Obituary: James Dickey
Thursday 23 January 1997
A former fighter pilot and star athlete, Dickey became famous for his machismo-ridden novel Deliverance; his celebrity was further enhanced by the success of the subsequent film, but his best work was in his poetry. Here, too, he explored the conflict between man and nature which, when caricatured, made Deliverance such a success, but he also brought a lyric sense and beautifully attuned ear not found in the crude commercialism of his novel. Though personal, his poems avoided the confessional preoccupations of so many of his peers; though capable of technical variety, they were never remotely stylised or, for that matter, epicene.
Dickey was a Southerner, raised in Atlanta chiefly by his grandmother because of an invalid mother. He also spent much of his childhood with his father's relatives in rural north-east Georgia, and this acquaintance with Southern country life provided material for many of his poems, as well as for the dramatic encounters of Deliverance. As a boy Dickey gave little indication of the literary talents that would emerge in his thirties, preferring athletic to aesthetic pursuits in his teenage years.
Trained as a pilot in the US Army's Air Force, he flew over 100 missions in the Second World War, and was recalled to active duty in Korea. His war experiences figured prominently in his poems, but only a chance receipt of an anthology of verse while he was stationed on Okinawa triggered his own first attempts at writing.
His education interrupted by the war, Dickey none the less received a BA and an MA from Vanderbilt University, then taught for two years as an instructor of English at Rice University, in Texas, in the early 1950s. He left teaching and worked full-time in advertising for six years, an experience that distinguished him from most of his poetry-writing colleagues, who were busy constituting the first generation of American writers to make their living through a succession of "creative writing" teaching posts. Successful at business, Dickey put his personal energies into his poems, and when his first book, Into the Stone, appeared in 1960 quit advertising. Thereafter he too took a succession of teaching jobs, settling permanently at the University of Southern Carolina in 1969.
Dickey's early poems were formal, technically accomplished, influenced as much by European models (he had travelled widely as a Guggenheim and Sewanee fellow) as by his native Georgian roots. Already, however, the lyric ear is deft, and there is no hesitancy in exploring the most intense emotions, as in his evocation of his brother, dead before Dickey himself was born:
With all my heart, I close
The blue, timeless eye of my mind.
Wind springs, as my dead brother
And touches the tree at the root.
In these early poems, the feelings are heartfelt, but the voice remains constrained by its obeisance to conventional forms - the settings and descriptions remain abstract and without locale, and the diction of depicted nature is generic (with repeated use of common nouns such as "stone", "water", or "wind") rather than specific.
With Helmets (1964) and Buckdancer's Choice, which won the National Book Award in 1965, all changes: a South of rattlesnakes, kudzu, and teenage trysts in abandoned cars now plays centre- stage, along with poems vividly recalling his experiences of combat. Violence, sex, and a clash of the Confederate past with the surface homogeneity of post-war America make the work almost unprecedentedly raw, as in Dickey's fear of a girlfriend's angry father:
Who would change, in the squalling
Her back's pale skin with a strop,
Then lay for me
In a bootlegger's roasting car with a string-triggered 12-gauge shotgun
To blast the breath from the air.
Interspersed with the lyrics are longer narrative poems, with rambling Hopkins-like rhythms of no relation to the tight forms of his early work. The effect of these poems was immense, strengthened by Dickey's own critical campaigning, waged chiefly on his own behalf.
Yet, in these narrative poems especially, the governing conceits can teeter on the preposterous, as in the famous "Falling", a dramatic account of a stewardess's fall trom an airplane, six miles up. The sexuality of her gradual fall through the sky draws on every stereotype of the nubile flight attendant, and at times the language is simply absurd: as her clothes fall off in the slipstream, Dickey comments that she is "no longer monobuttocked". Even when teetering on the grotesquely cliched, however, the language can compel, as when Dickey speaks of an imminent extinction that "slumbers in corn tassels thickly / and breathes like rich farmers counting".
The technical oddness of his narratives aside, Dickey's chief weakness in these longer poems lies in his inability to penetrate the characters he invents. His eye for revealing detail inevitably reflects more in showy fashion on the unspoken "I" of the author than on the people he describes at length. This is especially true of Deliverance, a reasonably well-recounted potboiler of urban men on a river trip thrown into primitive conflict with the wilds and with Appalachian throwbacks.
Well before this book's appearance in 1970, Dickey was famous - or famous as an unusual fish could be in the small pond of American poetry. But the novel and the film it spawned (the latter starring Burt Reynolds) brought Dickey true national celebrity, highlighted by his choice two decades later as the poet who read at President Clinton's inaugural in 1992.
Unsurprisingly, his poetry suffered; even the fictional follow-ups to Deliverance, the novels Alnilam (1987) and To the White Sea (1993), seemed drab by comparison to the shock value of their predecessor. Sadly, although Deliverance had made Dickey America's most famous living poet, it had served to diminish his considerable and well-deserved reputation as a poet. Curiously, time may well deliver him from him from this celebrity and return us to his best work, his poems.
James Dickey, poet and novelist: born Atlanta 2 February 1923; married 1948 Maxine Syerson (died 1976; two sons), 1976 Deborah Dodson (one daughter; marriage dissolved); died Columbia, South Carolina 19 January 1997.
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