The Poets James Dickey (1923-1997)


About the Poet

In answer to the question "Does regional verse still flourish?" James Lafayette Dickey, a giant among mid-to-late twentieth-century Southern poets, provided a yes — a definitive sense of place and person. Dickey, who is grouped with Randall Jarrell, William Styron, Ralph Ellison, and Ernest Gaines, has earned praise for probing internal monologues and for studies of life forces, which thrust into scenes of joy, pain, birth, confrontation, survival, and death. His style, a blend of visionary and humanistic, accommodated a wide-ranging curiosity that refused to be satisfied by surface knowledge.

Dickey was an Atlantan, born February 2, 1923. He excelled in football at North Fulton High and was struggling through his freshman year at Clemson when he enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps. While he was based near Luzon during World War II, he flew a hundred missions over Okinawa and Japan with a decorated bomber squadron, the 418th Night Fighters. On returning from the war, he graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. from Vanderbilt. After he completed an M.A. from Vanderbilt, he taught one semester on the English faculty of Rice Institute, then was recalled to the military to train pilots. He earned an ace's renown and an Air Medal in the Korean War for bravery in combat.

Because of his service in two wars, Dickey took a long time to produce verse. In postwar adulthood, he taught once more at Rice and the University of Florida while publishing in Partisan Review, Harper's, and Atlantic Monthly. While on the staff of McCann-Erickson in New York, he wrote copy for Coca-Cola and crafted advertisements for Lay's Potato Chips and Delta Airlines.

After Dickey spent five and a half years juggling office responsibilities while submitting poetry to little magazines, he published two collections, Into the Stone and Other Poems (1960) and Drowning with Others (1962). A Guggenheim Fellowship temporarily placed him in Europe in 1961 to compose and study language while he wrote Helmets (1964), a collection of war poems. In 1963, he returned to the classroom as writer-in-residence at Reed College, San Fernando Valley State University, and George Washington University while completing Interpreter's House (1963) and Two Poems of the Air (1964).

Dickey surprised those who typified him as a slightly scruffy good-timer. Under the influence of Theodore Roethke, Dylan Thomas, James Agee, and a Southern literary group known as the Fugitive Agrarians, he mastered technique and structure. Among his verse characterizations are astronauts of the first Apollo moon landing, a woman suffering heart disease, and a man battling cancer.

Dickey arrived when he received a National Book Award for Buckdancer's Choice (1965). At this time he lived on Lake Katherine in Columbia, South Carolina, with his wife, Maxine Syerson Dickey, and younger son Kevin. He reached a new audience with an ominous best-selling adventure novel, Deliverance (1970), set on an undesignated river north of Atlanta. Two years later, the story made an even more menacing film.

Dickey achieved less critical impact in the last decades of his career, when he published The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy (1970), The Zodiac (1976), and Puella (1982), as well as two volumes of poetic prose: Jericho: The South Beheld (1974), illustrated by painter Hubert Shuptrine; and God's Images (1977). His novels include Alnilam (1987) and To the White Sea (1993), and five critical volumes: The Suspect in Poetry (1964), Babel to Byzantium: Poets and Poetry Now (1968), Self-Interviews (1970), Sorties (1974), and Night Hurdling: Poems, Essays, Conversations, Commencements, and Afterwords (1983).

Dickey died on January 19, 1997, from alcoholism and lung fibrosis.

Chief Works

In 1964, Dickey published "Cherrylog Road," an exuberant, comic boy-meets-girl that abandons the ritual conventions of courtship. Nostalgic, yet standing clear of the scene, the poet exhibits his characteristic masculine energy by dramatizing a daredevil's flirtation with danger. For structure, he chose a tumbling eighteen-stanza framework relieved of a strong metric order by frequent enjambment and rhythmic inconsistencies. In pulsing iambic trimeter, the speaker, an uninitiated motorcyclist indulging his fantasy in an auto junkyard, anticipates a tryst with Doris Holbrook. Acknowledging that Doris's father is capable of flogging his wayward daughter and stalking her seducer, the youth accepts the threat, enjoys a breathless coupling, then charges "Up Highway 106," his future determined by the audacity of forbidden sex.

A near-parody of Alfred Noyes's "The Highwayman," Dickey's narrative breaks into the frenetic adolescent mindscape. Opening on the sexual implications of the Cherrylog road, a reference to a town in northwest Georgia as well as a fused image of female virginity and engorged phallus, the poet becomes a voyeur ranging over heaped automotive junk in pursuit of sex-driven youth. The clutter of the 1934 Ford, Chevrolet, and Essex inspires ego-active imaginings of moonshine running and racing, both products of the South. In the sedate Pierce-Arrow, the central intelligence can play the stuffed shirt. In the back seat, partially walled off by a broken glass panel intended to separate chauffeur and passenger, he engages the interphone to dramatize the role of sanctimonious benefactor to an orphanage.

The dominant event, a boy's carnal escapade with a willing partner, pulls the adventurer out of daydreams into an instinctive release of pent-up tension. Powered solely by risk and joyous lust, he anticipates the sweet union previously arranged for a hot afternoon made hotter by teen hormones. As an introduction to the constants of the chase, the poet toys with "parts" and "chassis." A subtle movement closes the car door from within for privacy; three repetitions punch out an intense, hasty thrusting as the boy "held her and held her and held her." Brisk alliteration and witty imagery depict the blacksnake stalking the mouse "with deadly overexcitement," a sexual crescendo that erupts in depersonalized "breathless batting" as the stuffing bursts from the ruined seat cover. The passionate consummation ends abruptly without tender farewell. Dickey, who identifies wholeheartedly with his callow protagonist, maintains the male perspective in the crouch of the motorcyclist "wringing the handlebar for speed" as he pledges himself to a lifetime of such hurried bliss.

A shift in Dickey's standard three-beat line departs from an expedited rhythm to a slower, more contemplative cadence in the 176 lines of "Falling," the chilling focal work of Falling, May Day Sermon, and Other Poems (1981). Long, sweeping visual images break into phrases punctuated by spaces rather than commas. Based on an actual event — the misstep of a stewardess who fell through the emergency door of a plane — the poem parcels out the deadly plunge in curiously protective stop-action shots. The strobed melodrama pictures a neatly-groomed form dressed according to airline regulations as she is altered from employee to casualty.

A free flow of details honors the protagonist who dies through no fault or omission of duty. Simultaneously, like a police officer or insurance investigator, the witness examines the accident from numerous possibilities: "hung high up in the overwhelming middle of things," "a marvelous leap," and "riding slowly." Sense impressions intersperse with explicit action words — for example, collapsing on "stupendous pillows" and whirling "madly on herself." As enhancements of the terror of a free fall from on high, images of towns, houses, lakes, and a Greyhound bus below counter impressions that stray from simple observation of momentum and shifting physical states to images of lovemaking, an owl preying on a chicken yard, and an innocent rabbit, which softens and elongates the slide toward certain death.

As physical forces compel the body toward earth, the poet, like a lover, caresses the outstretched arms, air-buoyed breast, and bare legs with a sensuous eye for female beauty. He withholds hope of survival in lines 68 and 69, which comment that she might live if she had plunged into water. By line 75, the victim's mind set, which is "now through with all," follows a surreal progression from life focus to acceptance of mortality to emergence as a mythic deity honored by corn-growing farmers below. Line 85 notes the unlikely occasion of a "correct young woman" meeting death over Kansas in so catastrophic a fashion as though singling out the incident as a sign of divine intervention.

Celebrating the airborne grace of the fall in audacious imagery, the poet departs from cold fact with an inventive extraction of spirit from the doomed body. As though reconstituting her in midair, he retrieves her from inelegant sprawl to the skilled aerodynamics of "bank" and "roll," a pilot's terminology. Near death, she transcends horror in the image of "the holy ghost / Of a virgin." In brief comic relief, the poet envisions her shedding underclothes one by one, losing an abnormal, "monobuttocked" shape with the removal of her girdle, which lands on a clothesline. The "superhuman act" of hurtling through the sky carries sexual overtones in "let her come openly trying at the last second to land / On her back." Impacting with earth, the fragile form imbeds itself in loam in a stark collision that interrupts "her maiden flight." Relinquishing a "brief goddess / State," she offers up a last breath. The final "Not and tries less once tries tries AH, GOD — " elevates her passing to a titanic struggle, the epitome of the human effort to grasp life.

Discussion and Research Topics

1. Compare the portraiture of Randall Jarrell's poem "The Woman at the Washington Zoo," Sylvia Plath's "The Disquieting Muses," or Katherine Anne Porter's short story "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" with James Dickey's female sufferer in "Angina."

2. Characterize the tone and outlook of "The Performance" in light of Dickey's experiences in World War II and the Korean War.

3. Locate evidence of the influence of Ezra Pound on Dickey's rapid-fire imagery in "Night Bird" and "Falling."

4. How does Dickey control the act of falling in "Falling"? Does the rhythm of the poem affect the movement of the action? If so, how?

5. Contrast Dickey's selection of "The Strength of Fields" for Jimmy Carter's inaugural with choices made by Robert Frost and Maya Angelou for similar state occasions.