October 7, 1997
"There ain't nothin' to dyin', really. You just get tired. You kind of drift away."
James Dickey was musing to friend about a recent near-death experience last year, when he flatlined at the doctor's. The poet was in his 73rd year, and had survived more than 100 night bombing missions in the Pacific during World War II and Korea, a lucrative stint in advertising, years of hunting and wilderness trekking, and the usual excesses of being a post-war American poet.
Dickey was still something of a celebrity when I first met him in Tuscaloosa in 1978. He grew up in a generation when poets could still enjoy a modest fame, yet when all too many (Roethke, Berryman, Crane, Plath, Lowell, Sexton, Schwartz) went mad, killed themselves, or drank themselves into oblivion. If Ezra Pound (one of the craziest) was right in 1934 when he called artists and poets "the antennae of the race" (buggy image, to my mind), then it sure is spooky to look at the lives of major American poets of our century. No wonder Internationalists like Eliot and Pound insisted that art be judged on its own sake, without reference to the artist's personal biography!
Born in Georgia in 1923, Dickey wrote his best poems from the 1950s to the 1970s, won a National Book Award for Poetry for Buckdancer's Choice in 1966, taught at Rice, the University of Florida, and, for the last 20 years of his life, at the University of South Carolina. I first read him in college just before I went into the graduate program in poetry-writing at The University of Alabama. I found the shimmering power of Dickey's poems absolutely thrilling.
The poems were deeply felt, haunted, and haunting, like this eerie evocation of a sunset from "The Dusk Of Horses": "The color green flees over the grass / Like an insect, following the red sun over / the next hill. The grass is white."
In short, I was a solid fan, and more than a little awestruck when the great James Dickey came to give a reading and conduct a poetry workshop at Alabama. I was also a little anxious. Even in 1979, word of Dickey's legendary drinking charged the atmosphere at the hall in the student center with a kind of wary excitement. After all, we had recently had an excruciating evening with Truman Capote. He had showed up 30 minutes late for his reading, and was weeping drunk. In his startlingly high, squeaky voice, there was way too much pain. He couldn't read, with or without the glasses he fumbled for. Finally, he said, "I am sorry. I am a fail-lee-ure!" And he was led off the stage.
I found a place with my pals. There were about 20 of us there, who had either graduated from an MFA Program (Louis Skipper and Dennis Sampson from Iowa, Jeannie Thompson, John Allison, and Richard Weaver from Alabama) or were in the process, studying under the poet Thomas Rabbitt and the novelist Barry Hannah, then in residence at Alabama. I was a junior member of this rare group of poets, still in my first year.
Dickey showed up only 15 minutes late. He was drunk, all right, but he was also raring to perform. Once an all-star collegiate halfback, Dickey towered over the podium and had to fumble with the microphone to bring it up to his voice. "I thought I would begin with some of my earlier work, and then maybe I can read a few new poems," he began.
One of our gang, himself pretty drunk, hollered "Good!" as Dickey said he would be reading his early work, and Dickey smiled and leaned over the podium.
"Ah, so you think I have dee-clined..." he observed, and won the house with laughter. The rest of the reading I hardly recall, except that it was interspersed with long asides. I mainly remember the rhythms of Dickey's voice - you could feel this man's love of language, and when he read "The Sheep Child," you utterly believed in a poem narrated by the offspring of a farmboy and a sheep, kept pickled on a dusty shelf in the back room of a Georgia museum. "This poem may be faulted for many things," Dickey said, "but not for lack of originality in point-of-view!"
Later, the MFA graduate students were allowed to attend the reception at the faculty club, a posh antebellum redoubt that none of us ever set foot in again. Almost everyone was getting drunk, following James Dickey's inspiration. To their annoyance, Dickey spent most of the night at our table.
We (or at least I) hung on his every word, and he was in fine form.
"You know," he said to a coed, "I was married for forty years when my wife died, and now I have married again, but this time to a much younger woman. Her name is Debbie, but we don't call her that." Dickey took a slow relishing sip of his drink, and surveyed his audience. "You see, 'Debbie' is the name of a lee- tle woman," he continued, his voice rolling its Buckhead, Georgia, accent: "so we don't call her Debbie. We call her Debbah!"
(I wish to say for the record that it is completely untrue that I replied, "That is wonderful, Mr. Dick-ah!")
The next afternoon was the Poetry Workshop with James Dickey. We had been granted access to the best room at Morgan Hall for the event. Not only were the workshop regulars there, but every poet in Tuscaloosa. We thought of ourselves as a jaded and discerning bunch; in reality we were insecure 20-something literary snobs. MFA workshops were famously brutal - you had to get over your precious ego identification with your poems or else. This was an invaluable lesson for a writer, actually, but the workshops could be quite acidic, especially under Tom Rabbitt, a poet schooled at Harvard and Iowa. Tom was perhaps the most brilliant critic I've known, but he had his own demons. He was at once an inspiration and a cruel SOB who could devastate you with a single remark (he said the idea was to keep the knife of wit so sharp that your victim doesn't even realize he's been cut till later on, when he sees the blood).
Our weekly workshops were simple - take the latest purple mimeographed worksheet of student's poems, and have everyone critique the poems. I once wrote a four-line poem that had an epigraph from Moby Dick that was almost an entire paragraph. I read the poem. Silence. Then everybody started laughing. It was that bad. Another student named John Bensko made a comment that broke everybody up: "This poem is a bit top-heavy."
(I had ranked myself a better poet than Bensko at least, a gawky, shy boy who nobody paid much attention to. Even Rabbitt once dissed Bensko by introducing him as "the world's tallest poet." The next year Richard Hugo gave Bensko's first book of poems the much-coveted Yale Younger Poets Award, and Bensko was a "made-poet" with a teaching position at Old Dominion. Poetic justice, I guess.)
The problem with this workshop was that of the poems selected for inclusion in the mimeographed worksheet, the one I had submitted was on the first page. It was an okay poem, I hoped, an aubade called "Bird Hour" about a man lying in bed and listening to his sleeping lover's heartbeat in the pre-dawn. In the past months I had enough workshop war-wounds to feel pretty unhappy to be first up, especially in front of the packed room. Dickey was late again. Finally, I got up and went outside to pace the hall, fretting over the poem, which seemed weaker by the minute.
Tom Rabbitt came down the hall, hands in pockets, looking absolutely miserable and ready to get rid of Dickey, who loomed bearlike behind him, as soon as possible. Spotting me, Tom said, "We're coming." Then he turned to Dickey. "Jim, this is one who wrote 'Bird Hour.' Clark Powell, James Dickey."
Dickey stopped, turned to behold me with what can only be a look of astonishment and admiration, stuck out his huge paw, and said, "YOU'RE Clark Powell?"
I saw that he didn't remember me from the previous night, which was a good thing. "Yes sir." I said, shaking his hand.
Dickey pulled me to him. "You're good!" He said, though the word "good" in Dickey's voice has about three syllables. "You're damn good!"
Now in all my wildest dreams, I never imagined a scene so, well, extravagant. I followed Dickey into the packed classroom. He entered and announced this: "Now we gone have a workshop here, and I don't want y'all to be shy and have all this crap about the great James Dickey. Clark and I are going to look over your poems, and we'll just talk about them a little, okay?"
At this, I felt every eye in the room on me like surprised stilettos. I glanced down and smiled demurely and thought, "Now I am finished. Everybody hates me now." I looked up and tried to shrug off the stares. Dickey read my poem and went on about why it was so great. No one else was asked their opinion, thank God. Then Dickey moved on to the next poem, then careened off on a tale about filming Deliverance, the notorious film made from Dickey's 1970 novel starring Burt Reynolds and Jon Voigt. Dickey himself played the role of the sheriff who appears at the end of the movie. "Any of your girls want to hear what it's like to camp out with Burt Reynolds?" Dickey said, flirting.
After the workshop, Rabbitt pulled me aside to warn me not to get big-headed about what Dickey said. "He was completely soused, Clark. He knocked back four beers in Dwight's office alone!"
I didn't care. James Dickey had autographed my copy of his Selected Poems: "To the poet Clark Powell from James Dickey, 1978." In my mind, I was made.
Two years later I drove up to Lake Katherine in South Carolina to visit Dickey at his home. He was quite gracious, and showed me a painting by the stewardess he described in the poem "Falling," the one who had been sucked out of the jet when an emergency door gave way. Her family had sent the painting to Dickey. There was a stark black and white photo of Dickey with his face swollen and awfully mangled. I think it may have been a mug shot. "From my wilder days," he explained.
The house was walled with books, it seemed, and Dickey lived as much in these books as in the hunting and fishing trips he talked about. He remembered everything he had ever read and seemed to know every writer in the world. I mentioned that on the drive to South Carolina I had stopped off at Flannery O'Connor's farm near Athens (just a caretaker for the peacocks still there, a long red road to the highway, across which you now see a Holiday Inn sign). "Yes, she's good," Dickey said, drawing out the syllables, "but she's limited, you know."
We talked writers and writing for a couple of hours before I excused myself. Dickey joked that I could camp on his yard, but that it had already been done when Robert Lowell went to visit Robert Penn-Warren. I said this was a flattering hyperbole, and confessed that I kind of looked at Dickey as a father.
"Oh, I can be much better than a father for you," Dickey said. I never became a real poet, and never will. Most of us poetry graduates are now middle-aged and have left that bootless craft because like everybody else, we have to make money. Some work in ad agencies, others teach at community colleges, whatever. A few - including Jeannie Thompson, Rodney Jones, and especially Dennis Sampson - have gone on to publish very good books of poetry, but most of us look on poetry as a passion of our youth.
This is not unusual. Faulkner observed that few remain poets after they leave their twenties. What is remarkable to me now is how James Dickey managed to stay true to Poetry all his life. The typical middle-aged man, Dickey wrote, "has somehow lost the sense of living life spontaneously, from the center of his being and his essential self, and so has lost the sense, the real sense, of the consequence of life, and has the uneasy suspicion that he is a kind of living stuffed dummy....As we grow older, everything tends to lose its sense of consequence and interest and vitality, and grows tasteless, uninteresting; something only to be endured."
Yet in the same essay, Dickey quotes Aldous Huxley's description of D.H. Lawrence, who was "another kind of human being who showed us all, in the dreariness of living, that it is possible to be another and infinitely better kind." Yes, I say. James Dickey was this man.