James Dickey (1923 - 1997)

Life and Works

James Dickey (1923-97) was one of the best-known American poets of the last decades of the 20th century. In addition to writing a large body of poetry, he was also a novelist, critic and teacher. A great deal of his public recognition was due to the enormous success of his first novel, Deliverance (1970), and the film version of it directed by John Boorman in 1972.

He was born in 1923 in the small town of Buckhead, Georgia, a few miles east of Atlanta, where he acquired an early love for hunting and fishing in the Appalachian Mountains. He went to Clemson College (now Clemson University) for one year, playing on the varsity football team there, before joining the Air Force in 1942. Sent to the Pacific, Dickey flew more than 100 combat missions as a member of the 418th Night Fighter Squadron. During this period he began to experiment with poetry, which was always associated in his mind with strong physical and emotional experiences. After the war he attended Vanderbilt University, where he was a member of the track team and was a magna cum laude graduate in 1949.

Although he published his first poem in the Sewanee Review while he was a senior in college, he did not immediately dedicate his life to poetry. He earned a Master's degree from Vanderbilt in 1950 and taught at Rice Institute (now Rice University), and the University of Florida until 1956, when he decided to go into advertising in order to insure himself financial security. He found work at McCann-Erickson, the biggest ad agency in New York at the time, and wrote jingles for its Coca-Cola account. From there, he went to Liller, Neal, Battle & Lindsey in Atlanta, Georgia, working on potato chips and fertilizer accounts, and later became an executive with Burke Dowling Adams, where his primary concern was the Delta Airlines account. However, he continued writing poetry during this time, much of it appearing in journals such as the Hudson Review, Partisan Review, Sewanee Review and Kenyon Review. With the publication of his first book, Into the Stone, in 1960, he abandoned his advertising career to devote himself completely to poetry and teaching.

In 1961 he was granted a Guggenheim Fellowship and spent a year in Italy. For most of the rest of his life, he was associated with a number of colleges and universities. He was poet-in-residence at Reed College (in Portland, Oregon) from 1963-64, at San Fernando State College (now California State University, Northridge) from 1964-65, at the University of Wisconsin from 1966-67, and taught at Washington University (in St. Louis, Missouri) and the Georgia Institute of Technology during 1968. In 1969 he became Professor of English and poet-in-residence at the University of South Carolina, where he remained until his death, in 1997. In addition to these academic posts, Dickey held the position of Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress from 1966 to 1968, an office that would later become the Poet Laureate.

He published two more volumes of poetry, in the mid-1960s, Helmets (1964) and Buckdancer's Choice (1965), for the latter of which he was awarded both the Melville Cane Award and National Book Award. Dickey has sometimes been referred to as a "Neo-Romantic" poet, and his public statements on his approach to his art often bear out that opinion. In an interview with Howard Nemerov in Contemporary American Poetry (1965), he says: "As a writer of poetry I began comparatively late, around my twenty-fourth year. I came to poetry with no particular qualifications. I had begun to suspect, however, that there is a poet-a kind of poet-buried in every human being like Ariel in his tree, and that the people whom we are pleased to call poets are only those who have felt the need and contrived the means to release this spirit from its prison". He believed that poetry consists in finding exactly the right words to express strong and complex feelings which all human beings are capable of sharing. This attitude is somewhat reminiscent of Wordsworth's ideas in the "Prelude" about the new poetry he was struggling to produce in Lyrical Ballads:

The principle object, then, proposed in these poems, was to choose incidents and situations from common life,and to relate or describe them throughout [. . .] in a selection of language really used by men, and, at the same time,to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect, and further,and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature [. . .].

Dickey's emphasis on the memory of deep experiences forming the basis for his poems (he sometimes called the poet an "intensified man") is also reminiscent of Wordsworth's poetic practice. In that same interview, Dickey says: "I found that certain of [my memories] stood out in my mind, and recurred to me at odd times, as if seeking something, perhaps some act of understanding, from me. [. . .] Later, I saw that these incidents, the more important ones, were not only potential raw material for the kind of poetry I wanted to write, but were in fact the principle incidents in my life: those times when I felt most strongly and was most aware of the intense reality of the objects and people I moved among.

The poems included in our selection here are all taken from Dickey's first five books, which many readers consider to be his best work. And they all exemplify the kind poetry he describes in the interview quoted above, which is also given here in the Critical Works section.

Dickey opened a new branch of his artistic career in 1970, with the publication of his first novel, Deliverance. This adventure story of four city-dwellers who canoe down a river in the back woods of Georgia and are forced to confront their own fears and deepest needs to survive a series of life-threatening experiences was an immediate best seller and thrust Dickey into a much wider fame than that normally achieved by a poet. This skilfully written story depicts many scenes of rather sensational, though credible, violence and the potential horrors that may lie within the heart of darkness in the human soul. At the same time, its themes and imagery are clearly developed from the less sensational aspects of Dickey's previous poetry. Dickey himself wrote the screenplay for John Boorman's film of the book, and even appears, credibly, in a minor role as a small-town sheriff near the end of the movie.


Dickey on the set of Deliverance

An indication of Dickey's growing reputation came in 1977, when President-elect Jimmy Carter invited him to read a poem at his inauguration, an honor that, until then, had only been extended to Robert Frost, at the Kennedy inauguration of 1960. On that occasion, Dickey read his poem, "The Strength of the Fields".

He wrote four more novels during his lifetime: Sorties (1971), Puella (1982), Alnilam (1987) and To the White Sea (1993). None of these novels achieved either the critical or popular success of Deliverance, and Dickey continued to devote himself primarily to poetry during this period. In the 33 years between 1960 and 1993, counting poetry, fiction, criticism and children's books, he published 28 volumes (see Bibliography).

Dickey's reputation seems to have faded since his death, in 1997. For many critics, the swaggering, larger-than-life public persona that he cultivated has overshadowed the work itself. However, only time will tell whether the poetry of this late-20th-century neo-romantic "intensified man" contains important messages for future readers. In any case, the life and work of this fascinating personality, who was at various times a hunter and woodsman, an athlete, a pilot and war hero, an advertising man, an effective critic and teacher, a public entertainer, and a novelist and poet, will undoubtedly reward whatever attention we can give them now.

Autor: Paul Scott Derrick (Universidad de Valencia)