06 December 2005

American Icon: James Dickey

Many of my erudite readers recognize James Dickey as the auther of "Deliverance." The book was made into a major motion picture starring Burt Reynolds, James Voigt and a cast of toothless inbred locals from a mountain town in the Appalachians.

However, many don't know that that was Dickey's only novel. His preeminent talent was in the field of poetry.

He is America's greatest poet.

Here is a snippet from The Performance:

The last time I saw Donald Armstrong
He was staggering oddly off into the sun,
Going down, of the Philipine Islands.
I let my shovel fall, and put that hand
Above my eyes, and moved some way to one side
That his body might pass through the sun,
And I saw how well he was not
Standing there on his hands,
On his spindle-shanked forearms balanced,
Unbalanced, with his big feet looming and waving
In the great, untrustworthy air
He flew in each night, when it darkened.

Dust fanned in scraped puffs from the earth
Between his arms, and blood turned his face inside out,
To demonstrate its suppleness
Of veins, as he perfected his role.
Next day, he toppled his head off
On an island beach to the south.

And the enemy's two-handed sword
Did not fall from anyone's hands
At that miraculous sight,
As the head rolled over upon
Its wide-eyed face, and fell
Into the inadequate grave

He had dug for himself, under pressure.
Yet I put my flat hand to my eyebrows
Months later, to see him again
In the sun, when I learned how he died,
And imagined him, there,
Come, judged, before his small captors

~ from Scanning the Century: 20th Century poetry (penguin)

Dickey's poetry is incisive and thrilling. His use of imagery is unparalled. But what is most striking about his poetry, is not the poems, it is the man.
Dickey was 38 when he published his first book of poetry. "Into the Stone" came out in 1960. Dickey is the Ted Nugent of the poetry-world. He was close friends with William F. Buckley and was poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. He was, also, highly critical of other poets - most notably Robert Frost, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Bly, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath.

From the Paris Review of Books, 1976 – interviewed by Franklin Ashley:
FA: It seems Allen Ginsberg is the diametrical opposite of you.
JD: I certainly hope so. I think Ginsberg has done more harm to the craft that I honor and live by than anybody else by reducing it to a kind of mean that enables the most dubious practitioners to claim they are poets because they think, If the kind of thing Ginsberg does is poetry, I can do that. They damn themselves to a life of inconsequentiality when they could have been doing something more useful. It is very easy, too easy, to pick up on the latest thing in the newspapers and write a poem. That's all that Ginsberg does. He just doesn't have any talent."

FA: How do you respond to the emergence of Sylvia Plath as a celebrated figure?
JD: She's not very good. She's just someone who killed herself out of literary desperation - out of desperation to be literarily notable. Someone ought to write an article called "The Suicide Certification," which assumes that if you're a poet and you kill yourself, then you have got to be good. No way.
FA: One time you called it "suicide chic."
JD: [Al Alvarez] writes in a recent book on suicide that she [Plath] was just doing it as a gesture and she hoped it wouldn't come off. So she killed herself by mistake. She's the Judy Garland of American poetry. If you want to kill yourself, you don’t make an attempt; you do it. You make sure that the thing comes off. Suicide attempts, and the writing poems about your suicide attempts, is just pure bullshit! Sylvia Plath is of a certain talent, a very modest talent. Anne Sexton is better than she is, and I don’t care much for her either.
FA: Has the poetry of Robert Frost, particularly the country poems, been of interest or impact?
JD: I don’t care for Robert Frost, and have never been able to understand his reputation. He says a good thing now and then, but with a strange way of averting his eyes while saying it which may be profound and may be poppycock. If it were thought that anything I wrote was influenced by Robert Frost, I would take that particular work of mine, shred it, and flush it down the toilet, hoping not to clog the pipes.
FA: Did you know him?
JD: Yes, I knew him slightly, and spent a couple of afternoons with him when I was teaching at the University of Florida in 1955, and a more sententious, holding-forth old bore who expected every hero-worshipping adenoidal little twerp of a student-poet to hang on his every word I never saw.


The thing you can say about James Dickey is that he lived his life on his own terms. He was compared with Hemingway but he considered himself not at the same intellectual level as Ernest. You can say that the world just wasn't ready for James Dickey - his lifestyle was defined by wildness, his language was rough and his tolerance for liberal sentimentalities was nil. But he didn't care about what others thought, critics or anyone else. As he quotes Stephen Dedalus in A portrait..., I'm ready to make a lifelong mistake." As long as you can live your life from your own center, that is the best we can hope for.

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