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Explanatory Note, February 3, 1998: This essay and its notes appear in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 5: American Poets Since World War II, First Series, 1980, pp. 174-191. The essay proper dates from 1980. Information added since that time (death date, additional bibliography items, etc.) are the capable work of DLB and/or Gale Research editors.--

Robert W. Hill


James Dickey

1923 -1997

Nationality: American
Birth Date: February 2, 1923
Death Date: January 19, 1997


Genre(s)

Poetry
Screenplays
Fiction
Novels
Nonfiction
Essays
Autobiography

Table of Contents

Biographical and Critical Essay

In what he calls a "snapshot" of James Dickey in The Writer's Voice (1973), George Garrett has written, "Legends, myths, fables and fabliaux, anecdotes, quotations from, hard and funny sayings, true and false, wheel and flock about him, a shrill invisible halo of birds explosively circling the edges of his wide-brimmed Warner Brothers sheriff's hat, the one he probably sleeps in (they say). No, not once upon a time an ad man for nothing at all ...." All the talk and writing about Dickey's being "The Unlikeliest Poet," as Life magazine dubbed him in 1966, all the good-ol'-boy carousing, the reminiscences of football, track, and World-War-II-and-Korea fighter-pilot adrenalin, all the hoopla of his public appearances and the grand roaring splash of Deliverance (1970, 1973)--book and movie--cannot obscure the accomplishment of this looming man poet. In "Under Buzzards," Dickey's speaker, facing a terrible diminution because of diabetes and proscriptions about drinking, explains with surprising calm, "How the body works how hard it works / For its medical books is not / Everything: everything is how / Much glory is in it. ..." And the glory came early in Dickey's career: six years after his first collection appeared in Poets of Today VII (1960), he won the 1966 National Book Award for Buckdancer's Choice (1965); four years after that, his novel Deliverance made him famous almost beyond the hopes of any American poet. Writing for Triquarterly (Fall 1978) about his experiences as editor of Quarterly Review of Literature, Theodore Weiss recalls corresponding in t he late 1950s "with the young James Dickey, encouraging him in his obviously distinctive, powerful poetry and advising him--foolishly, as it turned out--to continue (since he and his poetry were doing so well) as an advertising writer rather than take a teaching position. He had told us he required $25,000 a year, his then salary. Out of our long academic experience we believed the expectation of such a salary in teaching was pure fantasy. We had not reckoned with Dickey's personality, did not know his talents as a public reader and performer. In good American style, he proved that even poetry can be made to pay."

Despite all the glory and fortune proceeding from the world of best-selling novels and movies, Dickey has persisted in his claims that "Poetry is ... the center of the creative wheel: everything else is actually just a spinoff from that: literary criticism, screenplays, novels, even advertising copy." But one must not think that Dickey's idea of poetry is only a linguistic exercise: "I dislike the hell out of the notion of poetry or the poem as a kind of a lab subject laid up on the seminar table like a dead cat in a biology lab to be dissected all with a great steaming up of glasses." As Dickey resists academic torpor, he also refuses even to be bound strictly to what others might construe to be The Truth: "The poet is not trying to tell the truth; he's trying to make it, and he tries to make a different version of it from the official version that God made or the world made." He reports that it was under the tutelage of Monroe K. Spears at Vanderbilt that he first came to understand "the creative possibilities of the lie." Nonetheless, a poet must make his poems from something recognizable as language, and he must find some tenable relationship with the world around him, as well as within.

For Dickey, as he recounts in the autobiographical Self-Interviews (1970), to be an artist is also to be entrenched in the active life. Echoing Wordsworth's theory of poetry, he calls the poet "the intensified man," believing strongly in the pursuit of "wholeness." With that aggressive hold on reality, Dickey has been a football player in high school and at Clemson College, a track-record holder at Vanderbilt, a hunter with bow and arrow, a guitarist (both twelve-and six-string) with a flair for bluegrass music, a fighter-bomber pilot in World War II, and a training officer in the Korean War. Other than poetry and fiction, his occupations have included teaching, lecturing, acting (the redneck sheriff in Deliverance), and a six-year stint with advertising firms in Atlanta and New York. In 1961, having received a Guggenheim Fellowship, Dickey went to Europe, leaving advertising behind forever (except in his own literary interests, which he masterfully orchestrates). Since deciding on a literary career, Dickey has held teaching and writer-in-residence positions at Rice University, Reed College, San Fernando State College, the University of Wisconsin, George Mason University, and is presently Carolina Professor of English at the University of South Carolina. He has been broadly honored by critics and the public press, and his national recognition reached honorific peaks with his two-year appointment as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, 1966-1968, and his televised reading of "The Strength of Fields" at the Inauguration celebration for Jimmy Carter in 1977. Dickey's oratorical skills, perhaps inculcated by a lawyer-father who read speeches aloud to his older son (Dickey has one younger brother), have marked him as one of the finest public readers of his own poetry since Dylan Thomas took the nation by storm in the 1950s.

Dickey's early poetry begins with reasonably familiar themes, so it is accessible even as it leads to new ground. The first volume, Into the Stone (1960), contains poems about nature, with special attention to the infusion of natural feelings, skills, instincts, and energies into people. In these poems, the human being often acts acquisitively toward nature to gain nonhuman or ur-human powers; thus, mystery and ritual abide with ghostly presences, often the poet's brother Eugene, without whose death at six of spinal meningitis, Dickey speculates, he himself might never have been conceived by his mother, whose angina pectoris greatly darkened any prospects of childbirth.

Oddly, despite many allusions to the poet's own family, the typical voices of Into the Stone are remote and detached. (Recalling Dickey's Vanderbilt and Sewanee Review connections, one might compare the austere, elegant diction and the aloof tone of such Fugitive/ Agrarian poets as John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate.) In "The Underground Stream," for example, the speaker lies at the edge of a well, seeking how his spirit could fall deep into the earth through the stream and then come to some reconciliation with his dead brother, who seems to want to "claim his grave face / That mine might live in its place." This activity is inward, mystical and personal, although the poet's imaginative direction is downward--a significant fact in view of two later poems, "Falling" (1967), in which the central consciousness is that of a doomed airline stewardess; and the latest long poem, The Zodiac (1976), in which the poet on earth aspires upward to redesign the zodiac. Eerily and fearsomely the dead brother in "The Underground Stream" merges with the speaker, and the mystical-natural fusion extends itself in another poem, "The String," to include the speaker's son: "Except when he enters my son,/ The same age as he at his death, / I cannot bring my brother to myself." The whole spirit of a man is always to include the spirits of the whole family.

Precise, well-focused war poems like "The Jewel" and "The Enclosure" recapitulate Dickey's sense of survivorship and reiterate his apprehension of otherness in human experience, that intuition of connectedness and of spiritual immanence which later comes to rich and various poetic flower in "Drinking from a Helmet," "The Being," "Encounter in the Cage Country," "May Day Sermon," and "Madness." "Walking on Water" and other poems in Into the Stone flirt with physical experiences which are illusory but imperative to Dickey's convictions about the human potential for mystical, energized realizations, as in "Near Darien":

It may be the sea-moving moon

Is swayed upon the waves by what I do.

...................................

I lie down,

Beginning to sleep, sustained

By a huge, ruined stone in the sky

As it draws the lost tide-water flat ...

Men and women, universally, are imprisoned, whether actually, as in the case of Airman Donald Armstrong, captured by the Japanese in "The Performance," who must therefore set himself a redeeming task (his gymnastics tricks), which will require the utmost in physical concentration and expertise for a moment, however brief; or, as in "Near Darien," imprisoned simply in the mortal conditions of space and time, the strict limitations of flesh and senses, perhaps to escape in part through transcendent acts of the mind, often represented in natural terms--flight, light, song. As the poem "Into the Stone" implies by its title, the psychical movement inward, the seeking of the self and communion with others by going into the soul as it is caught in paradoxical ecstasy, is crucial to the mode of Dickey's first collection:
The dead have their chance in my body.

The stars are drawn into their myths.

I bear nothing but moonlight upon me.

I am known; I know my love.

Drowning with Others (1962) is more openly social than Into the Stone. The speaker of "The Lifeguard" expresses painful concern over other people's opinions of him: his futile efforts are registered in the disappointed faces of expectant children who watch him come up repeatedly without their companion. The energy of the poem gathers from the public adoration of lifeguards to a sudden call for the figurehead to perform, and then for him to consider what to do with himself now that he has failed. Paradoxically, the lifeguard's urge to affirm his identity is outward, toward his wards, unlike the heroic self-affirmation achieved in the extreme circumstances of Donald Armstrong, who faces a momentarily puzzled Japanese headsman.

Dickey's effort to achieve mystical unity with nature comes to one sort of climax with "The Heaven of Animals," in which Dickey describes the fearless passion and mystic perfection of killer and prey that his nature's animals must surely come to. Drowning with Others is notable for, among other things, the movement in the nature poems away from plant life to animate, rather than vegetative, creatures: "A Dog Sleeping on My Feet," "Listening to Foxhounds," and "The Movement of Fish."

In this second volume, Dickey also experiments with complex, multi-voiced narration, especially in the three-part work, "The Owl King." The first part, included in Into the Stone as "The Call," is about a father looking for his lost son. The second part is the voice of the owl king, and the third, that of the blind child who is physically and metaphysically lost in the forest. The poem is somewhat like Theodore Roethke's "The Lost Son," but the overt presence of a Mentor, the necessity of some guidance for mortal beings, is a prepossession for Dickey, who comes out of a pervasively Christian Southern background. "The Owl King" has religious overtones that Roethke is able to work without in his own initiation-adolescence poem; he dispenses with the need for a father-nature-god leader and protector, insisting that the self has within it the forces to sort and to learn from nature. In Dickey's sequence, it is conspicuous that the poet was not satisfied with the speaker of the first part, the father, who begins:

Through the trees, with the moon underfoot,

More soft than I can, I call.

I hear the king of the owls sing

Where he moves with my son in the gloom.

In fact, the voice of any one speaker is commonly insufficient to Dickey's aesthetic needs: he is expansive in impulse, Faustian in wanting to know everything possible, even to speaking in three tongues. Fifteen years after "The Owl King," in "The Eye-Beaters," his voices remonstrate, comment, and turn himself back upon himself: the reader is told, "His Reason argues with his invention." In The Zodiac, the third-person omniscient narrator frequently merges or alternates with the voice of the drunken poet whose sometimes chaotic but ultimately resolved state of mind is itself the subject of the poem.

In section 2 of Drowning with Others, Dickey tries to deal more fully with the prisoner theme as a speaker finds himself literally "Between Two Prisoners" and thus is able to assimilate and report the experiences of others and himself, coming to that kind of peculiarly Dickeyesque fusion of selves so powerfully worked later in "Drinking from a Helmet," "Slave Quarters," and "The Firebombing." This aesthetic viewpoint, with the speaker self-consciously observing, knowing that he has a perspective that is momentary and unique, that the time and the place are special, that the voice of the visionary observer is the only one to deal with the striking matter before him, emphasizes Dickey's dedication to art, to the exploration of the creative process, especially with regard to the use of narrative voice under special, extreme conditions. The theme appears another way in "In the Lupanar at Pompeii," in which the dead bodies of the Pompeii victims are caught in a life-in-death frieze peculiarly biased for the overtones of lust and condemnation that persist throughout, as though the whole scene were not accident but, rather, retributive and exemplary art-making by some great Artist in the Volcano. The title poem, "Drowning with Others," is reminiscent of the sort of nature poems that dominate Into the Stone, especially "The Other," which rides on an image of the winged and radiant dream god, what Dickey calls in a recently published essay (1979) "the energized man."

Non-American history is rarely treated in Dickey's poetry prior to The Zodiac. Nonetheless, "Dover: Believing in Kings," which James Wright, in his correspondence with Dickey over several years, admires frequently and in great detail, employs a complex, symphonic structure to touch and to assimilate the history of England for this American Georgian:

From a child's tall book, I knew this place

The child must believe, with the king:

Where, doubtless, now, lay lovers

Restrained by a cloud, and the moon

Into force coming justly, above.

In a movement you cannot imagine

Of love, the gulls fall, mating.

Dickey seeks the historical South in "Hunting Civil War Relics at Nimblewill Creek," but the speaker is less intimately fused with the objects of his search, the "other" subjectivity he pursues, than in "Dover: Believing in Kings," since the Civil War relics are so many, disparate, and impersonal (spotted by a mechanical, electronic metal-detector rather than the natural senses). The connection he feels with the participants in that war is faint and generalized, only tenuously like the spiritual trauma seen in the later "Drinking from a Helmet." Perhaps the difference lies mainly in the fact that a relic hunter with a metal detector is too purposely seeking meaningful connections to the past: imagination wants letting-go as well as readiness. And so the speaker of the poem is able to speculate even in the negative as to what meaning shall be put at the end: kneeling
Like a man who renounces war,

Or one who shall lift up the past,

Not breathing "Father,"

At Nimblewill,

But saying, "Fathers! Fathers!"

In any case, it is clear that the new-found historical explicitness of Dickey's poetry in Drowning with Others goes hand-in-hand with a growing objectivity about his family themes and images.

"The Hospital Window" represents this extension of Dickey's familial subject matter. The father is not close but in a distant hospital window; thus, the son's reaction is more objective than the speakers' in the mystical Into the Stone poems. A poem in Drowning with Others is likely to have a more conventional narrator, who observes, rather than being caught and moved by an experience as though some actual power of the thing over there has become active precisely because he is the perceiver over here. Such expansiveness through and beyond the family is also evident in part 4 of Drowning with Others, as "The Magus," "Facing Africa," and other poems persist in exploring worldly experiences in broader terms than North Georgia boys usually know. The book ends with three poems, "The Salt Marsh," "Inside the River," and "In the Mountain Tent," which are reminiscent in subject matter and technique of those in Into the Stone.

In the third volume, Helmets (1964), Dickey's final poem, "Drinking from a Helmet," could hardly have lodged between the same covers with the war poems of the two earlier collections. In those poems the identity of the self is never really found in terms of anyone else, especially not anyone so nameless and mysterious as the person this poem describes. The stuff of myth and tall-tale-telling is in Dickey's legendary Donald Armstrong; in the war poems of Helmets, what shakes the reader is the sense, not of the heroic or the exemplary, but of the uncontrollable, the world that stands behind this world, the transcendent world that is immanent, pervasive in the works of James Dickey. There are spirits out there and within, and they are active--animated.

Certain poems in Helmets are explicitly aesthetic in their execution and theme, forcing the reader to recognize particular artistic effects which might otherwise be artfully concealed: poems about art, poems about the formal imaginative act. In "A Folk Singer of the Thirties," a Christ-like artist is nailed to a boxcar and sent on archetypal missions by a cretinous world of RR agents and local police. The poem is an exercise in the manipulation of authorial point of view, stepping out into a vision of the whole world, scenes far broader and more multifarious than one's own backyard ("Sleeping Out at Easter") or tree house ("In the Tree House at Night"), however mythic and mystical, spiritual and ancestrally evocative such experiences might have been at any time in Dickey's earlier career. "The Beholders" is also explicitly aesthetic; the two lovers together are the first-person plural voice of the poem:

From above, we watch over them like gods,

Our chins on our hands,

Our great eyes staring, our throats dry

And aching to cry down on their heads

Some curse or blessing ....

But unlike the speaker of the later poem "The Firebombing" (1964), who decries his own "detachment, / The honored aesthetic evil," the "we" of "The Beholders" act to the end with "the power to speak / With deadly intent of love." Their aesthetic play with the stuff of their experience, then, is less culpable than that perpetrated by an unloving, immoral imagination, even though every artist (or perceiver) must inevitably falsify whatever subject he acts upon. However serious Dickey is, though, about aesthetic principles (and his excellent essays in The Suspect in Poetry [1964], Babel to Byzantium [1968], Self-Interviews, Sorties[1971], and elsewhere attest to his insight), he knows that "artsiness" is never adequate to the forces of experience.

Two poems in Helmets, "The Being" and "The Ice Skin," suggest works to come later, like "Pursuit from Under" (1964) and "The Shark's Parlor" (1965), in which the energy of unknown natural creatures elicits spiritual insight possible to human beings from blood-encounters with god-in-nature, the almost Coleridgean immanent spirit which is always frightening and truly dangerous. Even "Kudzu," which is ostensibly just another nature poem with power to spare, is about "something under"--the snakes--the seemingly malicious world that in another context sets Captain Ahab off on terrible pursuits of his own. Dickey's safe-seeming speaker is to some extent threatened by the vines tapping on his window and the possibility that his cattle might be bitten by the snakes concealed in the kudzu. But when neighbors come for the ritualistic rooting out of vines and serpents, they seem as fierce as the natural problems; and the allies--the pigs, turned loose into the foliage for their ferocious hunt--are entirely horrifying, the flung snakes falling like so much confetti, far less terrible now than the unstoppable swine.

Helmets ends with three war poems, but they are two-thirds old hat: "The Driver," very like "The Jewel" except that the tread of death is heavy upon the speaker; and "Horses and Prisoners," which recalls both "Trees and Cattle" (Into the Stone) and "Between Two Prisoners" (Drowning with Others). What is new is "Drinking from a Helmet," a poem of mystical communion as in a seance, with an object at hand capable of mediating between the seeker (in this case, not even a very purposeful seeker) and some spirit-person who has heretofore never known the narrator. In this poem Dickey deals freshly with the "subtle brotherhood" Stephen Crane refers to in "The Open Boat" (1898): the spiritual union of hard-pressed survivors. It is important that this poem concludes Helmets, but almost equally important is that it leads directly to the first poem of Dickey's next book, Buckdancer's Choice: "The Firebombing."

While "Drinking from a Helmet" gives the reader a chance to see Dickey's mysticism beginning to pull away from the set of images drawn from his immediate family, "The Firebombing" leads the reader to understand the social breadth of Dickey's work--a dimension that has been denied by critics such as Robert Bly. In "The Firebombing" and in the concluding poem of Buckdancer's Choice, "Slave Quarters," Dickey makes genuine efforts to deal with moral issues: in "The Firebombing" the questions of personal and societal guilt over acts of war along with, perhaps more appallingly, the feelings of guiltlessness familiar to patriotic warriors; and in "Slave Quarters," the questions of guilt over slavery compounded by sexual abuse. As Dickey has come to identify with the other soldier in "Drinking from a Helmet," he has, in "The Firebombing," come to recognize the need for the question, "Who is my neighbor?" The moral indignation that might flood so readily for artists and thinkers flows less surely and less fleetingly for one whose life has depended upon a certain screening out of moral subtleties in times of actual combat. The "luxury" of moral pangs seems to come upon the fighter-pilot in "The Firebombing" only after his war is over, his safety and his family's restored to allow the contemplation of distant and not-to-be-altered acts of horrible proportion.

"The Firebombing" is a poem of empathy, realization, ineffectual good will, and regret. It is in part a result of Dickey's own experiences in the air force and his poetically restrained revulsion at those experiences. The mechanics of war stress objectivity (consider "megadeaths," for instance), but such objectivity comes to appall the civilian codes of Dickey's narrator, who opens his eyes in a pantry and suddenly knows about napalm jellies crawling over the things of everyday America. The "aesthetic" distance between the pilot and the "target area" raises questions about the etherealization of art, but the chief impact still comes from the immediate inhumanity of war:

It is this detachment,

The honored aesthetic evil,

........................

That must be shed in bars, or by whatever

Means ....

Dickey's various images fuse the sensitivity and callousness inherent in his experience. He draws upon simple personification so that inanimate objects are caught up in the introspection that has traumatized the narrator: "the engines ... ponder their sound"; "Japan / Dilates ... like a thought"; "the lawn mower rests on its laurels"; "My hat should crawl on my head/In streetcars, thinking of it,/The fat on my body should pale." In one passage ("My exhaled face in the mirror / Of bars, dilates in a cloud like Japan"), the ubiquity of his meditation is signaled by the narrator's singular form "mirror / Of bars."

Probably the richest technical rewards of "The Firebombing" are from Dickey's merging of past and present, twenty-year memories, fleeting images seen from the plane itself. "Starve and take off / Twenty years in the suburbs," he says, suggesting "take off pounds" and "take off in a plane." The poem's force is redoubled by the egregious blindness of people whose morality is softened by material comfort. The evocative parallels of "sitting in a glass treasure-hole of blue light" and "eating figs in the pantry / Blinded by each and all / Of the eye-catching cans" suggest the fatal seclusion of the mind within the very atmospheres that condition it, the blue fantasy-glory of war and the glittering satiety of American consumerism. The poem strives for resolution, but it is more the resolution of Billy Budd than of In Memoriam, the painful acceptance of expediency. Transcending the "dull narcotics" of "sad mechanic exercise," this poem becomes its own apology and partial expiation: "Absolution? Sentence? No matter; / The thing itself is in that."

Part 2 of Buckdancer's Choice begins with the title poem, about the poet's mother and her final illness, a time in which it is appropriate to reminisce and to envision aesthetic pleasures, the scenes of song and dance, the whistling of the breath that now seems so precious, but the mother is other than the speaker's self, one who is separate, though kin. The section continues with poems that deal in other "others," persons and glimpses, suggesting that the speaker is the perceiver and therefore the creator. "Faces Seen Once," "Them, Crying," and even "The Celebration,""Them, Crying," all deal with parts of persons, with eyes, or cries, or accoutrements, to represent the fragmentary quality of human perception and at the same time the con-fusing of single, disparate elements accomplished by the human imagination. The poem about parents in this section, "The Celebration," is an exclamation of joy at the discovery of images and memories. The time of wondering and self-seeking, of pursuit of the identity in terms of the family past, is pretty much over in Dickey's work. The recollection remains, as Buckdancer's Choice is dedicated to "Maibelle Swift Dickey and Eugene Dickey life-givers," but now (Dickey past forty at the time) the family is less specifically the subject matter, less the overt influence upon the poet than the self that the poet has evolved in his adulthood, the vision he has accomplished to carry him through the rest of his days. The debt of direct, personal, familial gratitude is satisfied, and more independent musings lie ahead.

Such independence is reiterated by "The Shark's Parlor," in which the speaker, although young, is engrossed in his physical efforts, his particular and unique apprehension of death, and his camaraderie with the good ol' boys of the beach area he recounts. Together, they all try to tug a monstrous shark into the light of civilized scrutiny, but the thing wrecks the interior of the house, smashing pictures of the speaker and fan-mag movie stars, tearing loose nails and spilling blood, eventually to be let go again, white belly showing, into the dark, mentionless ocean depths. Fittingly, "Pursuit from Under," the story of the killer whale pursuing Arctic explorers from beneath the ice, follows, to begin part 3.

Dickey's efforts to bring experience to the necessary imaginative boil urge him to find the subject of "Fathers and Sons" in terms that are third-person, in feelings that are more and more distant from the immediate claims of his own family. In the first section, "The Second Sleep," the father imagines himself as a dream-deer, but there is little reason for the reader to strive to identify Dickey himself with that kind of fatherly persona. His interest lies in exploring the various possibilities open to men in general; of course, the characteristics may be identified with some of Dickey's, but in these later poems, James Dickey has turned his attention from his esoteric experience, his own personal family, to situations and characters who are purposely not Dickey himself or who stand as surrogates, as aesthetic "others" instead of mystical spirits lingering in the transcendent world of our world, waiting for the right poem-human to reveal themselves to. So, the poet treats rather straight-forwardly such characters as "Mangham," his former teacher, and in "Angina," his mother again, whose deepest image in Buckdancer's Choice is in soft focus (as parents are never entirely accessible to their children). Part 3 of Buckdancer's Choice closes with a truly bizarre poem, "The Fiend," in which a voyeur, who is an everyday-type guy, climbs into a tree to peer into a tempting window. He somehow merges with the natural objects, the tree particularly, the keys in his pocket sexually rising, the whole scene a nightmarish reverie of the man who cannot have the woman he lusts after, but whose visual pursuit of her is so real to him that the threats in his own mind are close to murder. At different stages, he momentarily gains physical/spiritual identity with nature--he is birdlike, animal-like, treelike. The aesthetic exercise is something like a perversion of "The Vegetable King," which is also based on fertility impulses, but which has a kind of religious purity about it for its well-known archetypal overtones. "The Fiend," on the other hand, allows no nonsense--the voyeur is real; his fantasies are almost truly physical in their imagination, and there exists the serious threat that the man might one day in his great need actually commit murder. The identity with nature in this case, unlike so many of Dickey's earlier poems, points up how vulnerable the human animal is to dangerous impulses when the civilized veneer is punched through by some compulsive desire.

But the very last poem in Buckdancer's Choice , "Slave Quarters," is about great sexual need in a society which at least implicitly condones the activity, even the eventuality of progeny. A slave master may, with proper discretion and consideration for his wife's knowledge and feelings, bear his sex upon his woman slaves and cause them to bear his children. The effect Dickey accomplishes in juxtaposing "The Fiend" and "Slave Quarters" is quite stunning; one man, society would brand as perverse and dangerous; the other, society would once have frowned or snickered at, even though the exploitation and the degradation are equally heinous, perhaps even more so because of the manifest result--that is, the master's child, one whom he may not acknowledge.

Dickey's overtly aesthetic sense persists in the "Falling" section of Poems 1957-1967 (1967). Part 1 is Dickey's second "Reincarnation" poem, but rather than the creature's being a lowly crawler, the deadly snake of "Reincarnation (I)" in Buckdancer's Choice, this one is a sea bird, a momentarily ungainly figure, wallowing in its unease at having found its formerly human spirit in a feathered body. The bird's state of mind modulates from the human until, in long and often hesitant lines, Dickey tells us of natural joy in flight and instinctual purpose. Certain of his earlier poems prefigure pieces in this volume, but in "Falling" the clarity and intensity of "The Sheep Child," "Power and Light,""Adultery," and "Encounter in the Cage Country" represent an achievement with new poems rarely matched by poets who decide at some point to publish "collected poems."

"Falling," with its adjunct piece, "May Day Sermon to the Women of Gilmer County, Georgia, by a Woman Preacher Leaving the Baptist Church," at the beginning of the book, has been disparaged by some critics, including Paul Ramsey, for looseness of diction, rambling syntax, and sensationalistic imagery. In fact, though, poems like "Falling" and "The Sheep Child" stand among the finest of Dickey's two major nature poems--"May Day Sermon," which uses fairly conventional biblical and archetypal images to portray springtime life forces and their drive through the bodied sensibilities of a dissident woman preacher with her female congregation in Gilmer County; and "The Sheep Child," which is the most radical expression of Dickey's sense of transcendence in fusing man and nature to achieve, if not "some imperishable bliss," as Wallace Steve ns longs for in "Sunday Morning," at least, for Dickey, "imperishable vision."

The airline stewardess in "Falling," who accidentally falls from a plane to her death in a field in Kansas, is enormously alive as she hurtles through space, removing her clothes and imagining that she makes love in furious, death-defying motion toward fertile farms and sensuous farm people who must in their blood understand even such a strange, naked ritual. Hers is a dance all the way to death; she makes a poem of her last life and a fertility prayer of her last breath: "AH, GOD--." In "Falling" there is a kind of functional waste of images, a sprawling sensation that proceeds from a very broad imagistic base, setting the reader free from the over-intensity that modernist poetry espouses. Dickey provides" 'the big basic forms'--rivers, mountains, woods, clouds, oceans, and the creatures that live naturally among them" (Babel to Byzantium). There is a mass of almost unassimilated fertility imagery: the moon; virgin sacrifice; Asherah; planting festivals; the "whores / Of Wichita"; farmer's wives; daughters urgent and sons erect in the night; "Widowed farmers whose hands float under light covers to find themselves / Arisen at sunrise"--all of these are in the figure of the stewardess who accomplishes

Her last superhuman act the last slow careful passing of her hands

All over her unharmed body desired by every sleeper in his dream ....

She is no longer a maiden stewardess, but a woman sacrifice, a goddess come to bring fertility to the soil.

The poem is primarily about the artificial trappings, both mental and physical, that tend to separate man from his natural self. Approximately three-fifths of the way through the narrative, the stewardess begins to remove her uniform. Dickey skillfully prefigures and postpones the girl's remembering that "she still has time to die / Beyond explanation." A hint of this ritual disrobing comes earlier with

the arms of her jacket slipping

Air up her sleeves to go all over her? What final things can be said

Of one who starts out sheerly in her body in the high middle of night

Air ...?

And the poem is an attempt to suggest "what final things can be said." This very real stewardess, whose thoughts are filled with uniforms, labels, and TV, has "her eyes opened wide" as the world diminishes to one state, and finally to "a little sight left in the corner / Of one eye." And the reader stands with the astonished farmers to see trim technology "driven well into the image of her body / The furrows for miles around flowing in upon her." The poem is not exactly a modern morality play; but civilization's airplane, the airline's female vending machine of pleasantries, and the sudden, irrational ejection into the world of nature, gravity, stars, and fields--these do make a pattern of the worth, not the waste, of natural man. From Dickey's point of view, the stewardess transcends the mundane and finds a new sense of life in her mortal descent.

The emphasis on sexuality in "Falling" and many of Dickey's other poems reiterates his theme that headlong procreative and pleasurable urges of sex are the motion of life and of art. The story of the young lovers in "May Day Sermon to the Women of Gilmer County, Georgia, by a Woman Preacher Leaving the Baptist Church" still lives because it is inseparable from the burgeoning spring of Gilmer County. Every year the lovers are resurrected, their sexuality implied again in sermons to new young lovers. Ostensibly the woman preacher speaks on May Day against the sexual sins of the young, but the poet acts through her to show the vital eroticism that underlies much of backwoods religious ecstasy. This major theme of the poem is substantiated by the woman preacher's ambiguous stance as she supposedly levels the lightning of the Word at these amorous young people. Her earnestness in the sermon, the purity of her personal past, and her motives for "leaving the Baptist Church" all come under suspicion. Even as she claims to aid in stifling the springtime mating urges of the local virgins, she never actually condemns the girls, except through her vivid projections of an outraged father, whose sadistic sexual morality is itself in question. In her sermon's chief illustration, she displays an intriguingly specific knowledge of the sexually delinquent girl's punishment:

Listen: often a girl in the country,

Mostly sweating mostly in spring, deep enough in the holy Bible

Belt, will feel her hair rise up arms rise, and this not any wish

Of hers, and clothes like lint shredding off her abominations

In the sight of the Lord; will hear the Book speak like a father

Gone mad ....

With the incantatory lines he has established early in the poem, Dickey heightens emotions until the girl's retributive slaying of her father prevents simple moralizing. The passions' dam has broken, as it does each year when this story is told, and warm floods sweep aside the fundamentalist morality; it is clear that the violence comes simply because of violent attempts to stop the fertile world from being itself each spring. The preacher has no choice but to stand somewhat dazed by her own sermon, perhaps unwittingly reconciled to the same passionate forces she has tried to oppose.

Her images and her long, incantatory lines supply emotional stimulation for the reader, and he is likely to accept her telling of this springtime tale as just that--an exemplum fervently recounted. But the ambivalence of the poem supplies intellectual stimulation, also. The preacher is a woman, one who is leaving the Baptist church, and she has seemed utterly involved in the doings of the young bloods as well as the judgings of the old heads. She is decidedly perfervid, but by the end of the poem her desire is suspect. She appears ambiguously pleased that her annual sermon coincides with the spring-renewed memories of the motorcycle-fleeing pair of young lovers. She may be melancholy at her sermon's close, not for their supposed deaths, but for her own real or imagined participation in their story. The poem-sermon is built and spent in a manner remarkably like that of sexual passion, and the preacher is the author of it.

While it preaches no sermon, "The Sheep child" attains very nearly the power of mythic utterance. The sheep child itself speaks at the end of the poem, and it shows its magnified view of the truth of two worlds (recalling mad Pip of Moby-Dick, but without Pip's seeming incoherence):

I saw for a blazing moment

The great grassy world from both sides,

Man and beast in the round of their need,

And the hill wind stirred in my wool,

My hoof and my hand clasped each other,

I ate my one meal

Of milk, and died

Staring. From dark grass I came straight

To my father's house, whose dust

Whirls up in the halls for no reason

When no one comes piling deep in a hellish mild corner,

And, through my immortal waters,

I met the sun's grains eye

To eye, and they fail at my closet of glass.

Dead, I am most surely living

In the minds of farm boys ....

At the most elementary level, this poem deals with the frustration of restraining the natural impulses to sex, and the fantasies that make such restraint possible. These fantasies have their Freudian revenge, for a time: "Dreaming of me, / They groan they wait they suffer / Themselves, they marry, they raise their kind." So the farm boys' needs--precipitous in their motion toward sexual fulfillment ("wild to couple / With anything")--are tempered "by legends," the replacement of abstract morality with concrete narrative "truth." Even the sheep child itself is immortalized--"Pickled in alcohol"--in a museum, in "my immortal waters." The classical and Christian mythology associated with this legend are overwhelming, with the god-lover coming to serve his procreative blessings upon some mortal female. Perhaps the truth of the classical myths and of this new, grotesque myth is that the visitation of gods upon women and of men upon sheep is both demeaning to them and gracious of them, evidence both of the trivial in the highest and of the divine in the lowest. In Self-Interviews, Dickey recalls, "I intended no blasphemy or obscenity by this a poem at all. I tried to the best of my ability to write a poem about the universal need for contact between living creatures that runs through all of sentient nature and recognizes no boundaries of species or anything else." It is also extremely important to remember that, although the figure of the sheep child is monstrous, it does demonstrate the fusion of man and nature and that, with "eyes / Far more than human," the sheep child has eternal, unyielding vision. Yeats, had he not aspired to being a golden bird in Byzantium, might have appreciated being the perfectly preserved sheep child in an Atlanta museum, watching and saying the truth, staring down the sun.

The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy (1970) suggests by its title that Dickey's work is less a body composed of volumes than of poems. This is not to say that the individual books are carelessly organized; the truth is quite the opposite. Rather it is only to observe that the final judgment of James Dickey will be in terms of his great single efforts multiplied over and over: "The Sheep Child," "May Day Sermon," "Falling," "Encounter in the Cage Country," "The Firebombing," "Drinking from a Helmet," "Power and Light," "The Performance," "The Lifeguard," "The Heaven of Animals," The Zodiac, "For the Last Wolverine," "Madness," "Adultery," "The Owl King," "Cherrylog Road," "Kudzu," "The Shark's Parlor," "Pursuit from Under," "To His Children in Darkness," and on.

In the title poem, "The Eye-Beaters," Dickey gives the reader a compendium of many of his ideas about aesthetics and religion; to convey these ideas he has rendered three major physical actions in the poem: eye-beating by blind children, cave-painting, and hunting. The poem ends with the persona, enlightened by his experience from (and to) the depths of his racial memory, going out into the modern world to "hunt":

The tribal children lie

On their rocks in their animal skins seeing in spurts of eye-beating

Dream, the deer, still wet with creation, open its image to the heart's

Blood, as I step forward, as I move through the beast-paint of the stone,

Taken over, submitting, brain-weeping. Light me a torch with what we have preserved

Of lightning. Cloud bellows in my hand. Good man hunter artist father

Be with me. My prey is rock-trembling, calling. Beast, get in

My way. Your body opens onto the plain. Deer, take me into your life-

lined form. I merge, I pass beyond in secret in perversity and the sheer

Despair of invention my double-clear bifocals off my reason gone

Like eyes. Therapist, farewell at the living end. Give me my spear.

To infuse with human consciousness a nonhuman poetic image is an act of fantasy; it may create a monster, a Sheep Child. To desire whatever might be desirable in a wild animal is wistfulness and sentimentality; it is to run foolishly naked after a deer down Springer Mountain. To rely on an encyclopedia of archetypal images is to produce a study exercise for a freshman poetry class. But to hunt--or to render hunting poetically--is to confront nature nearly on its own terms. Human beings cannot really enter into the world of instinct that Dickey admires so much, and he knows it: "I don't believe it's possible to know how the albatross or the homing pigeon navigates. I believe that is absolutely beyond comprehension" (Self-Interviews). But to hunt is to be able, within some limits of natural animals' instincts, to impose human ritual, human order, upon the nonhuman animate world. It is in this not-fully-human-controlled/not-purely-instinctual quality that hunting is life and is art. It is the recognition of this quality that "The Eye-Beaters" offers.

Dickey's own marginal gloss introduces the dramatic situation: "A man visits a Home for children in Indiana, some of whom have gone blind there." The man asks the therapists why the children's arms are bound and why their faces are bruised. When the therapist explains that the children's blows to their own eyes produce an illusion of light--of sight--the visitor is so pained by the thought that he must invent a "deeper" reason, a deeper vision that the children might be attaining through such pain and "perversity." He feels that the commitment of the children to their "vision" is absolute: "Ah, Stranger, you do not visit this place, / You live or die in it." Their vision--as the visitor imagines it--takes the form of a prehistoric cave-artist, who tries by sympathetic magic to make a good hunt for the people. He is godlike and bestial all at once; he is incipient Man, close to his animalistic source, and he is the order-giving Artist. The visitor's fantasy is challenged by his own Reason: "Why painting and Hunting? Why animals showing how God / Is subject to the pictures in the cave ...?" And the mind of invention must answer that his fiction is self-serving; it saves from insanity the sensitive and compassionate mind. Despite Reason's charge of escapism, the visitor, who now has become the Artist figure, goes on with his invention; for the fiction has blurred reality and imagination together, and, although the poetic invention grows more insistent and compelling, the feeling grows that the poet's--Dickey's--real position is ambiguous. Through his sympathy for the children, he constructs a palliative fantasy which removes him somewhat from the true plight of those same children for whom he feels such painful compassion. The visitor persists in his fiction, "the race hangs on meat and illusion hangs on nothing / But a magical art," and the mind of Reason seems almost to be won over as the poem nears its conclusion: "Hold on to your fantasy; it is all that can save / A man with good eyes in this place." Reason appears to have come to some compassion, and the visitor insists: "The wall glimmers that God and man / Never forgot. I have put history out. An innocent eye, it is closed / Off, outside in the sun. Wind moans like an artist...."

As Dickey progressed through Helmets and Buckdancer's Choice to Poems 1957-1967, he moved more into the tradition of the Southern storyteller, so that the point of view of the narrator became almost as interesting in itself as the putative subject matter of the work. Dickey's altered narrative voice is especially evident in such works as "The Firebombing," "The Fiend," "The Sheep Child," "May Day Sermon," and "Falling." As he began to devote his energies to fiction--Deliverance--and the movies, another important shift seriously affected The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy, The Zodiac, and even the coffee-table offerings of Jericho (1974) and God's Images (1977). The narrator broke his way into full view as the manipulator of voices within poems, somewhat after the manner of Coleridge in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," or Vonnegut with Kilgore Trout, or Brecht with his purposeful breaches of dramatic verisimilitude.

This shift in Dickey's self-conscious poetic voice may correlate to his allegation that he became a poet when he "learned the creative possibilities of the lie," that is, the taking on of masks and voices not his own in real life. It may also be tied, at least in part, to Dickey's story that his early poems emerged from precognitive rhythms to which he afterwards fastened words, and then to his later emphasis on narrative as the basis for his most satisfying writing. In "The Poet Turns on Himself" (1966), Dickey wrote, "now and then I began to hear lines of verse, lines without words to them, that had what was to me a very compelling sound: an unusual sound of urgency and passion, of grave conviction, or inevitability, of the same kind of drive and excitement that one hears in a good passage of slow jazz." By the time Self-Interviews appeared in 1970, Dickey was declaring how important narrative was to him: "I liked narrative, I liked something that moved from an event or an action through something else, and resolved into something else, so that there was a constant sense of change in the poem ...."

During the period 1974-1977, Dickey published three books which many people considered disappointments, but to confront these books' subject matter, their themes, and their issuance is to perceive important developments in Dickey's career. The first volume, Jericho: The South Beheld, is a heavy, expensive coffee-table book illustrated with color prints of paintings by Hubert Shuptrine and aimed at the Christmas slick-book trade of 1974. The second is The Zodiac, a sixty-two-page work printed with lots of open space on its distinctively short but wide pages. The third book, the coffee-table offering for the 1977 season, although not nearly so grandiose in its execution as Jericho, but considerably more pretentious in its title, God's Images, and its intent to retell some of the biblical stories, offers Dickey's text alongside black and white etchings by Marvin Hayes.

At the time of these works' publication,Dickey had not had a volume of poetry published in four years, hiatus partly attributable to his occupation with the fabulous success of Deliverance as a novel and a movie. But perhaps the most striking effect of these three books in quick succession is that they served to consolidate at the half-century of his life Dickey's major cultural influences: Southern America, Western Europe, and the Judeo-Christian tradition. Jericho: The South Beheld explores the rich prose language and sensual impressions of the American South, which Dickey has publicly championed, especially during and after the election of Jimmy Carter to the presidency. The Zodiac, as Dickey says, is a poem "based on another of the same title ... [which] was written by Hendrik Marsman, who was killed by a torpedo in the North Atlantic in 1940.... Its twelve sections are the story of a drunken and perhaps dying Dutch poet who returns to his home in Amsterdam after years of travel and tries desperately to relate himself, by means of stars, to the universe." The work is studded with references to Western European culture, with the narrator associatively exploring its philosophical and artistic influences. (When he spends several lines on Pythagoras, whose speculations about the Ideal led him into mathematical and musical demonstrations, at least for a moment, Dickey actually transforms the Grecian lyre into a guitar.) The third book, God's Images, is Dickey's prose-poem gesture toward the influence of the Bible on him, his Southernness made specifically religious. But the religious images are intended not to be entirely orthodox. For, as Dickey indicates in the foreword, the images are men's and are as subject to men's alterations as to God's: "The Bible is the greatest treasure-house of powerful, disturbing, life-enhancing images in the whole of humanity's long history. They are the images of what generations of men have taken to be those projected on the human race by God Himself, or God as He resides in the souls of men. To an artist such as Marvin Hayes, or to a poet, such as I hold myself to be, these images have unfolded in us by means of the arts we practice. These are our images of God's Images."

Jericho and God's Images are similar. They both came out of Oxmoor House in Birmingham, Alabama, the publisher of the magazines Southern Living and Progressive Farmer. Both were designed as gift and display books. Both were conceived as a combination of graphic arts and poetical-prose text. Both have a built-in sentimental appeal. But there are significant differences. Some of these are in Dickey's use of the narrators of his lines, and it is on this point that the two fancy books are related to The Zodiac, as well as to each other. (There may even be some correspondence between the firmness of Dickey's convictions about, and his commitment to, the major subjects of each book and the relative single-mindedness of each narrator.)

Jericho, the book of Dickey's place, is devised as a journey from city to city throughout the old and the new South by one speaker serving as a tour guide of the soul. He is a man of cosmic proportions, an epic consciousness reminiscent of Walt Whitman. Nonetheless, for all its variety and multiplicity, the voice intends to be single.

The Zodiac's omniscient voice occasionally intrudes upon the narration to emphasize that this thing is a fiction, that the story is being told, although frequently the reader moves into the mind of the Dutch poet himself, as if he were telling the story. The main difference between this narration and that of Jericho is in its considerable fragmentation--first, in the presence of two minds (the omniscient narrator and the Dutch poet), and second, in the diffusion and brokenness of the poet-protagonist, who admits to having DTs and imaginative flights, both of which ("Imagination and dissipation both fire at me / Point-blank") make the apprehension of his clearest single self extremely difficult for most of the duration of the poem.

In God's Images, the narrator's plan is to take on the voices of various individuals in scenes and stories from the Old and New Testaments. There is no one voice; the question is whether or not there is a single vision. By way of contrast, Jericho begins with the poet's request of the reader: "I ask you to become all-seeing and invisible, in the special, secret manner in which only you yourself--since you were a child--know how to do, and to focus at many places in the South.... With our sea-bird's eyes now become those of a land-bird, let us indeed swoop. But let us also flicker, so that we can pick out small and penetrating beholdings, and move them over the page." And so with his version of a magic-carpet ride, Dickey enlists the reader's sympathy and vision to join him in a swooping, spiraling, and flickering tour of the South, a place of mythic import and sensual impact, a place to supply vision and the language to recreate it. The book ends with an epilogue: "We have finished our ghostly flickering over Jericho, our zigzagging, our air-standing and webbing through images. We have given up the ghost and the butterfly, and now turn to each other, down out of immortality onto the Promised, the re-Promised Land. Come down, reader, and be whole here. Here." The promise of Jericho, the book and the place--a poetic, demiurgic promise--is to be whole, for the vision of the percipient soarer to remedy the world's confusion and to unify its fragmented people.

The Zodiac begins with a narrator palpably more in control of things than the main character he is describing: "The man I'm telling you about brought himself back alive / A couple of years ago. / He's here, / Making no trouble ...." At one point, the Dutch protagonist moans in self-pity: "No flower could get up these steps, / It'd wither at the hollowness / Of these foot-stomping / failed creative-man's boards / There's nothing to bring love or death / Or creative boredom through the walls." But by the end, the voices of the narrator and the drunken poet have merged by finding some partially satisfying answer (one might argue that the clearer-headed omniscient narrator is actually the recovered protagonist, Marsman's version of Ishmael, "escaped alone to tell thee"):

So long as the hand can hold its island

Of blazing paper, and bleed for its images:

Make what it can of what is:

So long as the spirit hurls on space

The star-beasts of intellect and madness.

At the conclusions of Jericho and The Zodiac one can mark the unifying impulses, but God's Images is less certain. In fact, the book's final word makes no explicit affirmation; rather, it is simply the question "Why?" From the Old Testament,God's Images depicts twenty-nine scenes or stories. Of these, sixteen are told as though from an omniscient perspective. In one of the scenes where the reader might expect the athletic and sometimes sanguinary Dickey to be intensely involved, he chooses to report in third person: "His enemies are sprawled in heaps around him. Heel in eye, elbow in dead, open mouth .... He looks at the jawbone, half-dead with thirst and at a word from Heaven, the mouth-part that once cropped grass fills with cool water. He drinks deep, tasting bone. Deep." Perhaps, though, the sated warrior Samson is a recollection for Dickey of the distant "aesthetic" warrior in "The Firebombing," or of John Hersey's The War Lover (1959), which Dickey has admired. Whereas only a dozen or so of the Old Testament stories are told from the viewpoints of their subjects, almost three-fourths from the New Testament have first-person narrators, as though the poet might more easily identify with Christian-era events. One of the most curious is called "Jesus Laughing": "To any laugh the stones of anywhere respond .... men speak of me as a man of pain and sorrow, but they have not reached the other side of God, and while I was here among you, the pain and terror were balanced ... by a great grin into nothingness, which justified everything; by a strong measure of sly Holy Fun. Laughter." Despite, however, this hint of Dickey's possibly being ironic in his portrayal of God's images, the unhappy impact of the book is that it takes itself too seriously, and its solemnity is not redeemed by the epic movement of Jericho or by the fitful progression of the narrator-poet's mind in The Zodiac.

Dickey's work ranges from poems which are introspective and pressurized to those which seem unable to keep their boundaries, displaying energy in a kind of explosion of the poetic personality. He affects no generalized modern voice, no angst-ridden vagueness, until perhaps The Zodiac, and it must be remembered that here he essentially rewrote a modernist northern European poem. And yet, with its subject of a bedraggled poet struggling to raise himself to new creations, the poem seems to suit perfectly Dickey's career in the late 1970s, not so much taking a new turn as trying to sustain a deliberate new beginning, willfully to exercise the sophisticated intelligence of James Dickey in his excursions into imitations and translations of non-English poets, when in fact those works which are most clearly identified as his are usually mouthed through speakers who are rather decidedly Southern in their language rhythms, their literary modes, and in their ways of perceiving. There is solid affirmation and impatience with self-pity in Dickey. There is sadness at what is truly sad and resistance against the cleverly poised paradoxes which came to obsess the poetry of modernism. Dickey has always resisted "schools."

In the late 1970s he began to speak of having forged the tool of his craft, of having learned to use his wings that would allow him to fly to Parnassus. Uneasily, the question arises as to whether or not, when a poet actually begins to feel that surety of being trained, of being honed, it may be a sign of being done, rather than of being ready to do more. The 1979 book The Strength of Fields is half imitations or rewrites ("Head-Deep in Strange Sounds") and only half poems that Dickey himself composed from scratch. Some of these are ten years old. "Root Light, or the Lawyer's Daughter" appeared in the New Yorker (1969) in plenty of time to have been included in the 1970 Eye-Beaters , and only two of thirteen poems not from the rewritten "unEnglish" were published after 1973.

Aside from the nagging discomfort over Dickey's relatively low output of poems in the new decade, a more serious impression persists: too much self-satisfaction, too little metaphysical struggle. The poems lack fear, as if there is little possibility of flying loose. As one might say of an operatic tenor, the purity and clarity are good, but if no risk is augured in the act, no matter how fine and well-paced, no matter how decorous, it is as though all were ordinary. There is something eminently safe about this book, and, at least in the past, Dickey has said repeatedly that the crucial word is "Dare.Dare." These poems do not dare enough. They are beautiful in many ways; they are accomplished in many ways; they are the things that one often says when one speaks of sunsets. The Strength of Fields might be considered auspicious or distressing, depending on one's view of James Dickey's potential for further distinguished work as a poet. On the one hand, the poems have a calm about them which confirms the "honed instrument" Dickey now possesses, but on the other, hand, they have a sort of righteousness without risk. The pressure is missing: whereas Walt Whitman can say, believing in the divine potentiality of men, "I stop somewhere waiting for you," in "For the Running of the New York City Marathon," Dickey addresses a multitude of thousands as though all have fulfilled their trendy physical-fitness mystique: "All winning, one after one."

The Strength of Fields is a Dickey sampler, at least in terms of theme. In "Root Light, or the Lawyer's Daughter" the reader has the Dickey of sexual awareness, of fertility attached and vivified by qualities of the imagination, to relate the lawyer's daughter, who works at J. C. Penney's, to some perfection of womanhood that the eight-year-old boy carries with him into adulthood. When the girl dives naked off the Talmadge Bridge into the river and the startled view of the boy underwater, it is a persuasive commingling of nature--the trees, the roots, the light from above, and the reddish tinting of the water by the excrescences of the plants--all in a river which streams with mystical import but which also very practically functions to keep Georgia and Florida separated. Other poems deal with wartime experiences. In The Eye-Beaters, Dickey included a poem about "Looking for the Buckhead Boys" in which persists something of the buddy-buddy quality which underlies but is never emphasized in "The Shark's Parlor." This Buckhead-Boy feeling with its incumbent prosiness and slack colloquialism is found in "Reunioning Dialogue": two pilots, years later, who have come to share memories and to stretch that story-telling until a boisterous but flat revelation at the end tries to evoke gales of laughter from drinking buddies, back-slaps, and bar-pounding. The poem is not joyless, but it is loose; it is diffuse, not so much rhetorically as emotionally. The chaotic clamor of things not holding, of things breaking down, is endemic to a poem like The Zodiac, whereas in this poem it is as though the center never was really quite enough. It is Archie Bunker exuberantly looking forward to a reunion with his army pals and then, when it happens, finding that they do not really have anything to say to one another. There is a joke, a guffaw, at the end of "Reunioning Dialogue," but it is not enough to redeem, not enough to matter; and if Dickey ever tells the reader anything, it is that poems speak of what matters.

Dialogue is a common device in Dickey's works. Sometimes he openly experiments with it, as in "The Eye-Beaters," with an unnamed narrator slipping even into the marginalia, after the manner of Coleridge in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." In one critical review, Dickey counterpoints two ambivalent voices to explore what he sees as two sides of the sensibility of Randall Jarrell. In the 1970 Phi Beta Kappa poem, "Exchanges," Dickey engages Joseph Trumbull Stickney in a "living-dead dialogue," passing back and forth from the nineteenth century to the twentieth, thus examining American culture as, in The Zodiac, he explores Western European culture.

In Self-Interviews Dickey says, "the official response is the very death of poetry. What poetry has to have is the unofficial response: the response which is crazy, outlandish, cannot be justified by any conceivable public accord." Of course, "The Strength of Fields" was written for the occasion of President Jimmy Carter's 1977 Inauguration, and it is possessed by the very sane and inoffensive sentimentality of most official laureate poems: accessibility without shock. It begins forcefully, when something of the energy of the small town is embodied in the moth-flickers around various lights, creating a sense that spirits of the night and of the land are melding with the spirits of men, but the poem remains only a glow-place of comfortable emotion, lacking the peculiarly Dickeyesque passion, the internal "monster" described in a 1920 letter by Rilke: "All that the rest forget in order to make their life possible, we are always bent on discovering, on magnifying even; it is we who are the real awakeners of our monsters, to which we are not hostile enough to become their conquerors; for in a certain sense we are at one with them; it is they, the monsters, that hold the surplus strength which is indispensable to those that must surpass themselves."

The Strength of Fields is clearly "the collected poems" of the past ten years, a time in which Dickey has written The Zodiac , the children's poem Tucky the Hunter (1978), Jericho, and God's Images, among which only The Zodiac might have severely taxed the extraordinary gifts of James Dickey. The Strength of Fields turns toward a more constrained, quieter, contemplative mode, which suggests that Dickey is gathering his forces, that this is an intermezzo of deadly serious intent. Dedicated "To Deborah, in the new life," this book is no mere lapse: it is a pulling-together of the best poems from the weakest time of Dickey's poetic career. Some are as good as much of his prior work: probably none attains to his best. But what an Ovidian-Homeric-Herculean accomplishment that would be! It is no wonder that Dickey could write in Sorties, "a man cannot pay so much attention to himself as I do without living in Hell all the time." We would continue to devour the man who has given so much; we would ask of him more than we ask of ourselves.


Writings by the Author

Books

Into the Stone and other Poems, in Poets of Today VII, ed. John Hall Wheelock (New York: Scribners, 1960).

Drowning with Others (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1962).

Helmets (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1964; London: Longmans, 1964).

The Suspect in Poetry (Madison, Minn.: Sixties Press, 1964).

Two Poems of the Air (Portland, Oreg.: Centicore Press, 1964).

Buckdancer's Choice (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1965).

Poems 1957-1967 (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1967; London; Rapp & Carroll, 1967).

Spinning the Crystal Ball (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1967).

Babel to Byzantium: Poets & Poetry Now (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1968).

Metaphor as Pure Adventure (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1968).

Deliverance (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970; London: Hamish Hamilton, 1970).

The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buck head and Mercy (Garden City: Doubleday, 1970; London: Hamish Hamilton, 1971).

Self-Interviews, recorded and edited by Barbara and James Reiss (Garden City: Doubleday, 1970).

Exchanges (Bloomfield Hills, Mich.: Bruccoli Clark, 1971).

Sorties (Garden City: Doubleday, 1971).

Jericho: The South Beheld, text by Dickey, illustrations by Hubert Shuptrine (Birmingham, Ala.: Oxmoor House, 1974).

The Zodiac (limited edition, Bloomfield Hills, Mich. & Columbia, S.C.: Bruccoli Clark, 1976; trade edition, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976).

The Strength of Fields[single poem] (Bloomfield Hills, Mich. & Columbia, S.C.: Bruccoli Clark, 1977).

God's Images, text by Dickey, etchings by Marvin Hayes (Birmingham, Ala.: Oxmoor House, 1977).



The Enemy from Eden(Northridge, Cal.: Lord John Press, 1978).

Tucky the Hunter, text by Dickey, illustrations by Marie Angel (New York: Crown, 1978; London: Macmillan, 1979).

Veteran Birth: The Gadfly Poems 1947-1949(Winston-Salem, N.C.: Palaemon Press, 1978).

In Pursuit of the Grey Soul (Columbia, S.C. & Bloomfield Hills, Mich.: Bruccoli Clark, 1978).

Head-Deep in Strange Sounds (Winston-Salem, N.C.: Palaemon Press, 1979).

The Water-Bug's Mittens: Ezra Pound: What We Can Use(Moscow: University of Idaho, 1979; Bloomfield Hills Mich. & Columbia, S.C.: Bruccoli Clark, 1980).

The Strength of Fields [collection] (Garden City: Doubleday, 1979).

Scion(Deerfield, Mass. & Dublin, Ireland: Deerfield Press/Gallery Press, 1980).

Falling, May Day Sermon, and Other Poems(Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1981).

The Starry Place Between the Antlers: Why I Live in South Carolina(Bloomfield Hills, Mich. & Columbia, S.C.: Bruccoli Clark, 1981).

Deliverance[screenplay] (Carbondale & Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982).

Puella(Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1982).

Varmland(Winston-Salem, N.C.: Palaemon Press, 1982).

The Central Motion: Poems, 1968-1979(Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1983).

Intervisions, poems by Dickey and photographs by Sharon Anglin Kuhne (Penland, N.C.: Visualalternatives, 1983).

False Youth: Four Seasons(Dallas: Pressworks, 1983).

Night Hurdling: Poems, Essays, Conversations, Commencements, and Afterwords(Bloomfield Hills, Mich. & Columbia, S.C.: Bruccoli Clark, 1983).

Bronwen, the Traw, and the Shape-Shifter, text by Dickey, illustrations by Richard Jesse Watson (San Diego, New York & London: Bruccoli Clark/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986).

Alnilam(Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1987).

Wayfarer: A Voice from the Southern Mountains, text by Dicket, photographs by William A. Baker (Birmingham, Ala.: Oxmoor House, 1988).

The Eagle's Mile(Middletown, Conn.: Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press: University Press of New England, 1990).

Southern Light, photographs by James Valentine (Birmingham, Ala.: Oxmoor House, 1991).

The Whole Motion: Collected Poems, 1945-1992(MIddletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1992).

To the White Sea(Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993).

Striking in: the Early Notebooks of James Dickey, edited by Gordon Van Ness (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1996).

Other

Sewanee Review Fellowship, 1954-1955; Union League Civic and Arts Foundation Prize (Poetry magazine), 1958; Longview Foundation, 1959; Vachel Lindsay Prize, 1959; Guggenheim Fellowship, 1961; National Book Award for Buckdancer's Choice, 1966; Melville Cane Award (Poetry Society of America) for Buckdancer's Choice, 1966; National Institute of Arts and Letters Award, 1966; Consultant in Poetry in English for the Library of Congress, 1966-1968; Prix Medicis, 1971; New York Quarterly Poetry Day Award, 1977.

A Poetry Experience on Film / Lord Let Me Die / But Not Die Out / James Dickey: Poet, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1970.

Deliverance, Warner Brothers, 1972.

Call of the Wild, Charles Fries, 1976.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Stolen Apples, includes twelve poems adapted by Dickey (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971).

Thomas Boyd, Through Wheat, afterword by Dickey (Carbondale & Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978).

Richard Eberhart, Of Poetry and Poets, foreword by Dickey (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979).

"The Energized Man," in Billy Goat 2 (Clemson, S.C.: Billy Goat Press, 1979), pp. 1-3.

Samuel Clemens, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, introduction by Dickey (New York: New American Library, 1979).

From the Green Horseshoe: Poems by James Dickey's Students, edited by Dickey (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987).

"Two Days in September," Atlantic, 225 (February 1970): 78-108.

"Blowjob on a Rattlesnake," Esquire, 82 (October 1974): 177-178, 368.

"Small Visions from a Timeless Place," Playboy, 21 (October 1974): 152-154, 220-221.

"Cahill Is Blind," Esquire, 85 (February 1976): 67-69, 139-144.

"A Note on the Poetry of John Logan," Sewanee Review, 70 (Spring 1962): 257-260.

"Dialogues with Themselves," New York Times Book Review, 28 April 1963, p. 50.

"An Old Family Custom," New York Times Book Review, 6 June 1965, pp. 1, 16.

"The Triumph of Apollo 7," Life, 69 (1 November 1968): 26.

"James Dickey Tells About Deliverance," Literary Guild Magazine (April 1970): 6-7.

"Process of Writing a Novel," Writer, 83 (June 1970): 12-13.

"Poet Tries to Make a Kind of Order," Mademoiselle, 76 (September 1970): 142-143, 209-210, 212.

"Reading," Mademoiselle, 79 (January 1973): 133-134.

"Look into Your Future: Life Style," Today's Health, 51 (April 1973): 54-55, 65 (truncated after p. 65).

"Delights of the Edge," Mademoiselle, 80 (June 1974): 118-119.

"Selling His Soul to the Devil by Day and Buying It Back by Night," TV Guide (14 July 1979): 18-20.

"The Geek of Poetry," review of Letters of Vachel Lindsay, New York Times Book Review, 23 December 1979, pp. 9, 17-18.

Major collections of manuscripts are found in the Washington University Library, St. Louis; and the Library of Congress.

Further Readings About the Author

"An Interview with James Dickey," Eclipse, 5 (1965-1966): 5-20.

"James Dickey on Poetry and Teaching," Publishers Weekly, 189 (28 March 1966): 34.

"A Conversation with James Dickey," Shenandoah, 18 (Autumn 1966): 3-28.

Nan Robertson, "New National Poetry Consultant Can Also Talk a Non Stop Prose," New York Times, 10 September 1966, sec. I, p. 11.

"P.P.A. Authors' Press Conference," Publishers Weekly, 197 (23 March 1970): 27-29.

William F. Buckley, Jr., What Has Happened to the American Spirit? (Columbia, S.C.: Southern Educational Communications Association, 1971).

"Best People I Have Ever Known, and Also the Worst, Were Poets," Mademoiselle, 78 (August 1972): 282-283, 417-420.

John Graham, "James Dickey," in The Writer's Voice: Conversations with Contemporary Writers, ed. George Garrett (New York: Morrow, 1973), pp. 228-247.

William Heyen, "A Conversation with James Dickey," Southern Review, 9 (1973): 135-156.

William Packard, ed., The Craft of Poetry: Interviews from "The New York Quarterly" (Garden City: Doubleday, 1974), pp. 133-151.

J. Cassidy, "Interview with James Dickey," Writer's Digest (October 1974): 16-24.

Donald J. Greiner, "That Plain-Speaking Guy': A Conversation with James Dickey on Robert Frost," in Frost: Centennial Essays, ed. Jac L. Tharpe, et al (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1974), pp. 51-59.

Carol Flake, "An Interview with James Dickey," Baratraria Review, 1 (1974): 5-11.

David L. Arnett, "An Interview with James Dickey," Contemporary Literature, 16 (Summer 1975): 286-300.

Bill Moyers, A Conversation with James Dickey (New York: WNET/13, Educational Broadcasting Corp., 1976).

Franklin Ashley, "The Art of Poetry XX: James Dickey," Paris Review, 17 (Spring 1976): 52-88.

"'Trash Will Come--You Have to Take the Chance,'" U.S. News and World Report, 80 (15 March 1976): 55-56.

"James Dickey on Carter and the Born-Again South," U.S. News and World Report, 82 (18 April 1977): 67.

W.C. Barnwell, "James Dickey on Yeats: An Interview," Southern Review, 13 (Spring 1977): 311-316.

William W. Starr, "Declarations from Dickey," Columbia, S.C. State, 28 August 1977, sec. E, pp. 1-2.

Matthew J. Bruccoli, "James Dickey," in Conversations with Writers, 1 (Detroit: Bruccoli Clark / Gale Research, 1977), pp. 25-45.

Will Davis, et al, "James Dickey: An Interview," in James Dickey: Splintered Sunlight, ed. Patricia De La Fuente (Edinburg, Tex.: Pan American University, 1979), pp. 6-23.

Eileen K. Glancy, James Dickey: The Critic as Poet: An Annotated Bibliography with an Introductory Essay (Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1971).

Franklin Ashley, James Dickey: A Checklist (Columbia, S.C. & Detroit: Bruccoli Clark / Gale Research, 1972).

Jim Elledge, James Dickey: A Bibliography: 1947-1974(Metuchen, N.J. & London: Scarecrow Press, 1979).

Elledge, "James Dickey: A Supplementary Bibliography, 1975-1980: Part I," Bulletin of Bibliography, 38 (April-June 1981): 92-100, 104.

Elledge, "James Dickey: A Supplementary Bibliography, 1975-1980: Part II," Bulletin of Bibliography, 38 (July-September 1981): 150-155.

Matthew J. Bruccoli and Judith S. Baughman, James Dickey: A Descriptive Bibliography(Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1990).

Peter G. Beidler, "The Pride of Thine Heart Hath Deceived Thee': Narrative Distortion in Dickey's Deliverance," South Carolina Review, 5 (December 1972): 29-40.

Robert Bly, "The Work of James Dickey," Sixties, 7 (Winter 1964): 41-57.

Bly, Review of Buckdancer's Choice, Sixties, 9 (1967): 70-79.

Joan Bobbitt, "Unnatural Order in the Poetry of James Dickey," Concerning Poetry, 11 (1978): 39-44.

Richard J. Calhoun, James Dickey (I & II), cassette tapes no. 175, 176 (DeLand, Fla.: Everett / Edwards, 1971).

Calhoun, ed., James Dickey: The Expansive Imagination (DeLand, Fla.: Everett / Edwards, 1973).

Calhoun, "After a Long Silence: James Dickey as South Carolina Writer," South Carolina Review, 9 (November 1976): 12-20.

Paul Carroll, The Poem in its Skin (Chicago: Big Table, 1968), pp. 40-49.

Patricia De La Fuente, ed., James Dickey: Splintered Sunlight, Living Author Series, no. 2 (Edinburg, Tex.: Pan American University, School of Humanities, 1979).

The Voiced Connections of James Dickey: Interviews and Conversations, edited by Ronald Baughman (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989).

Donald J. Greiner, "The Harmony of Bestiality in James Dickey's Deliverance," South Carolina Review, 5 (December 1972): 43-49.

Richard Howard, Alone with America Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950 (New York: Atheneum, 1969), pp. 75-98.

Howard, "Resurrection for a Little While," review of The Eye-Beaters, Nation (23 March 1970): 341-342.

Betty Ann Jones, "Jericho: The Marketing Story," in Pages: The World of Books, Writers, and Writing, 1, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli and C.E. Frazer Clark, Jr. (Detroit: Gale, 1976), pp. 249-253.

Laurence Lieberman, Unassigned Frequencies: American Poetry in Review, 1964-77 (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1978), pp. 74-106, 249-251, 263-271.

Karl Malkoff, Crowell's Handbook of Contemporary American Poetry (New York: Crowell, 1973), pp. 100-108.

Jane Bowers Martin, "'With Eyes Far More Than Human': Transcendence in the Poetry of James Dickey," M.A. thesis, Clemson University, 1978.

Michael Mesic, "A Note on James Dickey," in American Poetry Since 1960--Some Critical Perspectives, ed. Robert B. Shaw (Chester Springs, Pa.: Dafour, 1974), pp. 145-153.

Linda Mizejewski, "Shamanism toward Confessionalism: James Dickey, Poet," Georgia Review, 32 (1978): 409-419.

Harry Morris, "A Formal View of the Poetry of Dickey, Garrigue, and Simpson," Sewanee Review, 77 (April/June 1969): 318-325.

Howard Nemerov, "James Dickey," in Reflexions on Poetry and Poetics (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1972), pp. 71-76.

Norman Silverstein, "James Dickey's Muscular Eschatology," in Contemporary Poetry in America, ed. Robert Boyars (New York: Schocken, 1974), pp. 303-313.

South Carolina Review, special Dickey issue, 10 (April 1978).

Monroe K. Spears, "Poetry Since the Mid-Century," in Dionysus and the City: Modernism in Twentieth-Century Poetry (New York: Oxford, 1970).

Paul Strong, "James Dickey's Arrow of Deliverance," South Carolina Review, 11 (November 1978): 108-116.

Harry Williams, "The Edge Is What I Have". Theodore Roethke and After (Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1977), pp. 173-183.

About the Essay

Written by: Robert W. Hill, Clemson University
Source: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 5: American Poets Since World War II, First Series, 1980, pp. 174-191.


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