IN MEMORY OF JAMES DICKEY
January 20, 1997
Author and Poet James Dickey died yesterday.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: James Dickey may have been best known for his novel "Deliverance" from which a popular film was made, but he was, above all, a poet. An early collection of his work "Buckdancer's Choice" won the 1966 National Book Award for Poetry. In all, he published more than 20 books, including first novels and criticism. Here to tell us more is Stanley Plumly, professor of English at the University of Maryland and a poet himself. Thanks for being with us.
STANLEY PLUMLY, Poet: Thank you for having me.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us something about James Dickey and how he became a poet.
STANLEY PLUMLY: Well, Dickey, I think is a kind of a model for a lot of American writers of my generation and the generation before me. He started out as--he was a big man. He started out as an athlete, both in high school and in college. You had always a sense--he was a serious athlete--you had the sense about him that he was caged, and that he had something powerful in him he wanted to say. And I suppose as an athlete that was one way to articulate it. For a long time he was an advertising executive with the Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta, Georgia. He was a Georgian and a deep Southerner, to the soul, and would write poems on his off moments and decided that that was the direction he wanted to go in.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He also flew bombing missions in World War II and in Korea. There's a sense of danger and death always in his--often in his poetry, isn't there?
STANLEY PLUMLY: I think the theme that comes out of that terrific and even terrible period in his life is survival, how you survive and how you devour life, how you use life, how you transform it, and make it into something, and that's an obsessive theme in his poems as well. He flew over a hundred missions in the Second World War, in the Pacific, and Korea.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Read something that he wrote.
STANLEY PLUMLY: This is a poem that--it's an early poem, and it, I think, does a pretty interesting job of bringing together several themes in his poems; that is to say the domestic and the wild and the human place in that landscape. It's called "Deer Among Cattle." "Here and there in the searing beam of my hand, going through the night meadow, they're all grazing with pins of human light in their eyes. A wild one also is eating the human grass, slender, graceful, domesticated by darkness among the bread for slaughter, having bounded their paralyzed fence and inclined his branched forehead onto their green frosted table, the only live thing in this flashlight who can leave whenever he wishes, turn grass into forest, foreclose in human brightness from his eyes, but stands here unprepared in their wide open country, the sparks from my right hand in his pupils unmatched anywhere among cattle, grazing with them, the night of the hammer as one of their own who shall rise."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Using this poem as an example, when you say he was a model for your generation, what do you mean?
STANLEY PLUMLY: Well, I think he understood that poetry has not only a chance for a larger audience but a larger subject. He does--he is a nature poet, I guess you could argue, to a certain extent, but he's also a naturalist. And he never forgot that tragedy occurs in life on a daily basis among all realms, and he was I think very much in tuned with that. He had a tremendous empathic power. It almost overwhelmed him, his capacity for empathy. I think he suffered much.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And he was extremely intense and had a very strong sense of narrative. I mean, he, of course, is best known for a novel that was terrifying, "Deliverance," but he also used all of that narrative drive in his poetry, didn't he?
STANLEY PLUMLY: Yes. He gave narrative a distinction of real music. He was a wonderfully graceful poet for all the sense of the animal that is caged in those poems.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mostly free verse, right?
STANLEY PLUMLY: Free verse. He was a master of free verse. Like several poets in his generation, he was among the best at perfecting what a line is and how a line moves to the next line.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Explain that.
STANLEY PLUMLY: I guess I would put it this way; that American free verse is its national voice--that's how I would put it--and that for Dickey, he understood how to write an interesting sentence.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And is that how he was most influential as a poet? What did he teach you and other poets that you know?
STANLEY PLUMLY: He could take an experience completely outside himself. And one of his most famous poems is about an airline stewardess sucked out of the plane at about 29,000 feet. It's called "Falling." And it's kind of an experimental poem, even a visionary poem, but he turns it into a mythic Icarus-like experience that is not just palpable but wonderfully powerful. It could have been melodrama. It could have been incredibly trite, but he makes something of, I guess, myth out of it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Mr. Plumly, thanks very much for being with us.
STANLEY PLUMLY: Thank you.