William Dickey Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

William Dickey 1928–

American poet.

Perhaps the most important element in Dickey's poetry is its diversity. Reminiscent in its sophisticated precision of W. H. Auden, Dickey's poems are noted for their many different moods and voices. Not preoccupied with the pursuit of a single theme or question, Dickey varies the subjects of his verse greatly. In one poem he may write of loss and despair; in another, the subject might be some whimsical act or thing that once captured his attention. Accordingly, his verse is variously light and deeply contemplative.

W. H. Auden selected Of the Festivity (1959), Dickey's first collection, for inclusion in the Yale Series of Younger Poets. In the Foreword to Of the Festivity, Auden describes his three criteria for good poetry: the lines of a poem must have "the power to speak," the poet a "capacity to notice," and an original and personal vision. Dickey, Auden declares, meets these three requirements.

Dickey's two recent collections, The Rainbow Grocery (1978) and The Sacrifice Consenting (1982), are characteristic of the majority of his works in their fluctuation between humorous and serious observations on many aspects of life. Here, as elsewhere, Dickey employs several different forms in the creation of his verse, including dramatic monologues, lyrical portraits, and comic parodies. Both books have received generally favorable critical reception. Critics who find fault with Dickey's work nonetheless seem to admire his wit and vitality.

(See also CLC, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5.)

W. H. Auden

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Few people, on retiring from a position [such as editor of the Yale Series of Younger Poets] can resist offering advice to their successors, who probably do not want it and will not heed it. Accordingly, I shall pass on to mine, for his imaginary benefit, a description of my procedure upon receiving in the spring a heavy parcel of manuscripts by names unknown to me.

The first time I go through them, I try to exclude from my mind any such considerations as originality, style, taste, or even sense, while I look for one thing only, lines of poetry. By this I mean a line which speaks itself, which, as it were, no longer needs its author's help to exist.

Thus, in my first reading of Mr. Dickey, I came upon lines like

Spinning and smiling as the world diminished
That showed him whole, when we had gone away
Their husbands carve the dressing and the bird,
The day, the napkin, and the carving plate
To bits that are too little to be heard.

whereupon he went onto the pile of potential winners. It is possible to show evidence of great intelligence and sensibility but to be lacking in the first power essential to poetry, the power to speak. Mr. Dickey's lines have both…. Again I read through them, looking for only one thing, the power to notice, the possession of what one might call uncommon common sense. This may appear either as an accurate and vivid description of some creature or object which we have all seen or as a truthful and illuminating comment upon some experience with which we are all familiar. For example, everyone carries some scar or other upon his body, but it is Mr. Dickey and not everyone who makes this observation:

Like hasty marks on an explorer's chart:
This white stream bed, this blue lake on my knee
Are an angry doctor at midnight, or a girl
Looking at the blood and trying not to see
What we both have seen. Most of my body lives,
But the scars are dead like the grooving of a frown,
Cannot be changed, and ceaselessly record
How much of me is already written down.

The capacity to notice is not, like the power to speak, essential to all poetry—there are beautiful lyrics in which it plays no...

(The entire section is 1048 words.)

Philip Booth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

William Dickey's "Of the Festivity" [is] a model of modern prosody that features the required sestina, the able sonnet. Unfortunately, the emotion behind the poems is diminished in a defensive structure of carefully controlled meters and lapidary rhymes. The author's "Exploration Over the Rim" is not that in spite of its title. He is on the perimeter still, circling with only the formal language of educated men. But he has his claim staked out in "Questions About a Spaniel of Eleven," "Lesson of the Master" and the moving "Memoranda." These are the heights, the varieties of rhythm and speech he must climb over, and beyond, to explore himself fully.

Philip Booth, "Voices That Speak in Verse," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1959 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 6, 1959, p. 6.∗

Thom Gunn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

William Dickey reminds me … of a young English poet, Gordon Wharton. Both have at present reached that important and exciting point at which they are relinquishing the influence of Auden for something of their own. As it is, there is still a good deal too much of Auden in Of the Festivity for one to say of it (and to say without the least condescension) more than "promising." He is particularly attracted by the Auden of "The Witnesses," but he is developing his own sense of the ridiculous, as in … [certain] lines, from "Questions of a Spaniel of Eleven," which owe nothing to Auden…. There are also some more self-consciously serious poems, some of which (among them the title-poem) are a trifle awkward, but others of which really say something in an interesting way. "Memoranda" and "Twenty Years Gone, She Returns to the Nunnery" are a good deal more than promising. Most of the book, however, is the enjoyable and competent work of an apprentice who has good chances of becoming a master. (p. 303)

Thom Gunn, "Excellence and Variety," in The Yale Review (copyright 1959 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. XLIX, No. 2, December, 1959, pp. 295-305.∗

William Stafford

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

William Dickey's poems in Of the Festivity offer many patterns. He is ready, on balance, hurrying here, hesitating expressively there. His topics provide him with opportunities which he deftly picks up. For an example of pace, variety, and exploitation of what the current brings, here is the last portion of a poem entitled Minotaur:

Where you will meet me first is no great matter,
A casual leaf that flutters in your face,
A spider or a dog. More like the latter,
Running, and all at once it is a race,
And where you turn, I win, and in that place
I shall learn silence, and...

(The entire section is 406 words.)

Judson Jerome

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One might judge from [some of the remarks that Dickey has made that his] poetry would be easy-going; but it is not. There is a difference between the difficulties offered by closely textured thought, complex sentences, subtley (all of which I find in Dickey's work), and that of obscurity (which I do not, as a rule, find). That is, the answers are all clearly there, in the poem—and the imaginative leap demanded by symbols, allusions, truncated structures, sudden transitions, is not usually required. But one may not read with the inattention permitted by a murder mystery or the World Almanac.

"Song for Disheartened Lute," a poem so timelessly classic that one might have found it with delight...

(The entire section is 610 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[William Dickey] lacks a distinctive voice and ranges uneasily from sophisticated epigram to laboured parable. At one point [in his Interpreter's House] he has a "Dialogue" between Jack, whose work is "bloodless with elaboration" and The Giant, who writes from "rude instinct"; the Giant seems to get the best of the debate but in fact Mr. Dickey writes like Jack…. His vocabulary is abstract and circuitous and throughout one has the impression that he is casting around for curious subject matter. It takes only a few pages of such speculative meandering to set one growling, with Dr. Williams: "Say it! No ideas but in things."

"No Ideas But in Things," in The Times...

(The entire section is 130 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Interpreter's House" by William Dickey is solidly made of the traditional forms of English poetry. Dickey is very much influenced by Yeats, but to Yeats he adds a dry dissonance.

Although the book has real moments, times of openness, they are rarely sustained; the poet assumes strict disciplines and all but asphyxiates behind them. His originality is drawn out of the manipulations of his mind, not the depths of his self.

To read "Interpreter's House" is to know little about the interpreter…. (p. 5)

DeWitt Bell, "Wonders of the Inner Eye," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1964 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by...

(The entire section is 110 words.)

The Virginia Quarterly Review

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The love poems [in William Dickey's The Rainbow Grocery] are excellent—spontaneous, gentle, the mellow bittersweet tone reminiscent of Auden. Whimsical, colloquial, urbane, Dickey's voice is adaptable to many subjects and moods: myth, lyric, dramatic monologue, parody. Flat observations alternate with deft, sinister lines, identifying the ordinary with the grotesque. The poems sometimes strain to be offhanded and fanciful, detailing the confusion of his own life—but his genial posturing is still lovable.

A review of "The Rainbow Grocery," in The Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1979, by The Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia),...

(The entire section is 98 words.)

Reg Saner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

On the basis of hardly a shred of evidence I have wondered if poets' approaches to poetry might be encapsulated in a dyad: get/give. The writer's early phase would be bent on prying loose from the world one or two favors like love and fame. His later career would become increasingly less predatory, and aim more at giving than getting. (p. 113)

Especially in America, where "famous poet" remains an oxymoron, the maturing poet will progress from simply wanting attention to wanting to deserve it.

For example, William Dickey's The Rainbow Grocery renounces mere attention-getting by its nonchalant, discursive manner. Undoubtedly "to get" spurs Dickey along even in this, his fifth...

(The entire section is 487 words.)

Robert B. Shaw

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Sacrifice Consenting, briefer, more luxuriously printed and bound, seems something of a spinoff of [William Dickey's earlier volume, The Rainbow Grocery]. In both books Dickey enjoys blurring the line between poetry and a standup comedian's routine. His satire is aimed at easy targets: bureaucracy, the media, the computer age, California…. Most of these poems are funny the first time, then not so funny. There are a number of pieces touching on the gay life which go about their business with a teary-eyed grinning reminiscent of The Boys in the Band…. When he is able to keep his feverish jocosity within bounds, Dickey writes a rare and enviable sort of poem, truly humorous and truly serious...

(The entire section is 195 words.)