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James Dickey as a Southern Visionary

ISSUE:  Winter 1987

Some years ago James Dickey, who will be 64 next month, responded to an interviewer’s question about the sense in which he was a Southern writer with the ringing declaration that “the best thing that ever happened to me was to have been born a Southerner. First as a man and then as a writer.” He would not want to feel that he was limited in any way by being a Southerner or was expected to “indulge in the kind of regional chauvinism that has sometimes been indulged in by Southern writers,” he said, but the tragic history of the South gave him a set of values “some of which are deplorable, obviously, but also some of which are the best things that I have ever had as a human being.” Southerners, he suggested, let their ancestors help: “I have only run-of-the-mill ancestors but they knew that one was supposed to do certain things. Even the sense of evil, which is very strong with me, would not exist if I had no sense of what evil was.”

Dickey is convinced, then, that being Southern is central to the way he thinks and feels, but doesn’t want to be thought of as merely regional; he suggests that the most valuable Southern quality is a special awareness of the personal past in the sense of inheriting traditions and codes of values from one’s ancestors, and a special awareness of the regional past in its full tragic meaning, including the sense of evil. But rather than continue to depend on Dickey’s own statements, now that I have used him to run interference for me, let me try to define more specifically just what kind of Southern writer he is and how he is related to other Southern writers.

The obvious starting-point is his relation to the Fugitive-Agrarian groups. Except for Donald Davidson, all the Fugitives and most of the Agrarians had left Vanderbilt long before Dickey arrived; so there was no possibility of personal influence. But Ransom, Tate, and Warren had become major figures in the literary world, and Brooks, Jarrell, and others were establishing high reputations. Vanderbilt students and faculty—most of them—were proud of the connection, and the campus was alive with legends of the days when giants had walked that very earth. In this context, creative writing seemed exciting and important to a good many students, and so did being a Southerner. It seems plain enough that Dickey’s commitment to poetry and his awareness of his identity as Southerner owed much both to his reading of the Fugitive-Agrarian writers and to the Vanderbilt tradition of respect for serious writing. R.V. Cassill is amusing but, I think, quite wrong when he portrays Dickey as a rebellious Young Turk who refused to conform to the Southern ruling circles by speaking “smartly about Miss Eudora and Mr. Ransom” and being “reverent about Traveler” while snickering down Whitman and the Midwesterners. In the first place, the Southern literary establishment, insofar as there ever was one, was not reverential about Traveler; Tate abandoned his biography of Lee because he had ceased to believe in him, and The Fugitive announced early that it fled nothing so much as the genteel pieties of the Old South. In the second place, Dickey was recognized early by the Southerners and usually given whatever awards they had to offer. While he never had the rare good luck the Fugitives did of close association with a group of like-minded peers, the fact that the tradition of serious writing was still alive at Vanderbilt kept him from the near-total isolation of a writer like Faulkner. A few years ago Tate went on record with the opinion that Dickey is the best poet the South has produced since the heyday of the Fugitives, and Warren has said in the South Carolina Review that he is “among Jim’s greatest admirers” and in the New York Times Book Review that The Zodiac is a major achievement, worthy of comparison to Hart Crane’s The Bridge.

In recent years some nostalgic epigones of the Fugitive-Agrarians at Vanderbilt have written requiems for the Southern Literary Renascence, maintaining that it has suffered death by melancholy. Their thesis is that Southern literature has been dying since World War II, when modernism triumphed over the South; and any hope is illusory. I have never quite believed in the Southern Renascence, suspecting that it was created artificially, like Frankenstein’s monster, in the laboratories of academic critics; and reports of the loss of such artificial life need not disturb us. At any rate, Dickey, thank God, like Madison Jones and others of his contemporaries at Vanderbilt, and like such older Southern writers as Robert Penn Warren, Walker Percy, and Eudora Welty, doesn’t know he’s dead and refuses to lie down. As stubbornly as the astronomical phenomena that Galileo saw through his telescope in spite of the irrefutable arguments of his learned opponents that they couldn’t possibly be there, the works of these writers continue to exist and to grow, unquestionably alive. Most of us, however we may feel about the modern world, would rather have the poems and novels than have a thesis about it demonstrated; and our own Poe has taught us to beware of premature burial. So we will be grateful that some of our writers flourish, and we will refuse to abandon hope.


While Dickey seems to have no interest in Agrarianism as a political or economic program, he shares with the Agrarians a deep concern about man’s relation to nature and the distortions produced in this relation by the increasing urbanism and commercialism of our society. Dickey’s true subject, however, is neither rural nor urban, but suburban. Since Southern cities are smaller, their suburbs are not wholly distinct from nearby small towns, and both maintain more connection with the country than their Northern counterparts. Compare, in this respect, those Dickey represents with John Cheever’s dormitory suburbs around New York, with swimming pools linked in one giant fantasy. But both writers describe the modern nuclear family—nuclear both in being small and without the connections families used to have and in being under the threat of nuclear war. In these respects there is little difference between North and South, though the South may be slightly less nuclear simply because it is less urban.

Dickey’s remarkable achievement is that he has taken his subject seriously and redeemed the word suburban from its comic or pejorative overtones. Instead of describing bored wives at the country club, adulteries in Commuterdom, hysteria and desperation breaking out from the pressures of enforced uniformity, or the absurdities of Little League baseball, he shows us a suburban world that is still in touch with a nature that remains wild, not tamed or prettified. Dickey’s suburbs have no cute ceramic animals, no dear little Bambis or gnomes on the lawns, but the call of the real wild, an inner nature answering to outer. Deliverance is the most extended example, with its gradual revelation that the wilderness has always been present in the suburbs, whose security is an illusion. On the other hand, “The Firebombing” treats the homeowner’s longing for security sympathetically because of his vivid awareness of its precariousness in view of what he did to his Japanese counterparts. “Dark Ones” transmutes into poetry the evening ritual of the arrival home of the commuters.

To say that Dickey is a visionary poet is a paralyzingly obvious assertion: almost every poem he writes describes a vision of one kind or another, and in recent years he has dealt explicitly with the loss of physical vision in works such as the unfinished novel Cahill is Blind. Perhaps he will become the patron or mascot of the ophthalmologists, as Wallace Stevens was adopted by the ice-cream manufacturers after writing “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.” Yet the truism is worth repeating, for it says something about his relation to Southern literature. Dickey belongs to the line of visionaries running from Blake through Rimbaud and Whitman to such modem exemplars as Hart Crane, George Barker, Dylan Thomas, and Theodore Roethke. It is noteworthy that there are no Southern names on this list, since as far as I know there are few Southern poets who could be called visionary. Tate and Warren, for example, are in their different ways primarily concerned with history, with attempting to relate the past to the present. Perhaps one reason good Southern poets have shied away from the visionary mode is that they remember how much older Southern poetry was emasculated by the necessity of avoiding politics and hence driven from reality into fake vision. The old Southern tradition of escapism and sentimentality—of high gutless swooning, to borrow a phrase from Faulkner—was certainly one thing the Fugitives were fleeing. South Carolinian Henry Timrod often exemplified this tradition, and Tate surely intended a contrast with Timrod’s “Ode Sung at the Decoration of the Graves of the Confederate Dead at Magnolia Cemetery” when he wrote his own ironic “Ode to the Confederate Dead.” Timrod’s “Ethnogenesis” is a kind of vision, it is true, but appallingly detached from any sense of reality: in it the new Confederacy, with its economy based on cotton and slavery, is seen as bringing wealth, moral improvement, and a better climate to the whole world.

Before Dickey, the only Southern poet who was a true visionary was Poe; and his visions, as every schoolchild knows, were very peculiar indeed. Though one might argue that Dickey’s poetic rhythms are often incantatory, and intended to put the reader into a kind of trance state, they are far more subtle than Poe’s blatantly hypnagogic music; and though both poets are most interested in states of consciousness beyond normal waking life, they are not interested in the same states. Much as I would like to, I don’t see how I can make a case for any resemblance beyond the fact that they are both visionaries. Dickey has none of Poe’s morbid preoccupation with death, his concern being rather with new and different modes of life; you can’t imagine his saying that the ideal poetic subject is the death of a beautiful woman. Poe strives obsessively to make the reader feel the horror of being a living soul in a dead body, of an irreparable crack or split in the edifice of the mind, of long-ago irremediable losses. Dickey, in contrast, produces in the reader a new awareness of nonhuman forms of life, from dogs on the feet to owls in the woods and panthers in the zoo; the poems seek new forms of union, wider possibilities of consciousness. Mind and body are not separated as they are in Poe, but totally fused. Finally, Dickey gets into his poems a solid feeling of everyday reality and normal experience before moving to transcend them. It is this feeling or rendering that distinguishes him not only from Poe but from the kind of fantasy that is now so enormously popular in movies and cheap fiction. Dickey’s visions have nothing in common with these self-indulgent daydreams unrelated to any kind of reality.


Dickey’s most ambitious visionary poem is certainly The Zodiac, which deals with nothing less than the meaning of the visible universe. Since it is based on a work by the Dutch poet Hendrik Marsman, whom Dickey retains as speaker and protagonist of the poem, it has nothing whatever to do with the South; the point of view is distinctively European when it is not cosmic. Why would Dickey choose to adopt a persona so different from his usual one? Partly, I would guess, because the difference was liberating: writing as Marsman, Dickey has a different mask of the self and different memories. Instead of the South or the wartime Pacific, he writes as a man of an earlier European generation about Amsterdam; instead of writing as a survivor, he is now one who will die early in the same war. Even the name Marsman may have reinforced this appeal: an author with a message from outer space. But on a deeper level, Marsman’s poem expresses concerns and beliefs that Dickey shares. Dickey has always been moved by astronomy and by the religious sense of “how wild, inexplicable, marvelous, and endless creation is.” His religion “involves myself and the universe, and it does not admit of any kind of intermediary, such as Jesus or the Bible.” He would like to be reincarnated as a migratory sea bird like a tern or wandering albatross. The themes of the aging wanderer returning home and so finding his own identity and of the poet’s reexamination and reaffirmation of his poetic faith and vocation—we might call them the Ulysses and Lycidas archetypes—must have appealed to Dickey with peculiar force in the Dutch poem. Imitating Marsman, then, frees Dickey from his usual self and gives him a fresh start at the same time that it provides him with a way of expressing some of his most deeply felt concerns and beliefs from a different perspective. By transforming the language, he makes Marsman’s poem his own. Giving it a tone quite different from Marsman’s and with far more dramatic power and variety, he makes it emphatically contemporary and personal. Through this process of expansion and dramatization, Dickey’s poem becomes about twice as long as Marsman’s.

The central fact about the protagonist is that he is a poet dedicated to the belief that poetry reveals ultimate truth and that it comes from sources above or beyond the rational intellect. Under the pressure of impending catastrophe—for he feels that he has wasted and misused his life, and he sees his world moving swiftly to destruction in World War II—he reexamines this visionary faith. The drama consists in his struggle to clarify and reaffirm it. Like all poets who conceive of their art as lamp rather than mirror, he worries that the light will die with the guttering lamp and vacillates about the reality of what it reveals; but he has the additional problems of distinguishing the hallucinations produced by delirium tremens from reality and of reconciling a knowledge of modern astronomy with belief in the significance of the zodiac. The zodiac may seem a curiously archaic and implausible locus of poetic faith; but it is its age and mythological richness that make it the supreme test case of the relation between man’s imagination and God’s. To believe in its significance is to believe that the universe is not meaningless, that there is a connection between the little world of man and the great world of the stars, between inside and outside.

To show the difference between Marsman’s poem and Dickey’s, let me quote the conclusion, in which the main themes are recapitulated. Here is Marsman (no doubt rather flatly translated):

O spirit, grant to this small hand
The calm and quiet resolution
To steer the ship on to the morning land
That slumbering waits and each horizon’s bar.
And give that he who listens to the swish
That sweeps along the waving of the planets
And through the whirling of the emerald sea
May tune the instruments upon the fork
Which at the touch reveals the structural form
Of the immemorial European song
That sounded at the dawn of cultured life,
Whose course began upon the azure sea
And shall still undulate through the west world
As long as the afflatus spans around space
A firmament of intellect and dream.

And here is Dickey’s version, a triumph of what Lowell called imitation:

 Oh my own soul, put me in a solar boat.
 Come into one of these hands
 Bringing quietness and the rare belief
That I can steer this strange craft to the morning
Land that sleeps in the universe on all horizons
   And give this home-come man who listens in his room

  To the rush and flare of his father
 Drawn at the speed of light to Heaven
Through the wrong end of his telescope, expanding the
    The instrument the tuning-fork—
  He’ll flick it with his bandless wedding-finger—
   Which at a touch reveals the form
   Of the time-loaded European music
   That poetry has never really found,
  Undecipherable as God’s bad, Heavenly sketches,
  Involving fortress and flower, vine and wine and bone,
  And shall vibrate through the western world
So long as the hand can hold its island
  Of blazing paper, and bleed for its images:
  Make what it can of what is:

   So long as the spirit hurls on space
  The star-beasts of intellect and madness.

Poets of other persuasions do not seek meaning in the stars. Auden could say cheerfully, “Looking up at the stars, I know quite well/That for all they care, I can go to hell,” and Warren that the stars “are only a backdrop for/The human condition” and the sky “has murder in the eye, and I/Have murder in the heart, for I/Am only human. We look at each other, the sky and I./We understand each other. . . .” Visionary poets, however, affirm that there is a relation, that the stars are saying something to man. Just what they say is, naturally, impossible to state in cool discursive prose. But Dickey’s essential affirmation would seem to be essentially the same as that made by his visionary predecessors, from Blake through Hart Crane and the Dylan Thomas of Altarwise by Owllight: the analogy, or identity, of the poetic imagination and the divine power that created the stars. For this symbolic affirmation, the zodiac works better than Brooklyn bridge.


To say that visionary poets do not age well is an academic understatement or litotes. Rimbaud gave up poetry for gunrunning at the age of 19, and Hart Crane leaped into the sea at 30; Dylan Thomas drank himself to death at 39, and Roethke, after increasingly harrowing bouts of mania and depression, in his fifties. Blake and Smart, under cover of madness, made it into their fifties. But except for Whitman, who was only in one sense a visionary poet, it is hard to think of any who attained the age of 60. Dickey’s achievement in surviving not only two wars but the special hazards that beset his kind of poet is, then, a notable one: like Faulkner’s Dilsey, he has endured.

Dickey has not only remained very much active, but he has continued to grow and develop. His latest volume, Puella, seems to me to mark his entrance into a distinctive new stage. In Puella there is a shift from the cosmic vision of The Zodiac to a very different kind of vision that might be called domestic. The poet is not tamed but gentled as he lovingly describes what Hopkins called the mundus muliebris, the woman’s world inhabited by the daughter-wife figure whose girlhood he relives. At the risk of embarrassing Dickey, I might suggest a large and vague parallel with the change in Shakespeare’s career from tragedies like Lear to romances like Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest, with their themes of reconciliation, fulfillment, the joy of recovering what was thought to be lost forever. Deborah in these poems has something in common with Marina, Perdita, Miranda, and other such young girls in these plays; with Yeats’ Dancers and the daughter for whom he wrote the great prayer; and with the young girls in Hopkins—in “Margaret, are you grieving” and the “Echo” poems, for example. (I am beginning to sound like those 19th-century studies of the girlhood of Shakespeare’s heroines; but that is the mood of the book, with its charming epigraph from T. Sturge Moore: “I lived in thee, and dreamed, and waked/Twice what I had been.” If the word mellow had not been preempted by Doonesbury’s Californians, it would be hard to avoid using it here. This is also the first time the word charming has been conceivable as a description of Dickey’s poetry.)

The girl in the poems is intensely herself, yet she is also representative of all young girls, as the title Puella suggests. She is pictured in scenes that are archetypal, sometimes rites de passage, sometimes with mythical or historical contexts; sometimes heraldic as if in medieval tapestry, sometimes playfully absurd as if in a modern folk-naïve painting. While the poems are obviously very personal, they exhibit a new kind of formality, both in the speaker’s attitude toward his subject—affection tinged with gentle humor, folk ceremoniousness, a degree of detachment making possible fresh appreciation of physical beauty—and in the verse itself. Dickey has always treasured the “wildness” aspect of Hopkins, as did Roethke—”Long live the weeds and the wildness yet!”— but these poems show a new sense of the beauty of formal sound-patterns that is often reminiscent of that poet. There is a tenderness, a delicacy, a fresh appreciation of the beauty of the visible universe that seem to owe something to Hopkins while being also strongly individual.

The beginning of “Heraldic: Deborah and Horse in Morning Forest,” has an epigraph from Hopkins and is a kind of homage to that poet:

     It could be that nothing you could do
 Could keep you from stepping out and blooding-in
     An all-out blinding heraldry for this:
        A blurred momentum-flag
   That must be seen sleep-weathered and six-legged,
     Brindling and throwing off limbo-light

Of barns. . . .

In another, Hopkins’ verse-techniques are used to describe Deborah’s piano-playing:

     With a fresh, gangling resonance
  Truing handsomely, I draw on left-handed space
 For a brave ballast shelving and bracing, and from it,
                         then, the light
 Prowling lift-off, the treble’s strewn search and
                       wide-angle glitter.

As for playful folk-ceremony poems—a world apart from what some critic calls the “country surrealism” of “May Day Sermon”—there are “Deborah and Deirdre as Drunk Bridesmaids Foot-Racing at Daybreak” and “Veer-Voices: Two Sisters under Crows,” in both of which the titles are enough for present purposes. But I cannot resist quoting the end of my favorite poem in the book, “Deborah in Ancient Lingerie, in Thin Oak over Creek.” This is both a vision, at once tender and absurd, of Deborah in her “album bloomers” diving into the creek, and a ritual acted out in the poem itself:

          . . .snake-screaming,
    Withering, foster-parenting for animals
    I can do
       very gently from just about
 Right over you, I can do
            at no great height I can do
                        and bear
 And counter-balance and do
       and half-sway and do
                and sway
                 and outsway and

The poems move from the realism of “Deborah as Scion,” where she is seen “In Lace and Whalebone” thinking of the kind of looks she has inherited—”Bull-headed, big-busted . . . I am totally them in the/eyebrows, /Breasts, breath and butt”—to the visionary heights of “The Lyric Beasts,” where she speaks as “Dancer to Audience” and becomes a kind of goddess challenging the audience to “Rise and on faith/Follow.” In a sense, I suppose the book is Dickey’s reply to the radical feminists, for Deborah in it is both herself and Dickey’s ideal modern woman, enacting her archetypal feminine role in full mythic resonance, but not enslaved or swallowed up by it. If so, Kate Millett and Adrienne Rich may eat their hearts out!

I have not mentioned many qualities in Dickey that might be called distinctively Southern, on the ground that they are large, vague, and obvious—more obvious in the novel Deliverance and the two books about the South, Jericho and God’s Images, than in the poetry—but perhaps they should be summed up briefly. A strong sense of place is the first, as in the poems about Cherrylog Road, kudzu, chenille, the Buckhead boys, the woman preacher, and the lawyer’s daughter whose dive from the Eugene Talmadge Bridge brought revelation from the burning bush. Love of story-telling, and hence of communal myth, is important, and from this it is a short step to love of ceremony and ritual both within the family and with other life-forms, from the Owl King to Puella. Dickey’s humor is more frequently present than most people seem to realize, but its most characteristic form is the preposterous lie or grotesquely implausible vision which outrages the reader but then turns out to be, in a deeper sense, true. Like most Southerners, he has a strong religious sense: his poems are often sermons or prayers or invocations. But his creed might be called natural supernaturalism, or fundamentalism so fundamental that it concerns man’s relation to all other life forms.

As we have seen, Dickey has little significant relation to earlier Southern writing; it would take a truly ingenious academic to show how he was influenced by Sidney Lanier! Poe seems to be his only Southern predecessor in being a genuine visionary; but he was a very different kind: whereas Poe’s visions are of horror and death-in-life, Dickey’s are of larger modes of life. Dickey is, in fact, so far from being a regionalist in any exclusive sense that the spiritual ancestors most prominent in his recent poetry are that New Englander of the New Englanders, Joseph Trumbull Stickney, who lies behind the wonderful poem “Exchanges”; the Dutch poet and sailor Hendrik Marsman, who lies behind The Zodiac; and the English Jesuit G.M. Hopkins, who lies behind Puella.

In contrast to more recent Southern poets like Tate and Warren, Dickey has not been interested in communion with other humans through acceptance of the human condition but in getting beyond ordinary humanity to participate in the life of nonhuman creatures and in more-than-human forces. His essential subject has been exchange or metamorphosis or participation mystique between man and wild animals, fish, or birds; or, in Zodiac, stars and the mysterious universe in general. Since the rational mind is a hindrance, or at best irrelevant, to this quest, his poems represent extreme states of consciousness: intoxication, terror, rage, lust, hallucination, somnambulism or mystical exaltation. His concern is not the limitations but the possibilities of human and nonhuman nature, not history but vision.

As I have tried to suggest, his latest book, Puella, constitutes a new kind of vision, back from the cosmic extremities of The Zodiac to the human and domestic world. The figure of the daughter-wife is suffused with a new tenderness, gentleness, and humor, and the verse takes on a new formal musicality. A Jungian would say that the girl in these poems is an anima-figure; but whether the sense of fulfillment and joy in these poems comes from integration of the personality or from some deeper cause, I will not attempt to decide. Nor will I comment on the fact that Deborah is not only Southern but South Carolinian; Southern chivalry toward ladies who have the misfortune to be born elsewhere forbids it. But I will risk the charge of Southern chauvinism by saying that the book is a most notable contribution to Southern letters.


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