Throughout his poetry, Dickey employs shockingly bizarre or ludicrous images to communicate the alien position of nature in the "civilized" world. Indeed, the juxtaposition of the world of nature and the world of man often leads to grotesque incongruities. Things seem severely twisted by comparison. In the sea, the shark finds a natural home: in the parlor, its presence becomes unnatural. The poet sees civilization as so far removed from nature, its primal antecedent, that only such aberrations can aptly depict their relationship and, as he implies, possibly restore them to harmony and order.
Dickey makes it clear, however, that what seems to be unnatural is only so because of its context in a civilized world, and that these deviations actually possess a vitality which modern man has lost. In "Kudzu," for example, nature's power flows from the plant to the speaker, who needs its strength even though his civilized character dictates that he must destroy the giver. (p. 39)
The kudzu provides a kind of transfusion of nature's power into a human body that is somehow deficient, what H. L. Weatherby terms "the way of exchange," a mysterious regenerative process which may take place between man and his opposites." With the "green sword twined among / the veins" … the arm grows and takes on new strength. Such vigor does not come from "proper shaved fields" or "safe cows,"… nature which has been tampered with by man, but only from nature which refuses to be harnessed by man. While he sleeps, the power comes to him despite the closed windows, and in him it prospers. His waking self, however, finds it necessary to root the invader out or risk destruction by an irrational force. Yet the alien plant has made an impact on the civilized world, and in remembering, man is acknowledging his own need of a power which only nature can provide.
In "The Sheep Child," Dickey once again depicts the relationship between rational man and irrational nature through a bizarre image. Though Georgia farm boys admit the masturbatory function of nature in their wild need "to couple with anything,"… their fear of the product of complete irrationality in man, the sheep child, forces them to be civilized. Like the legend of the kudzu, the story of the "woolly baby pickled in alcohol" … in an Atlanta museum serves as a grim reminder of what happens when the irrational takes control. Such "things can't live" … because man and nature pose two extremes which are seemingly irreconcilable. (pp. 40-1)
In the figure of the sheep child, Dickey credits himself with having created the most unique persona in literature. This grotesque combination of two worlds, the world of nature and the world of man, speaks "merely with his eyes,"… perhaps a Platonic reference to the dwelling place of the soul. (p. 41)
Dickey uses the imaginary sheep child to represent nature denied and man diminished as a consequence…. The fear which keeps farm boys from coupling with animals and forces them "deep into their known right hands" … is civilized man's rejection of the irrational within himself. The memory of the sheep child drives man to marry and to raise his kind, and, in doing so, it becomes a civilizing tool….
In "The Fiend," Dickey employs the unnatural in the same manner and for the same purpose as in "Kudzu" and "The Sheep Child," bringing the power of nature to the civilized, normal world. The fiend specifically embodies the sexual power in nature which becomes grotesque when concentrated in this one unlikely man. A Jekyll and Hyde figure, by...
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day he is the most ordinary of people, a worried accountant who somehow epitomizes the tedium and mediocrity of civilized existence. At night, however, he transcends this dreary state, though he never quite discards its trappings, the straightened tie and pocketful of pens given him by salesmen. When he assumes the role of voyeur, the accountant loses many of his human characteristics and as a consequence becomes in harmony with nature….
Against this natural harmony, Dickey poses the sterility of civilized existence. What the fiend witnesses is a form of death in life symbolized by the soundless TV shows. (p. 42)
The fiend, however, is a mediator between man and nature, and its power is invested in him. A grotesque parody of the saviour, he can transform even a "sullen shopgirl" … into something more than human….
In his role as saviour, the fiend fulfills a definite, though only faintly acknowledged, need in man…. Only by returning, at least spiritually, to his natural state can man find fulfillment. In his abnormality, the fiend saves by his "beholding" … and thereby confers on deficient man a type of "Immortality."…
Like the kudzu, however, the "worried accountant" poses a potential threat to the civilized world. In denying the natural or irrational in himself, man has forced its power into concealment. For the apartment-dwellers, natural instincts are relegated to their proper place under cringing covers. The work of the fiend too must be done by stealth in the night. Such denial though can never be a permanent state. Already, the fiend has difficulty uncurling his toes from branches; his bird movements die hard. The "solid citizen" … is little more than a figment of the imagination. Too many pulled shades have undermined his solidity. Ultimately, nature will assert itself, perhaps, as Dickey implies, violently. When the fiend comes down from his tree to make a "final declaration,"… the irrational which has been denied will make an irrecoverable intrusion into the civilized world.
In these representative poems, Dickey attempts to fulfill his professed poetic aim of charging "the world with vitality, with the vitality that it already has, if we could rise to it." The kudzu is a product of the natural world introduced into the world of man, while the fiend is a product of the civilized world that seeks to return to nature. Though unable to live in either, the sheep child is the offspring of both worlds. In all instances, these aberrations function by either the consent or action of man who acknowledges a need for nature's power, if only at the unconscious level. Indeed Dickey seems to be suggesting here, as in his novel, Deliverance, that "survival might depend upon an ability to shed the veneer of civilization and call forth the monster within us, to meet our buried selves face to face…." In his poetry, the unnatural provides a means of satisfying this need and establishing order between man and nature. (pp. 43-4)
Joan Bobbitt, "Unnatural Order in the Poetry of James Dickey," in Concerning Poetry (copyright © 1978, Western Washington State College), Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring, 1978, pp. 39-44.
[James Dickey is a] 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 Apocalypse, 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. (p. 410)
In the earlier poems, Dickey [avoided] … the "confessional" sort of personality found in Lowell, Snodgrass, Berryman, or Sexton…. 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 …—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."… (p. 411)
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…. 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…. 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 … 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. (pp. 412-13)
[The] idea of European decline is never fully developed. (p. 413)
As a poet, Marsman worries aloud frequently about [the] problem of his own perspective and "universality."… [Marsman's questioning] 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…. Unfortunately, the metaphors in Zodiac often … 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. (pp. 414-15)
[Several] times in Zodiac … the appropriateness of the metaphor is clear only in relation to Marsman's undependable perception…. [Many of the metaphors] are equations of Marsman's misery with a more universal misery, but they are also flat assertions rather than conjurations of a credible animism. (pp. 415-16)
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…. [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….
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…. 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. (p. 416)
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 … 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…. 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. (p. 417)
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. (p. 418)
Linda Mizejewski, "Shamanism toward Confessionalism: James Dickey, Poet," in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1978, by the University of Georgia), Vol. XXXII, No. 2, Summer, 1978, pp. 409-19.
When Ed Gentry, the narrator of James Dickey's Deliverance, stands over the corpse of the man he has killed with a bow and arrow, he waits for an impulse. "It is not ever going to be known; you can do what you want to; nothing is too terrible. I can cut off the genitals he was going to use on me. Or I can cut off his head, looking straight into his open eyes. Or I can eat him." The impulse does not come, "but the ultimate horror circled me and played over the knife." Ed dispels this horror by singing a popular song. Then, "I finished, and I was withdrawn from." The horror leaves him, and he returns to the practical problem of survival.
The horror, the release of bestiality in a man whose survival is threatened by the bestiality in others, has been noted by several readers of Deliverance…. Yet the song and what it represents in the novel seem to have been ignored. Despite the obvious effectiveness of another scene involving music, the duet with Drew and the albino … no one has thoroughly considered the thematic use of the arts in the novel.
My contention is that Dickey shows art to be a necessary mediator between nature—both the exterior nature of woods and rivers and the interior nature of man's drives and dreams—and modern urban "civilized" life. Both the natural world and the civilized world have their virtues, beauties, dangers, and horrors. The positive elements of nature can be stifled by civilization; but without civilization the darker, destructive natural forces may get out of hand. Art is a product of civilization, and a civilizing force, yet for Dickey genuine art never loses touch with the primitive: in short, art embraces both Dionysus and Apollo.
Ed Gentry's uses of and responses to art provide the reader with some valuable indicators of what his experience has meant to him. (pp. 167-68)
Ed's life in the city is unsatisfying because he is "out of touch" with the primitive, Dionysian, or natural forces—except for sex, which has promise of "other things, another life, deliverance." The experiences of the journey, however, encourage him to allow other aspects of his animal nature to surface. But since these instincts arise in circumstances in which he can use them for self-defense, he is freed from feeling guilt or shame about them; and since he can exercise some control over them through art, he is enabled to keep in touch with them—again through art—when they are repressed on his return to civilization.
Some of these associations with art are foreshadowed in Dickey's presentation of Drew. Although he has been seen mainly as a spokesman for civilized values, Drew is also a genuine, if limited, artist….
Ed and his companions find themselves in a survival situation largely because of their dissatisfaction with the city. The encroachment of civilization on nature, the attempt of man to control natural forces, dominates the larger frame of the book. (p. 169)
[Lewis] seems to be obsessed with exerting a personal control over the forces of nature. He "wanted to be immortal," to control time, to perfect his body, yet he constantly put himself into confrontations with nature and got himself and others into dangerous accidents. He nurses an apocalyptic fantasy in which civilization breaks down and he has to retreat to the hills. Lewis tries to act out his fantasies, but never seems to consider the possibility of controlling or ordering nature through the artistic imagination. This failure is highlighted by the reference to his wife, who has responded to his "survival craze" by imagining a kind of art reduced to essentials "like in cave painting." (pp. 169-70)
Just as the sterile side of civilization is stressed in the episodes before the canoe trip, the positive side of nature is emphasized in the early part of the trip…. [Drew's] "woods music" characteristically links the natural with the civilized through art. (p. 170)
In order to succeed in getting the drop on the man they fear is gunning for them, Ed must cultivate [the] primitive, instinctive qualities which have been emerging. But art helps him accomplish his task by providing models and channeling these forces. The art form most frequently referred to in this most adventurous section is, as many readers have noticed, the movies.
Immediately after Lewis comes over the falls with his broken leg, Ed remarks that "the cliff looked something like a gigantic drive-in movie screen waiting for an epic film to begin." Later, evaluating their situation, he hears himself saying that they will "never get out of this gorge alive," and that the second mountaineer "means to pick the rest of us off tomorrow. Aware of the theatrical quality of his words and the remoteness of their situation from their ordinary lives, Ed says to himself, "When do the movies start, Lord?"
So far, these allusions stress the strangeness of the events: they are so improbable that one could expect them only in movies. But because of this remoteness from their real experience, the movies provide models of behavior, roles to act out that may aid them in their struggle to survive. (p. 172)
Other arts also contribute significantly to Ed's experience during the climb and the ambush. He responds to the visual beauty of the river in the moonlight, and also to his imaginative vision: "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." He describes the scene and his participation in it in terms of his visual art: around one of the rocks in the river "a thread of scarlet seemed to go, as though outlining a face, a kind of god, a layout for an ad, a sketch, an element of design…. It might have looked something like my face…. My face: why not? I can have it as I wish." Ed, unlike Lewis, exerts a kind of control over the landscape through the artistic imagination. Visual art, like the movies, also helps him plan his action: "What then, art director? Graphics consultant? What is the layout? It is this: to shoot him from behind, somewhere on the top of the gorge."
Less apparent, but perhaps more important, is a kind of skill Ed acquires during the climb that seems to link the instinctive and the artistic in Dickey's mind. Again during the climb, he thinks of Drew, who "used to say … that the best guitar players were blind men … who had developed the sense of touch beyond what a man with eyes could do. I have got something like that…. I have got up here mostly by the sense of touch, and in the dark." (p. 173)
These forces of animal instinct and human skill and art have prepared Ed for the climactic moment when he shoots the second rapist. (p. 174)
The return to civilization will demand still further use of art, this time that of realistic fiction. After the last set of rapids, Ed realizes this need and chooses the rapids as the setting of their accident. He goes over their story with Bobby: "Control, baby. It can be controlled." Art is the true control of nature and reality. As he begins to try his story on the police, his critics, he thinks: "I made it a point to try to visualize the things I was saying as though they really happened … for me they were happening as I talked." One critic, the deputy, finds a flaw in the story—what happened to the other canoe—and they have to patch it up. But Ed does so with artistic economy, adding a realistic detail: the second canoe was overloaded after the first was lost, making it easy for the last rapids to upset them and drown Drew. When the deputy challenges the story, Ed is indignant: "He was assaulting my story, which had cost me so much time and energy, and, yes, blood." But the finished product holds, and they are freed. (pp. 175-76)
And as the dam is built and civilization exerts its control on the wild river, the bestial, instinctive side of Ed's nature recedes into his subconscious:
Every night as the water rose higher, I slept better, feeling the green, darkening color crawl up the cliff, up the sides of rock, feeling for the handholds I had had, dragging itself up, until finally I slept as soundly as Drew was sleeping…. Drew and the other man were going deeper and deeper, piling fathoms and hundreds of tons of pressure and darkness on themselves, falling farther and farther out of sight, farther and farther from any influence on the living.
But the symbol of the river enables Ed to keep in touch with his experience through art. "It pleases me … that the river does not exist, and that I have it. In me it still is, and will be until I die, green, rocky, deep, fast, slow, and beautiful beyond reality." The river replaces the model as Ed's link with the primitive forces: her gold-halved eye has left its "magic" in the night river, "the land of impossibility."
The completion of the dam also signals the closing of the frame of the novel: the human hand has controlled the river. (p. 176)
It may be possible now to stand back from Deliverance, to see it less as an ostensibly realistic narrative by Ed Gentry and more as an artifact by James Dickey the poet. The novel may then be seen as a kind of extended metaphor for the poetic process. In diving into the world of sharks, wolverines, and rapists, one is confronted with beauty, horror, and ambiguity. Art may give a kind of order to chaos, but in the ordering the artist sees the elements of chaos in more detail than other men. Just as Ed discovers beauty and horror in a situation that demands that he cultivate his inner monster, he also must impose an order on this world and control the monster. (p. 179)
[One] may think of poets like Dante, who descend into hell and return to tell us about it, thereby possibly saving us from having to make the trip ourselves. (pp. 179-80)
Edward Doughtie, "Art and Nature in 'Deliverance'," in Southwest Review (© 1979 by Southern Methodist University Press), Vol. 64, No. 2, Spring, 1979, pp. 167-80.
Unfortunately, none of the poems (or translations "from the UnEnglish") in The Strength of Fields measures up to "The Performance," "The Sheep-Child" or "Falling." In recent years Dickey has forsaken traditional meter for a broken line using a "gap technique," somewhat reminiscent of late William Carlos Williams. At times he has employed it with splendid effect—especially in "Butterflies" where his typographical fragments were able to mirror the flitting of butterflies—but here it is overly ragged and abrupt. Read aloud, or even better, declaimed by Dickey himself, these story poems can generate great power….
Still another novelty in the later work is Dickey's increased regard for noun-compounds ("root-light," "moth-force," "death-mud," "stomach-pool"), which at best seem unnecessary and at worst unclear. Such broken lines and neologisms, embedded in an extremely convoluted syntax, recall the kennings and interlace patterns of Old English poetry. Indeed, Dickey almost invites the comparison with ancient skalds and bards, men who could do battle as well as sing of it. His themes are those of Beowulf: memories of war ("Two Poems of the Military"), praise for a leader ("The Strength of Fields"), masculine comradeship ("Reunioning Dialogue"), paeans to a past champion ("For the Death of Lombardi"), athletic contests ("For the Running of the New York City Marathon"), boastful stories ("False Youth: Autumn: Clothes of the Age") and the power of the minstrel ("The Rain Guitar").
Regrettably, in this book Dickey fails to bring his language to life. He relies on tricks of syntax, rather than on the word that hits the heart like a bullet. Much of the time the verse offers ordinary conversation or the symbol-laden description of an action, tagged with a Wordsworthian moral. One feels that Dickey is more interested in ideas or memories than he is in words—and this is fatal for poetry. Moreover, "The Strength of Fields" comes close to the kind of official verse Dickey himself condemned in Self-Interviews. Other pieces feel raw, imprecise. Hardly a line is memorable, though some of the poems in their entirety are rudely effective….
Like Whitman or Twain, Dickey seems in a characteristic American tradition, ever ready to light out for new territories. In his fifties, he is still a developing writer, who even in The Strength of Fields retains a strong and unmistakable voice.
Michael Dirda, "The Elegance of Restraint, the Romance of Excess," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), December 30, 1979, p. 7.∗
[None of the poems in Dickey's The Strength of Fields] compares with his best, yet readers who know and like his work will feel at home. World War II still echoes…. Redemption through love, dumb luck, poetry, is still possible. Water, that life-threatening, life-renewing force, is pervasive, as always, in pool, river, ocean, rain, perspiration. Though there are no poems here as stunning as "Drinking From a Helmet" or "The Lifeguard," "The Voyage of the Needle," which describes the "magic" of a needle floating on surface tension, creates a magic of its own.
The poet is no longer tied to the South but has become a world citizen…. The first of "Three Poems with Yevtushenko" states one of Dickey's own obsessive themes: "I dreamed I already loved you. / I dreamed I already killed you." Sportsman, soldier, son, lover, father—all must live with the terrible guilt of having destroyed (or permitted to be destroyed) that which they love. Dickey continues to accept the responsibility of the survivor….
If the title poem, written for the 1976 presidential inauguration, shares anything with Dickey's other work (and I think it shares little enough) it is that sense of obligation, the willingness to assume responsibility. (p. 38)
The vein of self-mockery, implicit in Dickey's earlier work, grows mordant…. For Dickey, laughter and tears are never far apart, as he says in "Small Song," subtitled "from the Hungarian of Attila Jozsef, head crushed between two boxcars—": "I'm laughing, but being very quiet about it. / I've got my pipe and my knife: / I am quiet and laughing like hell." (pp. 38-9)
Jane Flanders, "Books and the Arts: 'The Strength of Fields'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1980 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 182, Nos. 1 & 2, January 5 and 12, 1980, pp. 38-9.
[The poems in The Strength of Fields] float down overwide pages, contract to a single word or expand across the page, lapse into italics, skip over blank intervals. They are like richly modulated hollers; a sort of rough, American-style bel canto advertising its freedom from the constraints of ordinary language. Dickey's style is so personal, his rhythms so willfully eccentric, that the poems seem to swell up and overflow like that oldest of American art forms, the boast….
"The Strength of Fields" [bristles] … with the muscular, excessive imagery that is Dickey's signature….
One recognizes Dickey's familiar themes: the obligatory World War II poems; the fighter-plane poems; the tonguein-cheek redneck poems; above all, a set piece Dickey does better than anyone else: the dream of grandiose escape….
Dickey is one of few American writers—Norman Mailer is another—whose imagination rides the edge of violence. He is brilliant describing the lurching descent of a fighter plane onto a makeshift airfield, in "Two Poems of Flight-Sleep." In "For the Death of Vince Lombardi," he avoids the sweaty male bathos of most sports poems by evoking the "epic tools" of football with such boyish wholeheartedness that football, with its "aggression meanness deception delight in giving pain to others," comes to stand for the onslaught of life itself….
Yet the best poems in the book—"The Rain Guitar," "The Strength of Fields," "Exchanges"—speak in a reflective, meditative tone that is, finally, more convincing than Dickey's redneck male voice. (p. 6)
The most ambitious poem in the book is "Exchanges," a free-wheeling meditation on love, industrial pollution and the moon, that "small true world of death."… Dickey calls the poem "a living-dead dialogue" with a turn-of-the-century poet named Joseph Trumbull Stickney. As Stickney's haunting lines interweave with Dickey's, they form a sort of duet, accompanied by the poet's "wild guitar" played "in the great low-crying key of A…."
The poem brings to bear all the sprawl and outrageousness of Dickey's style. Yet there is a plaintive undertone, muted, almost melodramatic, as if the poem were also a ballad….
It is a stunning performance. Indeed, the whole book is something of a performance, symbolized by the poet's guitar, which reappears in a number of poems, striking off improvisations. At their worst, the poems are swamped in language; at their best, a moving simplicity organizes Dickey's virtuoso leaps into a large human utterance.
The book concludes with a section entitled, somewhat coyly, "Head-Deep in Strange Sounds: Free-Flight Improvisations From the Unenglish." These are not quite original poems and not quite translations either; more like variations on a theme by Russian, European, Chinese and Latin American poets. Dickey is not one to be bound by constraints. His variations tend to be so loose and eccentric they make Robert Lowell's "Imitations" sound timidly faithful. Despite some successes, this section of the book is disappointing. (p. 17)
Paul Zweig, "Bel Canto, American-Style," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 6, 1980, pp. 6, 17.