James Dickey

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 177

Can you trace the poet in James Dickey’s prose and the prosaist in his poetry?

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Why is the struggle for survival so central to Dickey’s work? Is there any room for such a struggle in the modern civilized world?

Why would the writer identify with being called a grateful survivor? Can you trace this gratitude to any dominant experiences in his life?

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Color imagery dominates Dickey’s later work, including To the White Sea. What role does it play, and is this role as prominent in the two earlier novels?

Dickey’s poetry is heavily and intimately influenced by his World War II experience, yet he has always been negative about confessional poetry. Can you explain how his verse is different?

The four men in Deliverance undergo assault, death, injury, pain, and trauma, as well as suspicion and investigation by the authorities. In what sense are they “delivered,” then, and from what?

Dickey is famous for commenting widely and intimately on his own works. What do these statements reveal about the writer and his art?

Other literary forms

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James Dickey’s early fame as a writer was based on several volumes of poetry. He also published books of criticism and collections of children’s poetry.

Achievements

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At the age of thirty-eight, in the middle of a successful career as an advertising executive, James Dickey became a full-time poet. Five years later, in 1966, he won the National Book Award for a collection of poems titled Buckdancer’s Choice (1965), and he was appointed poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. In 1967, his collection Poems, 1957-1967 won critical praise. Dickey’s first novel, Deliverance, was published in 1970 and was a best seller. His second novel, Alnilam, appeared in 1987 after a seventeen-year conception.

Other literary forms

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James Dickey was a novelist as well as a poet, having published Deliverance (1970) and Alnilam (1987). The Suspect in Poetry (1964) and From Babel to Byzantium (1968) are important collections of criticism on modern and contemporary poetry. Self-Interviews (1970), Sorties (1971), Night Hurdling: Poems, Essays, Conversations, Commencements, and Afterwords (1983), and The Voiced Connections of James Dickey (1989) are collections of essays, addresses, journal notes, and interviews. Spinning the Crystal Ball (1967) and Metaphor as Pure Adventure (1968) are influential pamphlets based on addresses Dickey delivered while serving as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress. Dickey also wrote a number of essays and book reviews for popular periodicals and newspapers, as well as screenplays and music for several films, two children’s books, and four coffee-table books (in collaboration with various graphic and photographic artists).

Achievements

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Though James Dickey’s subject matter varies widely, the primary tension underlying most of his writing involves the relationship between romantic individualism and power. In Dickey’s work, this relationship is often played out through attempts to relate the self to the large rhythms of the universe, a process that Dickey depicts as a necessary, yet potentially destructive, catalyst in individuals’ efforts to endow existence with consequence. This paradoxical vision often drew the ire of the critical establishment, but despite the controversy his writings generated, Dickey enjoyed an abundance of academic and popular acclaim for his work in a variety of genres. Among the awards he garnered are a fellowship from Sewanee Review (1954), the Union League Civic and Arts Poetry Prize(1958), the Vachel Lindsay Award (1959), the Longview Foundation Prize (1959), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1962), an award in literature from the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1966), the National Book Award in Poetry (1966) and the Melville Cane Award from the Poetry Society of America (1966) for Buckdancer’s Choice, the French Prix Medicis (1971) for Deliverance, Poetry’s Levinson Prize (1981) for poems from Puella, the Corrington Award for Literary Excellence from Centenary College of Louisiana (1992-1993), and the Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize (1996). Dickey was named consultant in poetry (poet laureate) to the Library of Congress (1966-1968) and was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter selected him to read at the inaugural concert gala, making Dickey and Robert Frost the only poets up to that time to read at an American presidential inauguration. In 1983, he was invited to read the poem “For a Time and Place” at the second inauguration of Richard Riley, governor of South Carolina.

Bibliography

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Baughman, Ronald. The Voiced Connections of James Dickey. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990. This collection of interviews covers Dickey’s career from the mid-1960’s to the late 1980’s. Baughman, who taught at the University of South Carolina with Dickey, has selected important and lively interviews. A useful chronology and a helpful index are included.

Bowers, Neal. James Dickey: The Poet as Pitchman. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1985. Focuses on Dickey as a public figure who was not only a successful poet but also a successful promoter of his work and of poetry in general. Bowers’s analysis of individual poems is sometimes thin, and his assessment of Dickey as “pitchman” for poetry is overly simplistic, but the study serves as a good introductory overview of Dickey as a media phenomenon.

Calhoun, Richard J., and Robert W. Hill. James Dickey. Boston: Twayne, 1983. The first book-length study of Dickey’s work, this study covers his writing from Into the Stone, and Other Poems to Puella. The authors attempt to analyze virtually everything Dickey wrote during a twenty-two-year period, so that at times the discussions are rather sketchy. Still, this book provides a solid introduction to Dickey.

Dickey, Christopher. Summer of Deliverance: A Memoir of Father and Son. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998. A biography of Dickey written by his son. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Hart, Henry. James Dickey: The World as a Lie. New York: Picador USA, 2000. A narrative biography detailing the rise and self-destruction of a literary reputation. Little of Dickey’s prose or verse is quoted for analysis, and the book relies on Dickey’s interviews and those held by the power of his personality.

Kirschten, Robert. James Dickey and the Gentle Ecstasy of Earth: A Reading of the Poems. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988. Provides one of the best readings of Dickey’s poems. Employs four hypotheses—mysticism, neoplatonism, romanticism, and primitivism—to identify Dickey’s characteristic techniques and thematic concerns. When a poem is analyzed extensively, long sections of it are reprinted so readers can follow the critic’s insights.

Kirschten, Robert, ed. Critical Essays on James Dickey. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1994. Provides early reviews and a selection of more modern scholarship. Authors include Robert Bly, Paul Carroll, James Wright, and Wendell Berry. Bibliography and index.

Suarez, Ernest. “Emerson in Vietnam: Dickey, Bly, and the New Left.” Southern Literary Journal, Spring, 1991, 100-112. Examines controversial elements in Dickey’s poems and the adverse critical reaction to Dickey’s work. His complex metaphysics collided with the politics of a historic particular, the Vietnam War, generating a New Left critical agenda that could not accommodate the philosophical underpinnings of his poetry. The result was widespread misinterpretations of Dickey’s work.

Suarez, Ernest. “The Uncollected Dickey: Pound, New Criticism, and the Narrative Image.” American Poetry 7 (Fall, 1990): 127-145. By examining Dickey’s early uncollected poems and his correspondence with Ezra Pound, Suarez documents Dickey’s struggle to move out from under modernism’s domination and arrive at his mature poetic aesthetic.

Weigl, Bruce, and T. R. Hummer, eds. The Imagination as Glory: The Poetry of James Dickey. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984. The best articles on Dickey up to 1984. Especially noteworthy is Joyce Carol Oates’s “Out of the Stone and into the Flesh,” which argues that Dickey is a relentlessly honest writer who explores human condition in a world of violence and chaos.

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Critical Essays