“ . . . this will almost undoubtedly be my last class forever.”
James Dickey was born on this date (February 2) in 1923. Dickey’s reputation as a contemporary poet rose quickly to the highest levels in the early 1960s with publication of his first three volumes of poetry—Into the Stone (1960), Drowning with Others (1962), and Helmets (1964). About that third collection, Richard Howard later declared Dickey “as the telluric maker Wallace Stevens had called for in prophesying that the great poems of heaven and hell have been written and the great poem of the earth remains to be written (Alone with America: Atheneum, 1969).
However, in 1965 James Dickey produced Buckdancer’s Choice, winner of the National Book Award and one of the great collections of poetry of its time. In fact, this book, too often overlooked by recent readers of poetry, contains some of the more original and compelling poems to contribute to the body of contemporary American literature. Indeed, Dave Smith speaks of Dickey’s first decade of poetry in his book of criticism, Local Assays: On Contemporary American Poetry (University of Illinois Press, 1985), that it is “often as good as American poetry has gotten.”
In one of the three chapters concerning James Dickey in Unassigned Frequencies, Laurence Lieberman’s 1977 book of criticism on contemporary poetry, Lieberman describes the persona he finds in Dickey’s poems as “a unique human personality. He is a worldly mystic. On the one hand, a joyous, expansive personality—all candor, laughter, and charm—in love with his fully conscious gestures, the grace and surety of moves of his body. An outgoing man. An extrovert. On the other hand, a chosen man. A man who has been picked by some mysterious, intelligent agent in the universe to act out a secret destiny.”
Lieberman considers the major poems in Buckdancer’s Choice—such as “The Firebombing,” “The Fiend,” and “Slave Quarters”—as works in which “the conflict between the worldly-mindedness of modern life and the inner life of the spirit is dramatized.” Regarding Dickey’s fifth collection of poems, Falling (included in Poems 1957-1967), and its amazing title piece, Lieberman admires the poet’s “joy that’s incapable of self-pity or self-defeat. There is a profound inwardness in the poems, the inner self always celebrating its strange joy in solitude, or pouring outward, overflowing into the world. No matter how much suffering the poet envisions, the sensibility that informs and animates him is joy in the sheer pleasure of being.”
Anyone who met James Dickey may have encountered the poet’s “sheer pleasure of being.” His presence was felt whenever he entered a room, and his forceful personality certainly evoked various reactions, positive and negative, from those whom he engaged with his thoughts on poems, poets, poetics, and sometimes politics. In a chapter titled “James Dickey’s Motions” from Hunting Men: Reflections on a Life in American Poetry (LSU Press, 2006), Dave Smith explains that “Dickey cunningly and rightly counted on notoriety to carry his poetry to an audience usually indifferent to academic poems.” Additionally, his eagerness and ability to attract attention often led to instances of friction, controversy, and confrontation with a few fellow poets and critics, including an ongoing public feud with Robert Bly, especially during his difficult later years, much of which is chronicled in Henry Hart’s informative biography of Dickey, James Dickey: The World as a Lie (Picador, 2000) and Christopher Dickey’s more intimate and further insightful book about his father, Summer of Deliverance: A Memoir of Father and Son (Simon & Schuster, 1998).
My own observations of James Dickey occurred when he and I once shared a publication party at the Gotham Book Mart for our volumes of poetry published by BOA Editions, his a limited edition work of poetry and mine a first-book collection. As Dickey and I greeted attendees and signed our books, I discovered his immense acuity at understanding his audience when telling tall tales that enthralled the folks gathered around us. Although at times boastful of his talent or rudely dismissive of the skills demonstrated by a couple of contemporary poets, the man’s enthusiasm for the art of poetry and his great energy even appeared to lift the ordinary language of small talk toward oratorical elegance or sometimes steer it toward the harshness of sharp sarcasm.
In addition, I appreciated his generosity toward me as privately we spoke of the odd contrast in one another’s situation—he already well-known not only for his prize-winning poetry, which at that time included more than a dozen volumes, and his position as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress (now known as the U.S. Poet Laureate), as well as poet and presenter for President Carter, but also for his novel, Deliverance, adapted into a movie phenomenon, in which he appeared in a minor part, and I merely introducing my premiere book of poems. Indeed, as I’ve mentioned in previous articles, at one point James Dickey turned to me and asked if I’d like to trade signed copies of our books, to which I agreed quickly, knowing that I was getting the better end of that deal.
Writing about James Dickey in a chapter of Local Assays, “The Strength of James Dickey,” Dave Smith remarked: “No one was ever a greater lover of poetry, of the sheerness of passionate sound and the honesty of feel that poetry makes our first and last way of knowing the labor that life is. No one has tried to demand more of art as the ungulled and absolute measure of individual experience.” Certainly, readers who have examined James Dickey’s Self-Interviews (Delta, 1970), a book in which the poet speaks openly of his life and vehemently about his poetry—with what Barbara and James Reiss label in their introduction as “the candid, uncompromising opinions of a man unafraid to speak the truth as he sees it, aloud and in a scary marketplace of ideas”—could doubt Dickey’s love for poetry, as well as his respect for his role as a poet and teacher of poetry.
Consequently, on this day marking Dickey’s birth, I have returned to Christopher Dickey’s excellent book of memoirs, Summer of Deliverance. Near the end of this wonderful glimpse at the poet and his relationships with others, the son describes his actions upon hearing in a phone call from his brother Kevin in late January of 1997 that their ill father had died. Christopher Dickey recalls that his father had given a last class at his home, which the university fortunately had recorded on tape. One afternoon in the days after James Dickey’s death, while driving with his brother through the streets of Columbia, South Carolina, Christopher places the tape in the car player to listen as his father addresses the students, and the son notes: “God, our father’s voice sounded weak—so much weaker, even, than it had been two weeks before, when I was with him. But now he was changing the subject again. He was getting stronger as he started to talk about exactly what it means to be a poet.”
Christopher Dickey experiences his sense of grief as he listens to his father’s voice on the tape, and he is “breathless with loss” when the poet reports to the students that, considering his poor physical condition, “this will undoubtedly be my last class forever.”
As I re-read the words in James Dickey’s lecture to his last class, I thought of the very popular and very inspiring “Last Lecture” Randy Pausch, the terminally-ill professor at Carnegie Mellon University, delivered on videotape just before his death. I also thought that perhaps all aspiring poets or lovers of poetry should hear the reflections, emotions, opinions, lessons, and advice offered by James Dickey. His insightful and inspiring comments provide much to contemplate, interrogate, evaluate, and appreciate:
Invent is the guts of it. “To invent.” You can say as much as you like with stuff you know. But don’t be confined to it. Don’t think about—honestly—don’t think about telling the truth. Because poets are not trying to tell the truth, are they?
They are trying to show God a few things he maybe didn’t think of. It takes us to supply that. We are not trying to tell the truth. We are trying to make it so that when we sit down to write we are absolute lords over our material. We can say anything we want to, any way we want to. The question is to find the right way, the best way to do it. This is what we are going to be looking for.
This is going to take us through some very strange fields, across a lot of rivers, oceans, mountains, forests. God knows where it will take us. That is part of the excitement of it, and the sense of deep adventure. Which is what we want more than anything. Discovery. Everything is in that. Everything is that.
We have to fight for it. We have to fight through to it. We have to cut the angel out of the marble, out of the rock, the form of the angel. Michelangelo used to say the angel is already in the stone, all I got to do is chip the rock from around it and set it free. Well, the shape is already in there. It takes a lot of chipping to get the angel to stand up, much less to fly. Sort of heavy for that [chuckling at his own joke]. So, as I say, this is a strange and long journey that we are undertaking.
With my current physical shape this will almost undoubtedly be my last class forever. But what we start here I would like you to continue on your own. When we get started, I want you to fight this thing through with your own unconscious, with your own dreams, and see where it comes out. That is the excitement and fun of it—deep discovery, deep adventure. It is the most dangerous game, and the best.
Flaubert says somewhere that the life of a poet is a hell of a life, it is a dog’s life, but it is the only one worth living. You suffer more. You are frustrated more by things that don’t bother other people. But you also live so much more. You live so much more intensely and so much more vitally. And with so much more of a sense of meaning, of consequentiality, instead of nothing mattering. This is what is driving our whole civilization into suicide. The feeling that we are living existences in which nothing matters very much, or at all. That is what is behind all the drugs and the alcoholism and suicide—insanity, wars, everything—a sense of nonconsequence. A sense that nothing, nothing matters. No matter which way we turn it is the same thing. But the poet is free of that. He is free of that.
For the poet, everything matters, and it matters a lot. That is the realm where we work. Once you are there, you are hooked. If you are a real poet, you are hooked more deeply than any narcotics addict could possibly be on heroin. You are hooked on something that is life-giving instead of destructive. Something that is a process that cannot be too far from the process that created everything. God’s process. You can say what you want of God. I don’t know what your religion might be. You can say what you want as to whether this is a chemist’s universe or a physicist’s universe or an Old Testament, New Testament God’s universe—whatever kind of universe you might want to attribute the cosmos to. You can attribute it any way you want. To an engineer, as I say, to a physicist or an astronomer. Or whatever you might want the deity to be.
Those are things that he might be. What this universe indubitably is is a poet’s universe. Nothing but a poetic kind of consciousness could have conceived of anything like this. This is where the truth of the matter lies. You are some way in line with the creative genesis of the universe. In some way—in a much lesser way, of course. We can’t create those trees or that water or anything that is out there. We can’t do it. But we can re-create it. We are secondary creators. We take God’s universe and make it over our way. And it is different from his. It is similar in some ways, but it is different in some ways. And the difference lies in the slant, in the slant that we individually put on it and that only we can put on it. That is the difference. That is where our value lies. Not only for ourselves, but for the other people who read us. There is some increment there that we make possible that would not otherwise be there.
I don’t mean to sell the poet so long or at such great length, but I do this principally because the world doesn’t esteem the poet very much. They don’t understand where we are coming from. They don’t understand the use for us. They don’t understand if there is any use. They don’t really value us very much. We are the masters of the superior secret. Not they. Remember that when you write. You are at the top level, and they are down there with Elvis and Marilyn Monroe, and the general idols of the schlock culture we live in. We are the elitists. I don’t mind saying that at all. Quality is what we strive for, best standards. My grandmother was born in Germany, and she used to quote from Goethe, a lot. One of her favorite sayings was, “He who ever strives upward, him can we save.” That is what we are doing.
[Readers also are invited to read a previous post in “One Poet’s Notes” about James Dickey’s “The Firebombing.”]