I usually start talking about James Dickey‘s poems by saying, “The one where…” The ideas behind the poem, the context and ‘what happens’ — the vision, in other words — is what sticks with me so much more than individual lines.
The one where the stewardess is falling to earth (“Falling“); the one where he puts on the taxidermied head of a boar and becomes the boar as it’s being hunted, years ago, by his now-dead father (“Approaching Prayer”); the one where the hobo is nailed to a train car by his hands and feet (“To a Folk-Singer of the Thirties“); the one where the speaker is in the pantry thinking about dropping bombs on his suburban neighborhood from the plane he flew during the war (“The Firebombing“); the one about animals being predators in Heaven (“The Heaven of Animals“); the one about the half-sheep, fathered by a farm boy, who dies right after birth (“The Sheep Child“); the one where the soldier drinks water from a dead soldier’s helmet and sees his memories (“Drinking From a Helmet”); the one with the surreal colors in the grass and the horses, (“The Dusk of Horses“); the one about the shark trashing the house (“The Shark’s Parlor“).
Intensity and life are the two themes I’d call out if I was asked to call out two themes in his poems. Or maybe it should be intensity and life-and-death. Other words appropriate to his style (which he himself called “country surrealism”): wilderness, rough, survival, regret, primitive, elegiac, expansive, particular. The introduction to The James Dickey Reader (ed. Henry Hart) says, “Dickey’s worshipful view of the natural world and its creator had all the intensity of a mystic. To his way of thinking, it was incumbent upon the writer to act as the creator’s midwife and spokesperson, re-creating the world in words that bore witness to its sublime origin.”
It’s unfortunate that his Selected Poems begins with the interesting, but long and difficult, “May Day Sermon to the Women of Gilmer County, Georgia, by a Woman Preacher Leaving the Baptist Church.” I’d start with the poems after that, and focus on the selections from the 1950s and 1960s. I like some, but fewer, of the 1970s selections, and very few from later. He experimented in his later poems, which I admire him for trying, but I don’t (based on what I’ve read, which is mostly from the Selected) think it resulted in compelling poems.
The James Dickey Reader has both poetry and prose excerpts, with a slightly different set of poems than the Selected, and I think I miss the omissions from both. (“To a Folk-Singer of the Thirties” is in the Selected but not the Reader, for instance, and “At Darien Bridge” is vice-versa.)
“Approaching Prayer,” which I think might be my favorite, if I were asked to pick one favorite, begins
A moment tries to come in
Through the windows, when one must go
Beyond what there is in the room,
But it must come straight down.
Lord, it is time,
And I must get up and start
To circle through my father’s empty house
Looking for things to put on
Or to strip myself of
So that I can fall to my knees
And produce a word I can’t say
Until all my reason is slain.
“A moment tries to come in / Through the windows” — how beautiful! To be followed by the aching of the rest of that intro. The action of the rest of the poem is: he puts on his father’s old sweater, holds up the boar’s head and looks into it, feels a little foolish, kneels down, and puts the hog’s head onto his own head “with star points in the glass eyes / that would blind anything that looked in // And cause it to utter words.”
The poem then shifts between the man’s point of view, and, in italicized stanzas, what the boar saw and felt as it was being hunted by the man, who was then a young man, and his father. Dickey’s poems are so often about an experience, starting in a single moment even if it goes years or miles from there after, something if not rapturous then at the very least momentous and full.
After all the back and forth, after the boar has been killed again, the speaker says
Something goes through me
Like an accident, a negligent glance,
Like the explosion of a star
Whose light gives out
Just as it goes straight through me.
There’s another stanza of the experience, feeling the boar’s blood and his heart pounding and the like, followed by, and oh how I love this move,
[…] I nearly lift
From the floor, from my father’s grave
Crawling over my chest,
And then get up
In the way I usually do.
I take off the head of the hog
And the gaffs and the panting sweater
And go down the dusty stairs
And never come back.
I don’t know quite what has happened
Or that anything has,
Hoping only that
The irrelevancies one thinks of
When trying to pray
Are the prayer
“And then get up / In the way I usually do.” The experience was and also was not wholly transformational. Was and might not be what it was. The poem continues for another 30 or so lines, hoping that what happened was enough, “That my stillness was violent enough, / That my brain had blood enough” and so on “For something important to be: // That, if not heard, / It may have somehow been said.” Which takes the poem back to the beginning I quoted above — “And produce a word I can’t say / Until all my reason is slain.”
I tend to be fond of big (he’s listed on IMDb as 6’3″) mid-century writers who served in a war (WWI and Korea, in Dickey’s case), had a professional career (advertising) before making it as a full-time writer, were most at home out hunting and fishing, were (most of the time) alcoholic, felt strongly what they felt, wrote with sensitivity and masculinity, and, when it came to opinions, sure the hell had them.
Richard Hugo is another one I’m thinking of, though his poems don’t have nearly the same sort of violent imagery and underlying grainy-ness; Hugo’s darkness is a different sort. Hemingway. Raymond Carver. To shift from author to character, a dozen film and book P.I.s. And, of course, John Wayne (I like the Westerns better than the war movies, myself).
I’ve never been sure I’d like to have to deal with those guys in person, once the charm wore off, which I suspect it did. But one of the nice things about reading, especially when it was written by someone now deceased, is you don’t have to bother with what folks are really like in person. Jerk? Braggadocio? Arrogant bastard? If so, so what. I see no reason to let that rub me the wrong way when I’m reading them. Also, Dickey wrote in an essay,
A question: What poet would we most like to have construct a Heaven for us, out of the things we already have? Construct it from his way of being, his particular method of putting the world together and endowing it with consequence? […] If the question were put to me, I would choose Marianne Moore.
which is an idea I love, not only what a heaven created by Marianna Moore would look like, but that of all poets, she would be the best choice for that task. That essay, which can be found in Babel to Byzantium, goes on to talk more about her poetry via what he thinks Moore’s type of heaven would be, “Her Heaven would be not only an artist’s Heaven — though it would be that with a magnificent authority — but a Heaven to show the angels what they have missed.”
Another thing I like in the afterword to the “new” edition of Babel to Byzantium (my copy was published in 1981) is that he admits that he has changed his mind about some of his criticism: “I now feel that I was partially wrong in some of these judgements, partially right in others, totally wrong in a few, and exactly right in an equal few.” He then goes on to say, in such a lovely, snarky style (I do love dagger wit, even if I don’t agree that the subject should be stabbed), things like “Regrettably perhaps, I no longer feel it necessary to pay any sort of lip-service to William Carlos Williams, who in my opinion is a poet of no merit whatsoever,” and, “To Robert Frost I was not unkind enough,” and “On Allen Ginsberg I wish I had not wasted even one sentence.”
But also, “William Stafford is even better than I said he was, and if I had more room I should like to talk about the wonderfully off-beat and convincing tone he brings to poetry.”
Also worth reading around in — his book of transcribed lectures (he was a long-time teacher) called Classes on Modern Poets and the Art of Poetry, and the fascinating collection Self-Interviews, transcriptions of tape recorded monologues where Dickey, by himself in his living room, talked at length on many topics in response to questions sent to him by the ‘interviewers’,
In addition to being more human than other people, the poet is also a fiend and a monster. He’s got to have that conviction about his work with which nothing can interfere. He’s got to have that absolute certainty that what he’s doing is really important. No poet has ever been that certain really, because the world may not value him as highly as he values himself. But the poet has to say to himself, ‘Whether or not it means that much to other people, it means that much to me.’
In Self-Interviews again, he also says (and I skip about a paragraph in that ellipses in the quotation here),
I began to be interested in it [hunting] because I had always liked the woods. But I had never liked guns. It has always seemed to me that an important relationship between men and animals has to be a life-or-death relationship. It’s no good to take a camera into the woods and photograph animals. I think an animal is debased by that. I think you’ve got to go in there and try to kill him. The odds are against you, especially if you’re using a weapon like the bow and arrow […] But the main thing is to re-enter the cycle of the man who hunts for his food. Now this may be play-acting at being a primitive man, but it’s better than not having any rapport with the animal at all.
Which brings me to “The Heaven of Animals,” which, if I were pressed about “Approaching Prayer” being my favorite, I might switch to being my favorite. In Dickey’s version of an animals heaven, the world of heaven is whatever it was for the animal on earth, only more so.
If they have lived in a wood
It is a wood.
If they have lived on plains
It is grass rolling
Under their feet forever.
Because, “for some of these, / It could not be the place / It is, without blood,” there are predators still, and still prey, and hunting and death, but the heaven part of it, the perfection part, for the predators is that the ecstatic moment when they are in the air, about to land “Upon the bright backs of their prey” lasts for a very long time, “May take years / In a sovereign floating of joy.” Those animals who are prey, they are prey but “in full knowledge / Of what is in glory above them,” and they feel no fear, and no pain. They are “at the cycle’s center” and “They fall, they are torn / They rise, they walk again.” Not really your typical animal poem…
Dickey, in addition to poetry, also wrote a few novels, most famously Deliverance (he also wrote the screenplay adaptation). Deliverance really is one of the twentieth century must-reads. Beautifully written on the sentence level, and on the whole gripping and intense (up there with The Road for tension-while-reading). Deserves its reputation.
James Dickey isn’t quite one of those touchstone poets for me, like Elizabeth Bishop, Larry Levis, and Yusef Komunyakaa are, that I could just read forever and would love to be able to write like, but he is definitely in the second tier of favorites. I think about his poems a lot, and frequently say to friends, “You should read that James Dickey poem where….” and I think he has a lot to teach about options for handling intense emotional experience, and for pushing past the strictly realistic into something bigger, that takes longer to tell, and is, if not easily quotable, totally memorable.