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.
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.
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.
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.