James Dickey


James Dickey wrote the following remarks on his own work in response to a series of questions submitted to him for the Voice of America Forum Series, broadcast during 1964-5. The text was published in the volume Contemporary American Poetry (Howard Nemerov, ed.); Washington: Voice of America, 1965 (pp. 232-97).

The Poet Turns on Himself

Some Passing Observations on My Work

When I was in high school twenty-five years ago, I had courses in literature, and memorized a number of poems, parts of which I can still remember, though I seldom do. From the class in poetry I went to another class, in the basement of the high school, which was called Manual Training, and purported to teach us how to work wood lathes, do a little light carpentry, weld, pour metals, and perform other similar tasks which I have not had occasion to repeat since that time. Then, however, I could not help being struck by the contrast between what we had been doing in the poetry class and the materials and skills—the means and the tangible results—of our work in Manual Training, and, like almost every other American boy, I developed a strong bias in favor of learning how to do some-thing, of being able to make something, of having at least in some degree a skill that paid off in "measurable entities."
To a certain extent I still have this prejudice, as I believe many American poets do: we are such a thoroughly pragmatic people that intangibles, such as spirit, "soul," or even good taste are always a little embarrassing to acknowledge or discuss. Yet even in my high school days I also began to be aware of a connection—a very disturbing and apparently necessary one—between words in a certain order and the events of my own life. When I was in the Service in the South Pacific shortly thereafter, and first heard the phrase "sweat it out" applied in a context where I was sweating it out—an artillery barrage—there blazed up in my mind, for the first time fully there, the idea of perfectly expressive language, for sweating it out was exactly what we were doing, under those palm logs: there was nothing else we could do. I believe I responded to this phrase neither more nor less strongly than the other men in that hole with me; it was a phrase all of us understood equally well, each with his own temperament, without the need for commentary. From this incident and a few others like it stems my interest in language, and in its peculiar use which we—or at least I—call poetry. Occasionally, very occasionally, I would hear another phrase in popular speech, in the argot of the army, in a fortunate sentence in a newspaper (sometimes even in a misprint) that seemed to me to have this same unforeseeable but right correlation between lived time—experience—and words, but it was only years later that I recognized—very slowly recognized—that this quality that I sought more and more was poetry, and realized that the highest concentration of language employed in this way was in the work of those writers who had seemed so utterly useless to me when I was forced to study them in high school.

I eased into poetry, over a course of many years, by some such route. As a writer of poetry I began comparatively late, around my twenty-fourth year. I came to poet¬ry with no particular qualifications. I had begun to suspect, however, that there is a poet—or 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. As soon as I began writing I knew that I had the need, but that the means were not immediately forthcoming. I knew nothing whatever of poetic technique, of metrics, prosody, stanzaic construction, and to a certain extent I still consider those things—all the things that Herbert Read calls "the bag of monkey-tricks of English poetry"—as secondary to something else which I can only define, using one of the words I most despised in my younger days, as the spirit of poetry: the individually imaginative or visionary quality. The first poem I wrote that had anything good in it—anything that I had seen for myself—was, I think, a description of football players dressing in a locker room. It seemed to me that their body-hair was dry—very dry-looking—and I put this into the poem, though against my better judgment, since it was a decidedly unbeautiful detail and at that time I wanted very much to write "beautiful" poems. When I looked at what I had put down on paper, I could see immediately that this line, poor as it was, had a quality of observation and of immediacy not to be found in the rest of the poem, which was derived from a half dozen other poets I had been reading. At that unlikely time I began to see what poetry would have to be for me, and came by the idea that words, once placed in a certain order, will stay where they have been put, and say what one tells them to say.

But what did I want to tell them to say? Very slowly I gravitated toward another idea which, like the other, has never left me: the belief in the inexhaustible fecundity of individual memory. I discovered that I had, as everyone has, a life and the memories engendered by it. When I examined these memories, I found that certain of them stood out in my mind, and recurred to me at odd times, as if seeking something, perhaps some act of understanding, from me. Some recollections seemed more important than others, without my being able to tell why. 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 principal 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. Recently I was delighted to read, in the work of a French poet, Patrice de la Tour du Pin, an account of this poet's similar conclusions. La Tour du Pin confirms in me the belief that the isolated episodes and incidents of a human life make up, in the end, a kind of sum, a continuous story with different episodes, and that these moments of natural responsiveness show what he is and in a sense explain him; in the case of a poet they are not so much what he writes but what he is. If I were to arrange my own poems in some such scheme, chronologizing them, they would form a sort of story of this kind, leading from childhood in the north of Georgia through high school with its athletics and wild motorcycle riding, through a beginning attempt at education in an agricultural college, through the Second World War and the Korean War as a flyer in a night fighter squadron, through another beginning at college, this time completed, through various attempts at a valid love affair culminating in the single successful one known as "marriage," through two children, several deaths in the family, travels, reflections, and so on. The poet as well as the man is always a little shocked, though he hopes that at forty his story is not near its conclusion, to find that his story will most likely never be told in any other way than that in which he is telling it, and that when he is gone it is the only story he will ever have. In the end, however, he will settle for that, for just those conditions: underlying everything he writes is the dual sense of being glad to be alive to write that particular poem, and outrage at the possibility of the loss of all the things that have meant much to him—outrage that these personal, valuable things could ever be definitively lost for any one. Beneath his words is this sense of battling against universal dissolution, of the loss of all he and other men have been given as human beings, of all they have loved and been moved by.
All this I felt, though very dimly at the beginning. I had some things that I wanted to write about; I had certain ways of feeling about them: about war, about love and sex, about athletics, about being a Southerner, about hunting and flying and canoeing, about the flight of birds and the movement of animals and the feeling of swimming in the presence of fish. But there seemed to be no language for writing about these things in any way which would do them the kind of justice I believed they deserved. I read a lot of poets, trying to find something I could use. Though I responded strongly to many of these poems, there were a great many that I did not respond to at all, even though I felt I should. I was distressed at the license that many poets claimed for themselves, and which, I thought, allowed a great deal of highly dubious material to be brought into poems. For the live feel and delivered personality of one good phrase there seemed to be hundreds of poems built out of literary lumber: hundreds of dead, period-style poems indistinguishable from one another, the fodder of class-rooms. Very early in the game I knew I wanted to avoid writing like that, like those poems. I was then, without knowing it, involved in the question of style, and with that I wrestled for a long time—am still wrestling.
I had in the beginning a strong dislike of rhyming poems, for the element of artificiality is one of the characteristics of poetry I most distrust, and I have always had trouble distinguishing between artificiality and the traditional modes and methods of verse; for a time I was convinced that craft and artifice were the same thing. At the same time I also had a secret suspicion that Whitman, Lawrence, the Imagists and others were cheating, absolving them¬selves from the standing problems and difficulties of verse. But I found, unlike so many others, that the qualities of poems which seemed to me poetic—essentially poetic—were not in the least dependent on whether or not they occurred in poems which rhymed. I also discovered that the restrictions imposed by rhyme led me away from what I had intended to say. Other writers have since told me—citing Valéry and others—that significant discoveries are made through the attempt to satisfy such restrictions, and that as often as not one ends up as a result with a better poem than one anticipated. Doubtless this is true, and it is also true that certain poets, certain kinds of creative minds, are helped enormously by the support they receive from such sources. Nevertheless, such a practice did not seem right for me; I felt continually carried past my subject, carried around it, sometimes close to it but never in it in the way I wished to be in it. I saw that I was faced with a kind of choice, and that it was an important choice: should I continue to try to satisfy the conditions of rhyming English verse, or should I sacrifice rhyme and try to come to terms with my subjects in some other way? I decided to do the latter, and have used rhyme in very few poems since. Though I didn't care for rhyme and the "packaged" quality which it gives even the best poems, I did care very much for meter, or at least rhythm. I have always liked strongly cadenced language, and the sound of words in a line of verse is to me a very important part of its appeal. I read a good many manuals and textbooks and treatises on prosody, some of which were interesting, but none of them helped me get the sound I wanted. Most of the mate¬rial I read on metrics concluded that the systematic use of anapests and dactyls tends to monotony, and I accepted this judgment on faith, and continued to try to work with the customary English iambic line. Yet now and then I began to hear lines of verse, lines without words to them, that had what was to me a very compelling sound: an unusual sound of urgency and passion, of grave conviction, of inevitability, of the same kind of drive and excitement that one hears in a good passage of slow jazz. I thought that perhaps if I kept listening to those sounds, and found satisfactory words for them, this strong carrying rhythm might help restore to the poems something of the feeling of formal completeness that I had sacrificed when I decided against using rhyme, and at the same time allow the poems a certain sense of self-determination which the strait-jacket of rhyme did not seem to me to allow. It was not until later that I thought to analyze the metrical basis of the sounds I kept hearing at odd times—when stopped at traffic lights, when waking in the early morning, when playing tennis or hunting in the woods of north Georgia—and discovered that they were anapestic. I sat down at the type-writer one afternoon in an American business office and wrote

All dark is now no more.
This forest is drawing a light.
All Presences change into trees.
One eye opens slowly without me.
My sight is the same as the sun's...

I was very much excited by this, for it had something of what I wanted: a strange, incantatory sound, a simplicity that was direct without being thin, and a sense of imaginative urgency that I had never been able to get into verse before. It was something new for me; it satisfied and excited me at the same time, and I abandoned work on everything else I was doing, including office work, to finish it. When I completed it I began to write other poems in the same way, starting with a subject—often very vaguely defined—and letting rhythms develop out of it, aided, no doubt, by years of guitar playing, and then supplying what I thought were the right words to inject the subject into the cadences that now seemed to be running in my mind endlessly, not stopping even when I was asleep. I saw at once—or rather I heard at once—when I began to have this kind of relationship to sound, language and subject, that the anapest needn't result in the monotonous, slugging, obtrusive singsong that it has in the poems of Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Service, Kipling, and others. I found that the anapest was as capable of interesting variation as any other kind of line; in fact, as the iamb itself.
Along with the rhythmical experiments, I also found that what I was working toward was a very stripped kind of simplicity in verse; what I really wanted to be able to do was to make effective statements. I began to use short lines, usually having three accents or beats, because I wanted to say one thing—hopefully, one memorable thing—in each line: one thing that would make its own kind of impression, and would also connect with other single things, one per line, and so form a whole poem. In the poem I have been talking about, "Sleeping Out at Easter," I used this approach, and used also a kind of refrain technique. In this, the last or refrain lines of the stanzas unite to make, themselves, a last stanza which sums up the attitude and action of the poem. It is a poem about Easter, and a man who is sleeping in the back yard of his home the night before Easter. He wakes in a small grove of pine trees and finds that he is thinking of resurrection.

All dark is now no more.
This forest is drawing a light.
All Presences change into trees.
One eye opens slowly without me.
My sight is the same as the sun's,
For this is the grave of the king,
Where the earth turns, waking a choir.
All dark is now no more.

Birds speak, their voices beyond them.
A light has told them their song.
My animal eyes become human
As the Word rises out of the darkness
Where my right hand, buried beneath me,
Hoveringly tingles, with grasping
The source of all song it the root.
Birds sing, their voices beyond them.

Put down those seeds in your hand.
These trees have not yet been planted.
A light should come round the world,
Yet my army blanket is dark,
That shall sparkle with dew in the sun.
My magical shepherd's cloak
Is not yet alive on my flesh.
Put down those seeds in your hand.

In your palm is the secret of waking.
Unclasp your purple-nailed fingers
And the wood and the sunlight together
Shall spring, and make good the world.
The sounds in the air shall find bodies,
And a feather shall drift from the pine-top
You shall feel, with your long-buried hand.
In your palm is the secret of waking,

For the king's grave turns him to light.
A woman shall look through the window
And see me here, huddled and blazing.
My child, mouth open, still sleeping,
Hears the song in the egg of a bird.
The sun shall have told him that song
Of a father returning from darkness,
For the king's grave turns you to light.

All dark is now no more.
In your palm is the secret of waking.
Put down those seeds in your hand;
All Presences change into trees.
A feather shall drift from the pine-top.
The sun shall have told you this song,
For this is the grave of the king;
For the king's grave turns you to light.

Through this method, and largely through this poem, I discovered that the simple declarative sentence, under certain circumstances and in certain contexts, had exactly the qualities I wanted my lines of poetry to have. As I wrote more poems of this kind, I was increasingly aware of two things. The first was that I liked poems which had a basis of narrative, that described or depicted an action, that moved through a period of time—usually short —and allowed the reader to bring into play his simple and fundamental interest in "what happens next," a curiosity that only narrative can supply and satisfy. I also dis¬covered that I worked most fruitfully in cases in which there was no clear-cut distinction between what was actually happening and what was happening in the mind of a character in the poem. I meant to try to get a fusion of inner and outer states, of dream, fantasy and illusion where everything partakes of the protagonist's mental processes and creates a single impression. It was with some such intention as this that I wrote "The Lifeguard," in which a lifeguard at a summer camp for boys, after failing to rescue one of the children from drowning, hides in the boathouse, and, in his delirium of grief and helplessness comes to believe that he can walk out upon the water of the lake where the child drowned and raise him back up into life: that he can accomplish the most impossible of all human feats, and the most desirable: undo what has been done.

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

Take on the utmost of its power.
I rise and go out through the boats.
I set my broad solé upon silver,
On the skin of the sky, on the moonlight,
Stepping outward from earth onto water
In quest of the miracle

This village of children believed
That I could perform as I dived
For one who had sunk from my sight.
I saw his cropped haircut go under.
I leapt, and my steep body flashed
Once, in the sun.

Dark drew all the light from my eyes.
Like a man who explores his death
By the pull of his slow-moving shoulders,
I hung head down in the cold,
Wide-eyed, contained, and alone
Among the weeds,

And my fingertips turned into stone
From clutching immovable blackness.
Time after time I leapt upward
Exploding in breath, and fell back
From the change in the children's faces
At my defeat.
Beneath them I swam to the boathouse
With only my life in my arms
To wait for the lake to shine back
At the risen moon with such power
That my steps on the light of the ripples
Might be sustained.

Beneath me is nothing but brightness
Like the ghost of a snowfield in summer.
As I move toward the center of the lake,
Which is also the center of the moon,
I am thinking of how I may be
The savior of one

Who has already died in my care.
The dark trees fade from around me.
The moon's dust hovers together.
I call softly out, and the child's
Voice answers through blinding water
. Patiently, slowly,

He rises, dilating to break
The surface of stone with his forehead.
He is one I do not remember
Having ever seen in his life.
The ground I stand on is trembling
Upon his smile.

I wash the black mud from my hands.
On a light given off by the grave
I kneel in the quick of the moon
At the heart of a distant forest
And hold in my arms a child
Of water, water, water.

My second book, Drowning With Others, is made up of poems written in this manner: poems with a predominantly anapestic rhythm and dealing often with dream, hallucination, fantasy, the interaction of illusion and reality. My third book, Helmets, employed many of these same themes and approaches, but was less pronouncedly rhythmical and less hallucinatory. By this time I had begun to grow a little restive at the limitations of my method, and was beginning also to dislike the way I had been handling the narrative elements. All my old reservations about the vitiating effects of artifice began to trouble me once more; I was afraid that I had simply substituted another set of conventions—of artifices—for those I had congratulated myself on discarding earlier. Though I still felt I had chosen rightly in aiming for simplicity of diction and the other qualities that attracted me, I felt in addition that I needed to move beyond these qualities as I had employed them, into other areas of diction, image and subject matter.

I began to conceive of something I called—doubtless misleadingly—the "open" poem: a poem which would have none of the neatness of most of those poems we call "works of art" but would have the capacity to involve the reader in it, in all its imperfections and impurities, rather than offering him a (supposedly) perfected and perfect work for contemplation, judgment and evaluation. I was interested most of all in getting an optimum "presentational immediacy," a compulsiveness in the presentation of the matter of the poem that would cause the reader to forget literary judgments entirely, and simply experience.

I experimented with short lines some more, and eventually with putting several of these together on the same physical plane to make up what I called the "split line," in which spaces between the word-groups would take the place of punctuation. I wrote two longish poems using the split line; they were published as Two Poems of the Air. The first is "The Firebombing," and includes a section which attempts to depict the sensations of a pilot in an aircraft at night over the enemy's home country, in this case Japan.

There is then this re-entry
Into cloud, for the engines to ponder their sound.
In white dark the aircraft shrinks; Japan

Dilates around it like a thought.
Corning out, the one who is here is over
Land, passing over the all-night grainfields,
In dark paint over
The woods with one silver side,
Rice-water calm at all levels
Of the terraced hill.

Enemy rivers and trees
Sliding off me like snakeskin,
Strips of vapor spooled from the engines
Going invisible passing over on
Over bridges roads for night-walkers
Sunday night in the enemy's country absolute
Calm the moon's face coming slowly

About the inland sea
Slants is woven with wire thread
Levels out holds together like a quilt
Off the starboard wing cloud flickers
At my glassed-off forehea the moon's now and again
Uninterrupted face going forward
Over the waves in a glide-path.

Going, going with it...

Of late my interest has been mainly in the conclusionless poem, the open or ungeneralizing poem, the un-wellmade poem. I hope in the future to get the reader more and more into the actions and happenings of the lines, and require him less and less to stand off and draw judgments either aesthetic or moral. If I am successful in this, my themes will stand forth clearly enough: the continuity of the human family, the necessity of both caused and cause-less joy, and the permanent interest of what the painter John Marin called "the big basic forms"—rivers, mountains, woods, clouds, oceans and the creatures that live naturally among them. The forfeited animal grace of hu¬man beings, occasionally redeemed by athletes, interests me also, and the hunter's sense of understanding with the hunted animal.

All poetry, I suspect, is nothing more or less than an attempt to discover or invent conditions under which one can live with oneself. I have been called a mystic, a vitalist, a pantheist, an anti-rationalist, and a good many other things. I have not been conscious of the applicability of any of these labels, though they very well may all apply. At any rate, what I have always striven for is to find some way to incarnate my best moments—those which in memory are most persistent and obsessive. I find that most of these moments have an element of danger, and element of repose and an element of joy. I should like now to develop a writing instrument which would be capable of embodying these moments and be most pleased if readers carne away from my poems not at all sure as to where the danger and the repose separate, where joy ends and longing begins. Strongly mixed emotions are what I usually have and what I usually remember from the events of my life. Strongly mixed, but giving the impression of being one emotion, impure and overwhelming—that is the condition I am seeking to impose on my readers, whoever they may be. The doing, of course, is another thing. I cannot really judge as to the success of that, or of the adequacy of my means. Those judgments I must leave to you.