from The Complete Poems of James Dickey, ed. Ward Briggs
The issues involved in determining an accurate text for each of James Dickey's poems may be found in a brief review of the various modes in which Dickey's career unfolded. A few biographical divagations, with remarks on his various experiments with forms, will illuminate the central textual difficulties. I attempt no assessment of his career, merely a discussion of the features of his career that influenced my editing.
Dickey said that he was, in Wordsworth's phrase, a poet of "the second birth," not one who, like Rimbaud or Dylan Thomas, had a natural instrument for poetry. The way a "made" poet such as Dickey catches up to a "born" poet is, "if at all, by years of the hardest kind of work, much luck, much self-doubt, many false starts, and the difficult and ultimately moral habit of trying each poem, each line, each word, against the shifting but finally constant standards of inner necessity." It could be said that Dickey brought a kind of athleticism to his work, with an athlete's dedication to a perfected performance that he recognized in the story of football player Jim Marshall: determination is more important than physical gifts. Dickey's preferred analogy for his process of composition was the mining of "low-grade ore." "I work like a gold-miner refining low-grade ore: a lot of muck and dirt with a very little gold in it. Backbreaking labor! Infinite! But when this kind of worker gets what he's after, he has the consolation of knowing that the substance he winds up with is as much real gold as it would be if he had just gone around picking up nuggets off the ground." Poets of the second birth often bloom late, and so it was with Dickey.
"Sports and girls: that was it for me, until the war. Sports, girls and motorcycles." Dickey's letters and biography make clear that an unstudious, unartistic, reserved, and girls-and-sports-obsessed southern boy "with no more talent for poetry than Joe Louis" was transformed into a poet by World War II. Dickey enlisted in 1942 but saw combat only from January 1945 to the end of the war, flying as a radar observer in thirty-eight combat missions over the Philippines (for which he received five Bronze Service Stars), Borneo, Japan, and China with the 418th Night Fighter Squadron. Poetry came alive to him as he read Ernest Dowson in his radar navigator's seat during long and frightening night flights or Yeats on his camp cot after witnessing the crashed Liberators and corpses brought in from nearby battles. Poetry took him out of battle and away from the strange tropical jungle, where he found himself a world away from his home in the comfortable Atlanta suburb of Buckhead, and it took him away from the monotony of military life and the horror of combat death. What Dickey did in the air and what he saw on the ground endowed him with the guilt of both the survivor ("The Performance" ) and the destroyer ("The Firebombing" ). Thus war gave him a set of experiences he drew on in poetry and novels for the rest of his life. "I have come, pretty much, to look at existence from the standpoint of a survivor: as someone who is alive only by the inexplicable miracle of chance."
Dickey took an especial interest in minor poets who did not survive, including Edward Thomas ("To Be Edward Thomas" ), killed in World War I two years after discovering his poetic gifts; Hendrik Marsman ("The Zodiac" ) and Alun Lewis ("The Strength of Fields" ), both killed during World War II; Robert Bhain Campbell ("For Robert Bhain Campbell"[1960s]) and Trumbull Stickney ("Exchanges" ), both dead at an age before Dickey's career even got started. Dickey devoted limited parts of his career to ruminations on his dead brother Eugene, the illness of his mother, his gamecock-keeping father, the care and protection of his children, his extramarital loves, the imagined childhood of his second wife, and the growth and potential of his daughter; but the war and his survival of it were the overarching preoccupations of his career. Harold Bloom correctly noted that when Dickey said the fragmentary parts of "Drinking from a Helmet" (1963) are set between the battlefield and the graveyard, he gave "no inaccurate motto for the entire cosmos of what will prove to be the Whole Motion, when we have it all."
The war over, Dickey's generation "had our lives; then came the problem of living them." "I was never really young, because my generation went into the war. I found my true youth in middle age, and it is better than the actual youth that I had." Dickey's juvenilia was thus written in his mid-twenties when he was a veteran, a husband, and a father, and his apprentice work began when he was well into his thirties, rather late for any poet, much less a lyric poet. His early influences were George Barker, Kenneth Patchen, Dylan Thomas, Hart Crane, and particularly Theodore Roethke. Dickey's undergraduate efforts (often in the Vanderbilt magazine the Gadfly) played with traditional forms and recherché vocabulary ("inchmeal," "cordonnet," and "sigh flown" in "The Shark at the Window"; "discharted" in "Sea Island"; "therianthropic" in "King Crab and Rattler"). "He was working at his own poetry in those days regularly trying different line-lengths, rhythms, casting widely for imagery." Dickey's early work is also heavily informed by his college studies in anthropology, particularly, in the words of one of his teachers, Monroe Spears, "rituals of initiation, rites of passages, myths of the hero, confrontation with fear and violent death," all helpful, Dickey wrote later, in "mythologizing my own experience." Under the influence of Ezra Pound, with whom he carried on a correspondence until 1957, Dickey tried to develop mental images into poetry but fit the image into appropriate language, "the wording or voicing of the perception." Later in life he described this period: "My problem was that I felt my imagination could ... override anything. And that I could take any subject and make something good. I can't. And so before I would give in I wasted years trying to salvage, by sheer invention, subjects that weren't salvageable, that never could have worked, never. Nobody could make 'em work, least of all me. But when I did give in, when I admitted that, I began to write much better because it enabled me to pick, to pick what would work or that at least had some sort of chance to work."
"Although I didn't care for rhyme and the 'packaged' quality which it gives even the best poems, I did care very much for meter, or at least rhythm." The poems of the late 1950s are defined largely by sound and rhythm, imposed by Dickey's "thump-loving American ear," which led him to a kind of incantatory anapestic verse, a signature of his early work, beginning with his first collection, Into the Stone (1960). "Most of the poems of Into the Stone are in variations of a dactylic or anapestic rhythm—depending on where you start the count—whether you think of it as a rising or a falling rhythm." "I moved over from that into more of a three-beat organization which was less heavily rhythmical." His editor John Hall Wheelock called Dickey's rhythm "rising trimeters" while Dickey called it ''A night-rhythm ... felt in pulse not word." He found the heavy accent "rhythmically compelling, almost coercive .... Suppose you were able to get some valuable poetic insight into the meter; you would have this compellingness, this hypnotic effect which lots of poetry does not have." The lines in these poems are generally end-stopped, and the narrative persona is almost invisible.
Near the end of his life, Dickey described his process of composition, with specific reference to a poem of this period, ''A Dog Sleeping on My Feet" (1962):
''A Dog Sleeping on My Feet" was written more or less as I write most things I do, including novels and screenplays.... It begins with an image, something I see in my mind's eye.... It could be a photograph. It could be something real that happened. I would emphasize that the poet works with whatever comes to him. If you ask him if he works from experience, a real poet would have to say that you must define experience, because experience is anything and everything that has ever impinged on your imagination. It can come from things that have actually happened to you, or things that someone has told you about: stories, anecdotes, jokes. It could be something you just made up or something you saw in a movie; or a painting or a photograph could have suggested it to you .... But the main thing the poet must remember is, never to be bound by facts because he's not trying to tell the truth. He's trying to make it.
The characteristics of the "Wesleyan" phase of his career, beginning with the period 1959-64 ("The Early Motion"), were an interest in poetic form and tribal ritual that led Dickey to seek the truths of the world by means of communion with the darker mysteries of nature. He expanded his use of classical rhetorical devices, which would be a mainstay throughout his career: chiasmus ("Dover" , line 10); zeugma ("Kudzu" , lines 80-81); oxymoron ("Mercy" , lines 72-73, 94-95, and "False Youth: Autumn: Clothes of the Age" , line 4); tricolon ("Drinking from a Helmet" , line 168); anaphora ("Uncle" , line 56, and "Fog Envelops the Animals" , line 35); and asyndeton ("Drinking from a Helmet," line 168). In this period he wrote his only poem in rhymed couplets ("The Island" ). In the same year he invented a slant-rhyme couplet for "Sleeping Out at Easter" and a constantly changing rhyme scheme for "The Prodigal." He also began to play with the appearance of the lines on the page with "Wall and Cloud" (1962). In 1963 he began to use quotations from other poets as the last lines of poems (Walt Whitman in "Drinking from a Helmet").
The "night-rhythm" continued to be the grounding point in Drowning with Others (1962): "First I heard, then I wrote, and then I began to reason; when I reasoned, I wrote more of the same." "I edged toward the end of sound over sense, toward the foreordained hammering of ultra-rhythmical English, and tried to make the concepts, images, and themes of my life conform to what the night-rhythm had caused to come through me." Dickey began, like Thomas Hardy, to create his own forms, such as the semicouplet in "The Underground Stream" (1960) or the refrains gathered in the final stanzas of "On a Hill below the Lighthouse" (1959) and "Sleeping Out at Easter" (1960 ). "In some of the early poetry that I wrote I would start out with the most difficult problem I could think of: to invent a rotating refrain, for example. But I saw, before I did more than one book's worth, that each of the pieces that I tried to write this way was getting to be more of a game than a poem, so I shied away from doing things that way."
He continued to experiment with the long, multipart poem as he had with "Dover: Believing in Kings" (1958), moving into the woods for "The Owl King" (1961-62). That poem also exemplifies his use of different narrative perspectives, particularly the viewpoint of the animal, a feature of such poems as "The Sheep Child" (1966).
For Helmets (1964) Dickey continued to write long poems such as "Approaching Prayer" (1964) and "Drinking from a Helmet" but with more lightly stressed rhythms: "In Helmets, though I still relied on the night-rhythm, the sound-before-meaning, I also wanted to give more play to narrative movement, the story-value of what was being said, and consequently I toned down the heavy bombardment of stress and relied more on matter-of-fact statement and declaration." Toward the end of Helmets, Dickey was clearly breaking away from the regular stanzaic structures and end-stopped lines of his earlier work, a process embodied in the movement of "Approaching Prayer" and previously seen in "The Being" and "Breath" (both 1963).
If any phrase defines the shifts and slides of Dickey's verse making it might come from "Turning Away" (1966): "Change; form again." According to Dickey, "The trouble with most American writers is that they are afraid to make a mistake—they get a little inch that they can peddle pretty effectively and they just cultivate that inch forever. I will throw away something that has been successful for me. I will throw away the anapestic rhythm, I will throw away the margin-to-margin organization, I will eventually throw away the balanced poem and go on to some other thing that I think would be interesting to try."
He appreciated Dylan Thomas and thought Thomas had an original voice, but only one, and the unfortunate result was a brilliant and original monotony. Thus, even after Dickey had found a successful medium for his voice, whether it was a rhythm, a form, or the arrangement of words on the page, he continually tried, in his friend Ezra Pound's words, to "make it new." "My primary consideration is to change. I dare not use the word grow; there may or may not be growth involved, but to change."
By 1964 Dickey was ''A middle-aged, softening man / Grinning and shaking his head / In amazement to last him forever." Part of his amazement stemmed from the limitless formal possibilities of poetry. With Buckdancer's Choice (1965) he began the experiments that he later decided "to go all the way with." He set aside the thumping anapestic trimeter and lengthened some of his lines to five and six beats ("Sled Burial, Dream Ceremony" ) in which, recalling the classical odes of Catullus and Horace (whom Dickey read in translation), the effect is created not by stress accent but by the juxtaposition of a five-beat line with a three-beat line. He began to experiment with free verse in long lines, in the manner of Whitman, Robinson Jeffers, and Roethke. "For 'Reincarnation (I),' I simply wrote as far across the page as the typewriter would go, and that was essentially the line." The title Buckdancer's Choice, drawn from an old folk song, indicates his movement to softer rhythms and linear narrative. The poems were largely written at Reed College (January 1963-May 1964), when Dickey and much of the rest of the country were caught up in the folk-music revival. If an athletic vigor marks the thumping rhythms of his earlier works, now the lighter touch of a finger-picked (not strummed) guitar can be heard (a technique he had just learned from Al Braselton) to accompany the narrative of a folk song, giving a lighter stress on accent and an increased concern with "the story-value" of the poem. His career, scarcely a decade in progress, was crowned with the 1966 National Book Award for Buckdancer's Choice.
Dickey was shaping the general poetic profile that he described at the end of the decade: "I have three modes of poetry that I am working in now. One is the narrative-dramatic mode that most of my work heretofore has been in. Second is the so-called 'new metric.' The third, the one that I have done least writing in and least experimentation in is what I call 'country surrealism.' ... The point is, though, to write different things in different modes, and to bring them together, at times, very cautiously."
Since Dickey was trying other experiments in the second part of his Wesleyan University Press career (1965-67), a background note is in order. In 1961 Dickey had disparaging words for The Maximus Poems (1960) of Charles Olson (1910-1970), whose book on Herman Melville, Call Me Ishmael (1947), was popular about the time Dickey was writing his M.A. thesis on Melville's poetry at Vanderbilt in 1950. Olson, the rector of Black Mountain College, had his own salon of younger poets: Robert Creeley (1926-2005), Robert Duncan (1919-1988), and Denise Levertov (1923-1997), an editor of Buckdancer's Choice (1965). Olson's essay "Projective Verse" declared that the poet, freed from metrical constraints, "can declare, at every moment, the line its metric and its ending—where its breathing, shall come to, termination." In addition, said Olson, the typewriter was the poet's ally—as E. E. Cummings, Pound, and William Carlos Williams had demonstrated—because "due to its rigidity and its space precisions," it can "indicate exactly the breath, the pauses, the suspensions even of syllables, the juxtapositions even of parts of phrases, which he intends." Dickey noted that what Olson called "projective verse" actually derived from the French critic René Nelli (1906-1982), author of Poésie ouverte, poésie fermée (1947), and thus Dickey called Olson's technique "nothing very new": "What Olson's notion of 'open' verse does is simply to provide creative irresponsibility with the semblance of a rationale which may be defended in heated and cloudy terms by its supposed practitioners." Nevertheless Dickey, in his restless search for new forms of expression, adapted Olson's approach to midline pauses, free metrics, and typewriter-aided poetic architecture.
In 1964 Dickey published "Mary Sheffield," the first of his poems to employ what he called "burst writing," "the grouping of words with space between them and no punctuation," which grew out of his trimeter line. This technique could be used onomatopoetically, as in "May Day Sermon" (1967), where line 249—"he stands up stomps catches roars"—effectively imitates the starting of a motorcycle. But Dickey had another use for the technique: "I wanted to keep that memorability factor that the three-beat line has, to keep that compression where you would remember which words went with which to create an effect, but you would also be writing in a way that approximates the way in which the mind associates." The words on the page may have come from his knowledge of musical phrasing or his experience reading his poems dramatically, but it was clear that he intended the spaces in the poem, where there were no words, to be part of the poetry too. The words on the page certainly resembled Olson's "breath units," as the number of words spoken naturally in a single breath, but Dickey wished to imitate not the limits of the lungs but the processes of the brain in what became known as his "split line technique": "I evolved the split line to try to do what I could to reproduce as nearly as I could the real way of the mind as it associates verbally. The mind doesn't seem to work in a straight line, but associates in bursts of words, in jumps. I used this technique for 'Falling' in a more pronounced form and wrote such poems as 'Slave Quarters' and 'The Firebombing' in a more modified form." Elsewhere he explained, "What I intended, though, was to try to conceive a use of the poetic line which would be like a small line within a large line, to set the lines apart not by printing them one above the other, or one below the other, but by putting them parallel and leaving white spaces between them. Because this seemed to me more nearly to approximate the way the human mind really does work and associate. It goes in jumps instead of a regular linear progression."
In the same year as "Mary Sheffield," he published "Reincarnation (I)" (1964), his first poem to employ a visually expressive technique he called "a shimmering wall of words" or "block format," which he developed as a showcase for his "split-line technique": "I wanted to present the reader with solid and all but impenetrable walls—a wall of language where you have these interstices of blank spaces at irregular places. It's a wall you can't get over, but you have to descend, climb down, in a way." Dickey declared this experiment the counterpart of Color Fields, a series of paintings by artist Mark Rothko (1903-1970), which dates from this period, as does the "wall of sound" created by record producer Phil Spector (1940- ).
Though he had begun his experiments by cutting and rearranging words on cardboard, Dickey came to appreciate Olson's use of the typewriter as a structural tool: "I began to build the walls directly on the page from the typewriter, and spent more and more time erecting them and pushing against them, and trying to peer through them at the place that let the light through." The interstices in the split lines were where the light came through. Three 1965 poems—"The Fiend," "The Shark's Parlor," and "Coming Back to America"—all use this technique, but it is most effective in "Falling" (1967), where the mass of long lines gives the effect of slowing down the stewardess's descent. The last poem in this form was "The Eye-Beaters" (1968).
For Dickey the 1960s were the high-water mark of critical success and limitless possibility: "There doesn't seem to be any end to what I can think up these days; some of it is crazy, some of it is rather classical in form, some of it is like nothing ever heard or seen by God or man before." His greatest triumph was Poems 1957-1967, which contains more than half the poems of Into the Stone, two-thirds of Drowning with Others, nearly all of Helmets, and all of Buckdancer's Choice, plus some extraordinary previously uncollected poems, including "For the Last Wolverine" and "The Sheep Child" (both 1966) and "Falling" and "May Day Sermon" (both 1967). Richard Howard called the three hundred pages of poetry, "a decade's work, a lifetime's achievement." Dickey was the subject of a big spread in Life Magazine, and Peter Davison in the Atlantic Monthly crowned Robert Lowell and Dickey the only major poets of their generation. Following two terms as poetry consultant for the Library of Congress (today the poet laureate) in 1966-68, Dickey was employed at a generous salary (relative to poets) for the rest of his life by the University of South Carolina.
Dickey had fashioned himself into a neoromantic, which despite all his talent and originality, put him out of step with such contemporaries as Robert Lowell, James Merrill, and Allen Ginsberg. Dickey expressly distinguished himself from what he called Lowell's "confessional" poetry, "the solipsistic world of a single person." What Dickey attempted was something "essentially impersonal. It may have personal references in it, but the effect of the Lowell-type poetry is to close down the arena of the poem to one person's experience, that of the poet.... I wanted something different, larger, more inclusive." The outsized split lines, the edifice of words on the page broken by dramatic gaps, were all tools to free himself from the "claustrophobia" of "locked-in verse": "I want, mainly, the kind of poetry that opens out, instead of closes down."
Thus, despite his great success, he relentlessly tried to "make it new." The title of his next collection, The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy (1970), illustrates that he was even less constrained by conventional forms, lengths, or diction. In "Blood" and "Pine" (both 1969) he composed more free verse, and he created even a kind of rhythmical prose in another 1969 poem, "The Cancer Match." He honed his technique of "associational imagery," as at the beginning of Pine": "Low-cloudly it whistles" and "so landscape is eyelessly / Sighing." Dickey left behind "thumping" anapests, vatic autobiographical moments, and traditional forms (including the repeated use of refrains) and tried once again to "make it new."
By 1968 Dickey was famous enough that Doubleday offered him a large bonus to sign with them. From the perspective of format, the poems in The Eye-Beaters differ more from their magazine appearances than those in any of his previous books. Dickey began to experiment with the appearance of text on the page with spacings that can be almost like dramatic directions, telling the reader how to read the poem aloud ("May Day Sermon"), or they can indicate action, such as the flight of butterrflies ("Messages" ). His new editors eventually agreed to an unusual oblong format for his volumes The Zodiac (1976) and Strength of Fields (1979). Such features as the integral black page in the first part of "Apollo" (1969) were further proof of the visual importance of the page for the substance of Dickey's poems. Yet, when the poems appeared in The Eye-Beaters, many of the spaces that had so distinguished the magazine forms of the poems were missing. It is not clear why magazines added these spaces, but Dickey's intentions are clear from the typescripts he sent to his publishers and from the final versions in his collections.
The year 1970 was truly an annus mirabilis for Dickey. In addition to a volume of verse, The Eye-Beaters, he published an account of his life and work, Self-Interviews, and the classic novel Deliverance. In 1971 came his journals and some essays, Sorties. These two years appear in retrospect as the watershed of his career.
Dickey became enraptured with the success of Deliverance both as novel and as movie (for which he wrote the screenplay and in which he memorably appeared onscreen). Later in life he said, "I think sometimes that Deliverance was a mistake for me ever to have written." To the envy of many he became too public a poet, too ready to sell his services to Life to memorialize officially the Apollo missions to the moon, or to write Jimmy Carter's inaugural poem ("The Strength of Fields"), or celebrate the 1983 inauguration of Richard W. Riley as governor of South Carolina ("For a Time and Place"). Dickey was the talk-show guest of Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, Mike Douglas, Tom Snyder, and William F. Buckley, hawking his books and telling cornball stories. Self-Interviews and Sorties seemed to go out of their way to insult the contemporary poetic establishment (Robert Penn Warren had found Dickey as a critic "one of the roughest around") , on top of which Dickey still suffered from the false charge, courtesy of Robert Bly, that he was a violence-prone pro-Vietnam racist pervert.
The resentment of his colleagues did not bother Dickey, who, after the success of his novel—rather like Warren after the success of All the King's Men—laid his poetry aside awhile. He devoted himself to writing screenplays (The Call of the Wild ) and commercially successful coffee-table books (Jericho  and God's Images ), reinforcing the negative opinion of his wounded contemporaries.
The glitter of Hollywood was replaced by the glow of Washington when Dickey's fellow Georgian Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976. Dickey was once again on stage as part larger-than-life poet, part outsized personality.
In 1975 he had turned to a translation of a Dutch poem by Hendrik Marsman, another casualty of the war, a translation that appeared in the Sewanee Review in 1947 while Dickey was in college (see "The Zodiac"). Dickey's version is his own. Apart from its other characteristics, it employs the familiar play with format and the dramatic use of space on the page that characterized much of Dickey's recent work. So integral was the wide format that Doubleday changed the shape of the book from the 6" x 9" of The Eye-Beaters to 8.25" wide by 5.75" long to accommodate the long lines. The "wall of words" was no more, eliminating the need for a long page to "climb down."
Doubleday used the same format for The Strength of Fields (1979), in which "Some of the poems ... employ a principle which I roughly refer to as 'balance: ... I try to 'true' things up, and give the poem a feel of hanging there, suspended: only precariously there." The vast majority of the poems of the Doubleday phase of his career are centered on the page.
To the three modes of poetry Dickey described in Sorties (1971), he now added a fourth: "translation work and misreadings, from, say the German." Dickey's only proficiency in a language other than English was in French, and his knowledge and love of modern French poetry were substantial. He had been fascinated by French poets and had been translating them since he was asked to provide some translations for Robert Bly in the early 1960s. With Head Deep in Strange Sounds (1979) he finally collected his translations of his admired Lucien Becker, André Frénaud, and others, as well as translations of poets from Finland, Hungary, China, and elsewhere, many of whom he translated from French versions in books he had purchased in Paris in 1952. Dickey greatly admired the work of French poets such as André du Bouchet (see "Form"), Yves Bonnefoy, and other poets of the movement that became poésie blanche (white poetry) associated with the journal L'Ephémère, published between 1966 and 1973. White poetry, especially in the hands of du Bouchet, consisted of a few words or lines set unusually on the page with the intention of exploding the black letters off the stark white page into the mind of the reader. Dickey did not go as far as du Bouchet, but he clearly admired this new form and was influenced by it in his own experiments ("Messenger" ).
His major period of celebrity over, Dickey settled into home life with his second wife, Deborah. "I got to thinking about the subject of young girls because I had married one, in my own late middle age. The marriage brought in a whole new set of possibilities to write about." He claimed that he was "experience-oriented, rather than word-oriented. Or rather, I have been up until now. I'm sort of interested in trying the other way to see what there might be in that .... [Puella] has at least partly that approach to it." He republished only eight of the twenty poems from Puella (1982) in The "Whole Motion. He had frequently narrated in the guise of another character, such as the Indian in "Remnant Water," the sheep child, a Dutch sailor in "The Zodiac," and women, particularly the stewardess in "Falling" and the female preacher in "May Day Sermon." By now "I had been writing poetry of the versified anecdote, as I called it. I thought I had not given enough primacy to the language itself in the sense that Hart Crane would have, or in some ways that Wallace Stevens would have. So I thought I would move over to the other side of things and try to write some poems that concentrated on language more than situations."
Deborah Dickey was Catholic, and the flavor of the priest Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) runs from the epigraph to the unusual compound words, the fragmentary images, and the strange syntax:
poetry is not exciting to me to write if I take a subject in which I know I can use the same perspective and same kind of approach I have in others which have been accepted, printed, paid for and so on by the New Yorker or some such publication. That becomes a trick, hardly more than a tic, a conditioned reflex, a knee jerk. When the exploratory sense dies out of it, the sense of adventure, the excitement, it is just a routine and that's the last thing it should be. It was not going to become that to me. I don't know whether Puella is a great book of poems—whether it is successful—the main thing to me is that it is different, and a lot of possibilities opened up for me as a result of writing it that would not otherwise have been there. You have got to be prepared to fail or to take a chance, to gamble.
Dickey returned to dactyls and anapests for some of the Puella poems, but unfortunately for him Doubleday returned to the traditional 6" x 9" format for this book, and the results did not always please him. For example, in "The Surround" (1980) line 8 was printed as a full line in its original appearance of the poem in the Atlantic Monthly earlier in the year, but it is broken at the end of Puella because of the book's format. Dickey complained of another setting: "In 'Ray-Flowers' it is not only desirable but necessary that the units presented in opposition to each other 'true-up' on the page as they do in the manuscript I sent. Some of the effect of balance I intended is undone by displaying the poem as it appears in the Doubleday version. There should not have been any difficulty in typography here, for there was none when the poem was printed as desired in the Kenyon Review, nor was there any trouble in the gift edition that our friend out in Arizona, Janet McHughes, had done for the occasion last May."
Dickey began to rely almost exclusively on the visual effect of the words on the page, sometimes in the ancient Greek style of the technopaegnion. He had centered poems on the page as early as "The Courtship" and "Breath" (both 1963) and continued with "The Moon Ground" (1969). In The Eagle's Mile (1990) he manipulated words to create visual effects—as he had with "Messages" (1969 )—and returned to the practice of centering poems on the page. To serve the purpose once met by rhythm or "word-bursts," he added stress marks to the words he intended the reader to emphasize. Centering his split lines as if they were one line proved a continual challenge for typesetters, and Dickey was especially grateful to editors who got it right. After Puella he focused again on translating, largely his French poets and the Spaniard Vicente Aleixandre. Nearly half of the poems after Puella were "collaborations" with these poets. His final poems show a renewed commitment to formal expression as he dealt with the death of his brother Tom and (finally) his first wife, Maxine, who had died in 1976.
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About the Author
Ward Briggs is Carolina Distinguished Professor of Classics Emeritus and Louis Fry Scudder Professor of Humanities Emeritus at the University of South Carolina. He has published widely on the history of American classical scholarship, the career of the classicist Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve, and the classical tradition. Briggs was a friend of James Dickey for more than thirty years.
The Complete Poems of James Dickey
The University of South Carolina Press