James Dickey Dickey, James (Vol. 109) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

James Dickey 1923–1997

(Full name James Lafayette Dickey) American poet, novelist, critic, essayist, scriptwriter, and author of children's books.

For further information on Dickey's life and career, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 4, 7, 10, 15, and 47.

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 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 once stated that in his poetry he attempted to achieve "a kind of plain-speaking line in which astonishing things can be said without rhetorical emphasis." In addition to his verse, Dickey authored the acclaimed novels Deliverance (1970) and Alnilam (1987) as well as the less well-received To the White Sea (1993), symbolic works that explore the extremes of human behavior.

Dickey, who died of complications of lung disease on January 19, 1997, commonly drew upon crucial events in his life for his subject matter. 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 explored 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 and affirmatory tone. James Schevill observed such characteristics of Dickey's early verse as "a unique unmistakable tone, an awareness of the physical forces of the world that flow beyond time, beyond history." These volumes also contain several poems about the wilderness in which Dickey stressed the importance of maintaining the primal physical and imaginative powers that he believed are suppressed by civilization. Buckdancer's Choice (1965), which won the 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. Dickey expressed ambivalence toward violence, most notably in "The Firebombing," a long poem that juxtaposes the thoughts of a fighter pilot as he flies over Japan and his memories twenty years later. Poems, 1957–1967 (1968) encapsulates what most critics consider Dickey's strongest phase as a poet.

In the novel Deliverance, which was adapted into an acclaimed film, Dickey reiterated several themes prevalent in his verse, primarily the rejuvenation of human life through interaction with nature. This work concerns four suburban men who seek diversion from their unfulfilling lives by canoeing down a remote and dangerous river. The characters encounter human violence and natural threats, forcing them to rely on primordial instincts in order to survive. Many initial reviews assessed Deliverance as a sensational adventure story that exalts violence and machismo. Subsequent evaluations, however, noted Dickey's skillful use of myth, biblical references, and Jungian archetypes, and several critics compared Deliverance to Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Despite growing belief in the book's value as legitimate literature, however, many schools refuse to include Deliverance in curricula. William G. Tapply, in a highly favorable analysis of the work, recounted being denied permission to teach to his high-school English students "a book in which the plot pivots on a scene where a man is sodomized at gunpoint, in which the heroes 'get away' with murder, in which verboten vocabulary words appear." Dickey's second novel, Alnilam, is an ambitious experimental work centering on a blind man's attempts to uncover the mysterious circumstances of his son's death. The man's son had been a charismatic leader of an elite corps of army pilots who held vaguely sinister revolutionary aspirations. While the book celebrates the pleasures of flying with vivid imagery, it denounces the misuse of power, becoming what Robert Towers described as "a vast, intricate work distinguished not by its forward momentum but by its symbolic suggestiveness and its bravura passages, some of which rise to visionary heights."

Dickey's To the White Sea, the story of a seemingly sociopathic soldier forced to parachute into Japan during World War II, received less favorable critical attention than his earlier novels. Greg Johnson reported that Dickey, "long acknowledged as one of our finest contemporary poets, with Deliverance … produced one of the most celebrated novels of its decade. Although his hefty second novel, Alnilam, garnered a mixed response, its ambitious scope and often dazzling use of language furthered his reputation as a novelist of considerable powers. Dickey's new work of fiction, To the White Sea, probably will not harm that reputation, though it is less ambitious and in some ways less accomplished than his previous novels." Thick with overtones of primitive survival and the natural world, To the White Sea follows Sergeant Muldrow on his trek from Tokyo to Japan's northern wilderness. Muldrow's desire to commune with nature as he travels is frequently interrupted by unwelcome human beings, most of whom he murders in cold blood and with sadistically creative techniques. This unsettling and central element of To the White Sea was frequently cited by critics as the basis for the book's lukewarm reception among readers, who found themselves unable to muster any sympathy toward the story's protagonist. "Any reader approaching To the White Sea in the hope of finding a traditional war story or an adventure novel will be sharply disappointed," Johnson concluded. "But the book will surely please admirers of Dickey's poetry and of his harsh, unsettling vision of natural savagery."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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
The Zodiac [based on Hendrik Marsman's poem of the same title] (poem) 1976
The Strength of Fields (poem) 1977
Tucky the Hunter (children's poetry) 1978
The Strength of Fields [poetry collection; title poem published separately in 1977] (poetry) 1979
Scion (poetry) 1980
Falling, May Day Sermon, and Other Poems (poetry) 1981
Puella (poetry) 1982
The Central Motion (poetry) 1983
Alnilam (novel) 1987
The Eagle's Mile [poetry collection; title poem published separately in 1981] (poetry) 1990
The Whole Motion: Collected Poems, 1945–1992 (poetry) 1992
To the White Sea (novel) 1993

∗Dickey also wrote the screenplay for the 1972 movie.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

James Dickey with Ernest Suarez (interview date August 1989)

SOURCE: "An Interview with James Dickey," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 31, No. 2, Summer, 1990, pp. 117-32.

[In the following interview, conducted in August, 1989, Dickey discusses his work, his life, and his political and literary ideas.]

At the age of thirty-five, James Dickey, in the poem "The Other," wrote of building his body so as to "keep me dying / Years longer." When I arrived at his house on Lake Katherine in Columbia, South Carolina, on August 8, 1989, Dickey asserted, with both eagerness and desperation in his voice, "There is so much I can write, if life will give me the time." An acute awareness of mortality and of its counterpart—the desire to create the illusion that death can be conquered—is never far from the heart of Dickey's work, which is pervaded by thoughts of a brother who died before Dickey was born, the deaths of his parents and friends, the carnage he witnessed in World War II and the Korean War, and his own bouts with serious illnesses.

The death of Dickey's close friend Robert Penn Warren in October 1989 leaves Dickey as the last living member of a long line of influential poets to emerge from Vanderbilt University in the first half of this century. During his often spectacular and always controversial career, now in its fifth decade, Dickey's achievements have been recognized widely. He has won numerous prestigious awards, including the National Book Award, Poetry's Levinson Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Melville Cane Award, the Longview Foundation Prize, and the Vachel Lindsay Award. He has twice been named Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and to the National Academy of Letters and Sciences. Dickey has written a dozen books of poetry, two novels, two books of criticism, and several acclaimed screenplays. He has held the chair of Carolina Professor of English at the University of South Carolina since 1969 and has won several teaching awards. Despite these successes, Dickey remains convinced his best work is yet to come. In Dickey's work, death is combated—and courted—through action, and, at age sixty-seven, Dickey is still living and working at a vigorous pace, with an impressive new book of poems, The Eagle's Mile, ready for publication, another, Real God, Roll, well under way, and two novels, To the White Sea and Crux (a sequel to Alnilam) in progress.

This interview was conducted during my stay with Dickey in August 1989. Following an evening with the writer and his family in Columbia, he and I drove to his second home at Litchfield Plantation on Pawley's Island, where we remained for six days. A tranquil, remote, timeless atmosphere seeped from the lush grounds, a strangely meditative setting in which to interview a man whose art brims with vigor and sensation. With a tape recorder and a bottle of Wild Turkey to keep us company, we sat in the living room and talked, pausing occasionally to look out at a heron fly by or perch in a tree shrouded in Spanish moss. Though our nightly conversations sometimes continued hours into the early morning, Dickey was always up and striking the typewriter keys by seven or eight o'clock. On several occasions he bounded down the stairs to read me a scene or a line or a phrase that pleased him. Dickey is nothing if not passionate, engaged, and acutely aware of the possibilities life affords, as well as intensely disturbed—even insulted—at the loss of those possibilities when life ends.

[Suarez:] You began to compose the poems that appeared in your first book, Into the Stone, about the time you met Ezra Pound. What would you say you picked out from Pound?

[Dickey:] What I would call an extreme magical directness. That ability to take something which is factual and make a simple, highly imaginative statement out of it.

So you are specifying Pound's use of the image?

Yes, a very clear, concrete, simply stated and highly original, highly imaginative but simple quality. What I'm looking for in my own work more than anything else is a kind of deep simplicity. I was raised with the notion that as far as literary judgments are concerned, complexity is desirable. I. A. Richards or William Empson, for example, assert that more appetencies are satisfied with more economy by complexity. I don't think so. I like the thing that comes like a lightning flash, that is vivid and momentarily there and intense and unmistakable and doesn't require a great deal of ratiocination. When William Empson talks about a line of [William] Shakespeare's, like "Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang," he goes into this long peroration of all the things the mind calls up by means of this image of the birds—the fact that real choirs require sitting in rows with their own wooden benches like the branch a bird sits on and this and that and the other. The ingenuity just to conjure all that up is wonderful, but I get none of that at all—none of it, and I don't want it. The point is that criticism can proliferate endlessly on the slightest text, or sometimes, by theorizing endlessly, even on no text at all. Unlike most people I know, I like to read boring books, and I've never read a more boring book than Empson's Structure of Complex Words. It's extremely boring, and yet he is a brilliant man, and he says some good things that even I can assimilate every now and then. But to spend one's life doing that, or being in an area where that sort of activity is of a great deal of importance, is not to my liking at all. Thank God I'm at the age now where I don't have to give lip service to anything. If my opinions are those of an aging jerk, then so be it!

Can you think of any of your own poems where you use the Poundian conception of the image?

Yes, though you can't tell where Pound's or Eliot's influence is going to be. It takes place on such a subliminal level that you can never really say that this is directly influenced by one or the other. I think Pound's influence is deeper and more pervasive than anything I can directly lay a finger on. But I can pick out a number of lines of mine that have the kind of simplicity, the imaginative simplicity, that I learned more from Pound than from anyone else. One is from "Drinking from a Helmet," where the soldier picks up the dead soldier's helmet, which is filled with water, and looks inside it. He says, "I drank with the timing of rust." I could look through my work and show you plenty of places where I think that happens.

I think that this conception of the image is the very core of your work.

That's the guts of it for me. The image and the dramatic development—the dramatic aspect of what is actually going on in the poem. I think that too much poetry is being written about trivialities, with the attempt to pump up the triviality into something of consequence. But a triviality is a triviality. One gets a little tired of Blake seeing heaven in a wild flower and eternity in a grain of sand. That is all very well for [William] Blake and very well for some poets some of the time, but not for all poets all of the time. When Adrienne Rich gives an account of a cockroach in a kitchen cupboard, it's interesting momentarily, but one doesn't really in one's heart believe it's that important.

Much of your poetry involves transcending the mundane world. Do you see yourself as a visionary poet?

Well, one doesn't like to make such wild claims as that, but any original insight that any poet has is in a sense a vision. But in the sense that Blake is a visionary poet, I'm not at all. I don't really believe that I can see God sitting up in that tree yonder, you know. Or any of the things, any of the visions that Blake said he saw or claimed to see. I'm sure he did. I hope he did. I would like to see something like that. Somebody said to Blake, "Now when you look at the sun do you see a disc about the size of a florin?" Blake said, "No, I see a great multitude of the heavenly hosts singing hosannas unto the most high." Now, I don't see that when I see the sun. It would be great if I did, but a visionary poet in that sense, I'm not.

You place great emphasis on the poet as a "maker."

Yes, I do. That's something I firmly believe in.

In what sense do you see the poet as a "maker"? What consequences does "making" have for the world at large?

I don't know how the world is affected by it. I don't know because in some sense it's biblical. The Bible is always talking about the Lord working in mysterious ways. So does poetry, and you can't chart those. I. A. Richards talks about appetency and about this response or that response called forth by these words and so on. That is an attempt to make a scientific discipline of something that is profoundly unscientific. Poetry is not really subject to such investigation beyond a certain very rigid border. For example, if in a poem I mentioned the word "tree," what would you see? What would that call up in your mind? What is your tree?

An oak.

Wrong. Because the only tree, the archetypal, the Platonic tree, is definitely a pine tree. You bring your life to the image, to create the image that the word suggests, and nothing can legislate that.

Robert Lowell's poetry is interesting because he is a powerful, tearing writer. I mean he can write like a streak, and all that desperate neuroticism has infinite ramifications. He can do a lot with it, but ultimately it comes back to him and his situation in life—his condition, his personality. And it is no good to say that Lowell takes on all this agony and grief for all of us. He does not take it on for all of us. He takes it on for himself; it is his life. It is not the life of twentieth-century humankind. It's his personal life, and too much of that is wearing. You're asked to give too much credence to it.

How would you say your work differs from that?

I'd like to think that it differs from it in opening out rather than closing down on the pinpoint of one person. I like to give. As I once said in an essay on Ted Roethke—he does this kind of opening out—if you have heard wind, you have heard Roethke's wind, but because you know about Roethke's wind, the wind he has put down in words, the wind to you has another dimension—something creative and positive that accrues to you. You are deepened and expanded because of the words.

In "Approaching Prayer" you write that "reason" must be slain for vision to occur. Is that essential?

Well, I don't know if it is essential or not. But I think that there are certain circumstances in a person's experience where it is better to participate in the experience by means of simple gut reactions and not through reasoning. Not through intellectualization about the experience but to just be in it and feel what you honestly feel as a response. That is essentially what I mean.

Earlier you mentioned a conversation you had with Yvor Winters many years ago where he called you an Emersonian because of your emphasis on directly experiencing things. Winters was very wary of that Emersonian doctrine.

I don't remember the conversation perfectly, but it seems to me he said something about my being essentially an American decadent romantic poet following [Ralph Waldo] Emerson. Yes, he was wary of Emersonianism. I hate to use such a loaded word, but Winters was a fascistic type who believed in order and the establishment of very rigid standards, largely determined by him. This is the stuff of dictators, is it not? To him I would compare a critic who is more flexible and who is willing to be wrong, like Randall Jarrell or John Berryman—somebody who is willing to say, "I thought this last year, but I've changed my mind." I've changed my mind many times, and I think that is a privilege. If you lock yourself into your own doctrines, then you lose the flexibility of the moment to moment ability to respond.

Is that why you think Emerson was a greater man than [Henry David] Thoreau?

I think he is because he opens up more territory than Thoreau. Thoreau is too much of a doctrine giver. Emerson is a presenter of possibilities. I like that.

Which, as you have expressed, is essentially the poetic enterprise.

It would seem to me to be so. Opening up possibilities. Thoreau is too concerned with laying down the law about everything. Thoreau says some good things. That people lead lives of quiet desperation. Things about stepping to a different drummer. These are wonderful statements, great stuff. But honest reaction to experience, intuitive reaction—nothing is of greater consequence than that. Emerson had a curious relationship to religion, although he was at one point a Unitarian minister. His idea was that you could have a direct line to God. That you don't have to go through the church or follow any dogma. That God comes straight to you like a ray of light—and so do you to Him. I think that is fine. I don't believe it. I would like to believe it, and I'm glad somebody said it. I'm glad he said it.

What do you believe? Do you believe there is any moral force governing the universe?

No, I don't believe in that at all. I'm writing a long poem now, Real God, Roll, where a father watches his son pumping iron and exercising on the beach, and he feels it's all part of the whole thing, of the real god. The waves coming in, his death, his father's death, the son's physique are all part of the whole thing. The real god is what causes everything to exist, like the laws of motion. The humanization of God in the Bible I find absurd. I love the Bible like I love Greek mythology, though Greek mythology is far more imaginative than the Bible is.

In your war poems, like "The Performance" or "Between Two Prisoners," you never seem to take sides or make moral judgments.

I suppose in those poems there is an implicit moral stance, I guess you could say. Obviously, I don't think it is right for the Japanese to behead Don Armstrong, who was my best friend. Obviously, I'm against it. Anybody would be. Or in "The Fire Bombing," which is based on a kind of paradox based on the sense of power one has as a pilot of an aircrew dropping bombs. This is a sense of power a person can otherwise never experience. Of course this sensation is humanly reprehensible, but so are many of the human emotions that one has. Judged by the general standard, such emotions are reprehensible, but they do happen, and that is the feeling. Then you come back from a war you won, and you're a civilian, and you begin to think about the implications of what you actually did do when you experienced this sense of power and remoteness and godlike vision. And you think of the exercise of authority via the machine that your own government has put at your disposal to do exactly what you did with it. Then you have a family yourself, and you think about those people twenty, thirty, forty years ago—I was dropping those bombs on them, on some of them. Suppose somebody did that to me? It was no different to them. All of that went into "The Fire Bombing."

Yet some people at the time, the mid-to-late sixties, did not read the poem as an antiwar poem.

Well, you do yourself a disservice if you blink the real implications of a situation like that. It is a poem about 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.

The poem ends with the narrator still unable to imagine "nothing not as American as / I am, and proud of it." What do you see as the meaning of those lines?

You are a patriot. You...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Albin Krebs (obituary date 21 January 1997)

SOURCE: "James Dickey, Two-Fisted Poet and the Author of Deliverance, is Dead at 73," in The New York Times, January 21, 1997, p. C27.

[In the following obituary, Krebs presents a detailed review of Dickey's life and career.]

James Dickey, one of the nation's most distinguished modern poets and a critic, lecturer and teacher perhaps best known for his rugged novel Deliverance, died on Sunday in Columbia, S.C. He was 73.

He died of complications of lung disease, The Associated Press reported.

Mr. Dickey, a big, sprawling, life-loving, hard-drinking man...

(The entire section is 2096 words.)

Reviews Of Dickey's Recent Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lachlan Mackinnon (review date 10 May 1991)

SOURCE: "Mumbling and Clanging," in Times Literary Supplement, May 10, 1991, p. 22.

[In the following excerpt, Mackinnon condemns Dickey's The Eagle's Mile as "a clanging, overweening collection."]

[I]n the title poem, "The Eagle's Mile", in memory of Justice William Douglas, theoretically welcome as a public elegy and especially as one about such a man, Dickey invites the addressee to reappear in landscape and "power-hang in it all now, for all / The whole thing is worth: catch without warning / Somewhere in the North Georgia creek like ghostmuscle tensing / Forever, or on the high grass bed /...

(The entire section is 43596 words.)