Mike James Reviews James Dickey: A Literary Life

Mike James Reviews

James Dickey: A Literary Life

By Gordon Van Ness

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In his essay, “Reflections on Wallace Stevens,” the poet and critic Randall Jarrell wrote, “A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great.” James Dickey was fond of quoting Jarrell’s line to students and in interviews. The quote encapsulates Dickey’s ambition as well as the luck involved in literary reputations. 

Gordon Van Ness offers the definitive biography of James Dickey and reviews how the reputation of Dickey’s work has collapsed since the 1960’s when he was, with Robert Lowell, considered one of the two most important poets in America. For those who are familiar with Dickey’s life, either through literary gossip or from the previous hatchet work of Henry Hart’s biography, it offers a familiar rise and fall. 

During the 1950’s and 1960’s, James Dickey published an extraordinary number of well received poems, essays, and book reviews. His work regularly appeared in magazines such as the New Yorker and the Atlantic. His 1965 collection, Buckdancers’s Choice, won the National Book Award. Then, in 1970, he published his first novel Deliverance. The adventure story of four men going down a river was a tremendous best-seller. Two years after the novel’s publication it became a hit movie. Dickey wrote the screenplay and even had a memorable role as the sheriff. It was at this point that celebrity began to replace the artist. 

Van Ness makes clear that Dickey enjoyed fame. He wrote several lucrative coffee table books and accepted commissions for a few occasional poems. One of these, “The Strength of the Fields,” was read by Dickey as part of Jimmy Carter’s 1976 inaugural. (The poem is one of the best examples of a “public poem” and has aged better than similar pieces from other inaugural poets.)

What Van Ness also makes clear is that after the summation of his work in Poems: 1957-1967 Dickey became interested in a different kind of poetry. Dickey’s work, in what he referred to as his “early motion,” ranges from the narrative to the lyric, from the mystic to the confessional, from the formal to the experimental. A reader would be hard pressed to find a more various or successful book of poetry and Poems: 1957-1967 remains comparable to Pound’s Personae and Steven’s Harmonium.

The later poetry (the work after 1967) is both more rhetorical and more visual. The poems often range across the page with word and image clusters which sometimes mirror a speaker’s breath units and sometimes mirror high energy synapses firing. While many individual passages often stand out, the poems are less successful and more indulgent. Dickey’s later work often asks more of the reader than it gives. 

Van Ness does a fine job of covering the later work and how it relates to Dickey’s life. He reviews the critical and public reception of Dickey’s two later novels, Alnilam and To the White Sea, as well as the wildly mixed response to his late poetry collection Puella. He also spends a considerable amount of time discussing Dickey’s role as a teacher at the University of South Carolina. Van Ness was a student of Dickey’s in the 1980’s and the exuberance Dickey often brought to the classroom is apparent. 

Exuberance is a key word for describing Dickey’s best work. In poems like “Cherrylog Road,” “On the Hill Below the Lighthouse,” “Adultery,” “The Performance,” “The Lifeguard,” and “To Be Done in Winter” Dickey’s work seems bathed in vitality and life joy. His poetry is not concerned with mundane, small moments. It is concerned with transcendence. 

There are many reasons why Dickey’s reputation has dimmed over the last fifty years. Van Ness covers all of them. His womanizing and alcoholism wrecked many of his friendships and some readers and critics remain willing to dismiss his work based on the numerous misbehaviors of his life.  Also, unlike one of his contemporaries, James Wright, Dickey outlived most of his best work. To quote Nietzsche out of context, Dickey did not “die at the right time.” Finally, the type of masculinity Dickey publicly embodied (think John Wayne and Ernest Hemingway combined with erudition and southern twang) is now out of fashion. 

Van Ness does a fine and necessary job of separating Dickey’s indulgences from his art. He focuses on key early works and adds understanding and appreciation to later, overlooked gems. As someone who has edited two volumes of Dickey’s letters, his early notebooks, and a posthumous collection of late poems, Van Ness is a worthy guide to Dickey’s work. In writing this biography he sends the reader back to Dickey’s poetry and fiction. Dickey remains a poet with a lightning rod, wide awake as he walks through a crackling summer field.

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James Dickey: A Literary Life, by Gordon Van Ness

Mercer University Press, 2022

Biography, $45

About the Author: Mike James makes his home outside Nashville, Tennessee. He has published in numerous magazines, large and small, throughout the country. His most recent book, Portable Light: Poems 1991-2021, was published by Red Hawk in April 2022. Mike’s previous poetry collections include: Leftover Distances (Luchador), Parades (Alien Buddha), Jumping Drawbridges in Technicolor (Blue Horse), and Crows in the Jukebox (Bottom Dog.) 

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Image Credit: Digitally remixed image of a public domain James Dickey photo