Like hundreds of other po-dunk wannabe poets, I took James Dickey’s verse seminar course when he was poet-in-residence at the University of South Carolina. That semester — the Fall of ’76 – ended up being a significant one for Dickey, who in the course of its 15 weeks became a widower and a bridegroom.
I had first heard of Big Jim Dickey from my high school English teacher Mrs. Clarice Foster, who described him as “a brilliant young poet who had written a fairly good novel.” The novel, of course, was Deliverance, which came out in ’70, my senior year, two years before the release of the movie. Deliverance the movie made Dickey famous, a drinking buddy with Burt Reynolds, but perhaps exacerbated his propensity of making a colossal ass of himself.
Big Jim Dickey (by Robert Fowler)
Who started calling
Big Jim Dickey
Big Jim Dickey?
Big Jim Dickey,
Bobby’s poem summarized what the slumming literary crowd I hung around thought about Dickey. The cat could write dazzling poems, but his my-genius-gives-me-the-license-to-breach-the-customs-of-polite-society got old fast. He could make you feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, like your own father could in your late teens when you started to figure out a lot of what he pontificated was bullshit. I lacked compassion back then, I thought I knew more than I did, and I now rue my lack of respect.
James Dickey was a near great, if not great poet, and I squandered a chance to learn more from him.
From “Cherrylog Road”
We left by separate doors
Into the changed, other bodies
Of cars, she down Cherrylog Road
And I to my motorcycle
Parked like the soul of the junkyard
Restored, a bicycle fleshed
With power, and tore off
Up Highway 106, continually
Drunk on the wind in my mouth,
Wringing the handlebar for speed,
Wild to be wreckage forever.
Fall Semester 1976
Smiling, stooped, gregarious, he sat at the head of the seminar table wearing two or three watches on both wrists. Dickey was often – I wouldn’t call it drunk – but more like inebriated – eloquent, narcissistic, rarely bothering to comment on the fixed-form ditties he had us crank out each week.
More typically, he’d talk about himself, famous poets he’d known, the goings-on of the set of Deliverance. He called the good-looking females in the class “Sugar Face.” One week on Tuesday and Thursday, without providing us the text to see, he read aloud the same essay by Sir Herbert Read. No one mentioned to him the error on that Thursday when he began reading the piece for the second time – not I-and-I, not the hanger-on poets who attended the class every semester without registering, not his grad assistant.
In short, he was a terrible teacher that semester, that is, until some veins in his wife’s esophagus ruptured, which he described in class with a graphic eloquence that was at once paradoxically impassioned and detached. It was like watching a poem coming to be in 3-D – he at first thinking a burglar had attacked her when he encountered her limp body bleeding profusely on the floor of their house. He held her in his arms there on the floor as she lost half her body’s blood.
Warning: the Following Contains Off-Putting Name Dropping
Several years ago our friend Jo Humphreys, author of Dreams of Sleep and Rich in Love, invited Judy and me to a party in honor of her mentor Reynolds Price. After Jo introduced us, Mr. Price and I got on the subject of James Dickey who had recently died. Price told me he had great affection for “Jim” but that Jim was “insane” in a way that was hard to characterize and that it was impossible to be a woman and to be his friend. Mr. Price also said that one time at a party, Dickey had picked him up off the ground and said something to the effect of that though he — Dickey — didn’t sleep with men, if he ever were to, he’d want to sleep with him — Price.
Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell
Fall Semester, continued
Mrs. Maxine Dickey survived that night and hung on for a month or so before she died. While she was in the hospital, Elizabeth Bishop came to campus for a reading. Dickey — or his graduate assistant — arranged for us during our class time to meet Bishop and hear her read a poem or two. The meeting hadn’t been announced, so we followed Dickey, leading the way down the street from our classroom to a Victorian house a block away.
So we met Elizabeth Bishop, I ignorant of what an honor it should be. She looked like an Episcopalian grandmother with her neatly coiffed white hair and matching plaid blazer and skirt. Her demeanor utterly contrasted with Dickey’s, like George Will versus Screaming Jay Hawkins.
What I didn’t know was that Elizabeth Bishop and her friend Robert Lowell held Dickey in contempt. Later that night after the official reading, Dickey asked Bishop to sign some books and pose for a photograph with him and refused, saying, “Sir, I do not pose for pictures.”
One of the great things about having Dickey on campus was the writers he could summon. During my time in Columbia, in addition to Elizabeth Bishop, I got to hear Robert Penn Warren, Archibald MacLeish, and Robert Lowell.
For the Last Wolverine
They will soon be down
To one, but he still will be
For a little while still will be stopping
The flakes in the air with a look,
Surrounding himself with the silence
Of whitening snarls. Let him eat
The last red meal of the condemned
To extinction, tearing the guts
From an elk. Yet that is not enough
For me. I would have him eat
The heart, and, from it, have an idea
Stream into his gnawing head
That he no longer has a thing
To lose, and so can walk
Out into the open, in the full
Pale of the sub-Arctic sun
Where a single spruce tree is dying
Higher and higher. Let him climb it
With all his meanness and strength.
Lord, we have come to the end
Of this kind of vision of heaven,
As the sky breaks open
Its fans around him and shimmers
And into its northern gates he rises
Snarling complete in the joy of a weasel
With an elk’s horned heart in his stomach
Looking straight into the eternal
Blue, where he hauls his kind. I would have it all
My way: at the top of that tree I place
The New World’s last eagle
Hunched in mangy feathers giving
Up on the theory of flight.
Dear God of the wildness of poetry, let them mate
To the death in the rotten branches,
Let the tree sway and burst into flame
And mingle them, crackling with feathers,
In crownfire. Let something come
Of it something gigantic legendary
Rise beyond reason over hills
Of ice SCREAMING that it cannot die,
That it has come back, this time
On wings, and will spare no earthly thing:
That it will hover, made purely of northern
Lights, at dusk and fall
On men building roads: will perch
On the moose’s horn like a falcon
Riding into battle into holy war against
Screaming railroad crews: will pull
Whole traplines like fibers from the snow
In the long-jawed night of fur trappers.
But, small, filthy, unwinged,
You will soon be crouching
Alone, with maybe some dim racial notion
Of being the last, but none of how much
Your unnoticed going will mean:
How much the timid poem needs
The mindless explosion of your rage,
The glutton’s internal fire the elk’s
Heart in the belly, sprouting wings,
The pact of the “blind swallowing
Thing,” with himself, to eat
The world, and not to be driven off it
Until it is gone, even if it takes
Forever. I take you as you are
And make of you what I will,
Skunk-bear, carcajou, bloodthirsty
Lord, let me die but not die
the author in 1976 photo by Judy Birdsong
Fall Semester completed
In the other class Dickey was teaching that semester, Dickey had met his soon-to-be new wife. He married her, one of his students, Deborah Dodsen, two months after Maxine’s death.
I myself had met and fallen in love with my future wife Judy Birdsong that semester.
When I started teaching high school in the mid-Eighties, I called Dickey to ask him if it would be all right if I had a student writing a paper on Deliverance phone and interview him to so he could use the author as a source.
Mr. Dickey — as I addressed him over the phone — couldn’t have been nicer. He asked what year he had taught me, who my friends were, claimed to remember me, and welcomed the student’s call.
The last time I saw Dickey was in ’97. He had selected a poem of mine to be included in anthology of his students’ work published by USC Press. There was a reception for the poets where we could buy books and have him sign them.
He was a changed man, thinner, the combover replaced by a buzz cut; he was calmer, almost courtly. We chatted as he signed three books I had bought for my parents, my in-laws, and a friend.
I really regret that I didn’t have him sign one for me, but the line was long, and I didn’t want to be that person.