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PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST: JAMES DICKEY


I have long admired the poet James Dickey. He was popular in the ‘60s with his muscular, fear-nothing lyrics in early books like Drowning with Others and Helmets, which vividly narrate his Army Air Force days in WWII and the Korean Conflict. I was a young reader when I came upon him and may not have understood much of what he was saying in those powerful later poems in Buckdancer’s Choice, but I did note the clean rhythms, the force that drove his phrases down the page.

In a stable of boats I lie still,

From all sleeping children hidden.

The leap of a fish from its shadow

Makes the whole lake instantly tremble.

With my foot on the water, I feel

The moon outside. (“The Lifeguard”)

He had learned compression as an advertising writer in Atlanta. One of his accounts was Coca Cola, headquartered nearby. “I sold my soul to the devil all day . . . trying to buy it back at night,” he once observed. He wrote poems after hours, in other words, but the terse, biting rhythm of ad copy played into his poetry directly.

Once, at a poetry reading at Hollins College, a women’s college near Roanoke, Virginia, he sat down to reflect on some of the poems students had given him before hand. He liked one phrase especially, “every word is a sunken Atlantis.” It said a lot about the way poetry functioned –every word in lyric was attached to a root mass of meanings, associations, feelings. It impressed me that he would cull out that one phrase and save himself a lot of preaching about “good writing,” what students needed to do to improve themselves. Instead, he gave a short tour of his mind on a few topics.

When the Dallas Morning News asked me to interview him many years later, he was teaching at the University of South Carolina, and living in a sprawling ranch house on Lake Catherine. His best years were behind him; he had become a spectacular drunk on the reading tour and left behind a wide path of destruction taking faculty wives to bed. All that is well known and now no longer of any consequence, except, perhaps, to a few cuckolded and long-retired faculty who may have weathered the disgrace, or not. I know he played the poet maudit in his forties and fifties, but it seemed a desperate effort to remain young, the southern rebel and hell-raiser. Booze had undone him more than once, and when liver ailments laid him low, he was an old man. He married a younger woman after his first wife died, and was being kept alive by sheer force of will and diligence.

That was the scene when I arrived in a rental car at his doorstep. A maid showed me into a sunken living room with a table piled high with stacks of poetry books, all waiting for a bit of praise from the great one. The floor creaked once or twice and I readied myself for his appearance, but he didn’t show. I had mikes and a recorder set up, my notes at hand. After several more creaking floorboards I looked up and saw a blue eye dart away again. He had been staring at me, readying himself to be confronted by what might be a hostile reviewer, critic, accuser. He was nervous, quick to shake hands and sit down. He was tall, with a loose double chin, swimmy eyes. He wanted to get started right away. So I fired off a few easy questions about his work, his early lyrics, and he had practiced answers for each of them. He had been here before, many times. He drawled a little when he gave a rote answer. I dug a little deeper and he became more animated. He loved Shakespeare’s sonnets, he said, and marveled at the precision of a phrase like “the uncertain glory of an April morn.” It was just that, he said, uncertain, full of sun one moment and clouds the next. Not quite Spring, but not quite anything else.

Two hours went by and he wanted lunch, so we drove into town to his favorite restaurant. I ordered a glass of white wine and he gave me a long and probing look. Then he raised his finger and asked for a glass of wine as well. He sipped, and when our glasses were empty, he ordered two more. I didn’t know he had liver problems and fibrosis of the lungs ; he died in 1997 at the age of 74. Nor did I know I was helping him breach his wife’s fundamental rule -- no more booze. Ever. So he drank with a sheepish look, savoring every sip, looking up as if his wife might come crashing through the window to throttle him.

Our talk flowed; he told good stories about other poets. We laughed a lot. But when it got to be three, he thought we should wind things up at home. I let him talk all he wanted about meter, about how the line is framed by a strong, willful beat. (Paul McCartney once said that what made Chuck Berry’s songs so good was that there were no loose syllables in any of them; everything ended on the accent. That described the best of Dickey’s poems.) The interview ended, I packed up my gear, but he wasn’t done yet. He said I should see the house. So we went through several rooms with bookshelves lining the walls and reaching from floor to ceiling. One room was for French and Spanish books; another was just poetry from the U.S. Other rooms packed in everything from history to philosophy to general interest. He was well read, and proud of his collection, some ten thousand books or more.

Then he took me into another room hung with power bows of all kinds, kayak paddles, fishing gear, anything to do with his novel Deliverance, and the movie that made him famous. It was all free stuff hoping for the use of his name and a few words of praise. He never gave anyone a single word, he said with some pride. He took down a particularly ferocious looking bow and some arrows and led me to the back yard. Out there under the trees was a target leaning a little on its stand. He said to get behind him and watch how the arc of the arrow “traveled like fate” in the air. He missed the target altogether. He tried a second time and it went shy, but a third hit the blue paint. He told me to try my hand and the arrow went off into the woods. I gave it back to him. He stood there leaning a little into my face and said, “Everyone thinks all that stuff I wrote about nature was from experience. I’m the first to get lost in the woods and I never took chances. But I admired all those who did.”

He followed me out to the car and helped me stow my things in the trunk. When I started to get in, he pushed himself against me, his arms around me to pin me there. “When you get back and you want to say I’m just an old beaten up drunk on his last days, think harder. I know who I am and what I did in my life; I’m ashamed of some of it, but I’m also proud of my work, my ability. Will you promise not to stab me when you get home? Promise?”

I promised, but he didn’t really believe me. I liked him, perhaps because I didn’t know the worst of the gossip, and never would. I saw the man, the steely ambition to be good at poetry, the clear-headed understanding of what poems need to work. I liked all that. The tapes I made are still around, and they’re important to me. “Don’t ever think you want to write my biography,” he said at lunch earlier. “There’s too much muck there,” he said. “You’d just end up hating me,” by way of closing the subject. I don’t think I would have hated him; I might have felt like John Malcolm Brinnin writing Dylan Thomas in America (1956), the last drunken sprees of a poet who would soon die in a New York hospital of cirrhosis. Dickey was safe with me. He’s out of favor now, but he’ll come back. He resurrected southern poetry and made it possible for others like Dave Smith and David Bottoms to follow his lead.

A year or two later I saw Dickey at a MLA conference and he hailed me across a noisy bar, telling others at his table that I was the best damned writer on Olson (whom he disliked). He had begun to break up his lines on the page and make his poetry look a bit like Olson’s sprawling “projective verse.” But the theory was not there, just the appearance of loosening up. Go for it, I thought. You still have some vinegar left. When he died the eulogies came swiftly, and somewhat cautiously. But poets don’t rest on their morals or their errors, only the work remains. He illuminated something else more abstract and difficult to grasp – that the South worshipped youth, the young man as symbol of the South’s resurrection after defeat. Dickey supplied that image for a time, but as he approached middle age, he lost interest in himself. He kept searching for the elixir of youth in danger, and could only exaggerate what it might feel like. In a way, the South has no good adults in its literature, it’s either Huck Finn or no one.

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© 2014 by Paul Christensen