William Dickey 1928–
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
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...
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