James Dickey Dickey, James (Vol. 10) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Dickey, James 1923–

Dickey is an American poet, novelist, critic, screenwriter, and essayist. His poetry possesses a strong rhythmic pattern, expressing his concern with the cycles of love and death and the interaction of man and nature. Dickey has enjoyed acceptance in both the popular and academic worlds. He received the National Book Award in 1965 and has served as the Consultant on Poetry in English to the Library of Congress. Dickey's novel Deliverance was made into a successful film. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Paul G. Italia

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Perhaps [the patterned brutality in Deliverance] is nothing more than a macabre symmetry, a grimly humorous instance of "poetic justice," in which each of the perverted primitives gets what he deserves where he deserves it. But there is something more; the neatly ironic balancing of sin and retribution, of crime and counter-crime, is transcended by the mystery formed between the civilized hunter and the primitive one. What results from this whirlwind weekend courtship with death is love. (p. 204)

There are perversion and fantasy present in [the love scene between Gentry and his wife, a] scene of "civilized" love: it has one other important element in common with the climactic hunt—dreams and dreaming. For night (with its fantasies, inversions, dreams) constitutes the "atmosphere" of both the love-episode and the hunt-episode. Indeed, the scene that describes Gentry's embrace of his wife opens with his musing upon dreams…. Gentry defines wakening as the attempt to "get clear of" where he had been. Dreaming becomes another vehicle to illustrate his struggle to escape death and find "another life." Gentry's definition of dreaming takes us out of the bedroom and into the wilderness, out of the love-scene and into the hunt. And the dream ends in each episode with deliverance. A close look at that hunt furnishes the perspective needed to view this collage of night, dream, fantasy, and perversion.

The hunting episode begins with Gentry's climbing a steep gorge to reach the cliff where he suspects the bushwacker is hiding. This scene, too, begins with a dream. In fact, the whole episode might be called a dream sequence. Gentry's stalking of the backwoodsman begins just before dawn, as does the bedroom scene, and his difficult climb is reminiscent of the "dragged upward" sensation he always experiences in his attempts to struggle free of his dreams…. The sexuality becomes clearer as the hunt proceeds. "Then I would begin to try to inch upward again, moving with the most intimate motions of my body, motions I had never dared use with Martha, or with any other human woman. Fear and a kind of enormous moon-blazing sexuality lifted me."…

This hunt is a primal union with "mother nature," the intimacy of which is greater than marriage. And, as in the love-scene, something obtrudes upon his intimacy with his wife. But the strongest link between this passage and the earlier episode is the fact that Gentry manages to climb out of his dream and up the rock-face to eventual deliverance because an "enormous moon-blazing sexuality" lifted him beyond the abyss.

Gentry's sense of suspension during the climb strongly resembles that of the dream state. And, as in a dream, his thoughts during the hunt are a kind of fantasy. He thinks of his deadly accurate plan to trap the hunter as a daydream; indeed, the whole situation has the finality and matter-of-factness that dreams give to extraordinary events…. Sex, as well as murder, is the object of Ed Gentry's fantasy, of his "wet dream." (pp. 205-06)

The hunt, itself, is clearly sexual in [D. H. Lawrence's short novel] The Fox, perhaps less so in Deliverance. Dickey's use of sexuality in the hunt is subtle, but it is there: "We were closed together, and the feeling of a peculiar kind of intimacy increased," says Gentry…. And as he lined the woodsman up in his sights, he noted that "There was something relaxed and enjoying in his body position, something primally graceful; I had never seen a more beautiful or convincing element of a design. I wanted to kill him just like that…. Wait till he lies down, I said far back in my throat."… Finally, this chase ends in a whirlwind climax in which both hunters, feeling a sudden blast and finding themselves turning and twisting and falling, perform a macabre parody of sexual union.

The hunt, then, is a sexual one in Deliverance. But to end with this observation is to miss Dickey's point—and Lawrence's…. Lawrence's is the more explicit: … "He was a huntsman in spirit…. And it was as a young hunter that he wanted to bring down March as his quarry, to make her his wife."… The hunt is sexual, but the point of...

(The entire section is 1730 words.)

Robert Penn Warren

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["The Zodiac"] is consistently demanding, characteristically eloquent and often in an original way, and sometimes magnificent. I can think of no poem since Hart Crane's "The Bridge" that is so stylistically ambitious and has aimed to stir such depths of emotion. Like "The Bridge" (and most works of man's hand) this poem has certain limitations and defects that may provoke quarrel: for instance, the structural principle of progression for the first seven or eight sections is not always clear, and there is again some sort of structural blockage in the last two sections—defects in, we may say, the dramatic pivots. But the audacity of imagery, assemblage of rhythms, the power of language redeems all—in a period too often marked by a delicate hovering over the fragile merely because it is fragile and the prosy because it is prosy, the celebration of sensibility as such, polite or academic scrupulosities, self-pity in a cruel world, craven free verse lacking basic and projective rhythms.

In one sense "The Zodiac" can be said to be about the over-ambitiousness of poetry—even as it celebrates its ambitiousness….

The poem is a metaphysical poem, one that with passion, rage, eloquence, and occasionally hysterical yammer asks a metaphysical question as a form of poetry. If for nothing, it would be memorable for the passage that seals the end…. (p. 8)

Robert Penn Warren, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 14, 1976.

Harold Bloom

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Dickey, after the lapse of his later poems,… ventures everything in The Zodiac, a longish poem of some 30 pages loosely based upon a modern Dutch original. Dickey's "drunken and perhaps dying Dutch poet" speaks for Dickey's own will-to-power over language and the universe of sense, a will so monomaniac as to resemble Ahab's, rather than Melville's. The Zodiac is obsessive and perhaps even hysterical verse, and after a number of readings I am helpless to say whether, for me, it works or fails. I cannot say whether Dickey has mastered his own language here or not, but I will have to keep going back to this poem, as will many other readers. It ends as strongly as anything in the Orphic and Promethean demi-god Dickey: "So long as the spirit hurls on space / The star-beasts of intellect and madness." (p. 22)

Harold Bloom, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), November 20, 1976.

Stanley Burnshaw

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"[The Zodiac] is based on another of the same title by Hendrik Marsman", Dickey explains, and "with the exception of a few lines, is completely my own." "Based" is the warranted word. Part I of Dickey's poem is almost as long (414 lines) as the whole of Marsman's (422), Parts II-XII even longer. But the telling difference grows out of the two conceptions of the hero: "A drunken 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."… (p. 120)

[The] two works … are fairly close in story but in other ways vastly apart. Marsman's narrator describes and interprets the hero's thoughts, feelings, acts; he...

(The entire section is 516 words.)

Raymond J. Smith

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] protagonist of Dickey's [The Zodiac], a Dutch poet who uses the expression "Old Buddy," is a drunk. One would have hoped that the romantic image of the whiskey-poet had been finally smashed by Berryman's suicide. Not so. Alcohol and creativity go hand in hand for this poet….

More of a tour de force than the mesmerizing "Falling" or the brilliantly Gothic "May Day Sermon," The Zodiac marks a new departure for Dickey in that it is derivative…. (p. 96)

Dickey has divided his poem into twelve parts (related only numerically to the signs of the zodiac), each of which focuses upon a particular episode in the life of a man who after many years of travel has returned...

(The entire section is 701 words.)

Diane A. Parente

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As a reviewer, I find myself somewhat intimidated, even awed by this beautiful, ambitious concert of effort. Artist (Marvin Hayes) and Poet (James Dickey) have combined talents to produce [God's Images] a new vehicle through which to experience the Bible.

Biblical events and personalities come alive in a series of fifty-three striking etchings, each accompanied by a reflective, poetic meditation….

The verbal images will evoke a … varied response from those who pause to read and reflect. Diversity is the key word here, the author's personal reactions to the Biblical passages illustrated—now it takes the form of a poetic retelling of a Biblical event modernized by expanded imagery, then there are the first-person reactions of a Biblical character as he or she confronts his moment of truth, and scattered throughout are the gem-like reflections which provide insight and inspiration for the reader rather than simply expanding his experience of the Bible. (p. 283)

Diane A. Parente, in Best Sellers (copyright © 1977, Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), December, 1977.

Richard Finholt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Leonard Lutwack, in Heroic Fiction, has stated that Melville's Moby-Dick introduced "unequivocally the spirit of the epic to American fiction by daring to endow native materials with qualities of the heroic past."… James Dickey's Deliverance … fits the ancient pattern more closely than any of the novels Lutwack chooses to discuss (it seems, in fact, an almost perfect embodiment of Joseph Campbell's "monomyth"). (p. 128)

In a time when the suspicion begins to grow, as Mailer puts it, that "nothing is nailed down" or, as Lewis puts it, that "nothing 'stays put,'" Dickey would take us back across time to the time before man had a sense of history but did, instead, take "for...

(The entire section is 1998 words.)