's raids. Though he stipulates that he flies from Okinawa, which is in the Ryukyu and not the Mariana Islands, his detractors took his narrative to be largely autobiographical. Dickey encouraged this by presenting his account as a confession: “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.” Bly and like-minded critics in the '60s condemned Dickey for shamelessly committing and then glamorizing atrocities.

When interviewed about his poem, Dickey spoke of “the sense of power one has as a pilot of an aircrew dropping bombs,” a “sensation [that] is humanly reprehensible” in hindsight but, in the context of war, is necessary. He intended his poem to express

the guilt at the inability to feel guilty because you have not only proved yourself a patriot but something of a hero. You've been given medals for doing this. Your country has honored you—but there are those doubts that stay with you. You feel as a family man what all those unseen, forever unseen, people felt that you dropped those bombs on. You did it. The detachment one senses when dropping the bombs is the worst evil of all—yet it doesn't seem so at the time.

If Dickey felt little guilt, one reason was that he never participated in the sort of massive attacks “Firebombing” describes. His poem, however, is full of the empathy that makes guilt possible. He depicts the bombed Japanese “homeowners” as no different from his American neighbors. He is keenly aware of Japanese suffering, as his graphic images of their plight attest. His pilot-narrator, like so many Dickey characters, is a projection rather than a mirror image of his actual self.

Dickey's response to the firebombing of Japan, which killed more civilians than the atomic bombs, was complex. In a biographical statement he sent to Contemporary Authors on April 11, 1983, he repeated his desire to take responsibility for the firebombing by claiming—falsely—that he had dropped napalm on the Japanese as a pilot. To the end of his life he maintained, “We carried two thousand-pound bombs and three-hundred-gallon gasoline tanks full of napalm. We carried as much payload as a B-25, but we had to put them on wing shackles … instead of having them in the bomb-bay. … We did a lot of bombing, firebombing, napalm, phosphorus.” His pilot confirmed that during the four days between the bombing of Nagasaki and the surrender, “We … used fire bombs twice … on the Japanese. These flights were mainly for us to learn some of the techniques involved so we could pass the information along. The war ended before we ever got into full swing.” In preparation for the “scorched-earth” policy of the invasion of Japan, Dickey and Bradley tested their firebombing capabilities on the port city of Fuchu. A mission report filed on August 11 substantiates Bradley's claims, revealing that he and Dickey, along with three other crews, dropped eight one-thousand-pound “demos,” which were firebombs.

As Bradley explained, the Japanese had moved many manufacturing operations from factories into homes or other shelters in rural areas:

Because of this we stopped bombing factories; everything was open for attack. Many people lived on boats along a riverfront. These boats were production lines also. It was efficient in that the boats could be moved to different locations as the need dictated. The sad part of this was that the families lived in the houses and boats. Jim and I would usually announce our departure from an area by strafing these boats, so it seemed natural that we would do the same with the napalm, which we did on these two trial missions. I always maintained a detached state of mind when we did things like this, but Jim … placed himself, mentally, into the scene … [and] imagined what it must have been like to have been on those boats or in those houses when they were attacked. … All I remember were huge fires behind us as we sped away at low altitude. These happened just before daylight—we had some light, enough to get fairly low, but not as low as the dayfighters because of the visibility problem. At that time … [the Japanese] were saving their planes, gas and everything else as a final defense so we were not challenged on these two missions except perhaps from small arm fire.

The bombs they dropped near Fuchu on these two occasions burned one-hundred-yard swaths. They dropped no phosphorus bombs, as Dickey claimed (only the igniting devices were made of phosphorus).

In his story “The Eye of the Fire,” Dickey collapses these two fire-bombing missions into one:

The mission was an important one; if successful it would do much to establish the P-61 as an offensive weapon. … [Nettles's] ship and White's were equipped for the first time with napalm bombs: three-hundred-gallon drop tanks which, upon impact, would scatter jellied gasoline over a wide area, to cling, burning, to whatever it struck.

Nettles, who resembles Dickey, describes how he and White, who stands in for Bradley, fly at night to a group of small houses that supposedly contain ammunition. They drop their bombs, but Nettles reflects that he “was not at all certain that he had hit the right group of huts.” After the war, when Dickey claimed he had participated in the firebombings of Japanese cities, his squadron-mates reacted with incredulity. In his fantasies he seemed determined to play the role of Dr. Strangelove, raining bombs on the enemy so he could confess, enigmatically, that he had little guilt to confess.

It was not until 10:00 P.M. on August 14 that Dickey and the rest of the 418th heard that the beleaguered Japanese emperor had accepted the Potsdam terms. The squadron history recalls:

On the night of 14 August the 418th was torn away from “Two Girls and a Sailor” by a most unprecedented demonstration of fire from practically every gun on the island. At first everyone ran for cover, thinking the Nips were making final kamikaze charges on all installations on Okinawa. Soon, however, rumors swept across the island that the Japs had sued for peace. Everyone became violently excited with every news report on the radio or with liquor laid away against VJ Day. As each outfit heard a fresh rumor, there were new outbursts of hilarity and fireworks until there was a greater display of ack ack in the sky than there had been for any Nip bomb raid. The celebration came to a sudden halt when the island commander ordered a red alert as a safety precaution against wild shooting and falling flak.

Though sporadic fighting would continue, the war had finally come to an end.

Several days later, Dickey received instructions regarding the imminent occupation of Japan. Yen were distributed, and the commanding officer, General Ennis Whitehead, circulated a letter that mingled contempt for the Japanese with calls for forgiveness and civility. Dickey found it hard to forgive his wartime enemies, then and later:

We hated the Japanese so much. They beheaded Armstrong and Lally, tortured them and beheaded them in the Philippines. We hated them. Boy, I would have done anything against the Japanese. If there were any creatures on this earth that I would want to drop an atomic bomb on, it would have been them. And it still would. I've never forgotten it.

Many of the antagonists in his novels and poems are based on the Japanese.

On August 28, after delivering a lengthy lecture on what to expect over the next few months, Major Sellers told his squadron they would settle in the Tokyo area between September 1 and 15. He also declared that the lackadaisical lifestyle of the Mindoro and Okinawa camps would change. The men would have to obey military dress codes, salute officers, and wear standard uniforms. Officers would inspect to make sure clean clothes and clean shaves were the rule rather than the exception. Calisthenics and close-order drills would be mandatory. Used to a more relaxed regimen, Dickey found the new rules a nuisance. He made no attempt to hide his antipathy when, on August 31, he told his mother he would rather fight than put up with all the peacetime army's “crap.”

To lay the groundwork for the invasion, General MacArthur and Admiral Nimitz sent an advance group to Atsugi airfield, where Dickey would shortly be stationed. Ships from the American and British fleets entered Tokyo Bay, and on September 2, 1945, MacArthur, the Japanese foreign minister, and representatives from eight Allied countries signed the surrender agreement on the battleship Missouri. As was his style, MacArthur made a dramatic broadcast to Americans from the ship: “Today the guns are silent. A great tragedy has ended. A great victory has been won.” With the horrendous destructiveness so recently displayed, he warned that “the survival of civilization” was in the balance: “If we do not devise some greater and more equitable system, Armageddon will be at our door.” The Pandora's box of the nuclear age had been opened, and like MacArthur, Dickey viewed it with both trepidation and relief. In his 1978 interview with the journal Vetletter, Dickey acknowledged that he and many of his compatriots owed their lives to the atomic bombs. Yet like millions of others, Dickey feared the possibility of nuclear annihilation. In Deliverance, he projected those fears onto Lewis Medlock, who builds a well-stocked shelter to survive a nuclear holocaust.

Though impatient with the new regulations, Dickey had more pressing concerns in September when a typhoon with seventy-mile-per-hour winds struck Okinawa. On September 17 he woke in the middle of the night to find that the wind, having changed direction and accelerated, had blown down many of the tents. The only relief from the chores of nailing down equipment and cleaning up debris came on September 22 in the form of an officers' dance that two hundred nurses attended. The weather taxed the equanimity of even the most patient air crews, as did the crowded quarters and the declining quality of food. As another typhoon advanced in mid-October, winds gusted to 120 miles per hour, leveling all rather than just some of the tents. A Quonset hut was uprooted and bent into an L shape. Only Major Sellers's shack remained intact.

To escape the storm's fury, some of the men hid in tombs in the hills, tossing urns filled with ashes out the narrow doorways to create more space. Because the tombs were holy sites, the Okinawans vehemently protested. Dickey later told of escaping into the tombs on October 7 with a first edition of Conrad Aiken's collected poems (his mother had mailed him a copy, which he supposedly brought home after the war and, years later, gave to Aiken when he met him in Savannah, Georgia). In fact, Dickey and most of the other men found protection in less controversial, if less comfortable, settings. They stayed in their aircraft. In mid-October Dickey wrote his father that the wind had blown so hard it was almost impossible to stand up: “Finally we went down to the airstrip and spent the night in B-25s.”

One of the benefits of the typhoon, Dickey later pointed out, was the multitude of “armed service edition” books blown from a destroyed library at ISCOM—Island Command. For the bibliophile, this was paradise regained from pandemonium. Dickey said that he recovered from the mud a rain-sodden copy of Yeats's collected poems; the famous textbook by Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, Understanding Poetry; J. B. Priestley's Midnight on the Desert; and novels by Melville, Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, James Agee, and Somerset Maugham (some but not all of these were armed-service editions). The storm undoubtedly scattered books, but probably rendered them unreadable as well (in his tellings, Dickey often changed the date of the storm and titles of the books). Though Dickey's claim about the Pacific typhoon educating him had the rugged glamor of Ishmael's declaration in Moby-Dick that a whaling ship had been his Harvard and Yale, Dickey's mother was the more likely source of his growing library.

If the effect of the typhoon on Dickey's scholarship was questionable, there was nothing uncertain about its effect on the planes. They were battered. The crews worked for a week repairing them before flying, on October 25, to Atsugi, about ten miles from Yokohama. Here Dickey and his squad-mates stayed in large, cold, rickety wooden barracks formerly occupied by kamikaze pilots. The air inside was stifling. The oil stoves used for heat were dangerous and smoky, and one barracks burned down as a result. The toilets were primitive. Beds were too small to accommodate taller men like Dickey, but the officers did enjoy certain privileges, like personal valets. American cooks supervised the Japanese cooks, ensuring that the food was better than usual. Dickey was glad to have fresh eggs, fruit, vegetables, and meats like ham, steak, and lamb. The men made their quarters more pleasant by installing Ping-Pong and pool tables. From his new domicile, Dickey could see Mount Fujiyama's snow-glazed summit, though the constant rains usually obscured it.

Newly released from combat, the soldiers tried to acquaint themselves with their enemy's territory. As tourists, they visited sites in Tokyo like the Dai Itchi Building, the Palace, the Imperial Hotel, and the open-air markets. They fraternized with Japanese girls, who, like the rest of the population, had been ordered by Emperor Hirohito to treat the invaders as royal guests. Some visited families in their homes, toured a plane-assembly plant that was partly underground, warmed their cold bodies in hot tubs, and explored miles of tunnels the Japanese had wired with lights and stocked with food to survive Allied bombardments. Dickey made note of many such places for his later poems and for his novel To the White Sea.

As October waned and many of the men, including Dickey's pilot and his commander, returned to the States, Dickey once again slumped into a melancholic funk. In November he complained to his father, “I am pretty well shot as far as nerves go.” Having received his orders to return home, he was anxious to leave. Yet thoughts of his future in the U.S. depressed him. He was disheartened to learn that Peg Roney, the Atlanta girl he contemplated marrying, had chosen a navy pilot. Dickey told his mother that he might marry Gwen Leege. Because she was “really loaded down with dough,” as he put it, he wouldn't have to worry about being a destitute student. Then, with Hamlet-like vacillation, he reported: “I probably won't do any of this. All the nice things I imagine for myself always seem to remain exclusively in my mind. But I'll have to see how everything works out when I get back.” He vented his frustrations by accusing his mother of refusing to send more books. In the absence of typhoons, he depended on her largesse, and refused to accept her explanation that a paper shortage made some of his desired books hard to find and expensive.

Acclimated to the tropical Philippines, Dickey began to think of Japan as a gigantic refrigerator, a fit locale for his cold-hearted enemies. On November 9 the temperature hovered around thirty-one degrees during the day and sank to twenty-three at night. The men had to drain water from their Jeep radiators. The cold dried the muddy roads. Dust blew relentlessly and stuck to the men, making them look ghostly. To keep warm at night, some wore their flying suits. It got so frigid in mid-November that many of the men couldn't sleep. Dickey woke on December 4 to find the ground white with frost and ice, and on December 18 it snowed for the first time at the Atsugi base. Japan's snowy desolation would be featured, hauntingly, in To the White Sea, where it represented, among other things, the cold-blooded predator/prey relationship between all creatures.

Dickey no doubt read the front-page story in the December 6 Stars and Stripes about a Japanese sergeant who had used a sharp sword to behead two American airmen on Cebu Island on March 26. The revelation came in one of the war-crimes trials proceeding in Manila. The executioner, Takeo Kawaii, described the atrocity with chilling sangfroid:

I was sitting on a bench in the normal school yard … watching Sgt. Maj. Higashi … execute a prisoner in a very unskillful manner. My captain, Tsurayama, said: “Go over and give him a hand.” … I had a dull sword, so I borrowed the sword of Lt. Seijiro Sakai … because I thought it brutal to kill a prisoner with a dull sword. Then … I replaced Higashi and he made the American sit near a foxhole with his hands behind him. I stood behind him, lopped off his head with one stroke, and he fell into the hole.

Kawaii argued with his commander against beheading the second airman, to no avail. The fact that the captives were kept in a Cebu schoolhouse must have given Dickey the idea to place Lally and Armstrong in a schoolhouse in “Between Two Prisoners.” Proximity of time and place probably touched off Dickey's associations: the incident reported in Stars and Stripes occurred ten days after Armstrong's fateful crash on an island almost adjacent to Cebu. The next day, under the headline “‘Bataan Butcher’ Must Hang,” an article described the conviction and sentencing of the first Japanese war criminal, General Yamashita, for condoning sixty thousand atrocities during the Bataan Death March. This trial, too, took place in Manila, and though the Japanese general appealed to both the American and Philippine supreme courts, he was hanged on February 23, 1946. Fifteen years later, these or similar accounts of war trials helped shape Dickey's poems about Armstrong and Lally.

Having once scoffed at his pilot's eagerness for combat, Dickey was pleased to take some of the credit for defeating Japan once the war was over. “Well, it has been quite a war and I am sure glad I was in it,” he told his mother. “I don't think I would have felt quite right about it if I hadn't come overseas.” He was also pleased by the decorations he received on October 27, 1945: an Air Medal for operational flight missions from January 31 to August 11, an Asiatic Theater Ribbon, a Philippines Liberation Ribbon, several Overseas Service Bars, a Battle Star for the Southern Philippines Campaign, a Battle Star for the Air Offensive in the Japanese Campaign, an American Theater Ribbon, and a World War II victory medal. His Report of Separation indicated that he earned a total of five Bronze Battle Stars for his role in the air offensives over the Philippines, Japan, and Borneo.

Though Dickey struck some colleagues as a sloppy, aloof intellectual “with his nose forever in a book,” he made a better impression on others. On December 15, 1945, First Lieutenant Paul Fridley wrote to the commanding general about Dickey's eight-hour missions during the Borneo campaign. Fridley praised Dickey and his pilot for flying out of Sanga Sanga to provide cover to the invasion forces off Balikpapan when other crews refused to go up because of bad weather. With regard to “intruder work against the Japanese homeland,” Dickey's missions were laudable “because they involved low level strafing and bombing at night over unfamiliar terrain.” Friendly fire, apparently, was a constant threat: “Many times, because of lack of fuel, it was necessary to land at the home base on Okinawa during red alerts and air raids; and therefore he was fired upon several times by friendly ack-ack and night fighters, who were too eager to check for proper identification.” And he had witnessed horrendous devastation when he flew to Hiroshima in November. According to Fridley, during twelve months of overseas duty and eight months of combat, Dickey never received a rest leave. He now deserved one.

Later in life Dickey would provide friends with similarly inflated data and cajole them into writing letters on his behalf, usually to encourage prominent magazines such as the Atlantic Monthly, Poetry, and Harper's to publish his poems, college adminstrations to give him honorary degrees, or prize committees to grant him awards. Could Dickey have pressured Fridley into writing a flattering recommendation to the general? At least one of his comrades, Stanley Logan, thought so:

I don't know why Fridley wrote the alleged letter unless it was a blanket letter covering a number of crews. Many of us endured the long gruelling missions to Borneo. I never heard of any night fighter pilot who “refused to go up because of bad weather.” We cut our eye teeth on such weather. This sounds like more B.S. Similarly with Kyushu missions. Following the friendly fire incident that Maj. Smith related in January, before we joined the squadron, the only incident of friendly fire that I knew about was when Frumer (an R.O.) bailed out over a naval unit near Okinawa they made the mistake of flying over unannounced.

Logan also pointed out that most flyers never received rest leave.

However he procured Fridley's testimonial, Dickey got approval from army headquarters in Atsugi for a six-day leave. He and Herbert Vaughn packed their clothes early on Christmas Day, then drove their Jeep four hours through little villages covered with snow to the Fuji-View Hotel at the foot of Mount Fujiyama. They relaxed in the hotel's steam heat, bath, and soft beds; dallied with two Red Cross women (one of whom they knew from New Guinea); consumed sandwiches and coffee all day in the snack bar; and at night dined by candlelight on steak, French fries, and ice cream. Two days after they arrived, it began to snow. Feeling adventurous, Dickey experimented with skis. He also rowed on the lake, attended a Japanese stage show, sampled a sukiyaki dinner with hot sake in a Japanese home, and watched a kimono demonstration before driving back to Atsugi on the last day of the year. Years later he planned to end Crux the way he ended his war year, with the main character, Harbelis, on rest leave at a Mount Fujiyama hotel, drinking whiskey or martinis, visiting the Japanese, and mumbling the secret language of the Alnilam cabal to the mountain.

Dickey's most significant year had begun on New Year's Eve of 1944, so it was fitting that he began his return to civilian life on the same day a year later. For the rest of his life, the plot that gripped his imagination most consistently was that of the circular journey in which beginnings and ends coincide. After his heroes survive their ordeals, they compulsively return home. Gazing at the mountain beyond his hotel, as his poem “A View of Fujiyama after the War” bears out, Dickey felt the tremors of war in the tremors of earth (in the form of a slight earthquake); he also felt a survivor's sense of blissful release. The volcanic mountain, beautiful in its dormancy, was a fit symbol for his sense of transcendence and tranquility. “Overcome by the enemy's peace,” he pledges to “live at the heart / Of his saved, shaken life,” and write from a sense of hard-won triumph.

Dickey's return home on the USS Sea Devil, which commenced on January 10, 1946, took approximately the same time as his journey to the war—about two weeks—and he passed the time in much the same way—by reading books. He told the poet Frederick Turner years later that he devoted many happy hours to reading J. B. Priestley's book on time theory, Midnight on the Desert. He also thought about his future: “I still couldn't get used to the idea that I was going to live. I didn't have any plans. I sort of thought about going back and playing [foot]ball again, but I didn't really want to do that. I thought that maybe I could go to another school and further my literary interests. I had no idea that I would be a writer. That was too ambitious for me.” But his writerly ambitions had already incubated and hatched in the heat of the Pacific islands. He docked in Seattle on January 23, made his way back to Atlanta, and from there traveled to Vanderbilt to become a writer.

A form filled out by air-crew personnel upon returning to the States outlined Dickey's war service. His official position was listed as “radar observer,” his total combat hours 119.10, and total combat missions 38 (any assigned flight in a combat zone, with the exception of training flights and DC-3 supply flights, was considered a combat flight). Dickey's Separation Qualification Record, issued at Fort McPherson, just south of Atlanta, on March 1, 1946, confirmed these numbers. A brief account of his service appeared under the heading “Summary of Military Occupations”:

[James Lafayette Dickey] flew long range night strafing and bombing missions. Acted as bomber escort on night missions and provided cover for landing forces and convoy attacks. Tracked and bombed seaborne and land targets by means of synchronized radar methods, using designated radar bombing equipment. Operated and performed first echelon maintenance on radio and radar sets and equipment. Completed 38 combat missions. Total flying time 403 hours, of which 120 were combat hours.

Upon these bare bones Dickey fleshed out his myth of piloting, dog-fighting, firebombing, and crashing in P-61 Black Widows. Apprised of his inventions, some squadron-mates wondered if he had simply forgotten his activities in the war. Since he carried a photostat of his discharge papers in his wallet for the rest of his life, he obviously had not.

Dickey's exaggerations would be accepted readily by a postwar audience eager to believe that American soldiers had acted daringly in vanquishing an evil empire. Like the character played by William Holden in The Bridge on the River Kwai, a movie he loved, Dickey prevaricated about his status as a combat pilot to impress men and women alike. And like his movie counterpart, he admitted the facts only when pressed by those who knew or suspected the truth.

Only the well-informed knew the extent to which Dickey embellished. As his career as poet and novelist flourished, so did his military tales, becoming so ingrained that even a scholar like Richard Calhoun mistakenly affirmed in a critical study that “Dickey was in the Air Force from 1942 to 1946, heavily involved in combat, flying nearly one hundred combat missions in the Pacific campaign in the Philippines, at Okinawa, and participating in the firebombings of major Japanese cities.” When asked by John Kelly, who was writing Night Fighters to the Sea, to give specifics of his record as a pilot, Dickey pretended to be too busy to answer. On the same day he refused Kelly, August 4, 1982, he requested from Prosper Rufur, one of his old night-fighter cohorts, a copy of the squadron history for use in his burgeoning novel, Alnilam. He told Rufur, who was in charge of squadron records, that he had refrained from attending reunions in the past but might go to an upcoming one in Orlando. Perhaps out of fear of having his invented war record questioned, he never went to a reunion.

Dickey was as deeply ambivalent about his military service as he was about his lies. In the early '50s he proposed to write a short story that would evince some of his feelings regarding the Army Air Corps. The narrator would visit a deserted base where he had once trained and say, “I was glad to see it standing deserted, for I had always hated military life, with the really profound hatred of uninterrupted irritation and interference, though I had nothing better, or other, to do.” He never expressed his ambivalence better than when he told his friend Ernest Suarez, who watched with him as a group of ROTC students jogged across the University of South Carolina campus several weeks before Dickey died, “There's nothing that attracts and horrifies me more than people marching and chanting. The rhythm is extraordinary; it makes you want to be part of it, to get up and join them. But for all we know they're the next Hitler Youth.” Despite his harsh remarks, Dickey always acknowledged that his World War II experience was the catalyst for his literary career. The war purged many of the superficial values of his Atlanta upbringing, made him more aware of the fragility of life, and convinced him of the subversive and ultimately redemptive powers of the imagination.

About a decade after he left Japan, Dickey hailed his decision to become a writer to the novelist Andrew Lytle:

To be of the same variety, the same profession, or calling, as the writers I like (or love) is quite sufficient compensation for my life. I have never valued life greatly, since I was in the war so young. It seemed then that most of the things I had been told about human life were false, constructions, rationalizations only, which would not stand up against any kind of forceful reality. But the artist is after another kind of reality: the underlying, the typical, the profound, the symbolic, the substructure of reality, the hidden anatomy.

In becoming a writer, Dickey substituted “symbolic” fictions, which revealed the truth of his feelings and ideas, for the “false constructions” of his youth, as well as for the “realities” he found arrayed against him. He began to live more consistently in an “invented world,” a “supreme fiction”—as Wallace Stevens would say—of his own making, and he persuaded others to do the same.


Dickey, James (Poetry Criticism)


Dickey, James (Vol. 1)