I arrived at the University of South Carolina in 1983 to work on a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition. Until then, I was unaware that James Dickey was on the faculty. I had seen Dickey interviewed by Dick Cavett on TV back in the mid-70s in the afterglow of his popularity as author of Deliverance. I had devoured the book and loved the film, which includes a cameo of the hulking author as a surly sheriff. The more I heard about Dickey’s teaching and the more I read of his poetry, the more I wanted to take some of his classes. I’d be crazy not to. Finally, in the fall of 1985, I signed up for Dickey’s class in American Poetry. Our assignment was simply to write four papers, each an “encounter with an American poet,” two born before 1914, two born later. My first paper was on Delmore Schwartz. Though Dickey liked it well enough, his few marginal comments pertained less to my prose than to Schwartz, whom he greatly admired. “Go, Delmore!” he wrote at one point. And later, “Delmore, I couldn’t have said it better!” My next paper was on Adrienne Rich, of whom Dickey was not a fan. Of this effort, he wrote in his spidery script, “This is, I suppose, the best case that can be made for this woman.”
For all of the tales about Dickey’s debauchery and drinking, I never saw him come to class drunk. Nor, in the various times I saw him read to an audience, did he appear tipsy. Perhaps his most dissolute days were behind him. That’s not to say he didn’t enjoy a drink. One afternoon, following a public reading by Dickey, the English Department held an informal reception in the Faculty Lounge. There was plenty of booze along with a few nuts and pretzels. As the crowd thinned out, the Department Chair, as usual, gathered up the liquor to squirrel it away until the next reception. Dickey, settled in an easy chair and holding forth to a crowd of graduate students, got up, grabbed two bottles of bourbon before they disappeared and exclaimed, “This bottle is for them, and this one is mine.” None of us left until the bourbon was gone.
My friend Gordon Van Ness, aware that I was conducting research on writers’ journals and journal writing, told me that some of the poet’s early journals (1952-53) were tucked among the many boxes of Dickey material temporarily stored in the South Caroliniana Library on campus. After obtaining the obligatory permission letter from Matthew Bruccoli, Dickey’s literary executor, I proceeded to the library for some literary sleuthing. The un-catalogued boxes contained a fascinating but disorganized array of Dickey’s papers and files—trash and treasure. Stuffed next to a folder documenting the various drafts of, say, “The Movement of Fish” I found a sheaf of water bills or a packet of letters from schoolchildren thanking Dickey for his visit to their class. I unearthed several of the journals, which contained accounts of his reading, notes for his writing, and a valuable record of a young poet’s maturation. I found even the water bills interesting.
After my immersion in the raw material of his journals, I wanted to interview Dickey about these unpublished materials, so he invited me to join him for lunch at the Faculty House. He was one of only two professors ever to issue me such an invitation. As we ate and drank (moderately), I scribbled madly as he patiently reflected back 35 years. He explained his reason for keeping journals, quoting Henry James: “to tap the deep well of unconscious cerebration.” He said he gave up this informal writing because of “time, time, time.” I offered to pay for lunch, and Dickey didn’t object. Well worth it, I thought.
I’m sorry that I never heard Dickey play the guitar in person. The closest I’ve come is listening to a tape of his playing copied for me by Gordon Van Ness. When I first heard the scratchy tape, I was struck by the quality of his picking, mostly old favorites like “Wildwood Flower.” Dickey had a wonderfully sonorous and mellow voice for reading but never claimed any ability as a singer, so the music was strictly instrumental. Clearly he brought to the playing of a guitar something of the discipline he devoted to writing. And conversely, as he often said, music was a powerful influence on his writing.
Just as Dickey saw his music and poetry as interrelated, he saw his poetry as inextricably connected to the prose. He wanted his students to grasp this interconnectedness. One day while in the throes of my dissertation, I was in the elevator with him, and he asked whether I’d been writing poetry. Apologetically, I told him I was immersed in the dissertation. He glared at me with a crease in his brow and said, “Don’t lose track of the poetry. Everything starts there.”
Last fall, I spent some time with Tracy K. Smith, a wonderful poet who lives in Brooklyn and teaches at Princeton. I was startled to find that she shares my enthusiasm for Dickey’s work. She was interested when I told her I had studied with him. Her work is nothing like Dickey’s, but she counts him as an important influence. Soon thereafter, I read Terrance Hayes’s National Book Award winner,Lighthead, and I found there a poem called “The Shepherd” with an epigraph from Dickey’s “The Sheep Child.” It’s encouraging that two young African-American poets find something to emulate in Dickey’s work. Perhaps the same is true of others.
Recently I was in Litchfield Beach, South Carolina, and took a side trip to visit Dickey’s grave in the beautiful old cemetery of All Saints’ Episcopal Church. The plot, which faces the church across the road, is shaded by huge gnarled live oaks draped with Spanish moss. His grave, next to that of Maxine, his first wife, is topped by a substantial tombstone in the middle of which is carved the same eye surrounded by a circle of foliage that appeared on the first edition of Deliverance. “I imagine this as the all-seeing eye of the poet who, even in death, casts a cold gaze on the work of this apprentices. I think of Dickey’s poem “Tomb Stone,” one of his last, in which the visitor to the grave asks forgiveness for coming
as I have done
For a while in a vertical body
That breathes the rectangular solitude
Risen over you….
Dickey liked to quote his former teacher Allen Tate, who said, “The best poetry concerns human situations from which there’s no escape.” Dickey would say, “I’m with Allen. I’ll go with those too.” Dickey has been gone for 14 years, but his influence, perhaps poised for a resurgence among young poets, is a force from which I can’t escape—nor would I wish to.