James Dickey’s Poetry

I had promised early on in this blog to give poets equal time, and I haven’t done that. So I thought I’d rectify my omission by posting this week on James Dickey, one of late twentieth century’s most acclaimed poets. What follows is a rather long post, but I hope it saves my reputation with the poets out there.
His influences ranged from the modern traditionalists (Theodore Roethke) to beat poets (Alan Ginsburg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti). His poems tended to be epic and long in an era of shorter, analytical, perhaps more cynical, self absorbed poetry. Many of his pieces written in the mid-1900s revealed guilt over the contradictions in his life. Other works displayed his love of the natural world; he, like Frost, wrote of the danger-fraught relationship between humanity and nature.
As with most poets, Dickey was a study in contradiction. He was in love with the South’s culture, religion, and music, but he seemed to yearn for the near-mythical era of Greece’s Mycenae. He also seemed to yearn for mystical experience, but there seemed to be little room for such within the Southern experience he felt compelled to write about. Still, he managed (more on this later).
As a person he could be difficult. His son, Christopher portrayed his father like this:
A liar – father James insisted against evidence that he’d wrestled black bears.
A drunk – his first wife followed him into alcoholism. After their divorce, his second wife became a drug addict.
A womanizer – he was unabashed in this regard; he didn’t want to be held to conventional morality.
With Helmets, published in 1962, Dickey became a widely respected poet. The book is arranged in four sections, the first three thematically similar and in Southern settings, the final section focusing on his war experiences. The initial three sections portray human incursions into nature, representing the natural world as both accommodating and threatening. His writing here is often in tercets, but his structure varies widely. Each stanza is constructed as a largely stand-alone part of the whole, each often a discrete thought or image sequence.
His tone in these twenty-four pieces (all but the first are in first person point of view) tends toward his mystical proclivities, sometimes filled with delight at natural and human blendings, sometimes sadness. His portraits of natural surroundings tend to be static and symbolic, as befits the pastoral in verse. When he introduces humans or their contrivances into these surroundings, his tone occasionally seems hurried, insistent, anxious.
His voice in Helmets is not unlike the cadence of black and white Southern preachers of the early twentieth century, sometimes earthy, often rising to an elevated, abstract tone. This sort of voice is reminiscent of epic Greek poetry’s rhythms, with its mesmerizing dactylic, chant-like meter. Dickey makes wide use of anaphora, alliteration, and assonance as part of this voice, the verses often emphasizing their lines’ initial dactylic stress.
The feeling one gains when reading these poems aloud is that of a prophet offering both gentle and hard images of the world around him, implying warnings regarding humanity’s relationship with nature. It’s difficult to escape his sense of foreboding, his sense of something lost between man and nature, his nostalgia for a balance once struck between them.
The final section of Helmets seems an add-on. These pieces, with their contrasting thematic focus, seem less accomplished than those in the preceding sections. His imagery is inconsistently put forward, often personal and oblique. The voice and meter are reminiscent of his later-written work in the volume, but often seem awkward. Still, the overarching theme: depicting war’s effects on soldiers and their families, does complement his foreboding regarding humanity’s impact on the natural world. And his use of poetic devices such as alliteration, assonance, and enjambment presages the technique of his later work.
The last piece of the first section is a long poem, entitled “Springer Mountain.” The poem, told in first person, concerns a bowhunter scaling Springer Mountain in north Georgia, intent on hunting deer. He’s dressed in layers of sweaters, connoting fur or fleece. The hunter stops midway and spies the deer. He sheds his clothing until naked. Here, quoting the poem is most effective:
…The world catches fire.
I put an unbearable light
Into breath skinned alive of its garments:
I think, beginning with laurel,
Like a beast loving
With the whole god bone of his horns:
The green of excess is upon me
Like deer in fir thickets in winter
Stamping and dreaming of men
Who will kneel with them naked to break
The ice from streams with their faces
And drink from the lifespring of beasts.
Here, Dickey uses man and deer as metaphoric images of one another, the effect a mystical blending. His tone and voice often suggest initial iambs followed by anapests, this effect immediately pulling the reader into the dactylic feeling, i.e. the initial unstressed iamb syllable is quickly forgotten in the established rhythm. Elsewhere, he adds to the sense of incantation by constantly using anaphora, alliteration, and assonance. He often uses enjambed feminine line ends (he occasionally enjambs stanza ends as well) to keep the rhythm flowing from line to line, and to sustain a sense of drama within the passages. Caesuras move back and forth across succeeding lines, amplifying the rhythm of his passages.
Dickey makes use of magical connotation throughout. As the deer emerges, “…a deer is created…” as if an apparition, instantaneously appearing. In the same way, he mentions a stream as
“…waters of life
Where they stand petrified in a creek bed.”
The narrator seems in another world in
“My crazed laughter pure as good church-cloth,
My brain dazed…”
as if he were the subject of a spell.
He follows his tracks back down the mountain, seemingly the only pathway to and from his experience. In the final stanza, the narrator returns from the mountain to once again become
“A middle-aged, softening man
Grinning and shaking his head
In amazement to last him forever.”
His epiphany, once he has descended the mountain, is
“To hunt, under Springer Mountain,
Deer for the first and last time.”
In this long piece, Dickey establishes, through a mythic device, a connection between human and natural phenomena, one he personally yearned for, and one no longer seen as normal, seemingly able to be experienced only through a magical, incanted spell.
In “The Firebombing” from Buckdancer’s Choice, Dickey describes in first person point of view his memories of bombing missions in the Ryukyu Islands, near Japan, during World War II. His technique here is to portray the airman as strangely distanced from these powerful memories, allowing them to take on a broader, deeper meaning, one that engenders guilt in the narrator. In the beginning portion, he uses single-line stanzas between multi-line ones to create an emotionally disjointed effect. Examples of such:
“Starve and take off”
“Snap, a bulb is tricked on in the cockpit”
“Think of this think of this”
These lines are set between descriptions of clouds during flight, the earth below, juxtaposing his fear of battle and death. His one-line stanzas often, as in the last line cited above (and those below), make use of his split-line technique to powerful emotional effect:
“On the starboard wing cloud flickers”
“In a dark dream that that is”
The poem is brutal in its honesty regarding the airman’s fear, the awfulness of the firebombing. As he reaches his epiphany, the airman very nearly disbelieves the horror of his memories, that he was capable of taking part in such destruction.
Dickey’s poetry has been characterized as extremist. Whatever its exaggerations, it has much to offer in imagery, the power of its narratives, the emotional honesty of its narrators, infused with private anxiety and guilt as they replicate twentieth-century angst and humanity’s often problematic relationship with the natural world.

Conrad’s “Youth”

Some four decades after my farewell to arms, I still have a couple of books from the Naval Academy years. Among them is a compilation of works by Joseph Conrad, containing its rather extended short story, “Youth.” I pulled the paperback out recently – a Doubleday/Anchor publication from a half-century ago, selling for $0.95. Yes, that’s right – ninety-five cents. I know, I know, it dates me. Its cover is a tiny bit frayed, but the pages and binding are as good as back in the day.
So I decided to re-read the story (the book also contains Heart Of Darkness and The End Of The Tether, and I may soon re-read them as well). My curiosity in opening this near-forgotten book was two-fold:
• Why was the publication selected as part of the literary indoctrination of Naval Academy plebes (freshmen)?
• How had Conrad structured this story, which I remembered had something to do with the sea?
Every writer strives for some sort of signature device that will identify him/her and draw and keep an audience. Conrad’s was the invention of Marlow, his narrator, who came of age in “Youth” and who grew in sophistication in subsequent pieces of writing.
The story begins with an unnamed narrator introducing Marlow and a group of men who “know something or everything about the sea,” gathered about a mahogany table and drinking from a bottle of claret. From this introduction on, the story is Marlow’s to tell.
This sort of structure, by the way, is called a frame story – one that’s essentially a story within the initial one. This initial story more often than not sets the scene for the story’s main body.
Marlow’s account begins with him entering an old bucket-of-bolts merchant ship, the Judea, as its second mate. Marlow’s a young sailor, but one with experience; however, this is his first voyage as a ship’s second mate. The captain is an experienced sea hand, but has never been “around the capes,” and his ship is bound for Bangkok.
Here I’ll leave voyage details to the reader, but it’s Marlow’s good fortune to weather storms and other trials the Judea was put though. The journey to the other side of the world proves to Marlow that he’s both a capable sailor and an ingenious handler of near-catastrophes.
Too – and here’s a surprise, for me – the story is a real page-turner. Conrad is knowledgeable enough about the sea to depict ship, sea, and crew in a realistic manner, and a skillful enough writer to keep the action rising page after page.
So. What of the title? Marlow’s epiphany is two-fold:
• He tells the tale long after the voyage, at a time when he realizes adventure is not an entity unto itself, but a process of learning, of growing as an adult.
• He realizes during his telling, as the claret is passed, that youth is rather blind, but that its raw energy has provided his growth and success as a sailor and as a person.
These points make the story of value to “Ye Olde Boat School’s” lowest-of-the-low: every plebe surely comes to understand through this reading that growth comes from a four-square confrontation with adversity. This is the crucible within which character is born and leadership (something I believe can’t be taught) is learned. And it’s Marlow’s – and the Navy’s – promise to every lowly plebe that the sea will present challenges and instill an existentially unique form of leadership in those who sail it.

“On Writing Well” As Social History

One of the most trusted resources in the craft of non-fiction writing has been William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. Having sold well over a million copies now, the book has recently celebrated its thirtieth anniversary. Which led The American Scholar magazine (Spring 2009) to offer up an essay by Zinsser on the book’s evolution.
During my reading of the essay, two thing about Zinsser’s book– and the craft of writing in general – came to mind. First, writing, like language itself, is never static. Writing, one might say – in the vein of a glass half empty – is always held captive by the society it reflects. And in this day of ongoing future shock, writing and language will change with every social twist and turn (something all writers should heed).
The second thing Zinsser’s essay brought to mind: Writing a how-to book on non-fiction writing, a book constantly amended to reflect social change becomes an historical roadmap of such changes. Zinsser gives us such a roadmap through the evolution of non-fiction writing over the past thirty years of his book. He does this by offering the reader rhyme and reason for his regularly recurring amendments to On Writing Well. His chronology goes something like this:
1974-1976 – Writing for the first edition
Zinsser began with another writer’s chestnut, The Elements of Style, by Strunk & White, which gives a compendium of principles on writing that seem somewhat abstract, arbitrary, and binding. What's missing here is how to apply such principles. To supply this missing element, Zinsser turned, oddly enough, to a book on writing popular songs by composer Alec Wilder. If there’s ever been a social phenomenon that maps contemporary changes through the decades, it’s pop music. Still, his explanations on how to apply non-fiction writing principles remained in "freeze-frame" in one respect: most of his exemplars were male.
1980 – The second edition
By the eighties, technology had become king of social change. Zinsser added a chapter on jargon, something that had been giving composition teachers fits. In this edition, he tried to make such technical items seem more human. In league with this no-nonsense time, he also advised more terse writing, paring adjectives and adverbs. Interestingly (yes, I’m aware of the adverb I've just used), he also cautioned writers to higher ethical standards, to defend their work to editors, publishers, and agents. This, in an age of business and financial upset that still haunts us today.
1990s – Yet more editions
By the 'nineties, America might have been unrecognizable to someone from the 'seventies. Women, who had come to dominate fiction in the late twentieth century, were making serious inroads into non-fiction, particularly in the memoir genre. The nation had seen a new wave of immigrants – from Africa, Asia, the Middle East – and they were now beginning to shape these United States. Zinsser flushed a good number of male graybeards from his exemplars to make room for up and coming women. He even showcased technical journals, in the form of a magazine of electrical and electronics engineers, which lent its technical expertise to the field of political writing. To reflect this more clinical mindset in society, Zinsser began advising, where possible, life without pronouns.
1998-2001 – A sixth edition
In this edition, On Writing Well turned personal. It reflected Zinsser’s own interests, more so than the collective interests of the society about him. He wrote chapters on jazz and baseball. In this new turn, memoir became a literary obsession. He began to lead writers into understanding the process of writing such non-fiction, that it’s an organic phenomenon, impossible to map out ahead of the day-to-day process of writing.
When you think about it, writing must be captive to its time (the glass half-full now), not only in language usage and style, but in the ways it reflects people, their unique responses to both internal and external social conditions.
Surely Zinsser will eventually stop editing his book, but I certainly hope someone picks up his banner and continues it, if only to extend his mapping of our language and times.

The River To Pickle Beach, by Doris Betts

This is one of those cases in which I know an acclaimed author personally. Doris Betts was my summertime mentor (and that of a few other emerging writers from North Carolina) a few years ago, and she sharpened my fiction writer's learning curve as steeply as the slopes of Mount Everest. But this ain’t about me and she (sorry for the bad grammar – it just seemed appropriate for some reason). I’ve resisted blogging on this book for a long time – it didn’t seem right to subject my mentor to the potential of criticism (there: the truth’s out – I don’t always know exactly what I’m going to write about a book until I get there).
One of the things Doris put forward in rather strong terms that summer was that fiction can be technically proficient, but you do the reader a disservice in making it unnecessarily oblique. The River To Pickle Beach is just such an object lesson in both tempered, taut prose and reader accessibility.
Her story here is a rather simple one. It’s set against the backdrop of the summer of 1968 (a heady year if ever there was one) along the North Carolina coast. Principal characters Bebe and Jack Sellar have decided (at Bebe’s urging, it seems) to spend the summer at this location managing a number of beach cottages. But that’s hardly the story.
Jack is cast as the accommodating but often challenging husband, Bebe as the “good” wife, who is in search of – well – something. And that something comes in the form of Mickey McCane, a former military pal of Jack’s – a troubled man. Of course, Bebe goes for the “bad boy” but in an extremely conflicted way, this conflict only playing to conclusion on the novel’s last few pages. But the thing that makes this novel of a character triad imminently interesting is how the author pulls the reader into her story.
Betts spends a lot of time setting the stage and prepping her characters (an irony for someone renowned more for short stories than novels). And as the best authors will do, she gives us the gist of her story fairly early on. Here I’ll quote (without going into backstory details):

“Jack?” She looked at the dog, scratching his back. “Jack, you must have thought about things like this more than most people ever need to. Why do you think they happen?” With perfect trust, then, she turned to him as if he would give her the final answer.
“There’s a chain of events, but not a why,” he said. That’s what he had learned in the eight years he went surreptitiously to State Technical College. That all life, from butterfly to comet, was interlocked and had happened the way dice could turn up showing twelve black dots. He said, “Where did you put the aspirin?”

Betts is as good a gauge of human makeup as any fine writer, and here she conveys in a powerful way that no one of us is an island (okay, a cliché – mine, not hers), but a product of family, and of the world and time we live in. Clearly, this perspective comes fraught with storytelling possibilities. Which brings me to technique.
Betts never wastes words. Every sentence, every word within, is calculated for effect, in the most succinct way possible. Too, she uses a technique of portraying her three characters separately in discrete chapters, but this too is deceptively simple, something only a gifted writer can pull off. Many of these chapters, purported to be “about” Bebe, Jack, or Mickey, are really about all three – as well as a double handful of other characters, complemented with the time warp of backstory. Too, there are breathtaking narrative passages that set her triad concretely into North Carolina's coastal ambience. But the troubled times of 1968 are never allowed to become distant from her characters' personal lives. These implications are beautifully orchestrated in – as Ms. Betts put to us that summer – textures, layers of sensory and emotional impressions that can’t help but remain with the reader once the novel’s specifics fade.
This is what the best novels do today. And Doris Betts has gained all too little credit for her mastery on the craft that's on display for us in The River To Pickle Beach.

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