James Dickey

James Dickey: An Appreciation


A few early poems:

James Dickey (1923-1997) was, to my mind, simultaneously one of the most well known and one of the least appreciated authors in America. Most people are aware of Dickey’s work even if they themselves don’t know that they are: his novel Deliverance won the prestigious French Prix Medicis and was later made into an Academy award-winning film in the early seventies that almost everyone has seen (or heard thanks to its famous “Dueling Banjo” soundtrack).

But Dickey’s first love—and he explicitly made this point many times—was poetry. And strangely, despite being more popularly known for his fiction, it was in his poetry that Dickey was truly something of a revolutionary. Sometimes it is the case that a pervasive influence on poetry is known most fully only to other poets, particularly if the poet is one who, like Dickey, is primarily known for a single piece of fiction. I heartily recommend his fiction to anyone, but I strongly suggest that anyone who hopes to write poetry today be familiar with Dickey’s work.

Dickey’s early work, particularly the volumes Into the Stone and Drowning with Others bears a particular resemblance to that of Roethke. Dickey was aware of the words of Roethke, who once said he hoped to come back as some kind of animal—with luck as a lion—but “until death, until this either happens or doesn’t happen, I’ll have to keep trying to do it, to die and fly, by words.” And of course, there is no guarantee of rest, only of return, as he writes in “The Heaven of Animals”:

At the cycle’s center,
They tremble, they walk
Under the tree,
They fall, they are torn,
They rise, they walk again.

Like Roethke’s work, Dickey’s poems are concerned with the mystical connection between animals and man, the animal who chooses to set himself apart from them. But of more fundamental import to poets are the methods by which he attempts to subsume these themes within a restrictive form. Roethke used traditional forms, such as the sestina and villanelle, to great advantage. Dickey tends to avoid those explicit forms but still captures their essence. Any poet who has attempted to write in one of the repeating French forms realizes the difficulty in getting the repeated words or lines to carry new meaning and depth each time the recur. In one of Dickey’s most memorable early poems, “Sleeping Out at Easter,” he ends the poem with sixth stanza composed of lines taken from the stanzas before, thus achieving a unity between a “freer verse” and a deep structure:

All dark is now no more.
In your palm is the secret of waking.
Put down those seeds in your hand;
All Presences change into trees.
A feather shall drift from the pine-top.
The sun shall have told you this song,
For this is the grave of the king;
For the king’s grave turns you to light.”

The lines have a coherence of their own, as well as giving the poem a sense of closure that is at once an end and an opening back up into all that has come before.

With the volume Buckdancer’s Choice, which contains the seminal poem “The Firebombing”, Dickey’s poetry takes a new turn. I consider all of the work from this volume until The Eagle’s Mile to be its own cohesive group, what I think of as the “middle period.”

“The Firebombing” is, of course, the clearest and most striking example of the change in Dickey’s poetry. With this poem, Dickey comes into his own full maturity and originality. The protagonist of the poem is a man burdened with death and child-rearing who is suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that he was once a pilot flying daring bombing raids in World War II. The feeling is paradoxically one of disbelief that he is the same man that took part in this and anxiety from knowing all too well that he really is the same man.

Structurally the poem is still fairly traditional, though the lines are sometimes broken by large spaces instead of line breaks… a precursor to some of the more radical split-lines that appear in his later work. What is striking about the poem is an air of brutal honesty that is almost completely lacking in cheap sentimentality. As Dickey observes in his volume Self Interviews:

“In poems, and elsewhere, it’s very easy to abase yourself and be terribly guilty over your own or somebody else’s warlike actions. Take that sententious poem by Stephen Spender called “On the Pilots who Destroyed Germany in the Spring of 1945.” At the end of the poem the spectator, a civilian who is in no danger because he’s not going on the mission says that, though his life “never paid the price of their wounds,” it yet “assumes their guilt, honors, repents and prays for them.” Spender doesn’t do anything of the sort! He may pray for them, but he doesn’t assume their guilt. That’s an easy and cheap poeticism. it’s fashionable to talk about guilt in poems. […] To have guilt you’ve got to earn guilt, but sometimes when you earn it, you don’t feel the guilt you ought to have. And that’s what “The Firebombing” is about.”

In “The Firebombing” Dickey’s narrator is suddenly consumed with the guilt he has known for sometime he ought to have, and he is unsure what to do with it. Although the speaking of the poem is by its very nature a movement towards some attempted redemption, the overriding feeling is one of awe, horror and a continually dawning realization (which is often what guilt is in the first place!):

“But in this half-paid-for pantry
Among the red lids that screw off
With an easy half-twist to the left
And the long drawers crammed with dim spoons,
I still have charge—secret charge—
Of the fire developed to cling
To everything…

It’s not that these memories are new, it’s that they suddenly have much more real meaning than they have at any time since they were actually happening. Thankfully, though we all experience these moments, most of us do not have events this horrifying to relive:

Fire hangs not yet fire
In the air above Beppu
For I am fulfilling

An “anti-morale” raid upon it.
All leashes of dogs
Break under the first bomb, around those
In bed, or late in the public baths: around those
Who inch forward on their hands
Into medicinal waters.
Their heads come up with a roar
Of Chicago fire:
Come up with the carp pond showing
The bathhouse upside down,
Standing stiller to show it more
As I sail artistically over
The resort town followed by farms,
Singing and twisting
All the handles in heaven kicking
The small cattle off their feet
In a red costly blast
Flinging jelly over the walls
As in a chemical war-
fare field demonstration.
With fire of mine like a cat

Holding onto another man’s walls,
My hat should crawl on my head
In streetcars, thinking of it,
The fat on my body should pale.

Dickey’s poem parallels the detachment of the narrator who is removed from the events of the war by many years with the detachment he felt as a pilot. It is much easier to fully feel guilt, and thus learn to deal with it, when one is face-to-face with the results of their actions. The bomber pilot, by the very nature of his role, is forever sentenced to reliving the events through his imagination…perhaps a worse fate in the long run of things! However, despite the nature of words to bring previous events back to life, they ultimately fail the poet in that they lead to no certain resolution. Words can’t bring about absolution because absolution is itself within the monolithic events and the memory of them…always there and not there, as Dickey concludes in the final lines of the poem:

“Absolution? Sentence? No matter;
The thing itself is in that.”

“The Firebombing” instituted a long experimental period in Dickey’s work, particularly in terms of the construction of the line within the poem. Paging through The Whole Motion: Collected poems 1945-1992, which is arranged chronologically, it is easy to see the ebb and flow of the syntax and construction. Interspersed between poems which continue the mixed form of “The Firebombing,” and works which are nearly prose poems, are poems such as “The Zodiac” which are forceful but feel unsure of themselves and their new form:

You and the paper should have known it, you and the ink: you write

                                              Everybody writes:

With blackness. Night. Why has it taken you all this time?
                                    All this travel, all those lives?
                  You’ve fucked up? All those books read
          Not deep enough? It’s staring you right in the face—The
          Is whiteness. You can do anything with that.     But no—
              The secret is that on whiteness you can release
              The blackness,
                                    the night sky.     Whiteness is death     is dying
                For human words to raise it from purity     from the grave
                Of too much light. Words must come to it
          Words from anywhere     from     from
Swamps     mountains     mud     shit     hospitals     wars     travels     from


From the Zodiac.

Not only are the forms of the poems undergoing radical experimentation, but so are the narrators’ voices, which are moving between the Roethkian semi-mystical voice, the detached and strained voice of “The Firebomber,” and the intense but artificially constrained voice of the narrator of The Zodiac.

With The Eagle’s Mile, however, Dickey’s experimentation, which resulted in many good poems, finally paid off with a volume as powerful and fully realized as Buckdancer’s Choice The vagaries of the forms have settled into an easy medium that makes use of a traditional stanzaic form utilizing a variety of line lengths and patterns of white space, as in “Gila Bend”, and the voice of the narrator, like a thoughtful man growing into wisdom, has likewise modulated, as in “Daybreak”.

As a body, Dickey’s poetry contains its fair share of clunkers and even downright disasters, often in the service of structural and narrative experimentation. This partially accounts both for his relative obscurity outside the literary world and his extreme importance within it. His untimely death leaves a void in terms of historical resources and in terms of an active and engaging poet whose work is under-appreciated not only for its instructive value, but also for its rare beauty, courage, honesty and intensity.

Recommended Reading by James Dickey

  • The Whole Motion: Collected Poems 1945-1992 Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1994
  • Self-Interviews Louisiana State UP, 1984.
  • Deliverance New York: Delta, 1994.
  • Striking in: The Early Notebooks of James Dickey University of Missouri Press, 1996.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top