James Dickey ranks, along with Conrad Aiken, as one of the two most important Georgia poets in the twentieth century. His strongly visceral, sensory-laden descriptions and a poetic style that deviated from the intellectualism of such high modernist poets as T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein made him a distinctive figure in contemporary American writing.
He began to reach artistic maturity in the 1950s, and his work is typically considered alongside that of a number of other well known mid-century poets, including Allen Ginsberg, Robert Lowell, and John Berryman. His poetry is intensely confessional, largely apolitical, and directly focused on the interactions of the individual with the natural as well as the technologically transformed modern world. Dickey’s most important work was as a poet, but he wrote criticism, screenplays, essays, and three novels, one of which, Deliverance, was a best-seller and the basis of a widely praised film. As an artist, critic, and public celebrator of poetry, Dickey was a highly visible literary figure during the last half of the century. His misbehavior at public events, his disorderly personal life, and his self-destructive alcoholism only enhanced his public image as a masculine, burly poet and man of American letters.
Dickey was born in Atlanta on February 2, 1923, the son of Maibelle Swift and Eugene Dickey. He spent his first eighteen years in Atlanta and attended North Fulton High School. His poem “Looking for the Buckhead Boys” recalls some of the friends he knew during those years. He enrolled at Clemson University in 1942 (then known as Clemson College) but dropped out after a semester to join the Army Air Corps. Although he spent thirteen months training to be a bomber pilot, he failed flight school and became a navigator instead (for most of his life, however, he claimed to have been a bomber pilot). In 1945 he joined the 418th Night Fighter Squadron in the Philippines, subsequently flying missions in Okinawa and Japan. He earned a promotion to second lieutenant and five bronze stars for his service.
After the war Dickey enrolled at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, where he completed his undergraduate studies in English in 1949 and his M.A. degree the next year. Among his teachers were Donald Davidson and Andrew Lytle, the latter of whom became an early mentor. It was at Vanderbilt that Dickey began trying his hand at poetry. In 1948 Dickey married Maxine Syerson, and they became the parents of two children, Christopher, born in 1951, and Kevin, born in 1958. In 1950 Dickey began teaching as an English instructor at Rice University in Houston, Texas, but was recalled to active service when the Korean War began (his Korean War service was all state-side). He returned to Rice in 1952 and moved to the University of Florida in 1955 but resigned his position there a year later after reading a controversial poem at a women’s poetry circle.
For the next five years Dickey wrote advertising copy for McCann-Erickson in Atlanta, and at the same time worked in earnest to develop his skills as a poet. Following the publication of poems in such journals as Poetry, the Sewanee Review, and the Virginia Quarterly Review and the publication of his first poetry volume Into the Stone and Other Poems in 1960, he left the advertising firm and returned full time to teaching and writing. He also began touring the country, reading his poems and arguing for the importance of poetry. In 1968 he was named poet-in-residence and professor of English at the University of South Carolina, where he remained for the rest of his career.
Dickey’s personal life was hardly conventional. Maxine Dickey died after a long illness in late October 1976. Two months later Dickey married a former student, Deborah Dodson. Their daughter, Bronwen, was born in 1981. This was a tumultuous marriage, difficult for both partners and for all of Dickey’s children, and it did not contribute to a stable lifestyle for the poet.
The South and Georgia are often present in Dickey’s work both as a setting and a theme. But in his temperament, his interests, and the range of writers he admired, Dickey is not a regionalist, and he devotes himself to the exploration of themes and topics that are equally non-regional. Dickey is a southern poet and a Georgia poet more because of his place of birth and the settings of his poem than for the “southern” attitudes they express. Dickey’s poetic topics cover a wide and varied range. He writes of personal experiences, memories, specific places, and situations. Almost always the poet occupies the center of his poems, usually as an actor, less often as an observer, in the scene he describes. An example is the poem “Springer Mountain,” wherein Dickey imagines himself hunting a deer in the early winter morning air and entering into a ritualistic sense of oneness with his intended prey:
The world catches fire.
I put an unbearable light
Into breath skinned alive of its garments:
I think, beginning with laurel,
Like a beast loving
With the whole god bone of his horns:
The green of excess is upon me.
The typical Dickey poem is one of meditation on memory or experience. Poems built around memories may concern places Dickey has visited (“Slave Quarters,” “Near Darien”) or people he has known (“The Performance,” “Mary Sheffield,” “Looking for the Buckhead Boys”). Poems about experience are numerous and vary widely. They may concern things Dickey has actually done (“The Firebombing”) or that he imagines wholly or partially (“May Day Sermon,” “Cherrylog Road,” “The Sheep Child”). Some of his most successful poems are about experiences had by others that he reconceives and imagines for himself (“Falling” is a notable example). In all of these poems, the goal is always to experience and to understand and often to consecrate or to celebrate. Dickey’s basic subject is the individual as he struggles to negotiate his relationship with others and with the natural world. His poems often end with affirmations of unity or mystic comprehension, as at the end of “For the Last Wolverine,” where he pleads, “Lord, let me die / but not die Out,” or in “Cherrylog Road,” where he drives away down Highway 106 on his motorcycle, “Drunk on the wind in my mouth, / Wringing the handlebar for speed, / Wild to be wreckage forever.” His poems largely avoid literary allusions and intellectual references and rely instead on sensory images to convey the intensity of experience.
Dickey’s best work came in the first fifteen years of his career, and most of it is presented in his collection Poems: 1957-1967. His novel Deliverance, published in 1970, brought him popular success and a degree of notoriety, and it was clearly a turning point for him both personally and artistically. With the publication of The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead, and Mercy in 1970 his poetry became more experimental and abstract, less spontaneous and effective. Alcoholism, the dissolution of his first marriage, followed by Maxine’s death in 1976 and his second marriage later the same year became drains on his energy and attention. His son Christopher, in his memoir Summer of Deliverance, marks 1972—the year in which Deliverance was made into a movie—as the point when Dickey began to lose focus as an individual, a father, and an artist. In the years that followed, Dickey was much caught up in his own cult of celebrity, one in which he fervently believed. The Zodiac (1976), The Strength of Fields (1979), Puella (1982), and The Eagle’s Mile (1990) showed a genuine struggle to forge a new poetic voice, but these later poems, with a few exceptions, fell short of the lyric ferocity of the earlier work.
For many readers Dickey’s name is closely linked to the novel Deliverance. This tale of four businessmen from Atlanta, whose weekend canoe trip in the hills of north Georgia ends in death and disaster, cemented the public persona that Dickey had been building throughout his career. A number of critics have faulted the novel for its stereotypical portrayal of north Georgia hillbillies, ignorance, inbreeding, and violence. An accurate portrayal was probably not Dickey’s intention (he does camouflage place names). Rather, he explores several of his basic themes: the collision of civilized and uncivilized worlds, the struggle of the modern individual to maintain, or recover, connections with his primal nature, and the retreat of nature against the advances of science and technology. The book to which the novel has often been compared is the one with which it shows the closest affinity: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, in which a civilized man discovers, and must learn to live with, the savagery of his essential nature.
John Boorman’s film of Deliverance, based on Dickey’s screenplay and featuring him in a small role as a sheriff, perpetuated the stereotypes in the novel and boosted its notoriety and popularity. Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds were featured actors in the film, which was nominated for three Academy and five Golden Globe awards.
As early as the 1950s Dickey began mentioning ideas for a story about a blind man named Cahill, an aviator whose son dies mysteriously in a military plane crash. This idea eventually developed into the novel Alnilam (1987), which uses parallel columns of text to narrate from both a blind and a sighted man’s point of view. Alnilam was a serious and ambitious effort that was widely if unenthusiastically reviewed. Oddly, the vitality that Dickey seemed unable to achieve in his last major book of poetry,The Eagle’s Mile, clearly left a mark on his last novel, To the White Sea (1993), about a tail gunner’s struggle for survival after his B-29 is shot down over Tokyo during a bombing mission in 1945. The novel is marked with violence and a kind of deliberate brutality as the man flees the soldiers who pursue him. The novel is penetrated with images and language from the poetry, and the main character himself can be taken as an image of Dickey in old age, fighting illness and unsympathetic critics, demanding his place in a world that seeks to erase him.
Dickey’s last years were sad ones. He continued teaching at the University of South Carolina, but he no longer held the place of national prominence he had once occupied. Afflicted with alcoholism and the collapse of his second marriage, he kept at his writing, convinced that he was doing, or on the verge of doing, his best work ever. He grew seriously estranged from his wife, Deborah. He reconciled with his son Christopher in 1994 and stopped drinking, but liver disease and fibrosis of the lungs drained his energies. He died in January 1997, three days after his last class, leaving a novel unfinished.
In 2000 Dickey was inducted as a charter member into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.