Several years ago I was asked by an instructor in the English Department of a local university to give a lecture on the work of a recent American poet. At first I thought that would be a difficult task, given the diversity of the past century, but then, scanning my library, my eyes alit upon a book of poems by a poet so peculiarly Southern that he had been ostracized by critics and other poets for being overly provincial and at times a bigot. Here was a man, given all his supposed violence, racism and provincialism, who expressed more of the South than any other poet — and as a poet, its soul — and surely within him, I thought, there would be those footnotes to Southernness: sin, redemption, and guilt. I was not disappointed, and I found in James Dickey not only these allegedly “Southern” themes but also something else — that universal struggle between the spirit and the flesh. However grotesque his imagination was, this man, I felt, had more to say about the matter than any other living poet.
The more I read of his work, the more I came to see the tragic notion that ran through most of his earlier poems — this was before the “persona” he has developed so publicly since — the notion that man is irreparably split between body and soul, and that only a future, longed-for grace might mend the pain. Who but a Southerner could have felt this so acutely and so unfashionably? But it was these very poems that pushed him to his quick renown — couched in formalism and almost Catholic in sensibility, they predated his expansiveness of the later 60’s and his decline in the 70’s.
The body as animal hovering relentlessly over the soul is not a new motif or even original — Delmore Schwartz had used it in a poem entitled “The Heavy Bear” — and duality itself is not remarkable in Western literature, but the peculiar method Dickey used to drive it home — within the locus of the South and with such intensity — was. A theme repeated in his work is the beast of the wild — the tracked-down deer or boar or man — whose death is at once a sacrifice and a union — a reconciliation with the rhythm of life. At times he seems to desire to take on the fur of the animal so as to blend his identity with its. And how child-like this attitude is — how innocent — this wanting to be a deer in its grace, petrified now in the possession of death, stuffed in the den. To kill is to possess, to get to the heart of a now-breathing thing. But it is also, perversely, to love, to assume within oneself the dead. How else to explain the fascination of the hunter for the hunted. And if that which is hunted is the spirit within, what better way to love it than to kill it, or failing that, to drown it in drink?
For several years Dickey, author of Deliverance, has been teaching poetry at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, a town that holds his escapades dear to its heart. Aside from wrapping his sports car around a tree, cursing a cop, and spending a night in jail (the public drunkenness that flaunts the New South mystique), he continues to implore the nation through diffused references to Good-Ole-Boy mentality appearing in such publications as The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review, and Newsweek, as well as in the bright lights of television, to look at the South for what it is: unbearably stupid, yet not without promise.
Such is the mind of James Dickey, the conscience of the race in yet another voice. He is said to be thoroughly schooled in the esoterica of German and French Romanticism, having read much and able to quote much in the original. President Carter has called his fellow native Georgian “my kind of poet,” and Dickey was a speech writer for Carter during the election. The poet has said that he has coached Carter in rhetoric, “in its classical sense.” “In it,” he says, “is power, and that’s where it’s at.”