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6.4: James Dickey (1923 - 1997)

  • Page ID
    • Berke, Bleil, & Cofer
    • Professors (English) at Middle Georgia State University, College of Coastal Georgia, & Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College
    • Sourced from University of North Georgia Press

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    James Dickey, whose Byronic demeanor and athletic prowess earned him the nickname the “bare-chested bard,” was born in Atlanta, Georgia and grew up in Buckhead. Excelling at both football and track in high school, Dickey enrolled in Clemson A&M in 1942 to play football. He left Clemson after only one semester to enlist in the Army Air Corps, joining the 418th Night Fighter Squadron and flying over 100 missions in the Pacific Theater. Dickey discovered poetry during the war, spending his time between deadly night missions reading all the literature he could find in the base libraries where he was stationed. After the war, he attended Vanderbilt University as an English major, distinguishing himself in both academics and track. MA in hand, Dickey taught English at Rice Institute and the University of Florida, returning to the military during the Korean War to teach aviation for the Air Force. In the mid-1950s, Dickey suddenly quit teaching and moved to New York to work as a copywriter for an advertising agency, writing poetry only in the evenings. Growing to feel that “I was selling my soul to the devil during the day and trying to get it back at night,” as he told Life magazine in 1966, Dickey quit his lucrative advertising job after six years. While unemployed and on welfare, he won a $5000 Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed him to travel and focus his creative energies entirely on poetry. Dickey then returned to academia and dedicated himself for the rest of his life to writing and teaching, while continuing to play the sports he loved.

    Dickey published nineteen volumes of poetry, three essay collections, two children’s books, and three novels, including the best-selling novel Deliverance (1972), a thrilling tale set in north Georgia about four suburban Atlanta river rafters who find themselves in a fight for their lives against homicidal mountain men. Over the forty years of his writing career, Dickey continually sought new ways to give voice to intense, violent, and powerful experiences such as combat, hunting, and sports. He continually experimented with new poetic forms of his own invention, such as “open verse,” “split lines,” and “associational imagery,” as well as new typographical arrangements of the printed page. Although Dickey’s poetry is informed by both his wartime experience and love of the physical life, he does not usually reflect upon his own adventures in his work. Instead and unlike his era’s confessional poets, who reflect deeply upon personal experience Dickey frequently writes in a narrative mode as an explorer of someone else’s extreme situation. In this way, the narrators of his poems reflect the act of reading itself, imaginatively inhabiting the characters they observe and vicariously experiencing the life-anddeath situations they describe. For example, in the poem “Drinking from a Helmet,” one soldier experiences the thoughts of a recently deceased soldier by wearing his helmet. Likewise, in “Falling,” a poem based on a real event, a third-person narrator enters the consciousness of a stewardess during her fatal plunge to earth after being thrown from the open door of an airplane. Not all of Dickey’s poems are this dramatic, as evidenced by the early narrative poem included here, “Cherrylog Road.” Yet even this poem about an illicit tryst is set in “the parking lot of the dead,” its narrator musing more upon the past lives and adventures contained in the wrecked cars around him than about the girl he is soon to meet.

    6.5.1 “Cherrylog Road”

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    6.5.2 Reading and Review Questions

    1. The poem’s narrator devotes much of the poem to describing the cars around him, noting their physical condition and wondering about their previous owners. However, he never describes what Doris Holbrook looks like or tells us anything about her past. Why is this?
    2. What do the histories that the narrator imagines are contained within the wrecked cars tell us about the narrator himself?
    3. In stanzas 15 and 16, the narrator compares himself and Doris to a blacksnake and then to beetles, respectively. Closely read these stanzas and discuss the significance of the poem’s comparisons of people to animals and bugs.
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