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James (Lafayette) Dickey (1923-1997)


American poet, novelist, critic, athlete, and hunter with bow and arrow, best-known from his novel Deliverance (1970), an adventure story of four businessmen canoeing down a dangerous river in rural Georgia. The trip becomes a nightmare of survival. Dickey's dominant medium was poetry, not bestselling fiction. He maintained that poetry should be concerned with basic emotions. "The poet is not trying the tell the truth. He's trying to make it." Particularly interested in hunting and the outdoors, Dickey came close to  Jack London and Ernest Hemingway. During WWII, Dickey flew combat missions in the Pacific Theater.  

"It unrolled slowly, forced to show its colors, curling up and snapping back whenever one of us turned loose. The whole land was very tense until we put our four steins on its corners and laid the river out to run for us through the mountains 150 miles north."  (in Deliverance)

James Dickey was born in Atlanta, Georgia. His father, Eugene, was a lawyer and "the grand old man of American cockfighting," as Dickey once said. In high school and at Clemson College Dickey played football and gave promise of an athletic career. In 1942 he interrupted his education to join the air force. Dickey served as a radio intercept officer with the 418th Night Fighter Squadron; the pilot that he frequently rode with was Earl E. Bradley. During this period Dickey started to read poetry. He claimed that he "eased into poetry" during an artillery attack in the South Pacific. Dickey continued to study literature, earning his M.A. degree from Vanderbilt University in 1950. But academic career did not attract him. When the Korean War broke out, Dickey served as a training officer in the Air Force in the South, but he never went to Korea. (James Dickey: The World as a Lie by Henry Hart, 2001, p. 160). Dickey himself has told, that he dropped napalm over Korea. After the war he worked as a teacher and then an advertising copy writer for McCann-Erickson in New York. From Atlanta's Liller, Neal, Battle & Lindsey he moved into an executive post at Burke Dowling Adams.

With little experience of formal poetics, Dickey began to write verse in the late 1940s. At North Fulton High School in Atlanta Dickey had read Byron and Shelley, but he really got interested in poetry in the Air Force. During the long streches after activity, while he was not writing love letters to girls back in Atlanta and Montgomery, he read Conrad Aiken's Collected Poems and Louis Untermeyer's Modern American & British Poets. His first book, Into the Stone, (1960), explored death and renewal - themes in which he returned in the subsequent works. After Drowning With Others (1962) Dickey sold his Atlanta house, and went with his family to Europe for nine months. Most of the poems of Helmets (1964) were written in Italy, France and Germany.

Dickey wrote of conflicts between human beings and nature, fertility, and primeval instincts. His fourth book of verse, Buckdancer's Choice, won in 1965 the National Book Award. This collection formed from horrifying missions of bombers and reminiscences of war pictures of human suffering and moments of compassion. In the title work the poet listens to the sounds of her mother dying of breathless angina: "Yet still found breath enough / To whistle up in my head / A sight like a one-man band, / Freed black, with cymbals at heel, / An ex-slave who thrivingly danced / To the ring of his own clashing light/".

The Zodiac (1976) was a long poem in 12 parts. The title work of the Strenght of Fields was written for President Carter's inauguration. Its other poems dealt with the masculine aggressiveness and exhilaration of sports. Puella (1982) described a girls's coming of age. Among Dickey's most often anthologized works is 'Falling,' which records the steam-of-conscious sensations of an airline stewardess as she falls to her death from a plane. Before thudding into a midwestern cornfield,  she takes off her clothes, piece by piece.

Dickey devoted himself entirely to writing when his poetry started to gain recognition. He also worked as a teacher and writer-in-residence at a number of U.S. colleges and universities, including the San Fernando State College, "one of those Californian schools that yesterday was a potato patch and today has twenty thousand students", as Dickey said in Self-Interviews (1970). However, Dickey never considered himself a teacher, who incidentally writes, but vice-versa. From 1966 to 1968 he served as a poetry consultant to the Library of Congress.

Dickey was known for his outspoken criticism of his colleagues - he called Robert Frost a "super-jerk", Edmund Wilson is "a tiresome kind of old literary hack," and Robert Lowell "seems doomed to be just another example of the brilliant, pampered American poet who spends the rest of his life, after the initial success, trying to progress and keeps falling down and down." Allen Ginsberg's Howl he defined as "the skin of Rimbaud's Une Saison en Enfer thrown over the conventional maunderings of one type of American adolescent who had discovered that machine civilization has no interest in his having read Blake." These and other attacks were a part of Dickey's public image. "Humility is not my forte," he once confessed. "I much more easily run to arrogance and insolence."

In the 1970s Dickey published little. Among his works from this period are the autobiographical Self-Interviews and Jericho: The South Beheld  (1974). His first wife, Gwendolyn Leege, whom he had married in the early forties, died in 1976 - she had become an alcoholic - and in the same year he married one of his students, Deborah Dodson; they had one daughter. Deborah once confessed that they rarely made love.  At Aspen's Writers' Conference he met a Texan woman, with whom he had an erratic reletionship for about a decade. At one point Dickey dreamed of running her cattle ranch. Whili visiting New York he introduced her to Jackie Onassis.

Dickey was an associate editor of the Esquire magazine and Sewanee Review in the early 1970s, and advisory editor of Shenandoah literary review. Among his several awards were Guggenheim fellowship (1962), National Book award (1966), American Academy grant (1966), and Médicis prize (1971). Dickey also received honorary degrees from 13 American universities.

Deliverance could be compared with William Golding's Lord of the Flies (1954); they both aim to answer the same fundamental questions about human nature. Although the book was an immediate best-seller, it was coldly received by some academic critics. The story sends four businessmen on a canoe trip on the wild Cahulawassee River, soon to be damned. Ed, the first-person narrator, is an advertising man; a profession that has no use in the nature. On the second day Ed and Bobby meet to local men. One of them sodomizes Bobby and is killed by Lewis, a bow-hunter and survivalist. Drew, a sales supervisor, topples from the lead canoe and is lost. Lewis breaks his thighbone. Ed kills the man who has been following the group, and plans to shoot them all. Ed, Bobby, and Lewis descend the river, manage to hide the events of the trip from a country lawmen, and return home. The film adaptation of the book ends with Ed's nightmarish vision of a dead man rising his hand out of a lake.

Dickey's works include some 30 collections of poems, several collections of essays and three novels. He died on January 19, 1997. His final novel was To the White Sea  (1993), which drew together themes from his previous poems and novels. This war story depicted an American bomber pilot Muldrow on his bloody journey from Tokyo through Japan during the World War II. Muldrow has been raised as a hunter in Alaska, and after he is shot down on a bombing mission, he heads for Hokkaido, Japan's northern island, his frozen sanctuary. At the end, as he dies, he metamorphoses into a spirit of the snow and cold. To the White Sea was met with harsh reviews. Dickey sold the rights of the novel to Universal Studios and David Peoples agreed to write the screenplay.

For further reading: The New Poets by M.L. Rosenthal (1967); Understanding James Dickey by Ronald Baughman (1985); James Dickey by Richard J. Calhoun (1983); The Imagination as Glory, ed.  B. Weigl, T.R. Hummer (1984); James Dickey: A Descriptive Bibliography by Matthew J. Bruccoli (1990); Critical Essays on James Dickey by Robert Kirschten (1994); Summer of Deliverance by Christopher Dickey (1998); James Dickey: The World as a Lie by Henry Hart (2001); The One Voice of James Dickey: His Letters and Life, 1942-1969 by Gordon Van Ness (2003); The Way We Read James Dickey: Critical Approaches for the Twenty-first Century by William B. Thesing and Theda Wrede (2009)  - See: Joseph Heller, who flew 60 combat missions in WW II and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who disappeared in 1994 in flight over Mediterranean.  Note: Dickey's son Christopher also became a writer.

Selected works:

  • Into the Stone and Other Poems, 1960
  • Drowning with Others, 1962
  • Helmets, 1964
  • Two Poems of the Air, 1964
  • The Suspect in Poetry, 1964
  • Buckdancer's Choice: Poems, 1965
  • A Private Brinkmanship, 1965
  • Spinning the Chrystal Ball, 1967
  • Poems 1957-67, 1967
  • Babel to Byzantium: Poets & Poetry Now, 1968
  • Metaphor as Pure Adventure, 1968
  • The Achievement of James Dickey, 1968
  • Self-Interviews, 1970
  • Deliverance, 1970
    - Syvä joki (suom. Eero Huhtala, 1972)
    - Filmed in 1972, dir.  John Boorman, starring Burt Reynolds, John Voight, Ned Beatty, Ronny Cox, music Eric Weissberg. Dickey himself played the role of the sheriff in one of the movie's final scenes. - Deliverance was one of the top five box-office hits in 1972 and received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Director, Film Editing. However, all reviews were not enthusiastic: "No performance deserves comment... There is fundamentally no view of the material, just a lot of painful grasping and groping. The glory-of-nature shots are trite, the drama is clumsy, and the editing clanks. It's difficult for a film that is not very tightly knit to unravel, but this one does." (Stanley Kauffmann, New Republic, August 5, 1972)
  • The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy , 1970
  • Sorties, 1971
  • Exchanges..., 1971
  • Stolen Apples, 1971 (translator, with others, poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko)
  • Jericho: The South Beheld, 1974
  • The Zodiac, 1976
  • The Call of the Wild, 1976 (script based on Jack London's novel)
    - TV film 1976, prod. Charles Fries Productions, dir. Jerry Jameson,  starring  John Beck, Bernard Fresson, John McLiam, Donald Moffat, Michael Pataki
  • God's Images, 1977
  • Tucky the Hunter, 1978
  • Enemy from Eden, 1978
  • The Strength of Fields, 1979
  • Head-Deep in Strange Sounds, 1979
  • Veteran Birth: The Gadfly Poems 1947-49, 1979
  • The Water Bug's Mittens, 1979 (Ezra Pound Lecture at University of Idaho)
  • The Starry Place Between the Antlers, 1981
  • Falling, May Day Sermon, and Other Poems, 1981
  • The Early Motion, 1981
  • In Pursuit of the Grey Soul, 1981
  • Puella, 1982
  • Värmland, 1982
  • False Youth: Four Seasons, 1982
  • The Poet Turns on Himself, 1982
  • Intervisions, 1983
  • Night Hurdling: Poems, Essays, Conversations, Commencements, and Afterwords, 1983
  • The Central Motion: Poems 1968-79, 1983
  • For a Time and Place, 1983
  • Bronwen, The Traw, and the Shape-Shifter, 1986
  • Alnilam, 1987
  • From the Green Horseshoe, 1987 (edited)
  • Summons, 1988
  • Wayfarer, 1988
  • The Voiced Connections of James Dickey, 1989
  • The Eagle's Mile, 1990
  • The Whole Motion: Collected Poems 1949-92, 1992
  • To The White Sea, 1993
    - Kohti valkeaa merta (suom. Kaarina Ripatti, 1994)
    - Film production was scheduled to start in 2002, director: Joel Coen, starring Brad Pitt, screenwriters: David Webb and Janet Peoples (with Ethan and Joel Coen)
  • The Selected Poems, 1998 (edited by Robert Kirschten)
  • The Letters of James Dickey, 1999 (edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli and Judith S. Baughman)
  • The James Dickey Reader, 1999 (edited by Henry Hart)
  • The One Voice of James Dickey: His Letters and Life, 1942-1969, 2003 (edited with commentary by Gordon Van Ness)
  • Classes on Modern Poets and the Art of poetry, 2004 (edited by Donald J. Greiner; foreword by Pat Conroy)
  • The One Voice of James Dickey: His Letters and Life, 1970-1997, 2005 (edited with commentary by Gordon Van Ness)
  • The Complete Poems of James Dickey, 2012 (edited with an introduction by Ward Briggs; foreword by Richard Howard)

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