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About this poet

On February 2, 1923, James Dickey was born in Buckhead, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta.

His interest in poetry was awakened by his father, a lawyer who used to read his son famous speeches. As a boy Dickey read the work of Byron, and later, a volume of Byron's poetry was the young poet's first purchase. As a boy—at six feet three inches—Dickey went on to become a high school football star, eventually playing varsity at Clemson College in South Carolina.

In 1942, Dickey left school to enlist in the U.S. Air Force. In between combat missions in the Pacific, he read the work of Conrad Aiken and an anthology of modern poetry by Louis Untermeyer, and developed a taste for the apocalyptic poets, including Dylan Thomas and Kenneth Patchen.

When he returned from the war, Dickey enrolled at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, where he studied anthropology, astronomy, philosophy, and foreign languages, as well as English literature. Encouraged to write more poetry, Dickey spent his senior year focusing on his craft, and eventually had a poem published in the Sewanee Review. Determined to write, he pursued graduate work, first at Vanderbilt, then at Rice University in Houston, Texas.

The Air Force recalled Dickey to train officers for the Korean War. On his return he took a position with the University of Florida, though he resigned in April 1956, discouraged by the institutional nature of teaching.

At the age of thirty-three, Dickey moved to New York City, where he was hired to write advertising copy at the prominent McCann-Ericson agency. He stayed in New York for several years before moving to Atlanta agencies.

In 1960, Dickey's first collection, Into the Stone and Other Poems, was published, and he soon abandoned his lucrative career to devote his life to writing poetry full-time. In 1961, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and spent a year in Italy with his family. Two of his most famous volumes of verse, Helmets (1964) and Buckdancer's Choice (1965), —for which he was awarded both the Melville Cane Award and National Book Award—, were published soon after. Dickey then taught, lectured, and wrote.

"I came to poetry with no particular qualifications," Dickey stated in Howard Nemerov's Poets on Poetry. "I had begun to suspect, however, that there is a poet—or a kind of poet—buried in every human being like Ariel in his tree, and that the people whom we are pleased to call poets are only those who have felt the need and contrived the means to release this spirit from its prison."

Applauded for their ambitious experimentation with language and syntax, Dickey's poems address humanity and violence by presenting the instincts of humans and animals as antithetical to the false safety of civilization. Called "willfully eccentric" by the New York Times Book Review and "naturally musical" by the Chicago Tribune Book World, Dickey's work testifies to the power of the human spirit, especially under extreme conditions.

From 1966 to 1968, Dickey held the position of Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, an office that would later become the Poet Laureate.

In 1970, he penned his best-selling novel, Deliverance. The book, which was later made into a major motion picture, exposed readers to scenes of violence and nightmarish horror, much as his poetry had done. Though the novel was well received, Dickey remained devoted to poetry.

"Poetry is, I think, the highest medium that mankind has ever come up with," he asserted in a 1981 interview. "It's language itself, which is a miraculous medium which makes everything else that man has ever done possible."

In 1977 Dickey read at President Carter's inauguration, and later served as the judge of the Yale Younger Poets Series.

By the end of his life, Dickey had gained fame for his poems and stories of the South and recognition for his Renaissance lifestyle. A writer, guitar player, hunter, woodsman, and war hero, James Dickey died in South Carolina after a long illness in 1997.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

Into the Stone and Other Poems (1960)
Drowning with Others (1962)
Two Poems of the Air (1964)
Helmets (1964)
Buckdancer's Choice (1965)
Poems 1957-67 (1967)
The Achievement of James Dickey: A Comprehensive Selection of His Poems (1968)
The Eye Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy (1970)
Exchanges (1971)
The Zodiac (1976)
Veteran Birth: The Gadfly Poems 1947-49 (1978)
Head-Deep in Strange Sounds: Free-Flight Improvisations from the unEnglish (1979)
The Strength of Fields (1979)
Falling, May Day Sermon, and Other Poems (1981)
The Early Motion (1981)
Puella (1982)
Värmland (1982)
False Youth: Four Seasons (1983)
For a Time and Place (1983)
Intervisions (1983)
The Central Motion: Poems 1968-79 (1983)
Bronwen, The Traw, and the Shape-Shifter: A Poem in Four Parts (1986)
The Eagle's Mile (1990)
The Whole Motion: Collected Poems 1949-92 (1992)

Prose

Deliverance (1970)
Alnilam (1987)
To the White Sea (1993)

Falling

James Dickey, 1923 - 1997
A 29-year-old stewardess fell ... to her 
death tonight when she was swept 
through an emergency door that 
suddenly sprang open ... The body ... 
was found ... three hours after the 
accident. 
                   —New York Times

The states when they black out and lie there rolling    when they turn 
To something transcontinental    move by    drawing moonlight out of the great 
One-sided stone hung off the starboard wingtip    some sleeper next to 
An engine is groaning for coffee    and there is faintly coming in 
Somewhere the vast beast-whistle of space. In the galley with its racks 
Of trays    she rummages for a blanket    and moves in her slim tailored 
Uniform to pin it over the cry at the top of the door. As though she blew 

The door down with a silent blast from her lungs    frozen    she is black 
Out finding herself    with the plane nowhere and her body taking by the throat 
The undying cry of the void    falling    living    beginning to be something 
That no one has ever been and lived through    screaming without enough air 
Still neat    lipsticked    stockinged    girdled by regulation    her hat 
Still on    her arms and legs in no world    and yet spaced also strangely 
With utter placid rightness on thin air    taking her time    she holds it 
In many places    and now, still thousands of feet from her death she seems 
To slow    she develops interest    she turns in her maneuverable body 

To watch it. She is hung high up in the overwhelming middle of things in her 
Self    in low body-whistling wrapped intensely    in all her dark dance-weight 
Coming down from a marvellous leap    with the delaying, dumfounding ease 
Of a dream of being drawn    like endless moonlight to the harvest soil 
Of a central state of one’s country    with a great gradual warmth coming 
Over her    floating    finding more and more breath in what she has been using 
For breath    as the levels become more human    seeing clouds placed honestly 
Below her left and right    riding slowly toward them    she clasps it all 
To her and can hang her hands and feet in it in peculiar ways    and 
Her eyes opened wide by wind, can open her mouth as wide    wider and suck 
All the heat from the cornfields    can go down on her back with a feeling 
Of stupendous pillows stacked under her    and can turn    turn as to someone 
In bed    smile, understood in darkness    can go away    slant    slide 
Off tumbling    into the emblem of a bird with its wings half-spread 
Or whirl madly on herself    in endless gymnastics in the growing warmth
Of wheatfields rising toward the harvest moon.    There is time to live 
In superhuman health    seeing mortal unreachable lights far down seeing 
An ultimate highway with one late priceless car probing it    arriving 
In a square town    and off her starboard arm the glitter of water catches 
The moon by its one shaken side    scaled, roaming silver    My God it is good 
And evil    lying in one after another of all the positions for love 
Making    dancing    sleeping    and now cloud wisps at her no 
Raincoat    no matter    all small towns brokenly brighter from inside 
Cloud    she walks over them like rain    bursts out to behold a Greyhound 
Bus shooting light through its sides    it is the signal to go straight 
Down like a glorious diver    then feet first    her skirt stripped beautifully 
Up    her face in fear-scented cloths    her legs deliriously bare    then 
Arms out    she slow-rolls over    steadies out    waits for something great 
To take control of her    trembles near feathers    planes head-down 
The quick movements of bird-necks turning her head    gold eyes the insight- 
eyesight of owls blazing into the hencoops    a taste for chicken overwhelming 
Her    the long-range vision of hawks enlarging all human lights of cars 
Freight trains    looped bridges    enlarging the moon racing slowly 
Through all the curves of a river    all the darks of the midwest blazing 
From above. A rabbit in a bush turns white    the smothering chickens 
Huddle    for over them there is still time for something to live 
With the streaming half-idea of a long stoop    a hurtling    a fall 
That is controlled    that plummets as it wills    turns gravity 
Into a new condition, showing its other side like a moon    shining 
New Powers    there is still time to live on a breath made of nothing 
But the whole night    time for her to remember to arrange her skirt 
Like a diagram of a bat    tightly it guides her    she has this flying-skin 
Made of garments    and there are also those sky-divers on TV    sailing 
In sunlight    smiling under their goggles    swapping batons back and forth 
And He who jumped without a chute and was handed one by a diving 
Buddy. She looks for her grinning companion    white teeth    nowhere 
She is screaming    singing hymns    her thin human wings spread out 
From her neat shoulders    the air beast-crooning to her    warbling 
And she can no longer behold the huge partial form of the world    now 
She is watching her country lose its evoked master shape    watching it lose 
And gain    get back its houses and peoples    watching it bring up 
Its local lights    single homes    lamps on barn roofs    if she fell 
Into water she might live    like a diver    cleaving    perfect    plunge 

Into another    heavy silver    unbreathable    slowing    saving 
Element: there is water    there is time to perfect all the fine 
Points of diving    feet together    toes pointed    hands shaped right 
To insert her into water like a needle    to come out healthily dripping 
And be handed a Coca-Cola    there they are    there are the waters 
Of life    the moon packed and coiled in a reservoir    so let me begin 
To plane across the night air of Kansas    opening my eyes superhumanly 
Bright    to the damned moon    opening the natural wings of my jacket 
By Don Loper    moving like a hunting owl toward the glitter of water 
One cannot just fall    just tumble screaming all that time    one must use 
It    she is now through with all    through all    clouds    damp    hair 
Straightened    the last wisp of fog pulled apart on her face like wool revealing 
New darks    new progressions of headlights along dirt roads from chaos 

And night    a gradual warming    a new-made, inevitable world of one’s own 
Country    a great stone of light in its waiting waters    hold    hold out 
For water: who knows when what correct young woman must take up her body 
And fly    and head for the moon-crazed inner eye of midwest imprisoned 
Water    stored up for her for years    the arms of her jacket slipping 
Air up her sleeves to go    all over her? What final things can be said 
Of one who starts her sheerly in her body in the high middle of night 
Air    to track down water like a rabbit where it lies like life itself 
Off to the right in Kansas? She goes toward    the blazing-bare lake 
Her skirts neat    her hands and face warmed more and more by the air 
Rising from pastures of beans    and under her    under chenille bedspreads 
The farm girls are feeling the goddess in them struggle and rise brooding 
On the scratch-shining posts of the bed    dreaming of female signs 
Of the moon    male blood like iron    of what is really said by the moan 
Of airliners passing over them at dead of midwest midnight    passing 
Over brush fires    burning out in silence on little hills    and will wake 
To see the woman they should be    struggling on the rooftree to become 
Stars: for her the ground is closer    water is nearer    she passes 
It    then banks    turns    her sleeves fluttering differently as she rolls 
Out to face the east, where the sun shall come up from wheatfields she must 
Do something with water    fly to it    fall in it    drink it    rise 
From it    but there is none left upon earth    the clouds have drunk it back 
The plants have sucked it down    there are standing toward her only 
The common fields of death    she comes back from flying to falling 
Returns to a powerful cry    the silent scream with which she blew down 
The coupled door of the airliner    nearly    nearly losing hold 
Of what she has done    remembers    remembers the shape at the heart 
Of cloud    fashionably swirling    remembers she still has time to die 
Beyond explanation. Let her now take off her hat in summer air the contour 
Of cornfields    and have enough time to kick off her one remaining 
Shoe with the toes    of the other foot    to unhook her stockings 
With calm fingers, noting how fatally easy it is to undress in midair 
Near death    when the body will assume without effort any position 
Except the one that will sustain it    enable it to rise    live 
Not die    nine farms hover close    widen    eight of them separate, leaving 
One in the middle    then the fields of that farm do the same    there is no 
Way to back off    from her chosen ground    but she sheds the jacket 
With its silver sad impotent wings    sheds the bat’s guiding tailpiece 
Of her skirt    the lightning-charged clinging of her blouse    the intimate 
Inner flying-garment of her slip in which she rides like the holy ghost 
Of a virgin    sheds the long windsocks of her stockings    absurd 
Brassiere    then feels the girdle required by regulations squirming 
Off her: no longer monobuttocked    she feels the girdle flutter    shake 
In her hand    and float    upward    her clothes rising off her ascending 
Into cloud    and fights away from her head the last sharp dangerous shoe 
Like a dumb bird    and now will drop in    SOON    now will drop 

In like this    the greatest thing that ever came to Kansas    down from all 
Heights    all levels of American breath    layered in the lungs from the frail 
Chill of space to the loam where extinction slumbers in corn tassels thickly 
And breathes like rich farmers counting: will come along them after 
Her last superhuman act    the last slow careful passing of her hands 
All over her unharmed body    desired by every sleeper in his dream: 
Boys finding for the first time their loins filled with heart’s blood 
Widowed farmers whose hands float under light covers to find themselves 
Arisen at sunrise    the splendid position of blood unearthly drawn 
Toward clouds    all feel something    pass over them as she passes 
Her palms over her long legs    her small breasts    and deeply between 
Her thighs    her hair shot loose from all pins    streaming in the wind 
Of her body    let her come openly    trying at the last second to land 
On her back    This is it    THIS 
                                                   All those who find her impressed 
In the soft loam    gone down    driven well into the image of her body 
The furrows for miles flowing in upon her where she lies very deep 
In her mortal outline    in the earth as it is in cloud    can tell nothing 
But that she is there    inexplicable    unquestionable    and remember 
That something broke in them as well    and began to live and die more 
When they walked for no reason into their fields to where the whole earth 
Caught her    interrupted her maiden flight    told her how to lie she cannot 
Turn    go away    cannot move    cannot slide off it and assume another 
Position    no sky-diver with any grin could save her    hold her in his arms 
Plummet with her    unfold above her his wedding silks    she can no longer 
Mark the rain with whirling women that take the place of a dead wife 
Or the goddess in Norwegian farm girls    or all the back-breaking whores 
Of Wichita. All the known air above her is not giving up quite one 
Breath    it is all gone    and yet not dead    not anywhere else 
Quite    lying still in the field on her back    sensing the smells 
Of incessant growth try to lift her    a little sight left in the corner 
Of one eye    fading    seeing something wave    lies believing 
That she could have made it    at the best part of her brief goddess 
State    to water    gone in headfirst    come out smiling    invulnerable 
Girl in a bathing-suit ad    but she is lying like a sunbather at the last 
Of moonlight    half-buried in her impact on the earth    not far 
From a railroad trestle    a water tank    she could see if she could 
Raise her head from her modest hole    with her clothes beginning 
To come down all over Kansas    into bushes    on the dewy sixth green 
Of a golf course    one shoe    her girdle coming down fantastically 
On a clothesline, where it belongs    her blouse on a lightning rod: 

Lies in the fields    in this field    on her broken back as though on 
A cloud she cannot drop through    while farmers sleepwalk without 
Their women from houses    a walk like falling toward the far waters 
Of life    in moonlight    toward the dreamed eternal meaning of their farms 
Toward the flowering of the harvest in their hands    that tragic cost 
Feels herself go    go toward    go outward    breathes at last fully 
Not    and tries    less    once    tries    tries    AH, GOD—

From The Whole Motion: Collected Poems 1945-1992 (Wesleyan University Press) by James Dickey. Copyright © 1992 by James Dickey. Used with permission of Wesleyan University Press.

From The Whole Motion: Collected Poems 1945-1992 (Wesleyan University Press) by James Dickey. Copyright © 1992 by James Dickey. Used with permission of Wesleyan University Press.

James Dickey

James Dickey

The author of numerous collections of poetry, James Dickey's work experimented with language and syntax, addressing humanity and violence by presenting the instincts of humans and animals as antithetical to the false safety of civilization.

by this poet

poem
Right under their noses, the green
Of the field is paling away
Because of something fallen from the sky. 

They see this, and put down
Their long heads deeper in grass
That only just escapes reflecting them

As the dream of a millpond would.
The color green flees over the grass
Like an insect, following the red
poem
Memory: I can take my head and strike it on a wall     on Cumberland Island 
Where the night tide came crawling under the stairs     came up the first 
Two or three steps     and the cottage stood on poles all night 
With the sea sprawled under it     as we dreamed of the great fin circling 
Under the bedroom
poem
As he moves the mine detector
A few inches over the ground,
Making it vitally float
Among the ferns and weeds,
I come into this war
Slowly, with my one brother,
Watching his face grow deep
Between the earphones,
For I can tell
If we enter the buried battle
Of Nimblewill
Only by his expression.

Softly he wanders