William Dickey

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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

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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 part at all—but I value it very highly in this age as a moral virtue. (pp. viii-ix)

Having satisfied myself that the author of a manuscript can make words speak and is interested in something more than his precious little self, I now read it poem by poem, looking to see if he has learned to write a whole poem and has written enough of them to be ready to publish a book. How many is enough? Remembering that, when reading a volume by the greatest and most famous names, one almost always says of some of the poems "Why did he include that?" but that one never says this about a volume of one's own, I regard a manuscript as meriting publication if I like a third of its contents.

Like any work of art, a successful poem is a complete world with which, though it is a thing, the reader can make personal contact. But poetry is peculiar in that it is made of words; the medium of this art is the same as that of guidebooks, treatises on plumbing, business correspondence, and the Congressional Record. A poem therefore is, necessarily, what a painting need not be and a piece of music cannot be, a double world of things (words) and meanings. "Pure" poetry, poetry, that is to say, in which word and meaning are identical, is an impossibility; even a lyric like "Full Fathom Five" is "representational." Further, since the meaning of words depends upon common social agreement, poetry is the most "traditional" of all the arts. No poet can invent a language of his own; even the puns in Finnegans Wake presuppose an unchanging traditional language. Assuming that he had learned to speak French, the shade of Homer would have little difficulty, I believe, in reading the poetry of Rimbaud; he might not like it but he would know why. But a Greek musician confronted with a piece by Webern, let us say, would be unable to pass any judgment whatsoever, because he would hear no musical sounds, only noises.

Thus while in the other arts an original vision may often seem to be the result of a change of style or method, in poetry an original and in itself nonverbal vision seems the necessary precondition for a change in the handling of the language.

Most arguments about how poetry should be written seem to me futile because they conceal the real difference between the parties, which is their respective notions of the proper poetical subject, what poetry should be about.

As an example of one of Mr. Dickey's poems, let me cite "Part Song, with Concert of Recorders." I choose it because it is a song, and of all kinds of poetry songs are the least personal and most verbal.

This poem is a little ballad, a melodramatic dialogue between a lady and her doctor-lover, who has just murdered her husband. In each of the seven five-line stanzas, the first line ends with the word there or where, the fourth and fifth lines with the word care…. A lucky chance of the English language gave Mr. Dickey two rhyme words which can be used in a number of different senses, but his use of them, and of a simple, melodramatic situation which might all too easily have been ridiculous, to compose a poignant and resonant parable comes from his personal vision, not the English language.

At present, to judge from [Of the Festivity], Mr. Dickey's speciality is nightmare worlds described in the simplest possible diction. (pp. ix-xi)

[Mr. Dickey's poetry] satisfies the three demands I have made in my readings: the lines speak, something has been noticed, and speech and observation have become the servants of a personal vision. (p. xii)

W. H. Auden, "Foreword" (reprinted by permission of Curtis Brown, Ltd.; copyright © 1959 by Yale University Press, Inc.), in Of the Festivity by William Dickey, Yale University Press, 1959, pp. vii-xii.

Philip Booth

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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

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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

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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 you will learn grace.

This fluency impresses the reader throughout the book.

W. H. Auden [see excerpt above], retiring from his job as editor of the Yale series, tells in a six-page foreword how he went about the process of selecting manuscripts…. About Of the Festivity, he provides examples to show how the book satisfies [his] three tests.

Auden is persuasive, and he carries several kinds of authority in whatever he says; but sometimes he appears to provide distinctions more absolute than actuality will sustain: "A practicing poet is never a perfect editor: if he is young, he will be intolerant of any kinds of poetry other than the kind he is trying to write himself; if he is middle aged, the greater tolerance of his judgment is offset by the decline of his interest in contemporary poetry." A sentence like this stirs up a stutter of qualifications, among them this: Might some practicing poet, instead of being tolerant of the kind of poet he himself is, be antagonistic? Might he shy away from recognizing someone doing his own job well?

William Dickey does jobs well that the later Auden approves. The earlier Auden, however, I believe might have judged differently in this certain way: he had purposes that grooved his talent. A young poet might do well to guard against working to get full approval of middle-aged guides, especially overwhelming middle-aged guides, and even more especially overwhelming middle-aged guides whose sense of direction depends on a kind of determined virtuosity. William Dickey shows in some later poems that he may be better than those who approve him think he is. (pp. 250-51)

William Stafford, "Several Tongues" (© 1960 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry and the author), in Poetry, Vol. XCV, No. 4, January, 1960, pp. 248-57.∗

Judson Jerome

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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 in the Greek Anthology, is, indeed, limpid—and limpid bitter—as it records the ingrowing frigidity and final insane self-love of the aging virgin. One could not ask for a poem more direct. "The Easy House" is fairly easy, too, though all those messages criss-crossing create an appropriate complexity to try the nerves in the sterile, anxious cosmopolitan life, contrasted to the easy house by the productive sea where simpler messages are uttered by the seals and the tide. The image of the "circus of bright knives," laid down by the mercury lights, stands out—an excellent touch, but a kind of hard cleverness unusual in his poetry. Usually his sensibility tones it down.

"Antiquity" is a mood poem that reminds me, curiously, of Andrew Marvell's "vegetable love"—if there were world enough and time. It eases into a kind of passionless generation, like the leaving of olives and passive multiplication of the vines. Or maybe it is as though those lovers on Keats's urn just vaguely, infinitesimally, began to move. I delight in the still scene and its kinetic possibilities. "Those Who Have Burned" is difficult for me. I admire the piling rhetoric, the anapests surging in the endless first sentence. But I am not quite sure what I am being told. These intense types burning themselves out in contempt for life and love of death are suicidal, warrant no pity, get just what they wish, oblivion. On the other hand we admire the spectacle of their conflagration. And surely we recognize that however they deny our well-wishing, they cannot mean what they say, that the attention-getting-mechanism is a plea for love. Perhaps this complexity of response is just the point of the poem. You want death? So yours, and welcome. And we stand back at a safe distance in amazement, amusement, contempt, and inevitable respect. I wish I knew more exactly whom he is talking about. (pp. 52-3)

["She in Summer,"] so far as I can tell, makes very little sense…. As a very sensuous apprehension of a fairly exotic erotic experience (she "cried aloud!") the poem is vivid, overwhelming. I say it "makes very little sense" only because the poet abandons reason—in sentence structure, sequence of images, even in diction, just as languidly does she. I like reason—but a good poem ought to be, as a friend once told me, "a little spooky at the core." In the domination of good sense in current poetry—both in the work and in poets' careers—there is some danger that reason might break out all over. Time was I thought that would be the salvation of us all, but reason works so well everywhere I find myself beginning again to cheer on madness. At least a touch. (p. 53)

Judson Jerome, "Introduction to the Poems of William Dickey," in The Antioch Review (copyright © 1963 by the Antioch Review Inc.; reprinted by permission of the Editors), Vol. XXIII, No. 1, Spring, 1963, pp. 50-3.

The Times Literary Supplement

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[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 Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1964; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3245, May 7, 1964, p. 396.∗


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"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 permission), July 5, 1964, pp. 4-5.∗

The Virginia Quarterly Review

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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), Vol. 55, No. 2 (Spring, 1979), p. 66.

Reg Saner

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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 book; nonetheless, its poetry is deeply, humanely generous.

True, the risk of rhetorical strategy exploiting effects of "artlessness" in the longer poems entails slackness and lessened intensity. A fairly high percent of the book consists of pieces whose whimsey fails to deepen, the sort of "fun" pieces that go over well at readings. Poems like "The Revival of Vaudeville" or "Show Biz" or "Honolulu" kindle only amusement. If they seem just padding, Dickey's strongest work arises from the same, whimsical vein. So he can take an image like "Sheeba the Outcast Drag Queen" and produce an eerie novelty on death, utterly authentic and original.

Dickey's attraction to the garage-sale aspect of reality moves in the book's remarkably fine poem "Alligators and Paris and North America" from "Bernice Dewey hypnotizing her alligator" in the bathtub, to six-foot mushrooms and carrots flanking a healthfood store; to an outrageous prose squib about Mary Cassatt … and from there to a clumsy transvestite who flubs a mawkish stage-gesture while trying to toss artificial flowers out among his audience.

The assembled oddities of "Alligators and Paris and North America" climax with an anecdote of an old man who precedes his suicide with fireworks on which he has spent his life savings. By means of their eccentricity, Dickey meditates towards the "universal" each oddity contains. The poem's four pages amount to a beautifully compassionate elevation of the gauche and the deviant. (pp. 113-14)

As rule of thumb I've often felt a solid collection should include at least five good poems. Re-readings of The Rainbow Grocery yield almost double that number. Unfortunately the best poems resist piecemeal quotation—as for instance "Telemachus," "The Raft of the Medusa," "In the Dreaming," "After Two Years of Analysis: Reactions," and the superb "Die Alte Frau, Die Alte Marshallin." Here Dickey—like Randall Jarrell, whom the latter poem seems to invoke—finds room for his colloquial "low" style to gather effect. (pp. 114-15)

Most poets would not be caught dead being so little "impressive." Only the context of The Rainbow Grocery's wit, erudition-made-invisible, and its quiet depth legitimates or "earns" such flat simplicity. (p. 115)

Reg Saner, in a review of "The Rainbow Grocery," in The Ohio Review (copyright © 1980 by the Editors of The Ohio Review), No. 25, 1980, pp. 113-19.

Robert B. Shaw

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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 at once: "The Food of Love" is characteristic of him in this vein…. This poem is from The Rainbow Grocery, which has within its plebeian paper covers a good deal more worth reading than one can find within the choice boards that grace The Sacrifice Consenting. (pp. 177-78)

Robert B. Shaw, "Fireflies and Other Animals" (© 1982 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry and the author), in Poetry, Vol. CXLI, No. 3, December, 1982, pp. 170-81.∗

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Dickey, William (Vol. 3)