Mike James Reviews James Dickey: A Literary Life

Mike James Reviews

James Dickey: A Literary Life

By Gordon Van Ness


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.


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.) 


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

Let Me Die, But Not Die Out: A Review of The Complete Poems of James Dickey


Let Me Die, But Not Die Out:

A Review of The Complete Poems of James Dickey

by Okla Elliott


James Dickey ranks among the titanic figures of twentieth-century American literature. He and his work remind one of Norman Mailer and Robert Penn Warren in particular—the former because of the ecstatic and primal violence their work shares, and the latter because of the depth and range of their vision and how it plays out across many literary genres. Mailer and Dickey also share a self-mythologizing effort that made them larger-than-life (who does not hear an echo of Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself in Dickey’s Self-Interviews?), while Dickey and Warren are both decidedly southern writers. In fact, an almost direct genealogy from Warren to Dickey can be discerned. But while useful comparisons might be made between Mailer and Dickey, particularly in their novels, for the purposes of thinking about Dickey’s poetry, it is Warren who can lend us the greater insight.

Dickey’s poetry shares something besides its southern flavor with Warren’s. It oscillates between unimaginably powerful and so bad it is almost embarrassing to read. Luckily for Dickey and Warren, and for their readers, they produced such copious amounts of poetry and in myriad styles that we can simply ignore the outright failures and enjoy the genius-level poems, of which they both produced many. In fact, I contend, it is something more than mere accident that Dickey and Warren should both have such exquisite successes alongside such dismal failures; there is something about their outsized ambition (in the best sense of that word), the long reach of their work that, yes, sometimes overreaches, that makes both these extremes of production not only possible but necessary.

Let’s take a look at a poem which is indicative of the energy and concerns found throughout Dickey’s poetry—though it would be misleading to pretend any single poem could represent the range of his output, given how radically Dickey re-invented himself throughout his poetic life (yet a further trait he shares with Warren). Here are the opening stanzas of “For the Last Wolverine”:
They will soon be down

To one, but still he will be
For a little while still will be stopping

Flakes in the air with a look,
Surrounding himself with the silence
Of whitening snarls. Let him eat
The last red meal of the condemned

To extinction, tearing the guts
From an elk. Yet that is not enough
For me. I would have him eat

The heart, and, from it, have an idea (367)

This poem is certainly about the extinction of species and perhaps about the constant threat of nuclear annihilation that pervaded the national consciousness in 1966, the year of the poem’s publication, but it is about poetry itself in equal measure. As Dickey writes later in the poem:

But, small, filthy, unwinged,
You will soon be crouching
Alone, with maybe some dim racial notion
Of being the last, but none of how much
Your unnoticed going will mean:
How much the timid poem needs

The mindless explosion of your rage (369)

This poem is powerful, is infused with that green energy Dylan Thomas writes of so beautifully, but it is also social critique, critique of the state of poetry, and environmental critique of the modern world, with which Dickey was not much in love. Dickey finds ways to include all these themes many times over in his poems, from “The Shark at the Window” (a southern-modernist take on family and marriage) to “The Wax Museum in Hamburg” (a meditation on Nazi Germany and power relations in history) to many more. Here is the first stanza of “Amputee Ward: Okinawa 1945,” which until this volume had only appeared in a 1948 issue of Coraddi, the undergraduate-run literary journal at UNC-Greensboro.

Displayed in acreages of crackling light
More hopeless than the spatulate cross
Thrust by a withering sea, they lie
In the immaculate percentage of their loss. (6)

This poem shows Dickey as a formalist master and is an early example of his writing about the Pacific front during WWII, a theme that would continue on until his 1993 novel, To the White Sea.

It would be impossible to give an adequate sampling in this short review, but suffice it to say that the over 700 pages of poetry found in The Complete Poems of James Dickey is a treasure with a staggering variety of bounty. But it is not solely Dickey’s poetry that suggests this volume to poetry lovers and libraries everywhere. Ward Briggs writes in his preface that compiling and editing Dickey’s poems was a labor of love and this is apparent on nearly every page. The generous and insightful preface and introduction should prove valuable for classroom use. The extensive notes by Briggs, the remarks by Dickey on the composition of certain poems, and various indexes included in the 213-page critical apparatus make this the definitive edition for literary scholars and diehard fans. And, what is perhaps the greatest achievement of the book, the painstaking organization of the poems in order of publication (with the year printed beneath each title) invites us to read the book as a sort of documentary of Dickey’s literary development through his fifty-year career. I would strongly suggest that readers follow Briggs’s organization and take the book in from beginning to end. The effect is striking indeed.

In the final analysis, The Complete Poems of James Dickey is a success on nearly every front. It corrects errors and omissions from the previous attempt at a complete or collected poems. It includes useful scholarly trappings (preface, introduction, critical apparatus). And it offers the best possible portrait of Dickey-as-poet. This is certain to be the definitive edition for decades to come. One only hopes that the paperback edition will be split into two volumes, thus allowing for a wider popular readership. At 960 pages and $85 in cost, the hardback will likely only end up in libraries and the offices of well-heeled academics. Dickey’s poetry deserves this, but it likewise deserves a broad non-specialist readership as well.


[This piece initially appeared in The Southeast Review.]


About the Author: Co-founder Okla Elliott served as the managing editor for As It Ought To Be from its inception until his unexpected passing in 2017. We remember Okla as a brilliant writer and an intellectually generous editor who delighted in providing platforms for others to shine.

Franz Douskey: A Micro-Interview and Three Poems


Franz Douskey has published in Rolling Stone, the Nation, New York Quarterly, The New Yorker, and Las Vegas Life. His readings and travels with such notables as James Dickey, Allen Ginsberg, Ai, Charles Bukowski and F. D. Reeve are legendary. Some of his writing has been performed by Frederica Von Stade of the Metropolitan Opera Company, The Yale Glee Club and The Heaths. Along with writing, Franz Douskey produces radio shows for WQUN, Quinnipiac University, and hides out with the horses at Giant Valley Farm.

The following interview took place via email and the poems below are reprinted from West of Midnight: New and Selected Poems with permission of the author.


Okla Elliott: A thought that returns to me regularly is that in the table-of-contents of a journal, prose is broken up into fiction and nonfiction, and a lot of people are intensely serious about that distinction. Poetry, however, is not divided in such a way, so readers are left to assume whatever they prefer about a poem’s factual status. Of course, it’s the metaphor and joy of invention that finally carries all writing, no matter its genre or relationship to historical fact, but, that said, I think poems by war veterans or abuse victims or even highly paid lawyers that depict their lives as accurately as possible might gain something by being read as aesthetic depictions of real events. I bring all this up because I get the sense that many of your poems would be classified as creative-nonfiction-in-verse, if we bothered to make this sort of distinction for poetry. I am thinking particularly of your poems “Remembering James Dickey,” “Eric,” “Burning the Gypsies,” and others. Could you speak a bit about how your personal experience and travels or historical facts have informed the content (or even the form) of your poetry?

Franz Douskey: Personal experience and travel are strong forces of my writing. I like being there. About “Remembering James Dickey”… We got to know each other during the New York Quarterly annual Poetry Dinners at the Paris Hotel. We stumbled through that very dignified place often enough that the staff got to know us and would lead us safely away from their guests to preserve the hotel’s reputation. “Eric” was a student. One of those who came around to “take” my classes even when he hadn’t signed up. I still recall that phone call. “Burning the Gypsies” isn’t from direct experience, but the result of three separate forces that came together: my research of the Holocaust, my books of Gypsy life and lore, and Hell, I’m part Hungarian. Disturbing what we do to each other. Not every experience turns into poetry, but I find it difficult to be creative, inventive, etc. Enough extraordinary people and events have been part of my life that I seldom look inside. There is a Delphic maxim often ascribed to Socrates, “Know thyself.” I have no interest in knowing myself. What a dull book that would be.


OE: What got you started on poetry? And what do you think helped you develop most as a poet?

FD: Reading Kenneth Patchen, both prose and poetry, got me started writing. What came out was poetry. What helped develop my writing was travel. When I was excited by an author’s work, I sought out his and her books and, then sought them out. I visited Kenneth and Miriam Patchen often at 2340 Sierra Court. I was the only visitor allowed in the house, except for Kenneth’s dentist. Travel and reading caused me to visit Galway Kinnell, in Seattle, Henry Miller, at Big Sir, George Hitchcock, in Santa Cruz, and while living in Tucson I was strongly impressed by the poetry of Richard Shelton. I met a lot of writers there, including Raymond Carver, John Weston and Charles Bukowski. I traveled to several places, including New Orleans, with Bukowski, Gypsy Lou and Jon Webb, Bukowski’s first publishers (LouJon Press).

As I published more often, I traveled and did readings with Robert Penn Warren, James Dickey, William Packard, Allen Ginsberg and F. D. Reeve. Some of the Ginsberg-Douskey readings are in the Ginsberg Archive, at Stanford University, in Palo Alto. So I’d have to say, reading, traveling and getting to know the writers was a strong foundation.


OE: What advice might you give young poets today?

FD: Me give advice? First thing that comes to mind is: Why care what other people think? Self censorship is deadly for every human, and that goes triple for writers and especially poets. One time in a stop over at O’Hare, the plane attendant announced that our ground time would be brief Brilliant. How right she was and is. We don’t have forever. These bones are rented and we don’t know when the lease is up. Write, write, write, then revise, leave the work alone, go back and reread it, revise, revise and revise, knowing that revising is every bit a part of the creative process as writing down those original sparks. Go to readings, leave work early, travel, put yourself in weird experiences, even dangerous ones as long as you have an escape plan. Read a few writers, but make certain that you don’t fall in love with their style. Constantly become yourself. Leave the bough. Take on life and leave all blame behind. What you think and how you write are two elements uniquely you. And never take advice from anyone.




things move quickly here
the roads are mined
they have trucks just to carry
human parts

I miss you a minute ago
I was smoking and out of the corner
of my eye I thought I saw your head
on my pillow I guess I’m losing
my mind

death scares me
I’ve never seen so much of it
bodies on the roads
blood seeps through shirts and blouses
heads leak and mouths eat dirt

and death could come now
while I smoke and listen to music
anyone might be the enemy
it is scary

you should see the faces of the living
worse than the dead

ten years ago it was different
now we are traveling
into something cold and dark

sometimes I think I’ll never see you–
if I get shot up
they’ll send what’s left in an empty glove
waving goodbye like a flag



Cat Dying of Cancer

too sick to do anything else
she twists in a chair to lick herself —
this is strange
because she has cancer
of the tongue

I guess it’s clean but I don’t let her lick me

one night I’ll turn around and see nothing in
her eyes
but me in my white robe leaning over her

her tongue will’ve fallen out and slid behind
the cushion

one day my sister will come over with her
and the one who searches the furniture for
will pull out a piece of dried fruit
only it’ll be tongue of cat

as is his habit he’ll probably eat it

next time his granddaddy asks him
cat got your tongue? only you and I will know



Breton Speaking

First of all, there are the demented
fritillaries and raucous hummingbirds.
Yesterday Rimbaud came over to watch
Fantasy Island. His cough hasn’t improved,
still he won’t stop smoking.

It is difficult here. We hardly see
anyone. The night is lacerated by downpours
of shadows, a violent silence wings down
from the vertiginous, embroidered stars.

There are massive snails in the woods.
Trees are toothpicks in their jaws.
We lose old friends every day. Some of us,
especially Camus and Char, wonder if this
is heaven or hell. Celine says
it’s Paris, after the war.

Our wives are still on the other side,
wearing satins and sachets,
a minimal sign of virtue.

Did I tell you about the bats? Last year
only five people lived to tell about them.

Then there are the parties, equally deadly,
that one is expected to attend. Verlaine
threw up a week ago, and he still hasn’t
been able to eat anything but Wheatena.

Eluard hasn’t gotten over dying. He says
he wasn’t ready. He has something that
would clear his reputation. He has sent
a letter of protest to God,
the true originator of surrealism.

Meanwhile, any hope for hypogeous
restoration dwindles.

I once said, The future is never.
I didn’t know how right I’d be.