James Dickey’s first collection of poems, Into the Stone, published as a section of Five Modern Poets VII in 1960, displays his characteristic strategies with theme, structure, and imagery. As in his later work, the choice controlling the considerable variety of subject matter and lyric qualities lies perceptibly within the personality and experience of the poet himself. The selections are largely impressionistic, exploring the consciousness of the artist and developing perceptions on the basis of particular personal experiences. The situations of most of the poems concern the writer’s sensitive responses to crucial experiences, either of boyhood or adulthood, viewed in retrospect. Other poems express the feelings and sensations which develop from reflection on types of experience.
The situations are interesting and significant within themselves, but the power and chief appeal of the poems lie in the poet’s treatment of these situations. Although they contain little personal symbolism, the poems develop meaningful patterns of personal sensations which ascertain and appraise inner and outer reality at various depths. Presented usually by accumulative images, these patterns develop out of three attributes of the poetic sensibility: a vivid sense of the emotional shape of experience, the ability to synthesize intuitively the disordered elements of life, and the capacity for empathetic self-projection.
Drowning with Others, his second volume, followed with remarkable consistency a religious pattern centered on the use of various symbols for the Christ. Water is basic: the water where the poet drowns with others, or mankind, while trying to rescue them and himself; and water on which even the fisher of men Himself can no longer walk, but drowns inside each man who sinks into the depths of the modern world.
The first poem in the book, “The Lifeguard,” sets the theme. In this poem can be seen Dickey’s basic verse pattern, one of conventional stresses in anapests and iambics, which gives the book a metrical consistency and sameness. The poem continues with the poet’s exploration of his own defeat and potential death.
“A Birth” is a studio piece, a fanciful still life composed of grass, pasture, a young horse, a child, a mother, and the sun climbing the shoulder of the speaker. Possibly one of Dickey’s strengths is his comfort among the academic influences of the past three decades, so that he does not need flagrant rebellions which could disarrange his style. His conventional meters and stanza patterns do not block his invention at all. He writes a comely, even-tempered, careful verse.
In poems such as “The Heaven of Animals” and “Fog Envelops the Animals,” he makes parables that suggest a pure world of instinct, softness, death which is natural rather than cruel in the human way, and a strange sense of the soul rising out of its captivity into an animistic region. Like Yeats, he senses the terrible paradox of soul fastened to a dying animal; or, he reverses the Yeatsian emphasis and considers body as suffering from the nails of spirit.
The title piece is not one of the stronger poems in the book. It is a fantasy of identity with the Christ, in which the writer uses remnants of Icarus, Eliot’s and Lowell’s kingfisher (at least they are the latest to have given the symbol notoriety), and a characteristic Thomas pattern.
“Drowning With Others,” on which Dickey staked a great deal, relies ultimately on its assemblage of lazily accepted symbols and obvious derivations. It is much more heartening to come upon a successful fusion of the secular-personal and the religious-universal in the ending of an excellent poem entitled “The Scratch.” In this poem the language is singular; the meters and images carry the experience to a condition of power, vivid and deep.
It is even more rewarding to encounter in this volume one of the most moving poems of this century, “The Hospital Window,” a magnificently shaped account of the speaker’s visit to a tall glass hospital where his father lies in that area which is death even though he is still alive. Though elegiac, the whole movement of this perfectly controlled poem is triumphant, for the father’s hand waving good-bye from a window signifies that both father and son are not afraid for each other; and the son stands in the street outside, looking up, blocking traffic, bringing the entire soulless mechanical world to a halt with the frail force of human love and courage.
In Helmets, Dickey goes about his personal myth-making as if it were a pleasant obsession, a gentle compulsion that sometimes lifts his poems to nobility. Myths of the past are not Dickey’s concern (he makes one reference to Ulysses, one to Shakespeare’s Ariel, several to the Bible); he wants to begin with ideas from his own time, from his own experience, and expressed in his own idiom.
In this third collection man’s relationship to animals is the great theme Dickey explores carefully and freshens up brightly for his readers. In poem after poem he intertwines man and beast, not like...
(The entire section is 2111 words.)