Wednesday, July 22, 2009

James Dickey: Falling... in and out of favor

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


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.


brian (baj) salchert said...

In the mid 1960s I attended a Dickey reading in a city north of Iowa City when I was a Workshop student at Iowa. Don't recall what he read, and I haven't read all his poems, but "The Heaven of Animals" has been my favorite.

Joseph Hutchison said...

I'll never forget Dickey reciting, toward the end of an interview with Bill Moyers, the beautiful final section of Robert Penn Warren's Audubon: A Vision, a book length poem magnificent on the page, but especially so the with strong current of Dickey's drawl unrolling beneath it:

[Section VII of "Audubon: A Vision"]


Long ago, in Kentucky, I, a boy, stood
By a dirt road, in first dark, and heard
The great geese hoot northward.

I could not see them, there being no moon
And the stars sparse. I heard them.

I did not know what was happening in my heart.

It was the season before the elderberry blooms,
Therefore they were going north.

The sound was passing northward.


Tell me a story.

In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.

Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.

The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.

Tell me a story of deep delight.


Bobby said...


I'm writing this with a sincerity that should probably be reserved to private correspondence, or better yet, face-to-face conversation over beer. But given that several variations of this argument have appeared under your name both here and at Harriet, I can’t help but wonder publicly about a question that nags at me whenever I read them. To frame it in terms that come most readily to mind: how do you square your obvious scorn for an attitude that seeks “brownie points for trendiness” with the fact that you seniorly edit a magazine that just published a feature whose sole value* seems to be those very brownie points?

I ask because (even while I doubt I could put it so eloquently) I agree with so much of what you say here, and most especially that particular form of scorn. Yes, we should be reading generously and carefully, yes we should be radically open-minded (but not open-armed) polyreaders, and yes, most certainly yes, we should be reading Dickey.

Having said that, I’m tempted to follow up immediately with another question: who doesn’t read like that? Maybe a few malcontents at Harriet, or a cohort of first-year MFA students under the sway of Ron Silliman and Seth Abramson’s neuron-severing taxonomizing, but won’t those folks find out soon enough that their sin is its own punishment? If they’re not reading Dickey because he’s not hip, or because his poems hug the left margin, then fine, they don’t get to read Dickey. Their loss.

But the bigger point I'd like to mention is that you’ve got a taller bully pulpit than all but about five people in these United States to make your case—and, with all due respect to the fine folks at Squandermania, ain’t it. If you didn’t want to write it yourself, why not commission an essay about why we should still read Dickey? If you think we should be reading generously and carefully, why waste your pages on pieces that fetishize useless controversy and reflexive negativity?

I realize even as I write this that it’s more than usually uncouth, especially given the fact that I
I've submitted work to Poetry in the past and likely will again in the future. And I know I’ll almost certainly regret posting it tomorrow, or even in an hour. But if I’ll be able to console myself with any excuse, it’s that the obvious passion behind your post moved me to respond. In any case, and setting all editorial differences aside, I offer it in a spirit of real sympathy and I hope you’ll take it as such.

All best,



*For the literalists out there, of course I’m being hyperbolic. I think a good deal of what goes under the name conceptual poetry is important work—Kenny Goldsmith’s included—and I liked Jordan Davis’s poems in the Flarf section, though that’s probably because they were, according to regnant definitions, the least flarfy of the bunch.

Don Share said...

Where to begin?

First, the feature to which you refer was not intended to score brownie points - nor did it, as far as I can tell: which is good.

Second, who doesn't read widely? Most people I meet, but then I mostly meet poetryland folks. When I do get to meet general readers, who do not pipe up on blogs, it's true that they are more accommodating with regard to things outside their own tastes - but that's not the same thing as being widely read. Seriously, how many people under the age of, oh, 35, have read Dickey's poems? Carruth's?

Next: the magazine isn't designed to be a bully pulpit. It exists to present, as it does, a variety of poems for a variety of readers. I might like to belabor this point someday.

I didn't commission an essay about Dickey because I wrote one myself! More to the point, I have no reason to burden others with writing projects that indulge my own passions or tastes. They should work, as our writers do, from their own - even when they disagree with us as editors.

Fetishize is a strong word, by the way. I think I object to it.

Last: your asterisk'd coda kind of makes my point. You liked some of what Kenny and Jordan did in the portfolio. Isn't that worth the rather inexpensive price of admission? Shouldn't I be pleased that no doubt other readers will have made similar discoveries, including, if it's the case, finding out that they don't like Flarf... or Conceptual Writing..

Quick answers to your good questions, and given in the spirit of, etc.

Rusty said...

I found Dickey through those big fat anthos that folks love to hate on, while in college, but we never read him in class, that I can recall. Those last few lines of 'Cherrylog Road' have stayed with me my whole life since reading it, though. If there's a better evocation out there of what it means to be young and male, I'd like to read it.

Drunk on the wind in my mouth,
Wringing the handlebar for speed,
Wild to be wreckage forever.

Then there's Sheepchild and Nimblewill Creek and Shark Parlor. . .ai yi yi. On and on. It's good, no matter what your predilections are. Poets that don't see that seem criminally short-sighted or blindly slavish.

Don Share said...

P.S. I should add (though it presumably goes without saying) that I get to spout my personal, as they say, opinions on this here blog. But the magazine is not a vehicle for expressing my own views (which doesn't mean I don't use my best judgment in what I do).

Bobby said...

Well, at least I was right about the regret.

But it's interesting that you say Poetry exists "to present, as it does, a variety of poems for a variety of readers." If and when you do belabor that point, I'll be glad to read it, because I thought the magazine's mission was "to print the best English verse which is being written today, regardless of where, by whom, or under what theory of art it is written." I didn't realize the superlative had dropped out of that formula, but I can't help but think things change significantly when it does. (Not least the magazine's status as bully pulpit and/or the ease with which one pries apart judgments and views.)

And maybe I'm wrong, but it didn't seem to me like your post was arguing for wide reading so much as openness of reading. The issue for me isn't whether someone has read Dickey or Carruth by 35--everyone is going to have holes in their education--but their decisions about what to read and how. Part of what I was responding to--again, in violent agreement--was your argument against ad-hominem, guilt-by-association exclusions.

Don Share said...

I've not expressed any "regret" & am not sure what it is I'm supposed to atone for.

And I was not restating the mission of the magazine in my remarks, but expressing something corrolary to my conception of its implementation. What I said is not in conflict with that mission; the superlative hasn't dropped out, and it isn't, in fact, a "formula."

At any rate, for me, the issue is precisely that younger poets are reading shallowly because of what their mentors, teachers, friends and poetry idols espouse, which excludes the likes of Dickey and countless others.

Alas, my regret is that your picking away at what I've said (which is fine to do, of course) belies what we seem to agree about.

Bobby said...

Don, apologies for any confusion, but the regret is—as predicted in my first post—all mine. I'm not asking you to atone for anything and never would.

Don Share said...

Sorry, Bobby - I did get confused there. Nothing at all for you to regret. I'm really grateful for your comments... and not to sound corny, I appreciate very much that you care about these things.

I actually do have plenty to atone for as an editor, believe me! I try to keep the chastening example of The Atlantic's Higginson re Dickinson ever in my mind...

Peter said...

I remember the intro to Dickey's PARIS REVIEW interview, where the interviewer (Donald Hall, maybe?) says
(I'm paraphrasing, poorly) that Dickey published his first book at 37, an age when most men have given up the pretense of having artistic talent. When I first read that at 25, I thought Hall was about right. 20 years later--not so much! Thanks, Don--a pleasure to read.

Kevin Cutrer said...

The influence of Dickey does live on, even if it's not blogged about. It's hard to read Robert Wrigley's early work without seeing the influence--his "In the Dark Pool, Finding You" seems to be a take on one of my favorite Dickey poems, "In the Night Pool." Wrigley wrote a wonderful essay about discovering Dickey's work and meeting him, in an issue of Shenandoah from 2002 or 2003 (sorry I don't have it handy).

One of B.H. Fairchild's best narratives, "Rave On," begins with the last line of Cherrylog Road.

Death to trendy taxonomies.

theoldguyupfront said...

Curious as to who ihas made your list of braggadocians,"some among his acolytes, all gone now." An early fan of Dickey, so do I qualify as "gone now," at age 71?

Don Share said...

I'll let the sleeping braggos lie for now, I think; but I meant poets more than fans with that locution. Regardless, I'm very glad that you are still here now, at age 71, to help me pay homage to Mr. D.

theoldguyupfront said...

Thanks, Don. Restraint and good taste don't seem to thrive in the blogosphere.--TOGUF