“Metaphor in James Dickey’s ‘Pine’and ‘The Eye-Beaters’” is reprinted from James Dickey Newsletter XX (II) (Spring 2004). The following information is given in CONTRIBUTORS in that issue:
KEN AUTREY, professor of English and Coordinator of the Writing Program at Francis Marion University, has previously published articles on Dickey’s journals and teaching. His poems have appeared in many magazines. His current research interest is the role of metaphor in writing instruction.
Although slight changes may occur with digitizing, page numbers herein replicate those in the initial publication. The copyright remains in effect, of course.
Metaphor in James Dickey’s “Pine” and “The Eye-Beaters”
By Ken Autrey
In his modern poetry classes James Dickey often ventured into unexpected territory, speculating on why early humans felt compelled to paint on cave walls, explaining his preference for The Iliad over The Odyssey, lecturing on Lucretius and Heraclitus, or expounding on the various translations of Dante. One day his attention turned to the screenplays of James Agee. Referring to Agee’s writing for The African Queen, Dickey praised his script directions calling for “a splintering of rain” and bemoaned the fact that this vivid phrase was buried in the script, never to be seen by the viewing public. It was typical of Dickey not only to have read the screenplay but also to have noticed this telling metaphor and to selected such a particular detail for comment.
Similarly, in his 1979 Ezra Pound lecture at the University of Idaho Dickey singled out for praise a line from The Cantos: “The water bug’s mittens show on the bright rock below him” (800). Writes Dickey, “What I like in Pound is exactly the opposite of what the world has taken him to represent. I like the maker (the fabbro) of the clean phrase and the hard-edged, imaginative image, and am tempted to let most of the rest of Pound go” (37). In the conclusion of this lecture, which appears as an essay in his collection Night Hurdling, Dickey writes, “What remains to me as a working poet are the water-bug’s mittens, there in live observation from a living world, in believable, extraordinarily releasing, clean, powerful statement…” (45). Dickey’s criticism of other writers often swerves (to borrow one of his favorite words) wildly from generality to particularity, as it does in his homage to Pound, where he sweepingly lauds the poet for showing a “sense of the consequentiality of things, actions, men, ideas and civilizations” (45) and yet builds his essay around a single metaphor. On occasions when Dickey isolated lines or phrases from the work of others, it was often because of the metaphorical power of those fragments.
James Dickey’s most concerted look at metaphor as a poetic strategy is his essay, “Metaphor as Pure Adventure” which was a talk delivered at the Library of Congress in 1968 and was later included in Sorties. That essay makes clear his view that metaphor is integral to the process of poetic composition. According to Dickey, “The deliberate conjunction of disparate items which we call metaphor is not so much a way of understanding the world but a perpetually exciting way of recreating it from its own parts, as though God—who admittedly did it right the first time—had by no means exhausted the possibilities.” He says poetry is less a “matter of serene and disinterested choice” than of action (173) and quotes admiringly a statement by Pierre Reverdy: “Insofar as the juxtapositon of entities be separated by the greater distance, and yet be just, the meta-
phor will be thereby stronger” (174). In other words, the best metaphors are those that take the greatest risks, that link the most dissimilar terms. Dickey praises metaphors in which the terms compared “undergo a fruitful interchange of qualities” (180), something akin to what I. A. Richards meant by the term “interanimation.” Dickey proceeds with other observations about what constitutes a good metaphor, among them that a metaphor “orients the mind toward freedom and novelty; it encourages the mind to be daring” (183).
This view of metaphor may seem surprising until we consider Dickey’s dedication to poetry as a physical rather than a contemplative experience for both writer and reader. One of his journal entries states, “Nothing can be more important than this: it is the difference between poetry of reflection and poetry of participation. I go all-out for participation” (“Journals” 59).
If there is ideally an element of risk in metaphor-making, there is also mystery.
Dickey would perhaps have agreed with Aristotle, who wrote in The Poetics, “But the greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances” (104).
For Dickey, the spontaneity and mystery with which metaphors come to mind is analogous to the mystery of writing itself, the wonder of how a complete poem or even a novel can grow organically from a single image. In his essay, “Lightnings or Visuals,” he exclaims about the power an image can evoke in a writer. He refers to the vision of a fin in the water, which Virginia Woolf claimed was the starting point for her novel, The Waves. Similarly, he says the random image of a man on a cliff initiated a series of questions in his mind and prompted him to write Deliverance. In the same essay he considers a no less mysterious but very different mode of composing: beginning with words instead of images. Dylan Thomas is his exemplar of this word-driven approach. Elsewhere, he wonders why Thomas chose certain words over others but expresses pleasure that we can’t solve this poetic mystery (“Metaphor” 177).
Dickey’s theorizing about the mysteries of image and metaphor, as well as his linkage of metaphor and risk-taking, suggests to me an avenue of inquiry into Dickey’s own poetry and how it evolved over several decades. In the late 1960s, having established himself as a prominent poet, he consciously altered his style, and many have commented on this shift. I’d like to add to the critical mix by considering how Dickey’s use of metaphor changed in this era. To do this, I’ll examine two poems that seem important to such a reconsideration: “Pine” and “The Eye-Beaters.”
21 years ago at the South Atlantic Modern Language Association Convention in Atlanta, Dickey gave a talk with an unwieldy title: “The G.I. Can of Beets, the Fox in the Wave, and the Hammers Over Open Ground.” In that address, he has a great
deal to say about the poet’s use of metaphor, especially as it relates to two very different types of poet. Borrowing terms from Winfield Townley Scott, he differentiates the “Commentary-on-Life” poets and the “Magic-Language” poets. He lists poets in each category, with Randall Jarrell exemplifying the former, with Paul Celan and other surrealists representing the “Magic-Language” school. Criticizing the surrealist tendency to link metaphors and images arbitrarily, in ways that do not contribute to a larger vision, Dickey allies himself with Jarrell and company.
Yet, this essay shows us a Dickey in transition. He refers admiringly to Dylan Thomas, who owes much to the surrealists. And on his own behalf he writes, “Recently I have tried, as the athletes say, to work out with the magical side of language: to break away from an approach that I felt was tending toward the anecdote, and depending too much upon it for whatever value this dependency might give it” (“G.I.”133).
Actually, this experimentation was not so recent. In 1970, twelve years prior to that SAMLA address, Dickey published The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy, a stylistic turning point. The poems in that volume were written in the same era as his Library of Congress talk on metaphor in which he praised the sort of language experimentation that metaphor-making at its best represents. That was also around the time he published “The Poet Turns on Himself,” in which he expresses restlessness with his anecdotal, rhythmic early poetry. He claimed a growing interest in poetry that “would have the capacity to involve the reader in it, in all its imperfections and impurities, rather than offering him a (supposedly) perfected and perfect work….” Dickey wanted more of what he called “presentational immediacy” and pointed to “The Firebombing” as an early intimation of this strategy (290). Finally, he professed an interest in the “conclusionless” or “the un-well-made poem” (291).
By common critical consent, this purposeful transition that Dickey had been preparing for came to fruition with mixed results in The Eye-Beaters and later on was manifest in Puella and The Eagle’s Mile. One means of defining this mid-career development is to see it as a shift in the poet’s deployment of metaphor. Before examining “Pine” and “The Eye-Beaters” as exemplifying this shift, let me address Dickey’s use of metaphor in the poems prior to 1970.
Many have commented on how Dickey’s early poetry relies on elemental images such as water, stone, moon, sun, light, and dark. Gordon Van Ness’s essay on Dickey’s use of stone imagery is one example of such a study. Robert Kirschten, in his useful discussion of Dickey’s diction, notes that he “chooses familiar, concrete, and tactile terms that consist so often of analogues of natural processes and things” (173). Kirschten argues that Dickey’s metaphors are seldom “puzzling or intellectually challenging” and tend to require minimal interpretive effort. He goes on to explicate various types of metaphors common to the poetry. One classical type involves a simple transference in a brief phrase, as when Dickey equates a river to “a fleeing coat” in “Inside the River” (175).
At times, according to Kirschten, Dickey gives clichés or stock expressions new life through context or layered meanings. Such is the case with the phrase “house of this flesh,” in the poem, “In the Lupanar at Pompeii,” where the phrase refers not only to the human body but also to the bordello in the ruined city. Kirschten also comments on the metaphoric power of Dickey’s compound words, such as “body-whistling” and “dance-weight” in the poem, “Falling.” To this I would add that these metaphoric compounds often take the form of adverbs, as in “hand-shieldingly”(“Dover: Believing in Kings”) or “thrivingly danced” (“Buckdancer’s Choice”). Other metaphoric techniques include the use of concrete qualities to describe abstractions, as in “the bell-swung undergloom” (“The Vegetable King”), and the appropriation of one part of speech to make another, as when he describes a bee as “One dot/ Grainily shifting” in the poem “The Bee.”
To Kirschten’s useful discussion, I would add several observations about Dickey’s figurative language in his first three or four volumes. His metaphors and similes sometimes move in a reverse direction from what we might anticipate. Generally, we expect to find the abstract presented in terms of the concrete. But in “Drowning with Others” when we encounter the phrase “hair turned loose like a thought,” we get the reverse effect. Similarly, in “The Hospital Window,” the speaker turns “blue as a soul.”
Also, we should acknowledge the prevalence of personification in these poems. Dickey often metaphorically depicts animals or inanimate objects in human terms, as in “Cherrylog Road,” when he describes his motorcycle as a bicycle “fleshed with power.” But then we often get the reverse strategy—a depersonalization of individuals, as in the well-known final line of that poem, “Wild to be wreckage forever.”
N. Michael Niflis summarizes the metaphoric effects in the early poems as follows: “It is Dickey’s fresh way of seeing and describing the near and mundane things that makes his images staggeringly powerful. His remarkable power seems to lie not necessarily in an ability to manufacture images but in an ability to select images…from the immediate environment of the persona’s activities….”(61).
Clearly, Dickey’s use of metaphor is a distinctive component of the early poetry—as the anapestic rhythm, the sometimes unusual syntax, and the inventive twisting of ordinary, elemental words. But for all the figurative density and richness in such poems as “The Owl King,” “Springer Mountain,” and “Falling,” some of the early poems rely only minimally on metaphor. Or perhaps I should say the metaphor often seems unobtrusive. Such is the case with “The Heaven of Animals,” a poem that we might expect to lean heavily on metaphor because of its projection into an imagined animal realm. Phrases such as “soft eyes,” “richest wood,” and “deepest field” are metaphoric, but only in the subtlest sense. To take another example, “The Movement of Fish,” although containing such memorable phrases as “The ocean-broad sun” and “The surface at mid-sea shivers,” does not dazzle us with its figurative effects.
I should pause to acknowledge the danger of discussing metaphor at all in an era when we recognize the pervasiveness of metaphor in all language, the complexity of assessing what is and what is not metaphoric. Metaphors We Live By, by Lakoff and Johnson, is one of many books exploring this commonplace of contemporary language studies, arguing that metaphors are not simply poetic or rhetorical embellishments but unavoidably control our thinking. Armed with this awareness, we can differentiate between metaphors that are integral to the language of a poem and those that create more dissonance. James Seitz, in his book, Motives for Metaphor, appeals for the value of what he calls the “dialogic metaphor,” which “at least partially inhibits its own movement toward identification” (125). Seitz argues that a metaphor in which readers are aware of the incongruity between tenor and vehicle (to use I.A. Richards’ terms) “turns readers from recipients into participants in the production of meaning” (126). Given James Dickey’s valorizing of action and engagement over contemplation, as well as his mid-career turn toward the “un-well-made poem,” the notion of dialogic metaphor should prove useful in characterizing the poet’s figurative experimentation in the later poems. Furthermore, this seems consistent with Dickey’s approval of Reverdy’s statement that the strongest metaphors are those that show the greatest distance between their terms.
In his essay on The Eye-Beaters, Gordon Van Ness notes that critical reception of this book that “initiated Dickey’s ‘central motion’” was generally negative. His thematic study of the poems suggests that they grew out of Dickey’s “growing awareness of mortality” and his attempt to confront it (2). According to Van Ness, the first group of poems in this volume demonstrates a human need to reach out to others in the face of adversity, disease, and death. The middle poems “all depict some Other, a presence outside the poet which threatens to overwhelm him” (5). The final poems hold out some possibility for personal transcendence or renewal, as in “Pine.” But in some cases the conclusion is less hopeful. Van Ness sees the volume’s final poem, “Turning Away,” as emblematic of Dickey’s defensive stance at this point in his life and his urge to “turn away” from previous poetic approaches. There is no doubt that these poems display a major stylistic turn. The sometimes artificial centering technique differentiates them visually from the left-justified, often long, lines in earlier poems. In some instances the poems seem dim reflections, almost parodies, of earlier work.
But if in some of these poems Dickey’s surrender to language and sound seems tentative and unsuccessful, in “Pine” it seems more complete. As with much of Dickey’s work, a synopsis of this poem makes it seem artificial and far-fetched. A nebulous individual referred to as “you” is in a pine forest. The narrator attempts to characterize the wind’s sound, which is personified, while the “you” of the poem is de-personalized, figuratively identifying with his surroundings. Then the narrator wonders about the effects of tasting the bark and needles of the tree and drinking in “bitter rain.” Finally, the
interrogatives change to assertions as the sense of touch takes over and the figure in the forest climbs a tree and reaches “Glory.”
the density of sound echoes and the interplay of metaphor yield much more than such a summary indicates and evoke something of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a poet admired by Dickey. The first of four sections reads as follows:
Low-cloudly it whistles, changing heads
On you. How hard to hold and shape head-round.
So any hard hold
Now loses; form breathes near. Close to forest-form
By ear, so landscape is eyelessly
Sighing through needle-eyes. O drawn off
The deep end, step right up
And be where. It could be a net
Spreading field: mid-whistling crossed with an edge and a life
guarding sound. Overhead assign the bright and dark
Heels distance-running from all overdrawing the only sound
Of this sound sound of a life-mass
Drawn in long lines in the air unbroken brother-saving
Sound merely soft
And loudly soft just in time then nothing and then
Soft soft and a little caring-for sift-softening
And soared-to. O ankle-wings lightening and fleeing
Brothers sending back for you
To join the air and live right: O justice-scales leaning toward mercy
Wherever. Justice is exciting in the wind
As escape continuing as an ax hurling
Toward sound and shock. Nothing so just as wind
In its place in low cloud
Of its tree-voice stopped and on-going footless flight
Sound like brothers coming on as
All-comers coming and fleeing
From ear-you and pine, and all pine.
This initial section begins with a familiar Dickey construction, a hyphenated adverb, a neologism constructed from a noun. The wind is personified as whistling and “changing heads.” The alliterative “h” sounds in their softness reinforce the assertion, “So any hard hold/Now loses; form breathes near.” Then the landscape is personified as “eyelessly/Sighing through needle-eyes,” a complex image that makes use of synesthesia, paradox, and assonance. Some of this, such as the phrase “net/Spreading field: mid-whistling,” seems concocted for sound alone. The shift to the imperative in line ten introduces several lines in which sound, sight, and touch continue to merge. Repetitions of the words “sound” and “soft” give an alliterative, incantatory feel to this section.
If there is any assertion here beyond an evocation of atmosphere, it comes not through syntax but through a conflation of associated words, implied rather than explicit metaphor. The three references to brother(s) provide autobiographical hints. One of his brothers died young; the poet’s guilt in replacing and surviving him is a recurrent theme in his work. His other brother Tom was a track star with whom Dickey had a competitive relationship. Phrases such as “Heels distance-running,” “ankle-wings” and “footless flight” thus suggest not only a classical reference to the messenger-god Mercury but also to Tom. In an extended and complex metaphor, then, the air in the pines equates to justice and to the two-fold flight of his brothers—the early death of one and the track-star speed of the other. It is as though the wind and the impending sensory experience of the pine is a way of uniting the three. It may not be merely a bad pun to suggest that Dickey is “pining” for his brothers.
In the poem’s second section, the figure in the woods experiences a literal and figurative breathing in—or inspiration. This act is transforming. He identifies with a cave, a stump, and sea-wall. He gets earthy and low before the figurative and actual rising soon to follow. His head is “needle-sapped out / Of its mind by this face-lifting.” The puns on “sapped” and “face-lifting” are typical of the language play and experimentation through the poem and affirm the link between a literal experience of tree and wind and a metaphorical transition. In the third section, the figure in the forest opens his mouth to taste bark, pine needle, and rain. References to “a wafer of bark” and “manna in the next eye” hint at a religious communion.
Finally, the uplifting becomes literal as in section four the character scales the pine tree, loses himself, and experiences renewal on the way to section five and the poem’s culmination in one-word :
… The whole thing turns
On earth, throwing off a dark
Flood of four ways
Of being here blind and bending
Blacked-out and framed
Suspended and found alive in the rough palm-
And thigh-fires of friction, embracing in the beyond
It all, where,
Opening one by one, you still can open
One thing more. A final form
And color at last comes out
Of you alone putting it all
Together like nothing
Here like almighty
As the climber reaches the top of the tree and it opens out, there is a paradoxical closing off of the poem’s shape, an inverted pyramid or downward arrow pocked with “o”-sounds, “Glory” hanging like an afterthought, pivoting on its own median “o.” This sound returns us to the poem’s first phrase, “Low-cloudly it whistles,” and the thought that whistling itself forces our lips into an “o.”
The associative diction, prominent sound echoes, and disorienting syntax all validate the poem’s subtitle, “successive apprehensions.” Here too, we need to see the ambiguity, taking “apprehensions” to be understandings as well as fears. The poem as a whole may be read as a conceit for the poet’s work, inspired by the natural world, grounded in memories of his brothers, driven by language itself, and seeking some sort of transcendence. James Seitz’s term, “dialogic metaphor,” seems useful in characterizing the tension in this poem among various elements that seem metaphorically associated: the wind, the brothers, the spiritual intimations, the identification with and sensory experience of a pine tree, and the attainment of the poet “putting it all/Together.”
If “Pine” is Dickey’s most language-driven poem to that point, anticipating techniques in Puella and The Eagle’s Mile, “The Eye-Beaters” embodies a return to the dense walls of text found in earlier poems such as “Falling” and “May Day Sermon.” Yet “The Eye-Beaters” develops more clearly than “Pine” an extended metaphor of the sort seldom found in the early poetry. This important poem has been explored more often than any other in the 1970 collection. Ronald Baughman, Herbert Leibowitz, Joy Mapp,
Eugene McNamara, and Gordon Van Ness, and others have written useful essays on the poem.
So as not to replow too much ground, let me be brief in connecting “The Eye-Beaters” with “Pine” and examining it as a metaphoric statement of Dickey’s poetic credo. The poem is an account of a man’s visit to an Indiana children’s home. Some of the children are blind, and they beat on their eyes, presumably to produce momentary flashes of light. The Visitor imagines that the eye-beating produces “a tribal light old/Enough to be seen without sight.” He imagines that the children envision a man painting animals and hunting scenes on a cave wall. He doubts his reverie but then accepts it, concluding that the survival of us all depends on this sort of vision: “the race hangs on meat and illusion hangs on nothing/But a magical art.” Toward the end, he states, “Wind moans like an artist,” a statement reminiscent of the significant role of wind in “Pine.” The Visitor is finally transformed by his experience and says, “Therapist, farewell at the living end. Give me my spear.”
The structure of the poem itself is dialogic, with marginal notes serving as an objective gloss on the more subjective and dramatic events in the text. As Eugene McNamara writes, “The bifurcated form of the poem, with body and gloss on parallel tracks, supports the image of a dualistic world. It can be rural Indiana in a Home set amid corn fields on a June afternoon, and at the same time a place where raging blind children beat their eyes” (22). Also, within the text itself there is a shuttling between the Visitor’s imagination and reason, the latter shown in italics. Implicit in this dialogue is a tension between immersion in the world and surrender to art. Depictions of hunting on the cave wall suggest that art necessarily complements an engagement with the world and a risk-taking represented by hunting. Yet, the eye-beaters remain in the home under the therapist’s care, as the outsider walks away inspired and transformed.
In Dickey’s introduction to the same poetry course in which he quoted the metaphor from James Agee’s screenplay, he devoted a class period to discussing ancient cave painting. He was fascinated not only with the sophisticated depictions of ancient animals but also with how the artists sometimes purposefully distorted them to accentuate threatening features—the enlarged horns of a buffalo, for example. Dickey saw this as early evidence of the human need not just to mimic but to create—“man’s delight in tinkering and playing with things,” as he put it. In “The Eye-Beaters,” Dickey actualizes and develops as a conceit this thinking about early artistic impulses and the Jungian urge to tap into the collective memory that is the life blood of the poet.
While “Pine” looks ahead to the associative, “Magic-Language” poetry of Dickey’s late poetry and “The Eye-Beaters” shows characteristics of the early work, together in the poet’s “central motion,” they show the sort of risk-taking with language Dickey advocated in “Metaphor as Pure Adventure” and together constitute a sort of mid-career artistic credo expressed in terms of elaborate and complex extended metaphors.
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