James Dickey (1923-1997), with his unique vision, often violent imagery, and eccentric style, created for himself a place as an important American poet in the last half of the twentieth century. Although he drew much from his life experience, Dickey avoided the classification as a confessional poet because he wrote verse that touched at the heart of all human experience.
Dickey was born on February 2, 1923, in Buckhead, Georgia, an affluent suburb of Atlanta. He was the second son of Eugene Dickey, a lawyer, and Maibelle Swift Dickey. The Dickeys' first-born son, Eugene Jr., had died of meningitis. Dickey attended North Fulton High School, where he was involved in football and track. After graduating in 1941, he attended Darlington School in Rome, Georgia, for one year. In the fall of 1942, he enrolled at Clemson A & M (now Clemson University) and played tailback on the freshmen football team. After just one semester, Dickey left college to enlist in the United States Army Air Corps. He saw action during World War II, flying approximately 100 combat missions in the South Pacific as a member of the 418th Night Fighter Squadron.
The Making of a Poet
Dickey returned from active duty and entered Vanderbilt University when he was 23 years old. At college, he began to take his poetry seriously. Some of Dickey's poems appeared in The Gadfly, the Vanderbilt student literary magazine in 1947. The Sewanee Review was the first major periodical to publish his work. "The Shark at the Window" was accepted by the quarterly and eventually published in 1951. On November 4, 1948, Dickey married Maxine Syerson. They had two sons, Christopher and Kevin. The marriage ended with the death of Dickey's wife in late October 1976. Two months later, he married Deborah Dodson with whom he had one daughter, Bronwen. Dickey was awarded a bachelor of arts degree in English from Vanderbilt in 1949, graduating magna cum laude. He stayed at Vanderbilt one more year, and in 1950 earned a master of arts degree. His thesis was titled "Symbol and Image in the Short Poems of Herman Melville."
In 1950, Dickey became an instructor in English at Rice Institute (now Rice University). After only four months of teaching, he was recalled to active military duty due to the Korean War. After serving two years in the training command of the United States Air Force, he returned to Rice. In 1954, Dickey was awarded a fellowship from the Sewanee Review, which he used to travel in Europe and write poetry for a year.
Upon his return from Europe, novelist and historian Andrew Lytle helped Dickey secure a teaching position at the University of Florida. But two years later, in the spring of 1956, Dickey resigned due to a controversy surrounding a reading of his poem "The Father's Body," which was considered by some to be obscene. Frustrated with the university and gaining confidence in his ability to write, Dickey abandoned the academic life and moved to New York to enter the advertising business.
A Successful Career in Advertising
Dickey landed a job as a copyeditor with McCann-Erickson, the largest advertising agency in New York at that time. He wrote jingles for its Coca-Cola account and became an executive with the company before he left to work for Liller, Neal, Battle & Lindsey in Atlanta, Georgia, for twice the salary. He wrote on accounts for potato chips and fertilizer until he changed agencies once more, again receiving an increase in salary. As an executive at Burke Dowling Adams, also in Atlanta, Dickey's primary account was Delta Airlines. By the end of the 1950s, Dickey was earning a comfortable living.
While working in the advertising business, Dickey continued to write poetry. In 1958, he was awarded the Union League's Civic and Arts Foundation Prize for his poems that appeared in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. In 1960, he published his first collection of poems as Into the Stone, and Other Poems. By 1961, he left advertising to devote more time to his writing. In the same year, he won a Guggenheim Fellowship. He used the money to travel in Italy, where he wrote Drowning with Others, published in 1962.
When Dickey returned to the United States, he became the poet-in-residence at Reed College (1963-1964), San Fernando Valley State College (now California State University, Northridge, 1964-1965), University of Wisconsin at Madison (1966), University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee (1967), and Washington University (1968). From 1966 to 1968 he also served as consultant in poetry for the Library of Congress. During this time, he gained considerable recognition for his writing, especially for Helmets (1964) and Buckdancer's Choice (1965), for which he was awarded the 1966 National Book Award.
Both Helmets and Buckdancer's Choice deal with the modern suburbanite's attempt to maintain values and find meaning in a world so far removed from the natural that life becomes distorted and unreal. Death, war, the natural environment, and the self-common themes in much of Dickey's work-are represented in some of his most poignant and much-discussed poems. Throughout his career, Dickey would draw on his belief that civilization was alienated from nature, and any encounters between the two would be, by necessity, shocking and violent. For Dickey, encountering death enabled one to achieve a heightened sense of life.
"Firebombing," the first poem in Buckdancer's Choice, is told from the perspective of a pilot who momentarily flashes back 20 years to World War II and recollects dropping 300-gallon tanks filled with napalm and gasoline on neighborhoods not unlike his own: "… when those on earth/ Die there is not even sound; one is cool and enthralled in the cockpit/ Turned blue by the power of beauty/ … this detachment/ The honored aesthetic evil … " His inability to experience guilt during the moment of bombing is washed away by time, and the pilot, now safely home, re-encounters his actions, no longer protected from the feelings of horror and guilt.
Poems, 1957-1967 (1968) is a collection of Dickey's early poems, some previously unpublished. First appearing in Two Poems of the Air (1964), "Reincarnation (II)" reappears in Poems, 1957-1967 in a section titled "Falling." The poem is representative of Dickey's fascination with transformation and incarnation. An office worker, who sits at a clean desk every day, finds that death brings him new life when he is reincarnated as a migratory sea bird. "I always had/ These wings buried deep in my back:/ There is a wing-growing motion/ Half-alive in every creature." In many of his poems Dickey transforms his subjects into beings of the nonhuman world so that they can experience life from such a radically different view that the sense of self is renewed and restored, at least temporarily.
Home for Life: The University of South Carolina
In 1968, Dickey became poet-in-residence at the University of South Carolina, and in 1970 he was named First Carolina Professor of English. Dickey remained at the University of South Carolina until his death in 1997. During the early 1970s, he wrote extensively, publishing his next collection of poems, The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead, and Mercy (1970); two books on creative writing, Self-Interviews (1971) and Sorties (1970); and the critically acclaimed and internationally best-selling novel Deliverance (1970). Dickey gained even more popularity after Deliverance was made into a successful film in 1972.
Deliverance is a dark and violent story of four Georgia businessmen whose canoe trip down a rugged river turns into a terrifying experience of stalking, murder, and survival at all costs. Lewis Medlock, played by Burt Reynolds in the film version, is an avid bow hunter who convinces three friends to go on a weekend back-to-nature trip down a rugged stretch of the Cahulawassee River in Georgia. During the first day they overcome the obstacles and hazards of the harsh environment; they experience a sense of communion with each other and with nature around them. The next day their world is transformed by a series of horrible events that are set into motion when two members of the party, resting on the bank of the river, are overtaken by two malicious mountain men. One is being sexually assaulted at gunpoint when Medlock finds them and kills the assailant with his bow and arrow. The other runs away. Now the four are faced with decisions about justice, murder, and survival. The idyllic sense of nature is replaced by a nature where savagery and necessity are paramount.
The four men decide to bury the body, fearing how the locals would react to outsiders killing one of their own. The horror of the inescapable experience intensifies when Drew, the only one who wanted to tell the authorities, drowns and Medlock suffers a broken leg. Ultimately, Ed Gentry, the narrator of the story, is forced to kill the second assailant who continues to stalk them down the river. When the terrifying trip finally ends, each member is left to determine the line between meaning and meaninglessness.
After the success of the film Deliverance, (for which he had written the screenplay, suggested the theme song, and portrayed a minor on-screen character) Dickey achieved some popular fame. He traveled a circuit of college campuses, playing his guitar and reading his poetry.
Dickey also continued writing poems. The Zodiac, published in 1976, was a long poem based on Hendrik Marsman's poem of the same title. Presented in twelve parts, it is about an alcoholic who moves to Amsterdam to write and die. The Strength of the Fields, first written for President Jimmy Carter's inauguration in 1977, was published as a collection in 1979. Puella, published in 1982, is a long poem about a girl's journey into womanhood. Dickey also wrote several collections for children, including Tucky the Hunter (1978) and Bronwen, the Traw, and the Shape Shifter (1986). Collections of previous published works include The Early Motion: "Drowning with Others" and "Helmets" (1980), The Central Motion (1983), and The Whole Motion: Collected Poems, 1945-1992. Deliverance was Dickey's only successful attempt as a novelist. Alnilam, which was published in 1987, was a lengthy World War II novel about a recently blinded man looking for his son. The novel received mixed reviews and had little popular success. In 1994, his teacher, mentor, and fellow poet, Monroe K. Spears said in a profile of Dickey, which appeared in the Southern Review: "He has made poetry seem vital and important, not merely a superior form of amusement or a purely aesthetic activity, but related to the central activities and experiences of life."
Dickey died on January 19, 1997, in Columbia, South Carolina. He taught poetry at the University of South Carolina until the end, even having an oxygen tank wheeled into his classroom every day. Although best known for the novel, Deliverance, he was at heart a poet who captivated his readers with the intensity of his feeling and experience. Able to attract large audiences to his public readings in the late 1960s and 1970s, Dickey brought poetry to the masses and continues to enthrall the smaller audience of poetry readers today. In an interview with Frank Anthony that appeared in the New England Review in 1997, Dickey seemed to comment on his own place in literary history: "I remember talking to [poet] Robert Lowell about posterity-we differed on opinions of various writers-and I said I would leave that to posterity because after all it's the greatest critic of them all. He turned to me savagely and said, 'Posterity is a lousy critic!' Nevertheless, I would side with posterity, all things being equal."
Further Reading on James Dickey
Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia, fourth ed., edited by Bruce Murphy. Harper Collins, 1996.
Contemporary Authors, edited by Pamela S. Dear. Gale Research, 1995.
Cyclopedia of World Authors, revised third ed., edited by Frank N. Magill. Salem Press, 1997.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, edited by Joseph Conte, Gale Research, 1998.
Oxford Companion to American Literature, sixth ed., edited by James D. Hart. Oxford University Press, 1995.
Booklist, July 1998.
New England Review, Fall 1997.
New Yorker, July 13, 1998.
Southern Review, Autumn 1994.
Time, February 3, 1997.