“‘With Eyes Far More Than Human’: Dickey’s Misunderstood Monster” is reprinted from James Dickey Newsletter Volume One, Number One (Fall 1984). The following information is given in CONTRIBUTORS’ NOTES in that issue:
JANE BOWERS-HILL teaches English at the University of Georgia. She has published several pieces on Dickey’s work, including her latest—“’With Eyes Far More Than Human’: Dickey’s Misunderstood Monster”—which appears in this issue of JDN.
Although slight changes may occur with digitizing, page numbers herein replicate those in the initial publication. The copyright remains in effect, of course.
“With Eyes Far More Than Human”: Dickey’s Misunderstood Monster
By Jane Bowers-Hill
Even though James Dickey has cited “The Sheep Child” as one of his shorter poems he most particularly likes,1 few critics have dealt with the poem, perhaps because it is a poem that will not easily fit into a critical framework with other poems. “The Sheep Child” is a unique poem but central to understanding one of Dickey’s major themes: the concept of transcendence, as it is developed within the body of Dickey’s poems.
George Lensing has criticized this poem as being unintentionally comic, even to the point of being offensively excessive.2 To deny that there is a kind of grotesque comedy associated with the sheep child is unnecessary. Obviously, the comic element is there. Dickey himself approaches the poem in an awkward, almost giggly tone as he talks in Self-Interviews of the originality of the poem’s point of view in its second section, the section spoken by the sheep child himself.3 This embarrassed humor also marks Dickey’s approach to the poem in person, when he laughs aloud at the idea of the monstrous sheep child as narrator.4 One explanation for the awkwardness Dickey feels about the poem is what Robert Hill calls Dickey’s “discomfort in the presence of the Ideal.”5 The sheep child is the Ideal in Dickey’s scheme of transcendent figures. Unlike any of the others, the sheep child does not struggle toward the transcendent state. He is born to it. Thus, dealing with this Ideal in the real world becomes a difficult task, even for his creator.
But to stop one’s reading of “The Sheep Child” at the comic level that causes Lensing’s reaction (and even Dickey’s own) is to miss an opportunity to explore the poem’s importance. In its uniqueness, this poem contradicts critical theories that work very well for other poems. For instance, in Hill’s essay on Dickey as comic poet, he correctly identifies Dickey’s discomfort in the presence of the Ideal, basing his argument on “The Heaven of Animals,” a poem in which dead animals transcend to heaven, a place whose perfection Hill says is based on fakery.6 Indeed, the paradise in which the poem’s animals live is an example of the strained use of the creative lie that is unnecessary in the presentation of the sheep child and his world. The fakery, the straining are unnecessary because of the naturalness of the sheep child’s transcendent condition. The animals in “The Heaven of Animals” are not natural inhabitants of the transcendent condition; thus, putting them in that state requires a kind of poetic effort that is unnecessary in “The Sheep Child.” Hill’s idea of stasis as a tragic condition, since it delimits human activity, is also accurate for the poems to which he applies it.7 But the condition of the sheep child is also one of stasis, a different kind of stasis that is not tragic, but instead transcendent of the world of human activity. The kind of stasis enjoyed by the sheep child does not exist in the human world; rather than creating boundaries to restrict activity, his kind of stasis transcends all such restrictions and boundaries.
Joan Bobbitt is another critic who establishes a critical framework for Dickey’s poems, one that attempts to include “The Sheep Child.” She
sees the sheep child as merely another example of what she labels “unnatural order” in Dickey’s world.8 Such a vision of man and the universe, she says, leads Dickey to employ “shockingly bizarre or ludicrous images to communicate the alien position of nature in the ‘civilized’ world. . . . The poet sees civilization as so far removed from nature, its primal antecedent, that only such aberrations can aptly depict their relationship and, as he implies, possibly restore them to harmony and order.9 Her specific analysis of “The Sheep Child” suggests a dichotomy wherein civilization is aligned with rationality and nature with irrationality; thus, the pickled sheep child is avoided by his human family because he speaks too loudly of their irrational impulses, which they must contain (by pickling him and housing him in the dusty and unvisited museum corner) and repress.10 However, the alignment of civilization with rationality and nature with irrationality distorts the voice of both the sheep child as narrator and the poet who creates that voice. The sheep child is, after all, the voice who alerts the reader to the irrational fear of the men who avoid him, finally without success, for his image is too deeply ingrained in their subconscious. And his voice is that of a quite rational creature, one whose understanding far surpasses that of his human counterparts, except perhaps the poet who creates him. The sheep child can present a rational explanation for the irrational behavior of the men in the poem without losing sight of the emotional and physical realities behind that irrational behavior. If such grotesques as the sheep child are intended to restore harmony and order to the relationship between man and nature in the modern world, Dickey strongly suggests, men (readers) must come to see that the boundary between the rational and the irrational can never be drawn so precisely as Bobbitt’s argument suggests.
The critic who comes closest to establishing a framework for Dickey’s poems into which “The Sheep Child” will fit is Laurence Lieberman. In his essay “The Worldly Mystic,” Lieberman discusses a theme that he feels had become Dickey’s major concern by the time the Falling collection appeared in Poems 1957-1967. (“The Sheep Child” is included in this collection.) This theme Lieberman defines has to do with man’s ability to reconcile the experience of transcendence with life in the real world:
How does a man re-connect with common unchosen humanity when he has just returned from the abyss of nonhuman chosen otherness? That is the chief problem to which the final volume addresses itself. How to be a man who feels perfectly at home, and at his ease, in both worlds—the inner and the outer. A man who can make of himself and his art a medium, a perfect conductor, through which the opposed worlds—both charged with intensity—can meet and connect, flow into each other. The worldly mystic. It is the vision of a man who for years has been just as committed to developing his potential for creative existence as for creative art. All discoveries and earnings, spiritual or worldly, must carryover from one universe to the other.ll
The importance of the sheep child, both within the Falling collection to which Lieberman refers and within Dickey’s work as a whole, comes from the more serious attitude the poet himself takes (after the awkwardness of his
initial comments on the poem) toward the viewpoint from which the sheep child observes the world. Dickey’s humorous tone in his oral introduction of the poem changes into a serious, almost reverent attitude as he actually begins to read the poem.l2 Though a monster, grotesquely comic in part, the sheep child sees the world “with eyes far more than human”13 –with a fusion of inner and outer states, of nature and art, the rational and the irrational, the spiritual and the worldly. It is this fusion that Lieberman sees as Dickey’s main concern, but the sheep child enjoys an advantage none of the other characters in the poems enjoys. The fusion is an effortless thing for him; thus, he is removed from the framework Lieberman sets up by the naturalness with which he sits at the place the other Dickey characters struggle toward. Lieberman says that “The Sheep Child” frightens us because the kind of transcendence it presents is something man feels in “moments of emotional intensity” but is also something man knows will remain “a spiritual stone’s throw away” for as long as he lives in the real world.14 The sheep child becomes an Ideal both inseparable from and unattainable for man living the mundane life.
Dickey talks in Self-Interviews of the paradoxical nature of man’s relationship to the sheep child. He sees the need for connection that produced the sheep child as a need that “is much larger than and transcends any kind of man-made artificial boundaries.15 But he goes on to discuss man’s tendency to create these same artificial boundaries to prevent the transcendence, a tendency about which he says: “Paradoxically, it’s probably just as well that they do.16 This paradoxical reaction by men of the real world reinforces the sheep child’s uniqueness as a representative of the kind of transcendence men naturally strive for and of the impossibility of being the sheep child in the real world—hence, the artificial boundaries men just as naturally create to allow them to live in that mundane world. In Sorties Dickey talks of the desire many young writers, intellectuals, and artists have to develop the “excited, deep, associational kind of mind,” the kind of mind the sheep child has, in hopes that it “would bring them to the earthly paradise.” But, Dickey goes on to say, “it is not so: the place is hell. Believe me, it is better to be stupid and ordinary. 17 It is better not to be the sheep child on earth.
The sheep child floats in his alcohol-filled bottle, eyes open, staring, in a world so full of light the sun’s grains fail at his glass closet. It is significant that the sheep child’s status is one of floating—he is suspended somehow, supported effortlessly. He is out of time, out of place, really, despite the confines of his glass closet, for he is a creature of perpetual transcendence. He does not have to live. Since the sheep child is perpetually transcendent, he is removed from the world inhabited by the narrator who introduces him. The sheep child is not present, but far away, in some all-but-forgotten, dusty museum corner in Atlanta. He is a nagging memory of the narrator’s farm-boy days, his youth that sent him to the city to be saved, a persistent memory, but just a memory. As a creature of memory, the sheep child, in his position with relation to the poem’s other narrator, transcends reality, life, in the same way that his floating existence is a transcendence of life. The sheep child is born to a world of perpetual transcendence, a world it is unnecessary to live in.
The two voices of “The Sheep Child” represent two worlds. The former farm boy, safe now in the city with “his own true wife,” speaks with the voice of the real world, while the sheep child’s voice is the voice of the transcendent world. As they appear in the poem, the two voices are completely separate. The farm boy’s voice, printed in Roman type, is visually separated from the italicized sheep child’s voice. The visual separation is further established by Dickey’s use of what he calls the “split line.”18 Lieberman calls the unit on which these split lines are built “a breath unit (or breathing unit), as opposed to a grammatical unit . . . a reader usually keeps the illusion that he is moving within the extremities of a rather free-floating sentence. . . . This form adapts perfectly to a welter of experience in flux.”19 It is the farm boy’s lines that depend on these breath units that are predominantly what Dickey calls the split line. In the sheep child’s lines, however, the split line appears in only three places—the first at the description of the mating of the human and the sheep, the second at the imaginative entry of visitors to the sheep child’s museum, and third, a series of breaks, at the end of the poem, as the sheep child describes the lives the farm boys choose to lead. Except for these times when the sheep child is forced into contact with the real world, his lines flow without the breaks, what Lieberman calls breath pauses. Thus, the real world of the farm boy—where pauses for breath are necessary—is placed in juxtaposition to the transcendent world of the sheep child—where even pausing for breath is unnecessary. (It is, of course, significant that the sheep child’s world encompasses, with the three places split lines do occur, the real world of the farm boy.) The differences in typography reflect the separation of the two worlds and set up one of the poem’s major themes: the transcendent world of the sheep child is a smoother, more connected world (a world through which one need only float) than the real world of the farm boy, where one must “groan, wait, suffer himself” (P, 253) before death and, perhaps, entry into the transcendent world the sheep child is born to. The breaks (man-made) that do occur in the sheep child’s lines suggest that the two worlds are not as separate as the poem’s typography might suggest. In fact, the sheep child is the symbol of the inseparability of the worlds. Not only is he literally a creature of both (and, thus, admittedly a monster), but his place floating in the transcendent state depends solely on the memory, the capacity of the farm boy’s imagination, to put him there. The sheep child is Dickey’s poetic embodiment of the worldly mysticism Lieberman defines.
In a sense, “The Sheep Child” deals with man’s struggle to reconcile in his mind and through his experience the two worlds that are, in reality, naturally reconciled, in the same way that Dickey says the sheep child’s apparent contra naturam status is actually a condition that is very much pro natura.20 But man’s ability to deal with the vastness of the sheep child’s vision, his world, is severely limited. Though he can remember, has an inkling of, the sheep child and his world, the separation of that memory from his everyday existence saves him. For the poet, though, who is, after all, the voice of both farm boy and sheep child, the memory is not only salvation but damnation, for he is the man who feels compelled to preserve the natural conjunction of the two worlds, knowing all the while that man cannot comprehend such a “big picture,” that even if man could comprehend, words, the poetic effort, could never adequately capture the
world the sheep child sees.
In his essay “The Poet Turns on Himself,” Dickey talks of his desire for the kind of connection of two worlds Lieberman calls worldly mysticism, the kind of unity the sheep child represents. He says that in his poems through Drowning with Others (1962) he “meant to try to get a fusion of inner and outer states, of dream, fantasy, and illusion where everything partakes of the protagonist’s mental processes and creates a single immpression.21 Double vision is the quality Dickey tried to instill in the sheep child.22 The transcendent state in Dickey’s poems can be defined using this idea of fusion, using the condition occupied by the sheep child as a concrete representation of the transcendence. The quality of this state can be further characterized by another of Dickey’s statements in “The Poet Turns on Himself”:
At any rate, what I have always striven for is to find some way to incarnate my best moments—those which in memory are most persistent and obessive [sic]. I find that most of these moments have an element of danger, an element of repose, and an element of joy. I should like now to develop a writing instrument which would be capable of embodying these moments and their attendant states of mind, and I would be most pleased if readers came away from my poems not at all sure as to where the danger and repose separate, where joy ends and longing begins. 23
The sheep child is a perfect example of the condition that contains these three elements Dickey strives to join: the danger of his monstrousness, the repose of his floating existence, the joy of his intense connectedness, his unimpaired vision. The sheep child is the fusion not only of the inner and outer states but also of these elements—danger, repose, and joy—that must be conjoined for true transcendence. And the sheep child’s undiffused existence makes it impossible to isolate either the inner and outer states of the elements Dickey names.
By establishing the uniqueness of the sheep child’s position in Dickey’s poetry and by defining that condition as the ultimate transcendence, it becomes possible to move through Dickey’s other poems and establish levels of transcendence, to examine various characters (transcendent figures) as they face the experience of returning to “common unchosen humanity” after experiencing the state of “nonhuman chosen otherness.” The sheep child serves as the concrete symbol of the unattainable (in reality) condition man naturally strives for. By reducing this pivotal figure in Dickey’s transcendent scheme to the merely comic or the simply unnatural or grotesque, the critic (reader) aligns himself with the limited vision of the farm boy, hides himself from the super-human vision of the sheep child at the expense of opening an important door into the vibrant museum of Dickey’s poetry.
1William Starr, James Dickey Discusses Writers and Writing.” “The State (Columbia, SC), August 28, 1977. 2E
2George Lensing, “James Dickey and the Movements of the Imagination,”in James Dickey: the Expansive Imagination, ed. by Richard J. Calhoun (Deland, FL: Everett/Edwards, 1973), p. 163.
3James Dickey, Self-Interviews, ed. by Barbara and James Reiss (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970), p. 165.
4Personal interview with James Dickey, 30 October 1977.
5Robert Hill, “James Dickey: Comic Poet,” in James Dickey: The Expansive Imagination, p. 149.
6Hill, p. 149.
7Hill, p. 144.
8Joan Bobbitt, “Unnatural Order in the Poetry of James Dickey,” Concerning Poetry (Spring 1978), p. 39.
9Bobbitt, p. 39.
10Bobbitt, p. 41.
11Laurence Lieberman, “The Worldly Mystic,” in James Dickey: The Expansive Imagination, pp.65-66.
12Personal interview with James Dickey, 30 October 1977.
13James Dickey, Poems 1957-1967 (Middletown, CN: Wesleyan University Press, 1967), p. 253. All subsequent references will appear in the text with the abbreviation P.
14Lieberman, p. 73.
15Dickey, Self-Interviews, p. 165.
16Dickey, Self-Interviews, p. 165.
17James Dickey, Sorties (Gordon City, NY: Doubleday, 1971), p. 7.
18James Dickey, “The Poet Turns on Himself,” in Babel to Byzantium (NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1968), p. 290.
19Laurene Lieberman, “Notes on James Dickey’s Style,” in James Dickey: The Expansive Imagination, p. 199.
20Dickey, Self-Interviews, p. 165.
21Dickey, “The Poet Turns on Himself,” p. 287.
22Dickey, Self-Interviews, p. 165.
23Dickey, “The Poet Turns on Himself,” p. 292.
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