Daily Book Excerpt: Poetry
The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, Volume 2: Contemporary Poetry, edited by Jahan Ramazani, Richard Ellmann, and Robert O’Clair
I’ve moved on from the “Modern” volume, and am now in the “Contemporary” volume. The two volumes are organized by birth-date of poet.
James Dickey is probably most known for his novel Deliverance – and even there, it was really the film of said book that made him a household name. Dickey wrote the screenplay for the 1972 film as well, and was nominated for a Golden Globe as well as a Writer’s Guild Award. He even played a small part in the film. It made him very very famous. Everyone who pays attention to American culture knows who James Dickey is. Deliverance is a story that has seeped into the American consciousness. Or maybe it’s just the images from the film that are in our consciousness.
Who knows. Dickey tapped into a certain brand of horror in such a way that it left an indelible mark. The horror of men being rendered helpless. I should say: certain KINDS of men. The kind of guy that, on the face of it, nobody would mess with. You look at Burt Reynolds, you’re not gonna mess with him. Burt Reynolds does not walk through the world with an ingrained sense of what it means to be victimized. He just doesn’t. So to see him and his friends put into such a position …
You still see people shiver when they even reference the TITLE of that movie.
But Dickey was primarily a poet. I know that’s well-known to poetry fans, but not sure if those Deliverance buffs out there are aware of that. Born in a suburb of Atlanta, he went to college a bit, but when WWII broke out, he enlisted in the army air corps. Dickey told some tall tales about the combat he saw in WWII, most of it apparently untrue, or at least WIDELY exaggerated – and when he came back to America he enrolled at Vanderbilt University, which was a hot-bed of southern-poetry, in terms of the faculty it drew, and the program itself. This was Dickey’s full immersion into the vibrant southern poetry scene. He got his Masters from Vanderbilt, and then taught poetry at various universities throughout the south, Florida, South Carolina, and others. He trained radio operators during the Korean War. He wrote Deliverance in 1970. It was his first novel.
Dickey said in 1970:
As Longinus points out, there’s a razor’s edge between sublimity and absurdity. And that’s the edge I try to walk. Sometimes both sides are ludicrous! … But I don’t think you can get to sublimity without courting the ridiculous.
I find James Dickey’s poems to be immediate, and almost urgent. Yet there isn’t a word in them that feels slapdash. They are obviously well-thought-out, well-constructed, yet behind them is a feeling of life, and breath, and truth. He’s not afraid to look at something without blinking, and dig deep into it, to get to the heart of whatever experience it is. The poem I’m linking to today is something that I know, in my bones, having experienced a moment identical to the one described – identical – but the experience is still so fresh and raw that I can barely think about it without falling apart. I’m tearing up as I type this. I am not placing a value judgment on emotion. Dickey may have written what he wrote years after the fact, when the dust was able to settle – this is often the case with writers (as I know, also from first-hand experience). Perhaps it is just too soon for me to write about such a moment.
But here Dickey does it.
In writing so truthfully about a moment in his own life, he gives voice to MY experience. And I read it with a dawning realization that … I am not alone, that someone knows how I felt, exactly, it seems such a strange moment to put into words, hard to pin down, yet Dickey does it – my thought process is basically: “wow – look how PERFECTLY he describes such a moment …”
A lot of his poems have that, actually.
If all you know of Dickey is Deliverance, then all I can say is, do yourself a favor and check out some of his poems. His is an important regional voice, certainly, and Southerners have much to be proud of in their poetic and literary tradition, but I count him as an important American voice, period.
The Hospital Window
I have just come down from my father.
Higher and higher he lies
Above me in a blue light
Shed by a tinted window.
I drop through six white floors
And then step out onto pavement.
Still feeling my father ascend,
I start to cross the firm street,
My shoulder blades shining with all
The glass the huge building can raise.
Now I must turn round and face it,
And know his one pane from the others.
Each window possesses the sun
As though it burned there on a wick.
I wave, like a man catching fire.
All the deep-dyed windowpanes flash,
And, behind them, all the white rooms
They turn to the color of Heaven.
Ceremoniously, gravely, and weakly,
Dozens of pale hands are waving
Back, from inside their flames.
Yet one pure pane among these
Is the bright, erased blankness of nothing.
I know that my father is there,
In the shape of his death still living.
The traffic increases around me
Like a madness called down on my head.
The horns blast at me like shotguns,
And drivers lean out, driven crazyâ
But now my propped-up father
Lifts his arm out of stillness at last.
The light from the window strikes me
And I turn as blue as a soul,
As the moment when I was born.
I am not afraid for my fatherâ
Look! He is grinning; he is not
Afraid for my life, either,
As the wild engines stand at my knees
Shredding their gears and roaring,
And I hold each car in its place
For miles, inciting its horn
To blow down the walls of the world
That the dying may float without fear
In the bold blue gaze of my father.
Slowly I move to the sidewalk
With my pin-tingling hand half dead
At the end of my bloodless arm.
I carry it off in amazement,
High, still higher, still waving,
My recognized face fully mortal,
Yet not; not at all, in the pale,
Drained, otherworldly, stricken,
Created hue of stained glass.
I have just come down from my father.