As Marcus Aurelius meditated: All is ephemeral—fame and the famous as well.
Among the uncertainties of life, poetry in particular is subject to instability because the requirements of the present moment are perversely and disingenuously privileged, now that greatness and posterity have been very conveniently debunked. This allows folks to praise or condemn work categorically and in myopic bulk, at the expense of reading something generously and carefully, on its own terms... or even just reading something out of one's ordinary ken. The controlling idea, which flourishes in the service of doctrinaire narrow mindedness, is to view poetry from the perspective of what "kind" it is. This presupposes that actual categories of poetry exist, or would be meaningful if they did - and that poems by some people conforming to some conventions are written in self-delusion, and are therefore products of & in complicity with Hegemonic Evil and the "ghost of Robert Lowell," etc. Why are intelligent people drawn to the invidious notion that everything fits into some scorny (to use Jordan Davis's great word) taxonomy?
(I guess I'm coming from a wobbly place such as that articulated by Isaiah Berlin in his recently-published letters: "I have inveterate sympathy for traitors in both camps..." & "... my compromise-loving, accommodating, all too unromantical, juste milieu, soul..." Ah, well, sorry about that. I am a radically open-minded polyreader, and I mean this seriously and not smugly.)
In the long term - also disbelieved-in - the joke'll be on us. But for now, given the restless - and ephemeral - jostling for position among the living inhabitants of American poetry, it's no surprise that worthwhile poets have been temporarily discredited, disappeared, set aside for re-education, or forgotten. If your deal is to trash the past and its nefarious "institutions," then it's guilt by association all the way. Or: guilt regardless of association, Viz: the rubbishing of Hayden Carruth on Harriet by people who know little more than his name, and wouldn't bother with the poetry on a bet. It's more important to know whether somebody was a "quietist" or not; or if he somehow represents something you object to, like hugging the left margin, say, or being a crappy person - out they go, poems and all! It's a dustbin-of-history poetics. Thanks a lot for underestimating my intelligence as a reader!
One of numberless writers who have suffered under this rigid and revanchist regime, whose arsenal includes passive neglect as well as canon reformation via ad hominem attack, is James Dickey. Kneejerk poetics: he's an old-school white guy from the South (always requiring either condescension on the one hand, or Gothic culture fetishism on the other), he drank a lot, was a violent misogynist, and had a famous movie made of one of his novels, he's in big bad anthologies: end of story. All true. And it doesn't help that even among poets old enough to remember him, he'll be recalled as a feared book reviewer, and judge of the Yale Younger Poets series: a power-broker and macho man.
In spite of all this, I'm going to recommend his work, warts and all.
Dickey's 1967 book, Falling, was one of the most daring books produced by an American poet since Williams and Pound, though he sounds like neither. (Yeah, yeah: quietude, heh! - but anyone who thinks Dickey "quiet" never dealt with him when he was around.) Dickey started out in the early 1950's and '60's as a recognizably, though not typical, Southern male poet, penning smoky, booze- and war-damaged poems that were stained on the fringes with vivid religious hues. His religion was primordial, though, as if the Lord had made his way not through the desert but through the swamps and moth swarms of Georgia - only to be met by troubled men, some of whom were veterans, living in tin houses decorated by gaunt suffering women, where flowers were always on the mantel-piece, bought by somebody's death.
Dickey's early poems are inspirited with death and impending acts of criminality, e.g. "The Vegetable King," from which those Gothic details come. Fishing, foxhounds, tree houses, kudzu, old cars, and Civil War relics also fill these first poems, almost all worth reading. What thou lovest well, or hate, remains American in Dickey's writing. His war poems in particular are astonishing, and surely help us understand more about what life will be like for soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, about whom we hear so little:
In the brown half-life of my beard
The hair stood up
Like the awed hair lifting the back
Of a dog that has eaten a swan.
Now light like this
Staring into my face
Was the first thing around me at birth.
Be no more killed, it said.
("Drinking from a Helmet")
Dickey, as veterans do inexorably, brought the war back home, and it's from this vantage point that he relentlessly articulated the fright people feel as combatants - or their kin:
All families lie together, though some are burned alive.
The others try to feel
For them. Some can, it is often said...
I did not think of my house
But think of my house now
Where the lawn mower rests on its laurels
Where the diet exists
For my own good ...
... where the Sunday
School text for the day has been put ...
where the payments
For everything under sun
Pile peacefully up...
Holding onto another man's walls,
My hat should crawl on my head...
Bomb finds a home
And clings to it like a child.
These excerpts are from "The Firebombing," once considered controversial: to us now, the monstrous horror of the poem sounds like a trope, a commonplace. Well, it wasn't, when he wrote it, which is the price he pays for being accurate. Eventually, Dickey fell out of favor with readers because in an era of apparent peace, bubbly prosperity, and expanding youth culture he was, as he put it in another poem, "forever at war news." But now that our bubble has been punctured and wounding war is with us yet again, I think of Dickey along with poets like Dunya Mikhail, who never forgets that bloody conflict is not something that takes place "over there," and Brian Turner, who found himself gnawing upon the gristle of its immorality.
War, though it permanently marks and informs Dickey's work, was not his sole subject. Military conflict is only one dimension of human cruelty (even the good ole American backwoods in the movie version of Deliverance ominously resemble the jungles of Viet Nam). Another is the violence in domestic relations; and yet another takes place when the instruments of our convenience turn on us. The once-notorious poem "Falling" intertwines these things; it's about a flight attendant who plunges to her death after an emergency door bursts open on an airplane mid-flight. It's a creepy poem, unsparingly cruel in its unfolding:
One cannot just fall just tumble screaming all that time on must use
It she is now through with all through all clouds damp hair
Straightened the last wisp on fog pulled apart on her face like wool...
The poem is misogynist and dated, but it's a fantasia, after all, impressively ghoulish and self-serving as a session with a shrink; its spacey free fall opened the door to "May Day Sermon" - an astounding poem. A master-frickin'-piece and bellwether. Blogger won't let me format it correctly, so
CLICK TO READ IT HERE!
Dickey was a braggadocian, and so were some among his acolytes, all gone now. Yet he wrote in a time, unlike ours, of tough competition and stiff criticism, and so he donned the camouflage of willfulness and drink. In fact in the 1960's, Dickey's attitude, in his poems, toward war and its horrors was called into question by Robert Bly, who thought it manipulative, conservative, superior. Nobody bothers to vilify the poems now; these days, if Dickey or his work are discussed at all, it's his attitude toward and treatment of women that - rightly - are scrutinized; the chronicle of those things makes for depressing reading in the extreme (though his daughter, Bronwen, eloquently scolded his biographer, and his son Christopher disentangled things with great and poignant skill in a memoir). Meanwhile Deliverance will, I imagine, never die.
As everyone knows, Yeats said that the intellect is forced to choose perfection of the life or of the work. Hard as it is to imagine Yeats or anybody perfecting his life, Dickey was a poet who chose the work option. He even may have realized that a certain kind of poetry lived and died with him. But refusing heavenly as well as earthly mansions, he raged in the hot, naked dark. There's no romanticising of this, but amid the bluster there was, after all, poetry worth reading, whatever "school" you're in or from. "Poetry is a matter of luck," Dickey's son recalls his father saying. "You can't teach it. You can point it out when it occurs." That's why I'm pointing out that Dickey's luckiest poems shouldn't be forgotten - even if you won't earn any brownie points for trendiness in the blogposphere for searching them out now.
P.S. Dickey once cleverly reviewed Randall Jarrell's selected poems by having a dialogue between two critics, A and B, one of whom liked and the other who hated Jarrell's work. A has the last word, though, saying that the poet "gives you, as all great or good writers do, a foothold in a realm where literature itself is inessential, where your own world is more yours than you could ever have thought, or even felt, but is one you have always known." Dickey's best poems awaken such feelings in me, even when those feelings are nightmarish.
Remembering James Dickey from SC Center for the Book on Vimeo.