The Strangeness of James Dickey
Crux: The Letters of James Dickey
edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli and Judith S. Baughman. Knopf, 1999.
James Dickey: The World as a Lie
by Henry Hart. Picador, 2000.
and New Essays by James Dickey. Doubleday, 1971.
by Christopher Dickey. Simon &
The Whole Motion: Collected Poems 1945-1992 by James Dickey. Wesleyan University Press, 1992.
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During the last years of Robert Lowell’s life, James Dickey was sometimes considered the other major living American poet, an evaluation which for many today must look merely bizarre. For most, Dickey’s name conjures (if it conjures anything at all) images of backwoods banjo players and toothless rednecks, and he now seems in danger of being remembered primarily as a once popular regional poet of the South, the author of a few anthology pieces (that are usually unrepresentative of his body of work) and the best-selling novel Deliverance, which was adapted into a Hollywood blockbuster starring Burt Reynolds. It’s hard to believe that anything he wrote will ever equal the fame of a single line from Deliverance—“Squeal like a pig”— a fact attested to by a river-guide friend of mine who hears little else from the back of the canoe as he leads Atlanta suburbanites on trips down the Chattooga River, pointing out locations where various scenes from the movie were filmed. For those who’ve subjected themselves to reading his letters, recent biographies like Henry Hart’s James Dickey: The World as a Lie, and his son Christopher Dickey’s Summer of Deliverance, Dickey stands as yet another and particularly frightening example of a poet’s self-immolation under the influence of alcohol, vanity, violence and monstrous cruelty to oneself and others. James Dickey the man (and the evidence is now all there for those with the stomach for it) is very easy to dislike. But for those of us who are still drawn to his work, it may be interesting to think about what Dickey was up to in his poems that remains fascinating—if sometimes guiltily so—and to consider why his work is beginning to look increasingly strange next to the work of our contemporaries.
The trajectory of Dickey’s career was unusual, even for a poet of his era. A World War II veteran, he worked for many years as an ad-writer for the Coca-Cola company, writing reviews and poems in his off-hours, and his first collection, Into the Stone, was not published until he was 37. That and his other early books garnered a great deal of attention; he received a series of university teaching jobs, won many awards and honorary degrees, and served as the Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress. But then, at roughly the same time Deliverance made him a national celebrity, his reputation as a poet began to decline with the publication of his later, more obscure and difficult collections. Those who preferred the more recognizably “formal” earlier work were alienated by the new material, and the more experimental writers of the time wanted nothing to do with this establishment, Vietnam-war supporting poet who had attacked so many of them in reviews.
Dickey frequently said that he wanted to write an entirely new kind of poetry, something that couldn’t be accounted for by the tastes and doctrines of various schools. The desire to be a true original is hardly, well, original—but apart from whether Dickey succeeded in “making it new,” he consistently produced work that was wildly out of touch with the essentially Rousseauan character of most American poetry. Joyce Carol Oates once said that Dickey was our dark Whitman, a poet who embraced the buoyant energies and possibilities of American individualism, but in forms contaminated by the violence of the 20th century. Instead of condemning this violence, Dickey celebrated it as a means of rediscovering the primal, instinctual self which he counterpoised against the civilizing, emasculating forces of an organized technological society. If this sounds a little like the drumbeat literally sounded by Robert Bly, it should come as no surprise—Dickey and Bly were often linked by critics, and were even friends for a time. Though personal and political differences (especially the Vietnam War) account for the fact that they came to hate each other’s guts, something deeper seems to have been at stake. Bly and his followers, taking their models from the Spanish surrealists, sought in primitivism an avenue to a more complete and ethical consciousness, as though stripping away the veneer of civilization would put individuals in more intimate contact with their gentle (in Bly’s words, “feminized”) selves. On the contemporary scene, this resembles motivations frequently expressed by the practitioners of the many current and post-L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E schools of writing, who often refer to themselves (I take my cue here from Ron Silliman) as “Progressive.” The Rousseauan assumption at work behind these poetics seems to be that if it weren’t for intellectual structures imposed and enforced by normative language, each of us would be a kind-hearted soul who could be depended on each week to dutifully haul our separated recyclables to the curb and vote down the left column each November—that is, instead of somebody who’d axe-murder the neighbors. On the other side of things, for many “traditionalists,” the impulse to impose the artificial ordering patterns of inherited poetic form often seems to represent a desire to trammel, subdue and perhaps even deny the inchoate and dangerous forces of instinctual nature—not attempt to release them, as Dickey did, into a poetry of “murderous drives.”
Like Roethke, especially the Roethke of The Lost Son, a book that influenced him profoundly, Dickey creates personae who are fully absorbed, active participants in physical settings that are both naturalistically evoked and imaginatively transformed. “What the world, the human mind, is dying of is subtlety. What it needs is force,” Dickey wrote in his journals, and much of his work demonstrates this deliberate rejection of the intellectualizing, contemplative, and even ethical functions we often associate with poetry (which many of us turn to poetry for) in favor of dwelling on the influences of purely physical stimuli upon a highly agitated psyche. Pound’s claim that the natural object was always a perfect and adequate symbol may serve as a key to understanding Dickey’s vision for his work—his poems (especially the early poems) incorporate natural objects and situations which only become defamiliarized as they’re filtered through the imagination of an engaged speaker. A distinction should be drawn here between Dickey and the poets of the Deep Image; for Dickey, something is usually happening, and usually to someone. It’s very rarely a matter of presenting starkly drawn natural images sitting statically within a surrealistic atmosphere—no stones or bones shining in apocalyptic moonlight. Dickey was also at pains to separate his work from association with that of Ted Hughes, who he accused of “self-conscious primitivism.”
In an interview with Carolyn Kizer, Dickey said that he did not want to be “one of those poets of alienation who feel humiliated by everything and who are endlessly examining” themselves. “A man running at full speed has neither a brain nor a heart. I’m trying to get into the psychological state of the man running at full speed and see what he does have.” The analogy leaves a lot to be desired as a description of poetic process (and even invites ridicule—brainless, heartless poetry?), but it does show a determination to go against the grain of hyper-attenuated self-consciousness that typifies the work of most poets, especially today. From “Fog Envelopes the Animals”:
Soundlessly whiteness is eating
And the conclusion of the same poem:
My arrows, keener than snowflakes,
In this poem from Dickey’s earlier period, we see the kind of haunted perceptual clarity he aimed for. The placidity of the setting, literally and synesthetically represented as “whiteness,” together with the speaker’s enforced, almost stately calm, contrast dramatically with the submerged violence of the poem’s occasion. The speaker enters a near-somnambulant state as he undergoes a disassociation from his previous “visible self” to become an emissary of death; his hands become pale ghosts suggestively touching his arrows; his body becomes “less solid.” These passages also demonstrate one of Dickey’s weaknesses—a tendency to incorporate high-sounding abstractions in places where his other language is already performing much better work (“the purest fear upon earth” skirts that threshold, but I could do completely without those “streams of untouchable pureness”).
A large portion of Dickey’s work similarly deals with physical or extreme psychic violence as he assumes the voices of those who exist outside civilized norms. His poetry is filled with speakers who are supernatural beings, animals, or humans who have been killed or who intend to kill. And especially in the early work, poetic form was key to his project—Dickey relied heavily upon anapestic lines, often in trimeter, to create the lulling, incantatory effect that became his trademark. Dickey saw in this primitive rhythm the means to subvert higher intellectual functions and make his poems react at deeper subconscious and bodily levels.
In the Mountain Tent
The consciousness of the ‘beast’ (one of Dickey’s favorite words) is permitted to assert primacy over civilized man. In introducing concepts of god and heaven into this mix, it’s as if Dickey wishes to cut out the ego entirely and set up a continuous feedback loop between the mythic consciousness and the reptilian brain. Religion and myth (whether Christian or pagan) are no longer guides to ethical action, but are enlisted as a kind of black magic on behalf of “the beast itself” whose poem is a ritualistic celebration of its own dawning power. Whether the poem ultimately succeeds (again, I think we could probably do without that profound unspeakable law and the light out of heaven), it’s clear that Dickey is attempting to tap into some extremely powerful forces here, and for ends that to say the least are not socially constructive.
The high water mark of his career as a poet came with the publication of his fifth book, Buckdancer’s Choice. Although critically praised (it won the National Book Award), it was also highly controversial—especially for the two long poems, “The Firebombing” and “Slave Quarters,” which deal with the poet’s mix of repulsion and attraction to aestheticized fantasies of domination and power. From “The Firebombing”:
It is this detachment,
leap over something
Despite the poem’s mostly obligatory treatment of the speaker’s moral
hesitation, there’s no masking that the poem’s rhetoric, and the poet,
have been strongly seduced by the dream of exercising power beyond
civilized bounds. Of “The Firebombing,” Dickey wrote:
To say that it is wrong to feel this way is not the point; you do feel it. The poem deals with the kind of guilt which results from the inability to feel anything but elation upon remembering destructive acts. There were a lot of people in the service, for example, who cried when they were discharged because they would have to go back to driving taxis and working in insurance offices. For them there wouldn’t be any more of that kind of excitement, and above all, there wouldn’t be any more consequence.
A critic’s response to such an idea cannot be an easy one—somehow, admitting that people do feel this way doesn’t seem adequate, and apart from noting the poem’s success at evoking such discomfiting emotions, we tend to want the moral ramifications explored just a little more. We feel profoundly uncomfortable when confronted with forms of negative capability that stir our psyches, identify what bobs to the surface, but then refuse to adequately put everything back into place with some comforting resolution. “Slave Quarters” offers the same dilemma:
I look across at low walls
And the poem ends with a moment of moral reflection that, considering all that precedes it, seems ambivalent at best:
What it is to look once a day
The critical quandary here is this: what should be poetry’s role in the face of the indefensible? By far the most common approach of our poets of witness is appropriate moral outrage, an elicitation of sympathy for victims and condemnation of perpetrators. If an argument is made for our own culpability in heinous acts, it’s usually directed toward our indifference, the insularity bestowed upon us by privilege—rarely are we palpably confronted, as we are when we read Dickey, with the origins of atrocity in our own human drives. I’m not comfortable saying that Dickey is trying to make us look in the mirror and reform (or that he even recognizes that as a possibility); neither do his works seem motivated by attempts to purge our antisocial impulses through katharsis, as Aristotle suggested poetry might. Instead, Dickey often seems to enter, without clear intentions, into intimate relationships with the obscene. Any account of Dickey, I believe, has to reconcile both the indefensibility of the emotions he stirs and his success in stirring them.
In Dickey’s later books, beginning with The Eyebeaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy, Dickey abandons traditional prosody in favor of a kind of gnarled elided syntax that consists of phrase-stackings, kennings, and rapid transitions of metaphor. What I find remarkable is that Dickey was writing poems thirty years ago, and publishing them in magazines like The New Yorker and The Hudson Review, that today he’d have to shop around at smaller experimental journals. I can only imagine what Jimmy Carter, at his inauguration, was thinking as Dickey read “The Strength of Fields” with its weird syntax and obscure figurations (especially if Carter was already contemplating his post-presidential career as a poet). Here is the beginning:
Moth-force a small town always has,
Dickey made the decision—unusual for a poet whose earlier work had garnered wide critical praise—to break with the forms that had worked for him and try something new, which in his case meant working with what he called the “split line.” In Self Interviews, he wrote,
I evolved the split line to try to do what I could to reproduce as nearly as I could the real way of the mind as it associates verbally. The mind doesn’t seem to work in a straight line, but associates in bursts of words, in jumps... if what I do works out, I’ll write even more discontinuous and undoubtedly more obscure poems, moving, I hope, eventually toward a greater clarity than I or anybody else has yet had.
Representing the workings of the mind in this way is a tactic that’s probably immediately familiar to most contemporary readers of poetry. In his journal he wrote, “I want something jolting and rocky-mouthed; something abrasive and sudden and jolting, and altogether imaginative.” Dickey’s success with the split line, however, was mixed at best. Because he remained a primarily narrative poet, the “bursts and jumps” of his split lines usually tend (despite their grammatical elisions) to follow narrative arcs rather than leap imaginatively and accrue toward intuitive, unpredictable meanings. Dickey’s new pyrotechnics of language too often led his poems to degenerate into not especially interesting word-puzzles, something which denied them access to the largely wordless undertow of the primitive imagination. Perhaps the oddest of the collections of new work was the almost universally critically rejected Puella, which started out as a collaborative effort with a photographer that was supposed to be a thirty poem sequence based on semi-erotic photographs of young women (and his young second wife, Deborah, who becomes a recurring figure in the poems). The collaboration fell through, Dickey published the book anyway and subsequently lost a lawsuit to the photographer (and had to pay out $25,000). From “Deborah as Scion”:
Kin: quiet grasses. Above,
Whatever Dickey was up to, it didn’t stem from a lack of ambition. He didn’t mellow like a Wordsworth, Eliot, or Auden, or attempt to just repeat and rake in the dividends of earlier successes. It’s hard to believe, though, in reading the later poems, that he was any longer writing from his strengths as a poet. As strong as much of the later work is, the poems tend to have a quality of linguistic agitation at the surface and a deliberate willfulness to their making which makes them fail to resonate at the level of his strongest early work.
Celebrity and financial success, together with an arrogance that bordered on the delusional (as his letters and biography amply display) seem to have led Dickey to hugely overestimate how the new work would be received. He reportedly delayed publication of Eyebeaters so that it could be published in the same year as Deliverance in hopes of making an unprecedented two-genre sweep of the Pulitzers and National Book Awards (he also seemed to be expecting the Bollingen). In a letter to Peter Balakian, Dickey claimed that any line from Puella would have made the reputation of a younger poet.
Dickey reacted with defensiveness and hostility to the decline of his reputation, a situation exacerbated by deepening troubles in his personal life. After the death of his first wife Maxine, who seemed to have been a stabilizing influence on the erratic poet, Dickey fell in love with and married a woman decades his junior, whose never-ending struggles with serious drug-addiction (worsened by Dickey’s behavior) took an increasing toll on Dickey’s own mental health and his relationship with his family. Throughout his career as a poet and critic, Dickey made a great many enemies, and (in the rural vernacular), many of those chickens came home to roost. Even many of his strongest allies became exasperated by his constant demands for help in winning awards, his embarrassing displays of drunkenness and hostility whenever he was invited to give readings, his exhausting and unreciprocated demands for deference and love. Dickey’s letters and biography show that he indulged in almost every kind of bad behavior. It’s particularly disturbing to read the reviews and correspondence in which he viciously attacks Anne Sexton and her poetry on one hand (“her poetry is full of clever, supercilious crap. No, the only good thing about her is her picture, which I do like. She should keep her mouth shut and just look at people”), and then tries to seduce her with letter after letter: “I do know that you have touched a new tenderness in me, and the feeling is very strong when I think of you. I’m not much of a believer in mad, passionate affairs... remember that the human creature was made for joy, and the things that give it are always close enough to touch, if we knew how to reach.” And then there’s the time he accused the poet Henry Taylor, who had merely requested a poem at a reading, of being one of the “biggest fucking imitators ”of his work and suggested that Taylor “go shit in his pants.” It’s no surprise that few poets wanted—or want now—to sustain his reputation.
As is often the case with challenging poets, Dickey is represented poorly in most anthologies. This is why we often find poems of gentle and humane sentiment like “The Performance,” “The Leap,” or the awful “Cherrylog Road” with its ludicrously phallic and easily teachable “stiffening snake” springing from the backseat of a wrecked car. As strong as some of these anthology pieces are, they show little of what distinguishes Dickey from his contemporaries and offer little motivation for readers to investigate him further. There’s also the diminishing interest his topics—hunting, soldiering and the like— hold for a culture of poetry readers which consists increasingly of urban-dwellers and career academics. For many today, Dickey probably represents, and with justification, a kind of nightmare figure from the Red States—a “Georgia Cracker Kipling,” Robert Bly once called him.
If readers are able to get past their initial resistance, however, they may find that this very strange poet, made even stranger by the passage of time, offers a range of neglected possibilities. To those who have been trained to consider traditional meters a mark of tameness, Dickey’s use of anapests to explore the mysterious, sometimes dark appetites of the subconscious may come as a revelation. Poems like “The Lifeguard,” “In the Mountain Tent,” and “The Other,” all seem successful poems in this category. For sheer strangeness of imagination, few poets have written poems to equal “The Owl-King” or “The Sheep Child” (written from the perspective of a dead, half-human, half-sheep creature floating in a jar of formaldehyde). Dickey’s war poems, like “The Fire-Bombing” or “Drinking from a Helmet” (in which one soldier absorbs the spirit of another who has been killed) evoke states of physical and psychological extremis that would appear unusual next to the poetry of any era. For whatever reason, passionate readers of Dickey seem to have widely diverging lists of what they consider his best books and poems—a testament, I believe, to his overall strength as a poet and potential appeal.
In an odd series of postscripts since his death, Dickey’s biographers have revealed that many of the details of his advertised biography as a soldier, athlete, and hunter were either exaggerations or complete fabrications. Dickey, it turns out, was a radar observer and not a pilot during World War II, as he’d frequently led the public to believe. And according to his friend and one-time colleague at the University of South Carolina, the poet George Garrett, Dickey never killed an animal unless it was with the bumper of his car. Whatever the truth, it is interesting to note what occurred when Dickey discussed prospective titles for his biography with Henry Hart. Hart suggested James Dickey: A Rage to Live, but Dickey, in an oddly reflective moment suggested that it had better be subtitled The World as a Lie. Whether such a statement, about not only the world but his place in it, should earn Dickey pity or contempt, each reader will have to decide. Hart’s book offers a complex, exhaustive and fascinating portrait of Dickey’s life and career. Summer of Deliverance, by Dickey’s son Christopher Dickey, is a more pained and intimate book, less a literary biography than a moving account of the effects on Dickey and those close to him of his rise from obscurity to fame, followed by his personal disintegration.
Dickey the man, like Dickey the poet, is utterly exasperating. In revisiting his work and reading his biographies, I found myself increasingly put off by him personally but intrigued more than ever by the preternatural strangeness of his poems. I suspect that he’s well on his way to becoming a kind of underground cult figure, one who won’t—and maybe shouldn’t (for the good of the Republic?)—command a large following among the mainstream of poetry readers. But in our current poetry culture, populated largely by suburban Prosperos and language-theory-driven epistemologists of the forebrain, Dickey may still attract attention as something else entirely—a poet whose work genuinely disturbs, and which represents a bold, perhaps unforgivable challenge to many of our most deeply held assumptions about not only our poetry but ourselves.