Afternoon of the Poet
James Dickey writes the mighty line.
Goodlife Magazine  |  March 1985
The makeshift target lay drying on a bank of damp, unturned pine straw. “How far back you wanna get?” asked James Dickey, a bow dangling in one hand.

“Far as we can.”

“All right,” he said, and slowly he made his way down the trailing slope of the bank until the target, a pine cone, began to fade.

Mr. Dickey’s denim shirt, tight around his paunch, crimped at his shoulders as he turned in the breeze and said, “Go ahead.” My arrow arched high and lobbed into the moist earth. “That ain’t no disgrace,” he said. “Let me see what I can do.” He stood sideways, braced on his down­hill leg. The bow came up with his left hand, its handle unrestrained in the pad of his otherwise vise-like grip. He drew the bowstring with the first three fingers of his right hand, anchoring the string against his jaw. His fingers began to relax, straighten.

He placed one arrow left, one right. “I’ve got him cornered,” he said.

The third arrow seemed to rise and dip and, penetrating with a “chuck,” split the outstretched wings of the pine cone. Work­ing the arrow out of the bank, he said, “Thing about it, could you be that serene in the face of a charging grizzly?” The tight­ness in the man’s brow and jaw, remnants of the aim, melted with a smile. Laughter rocked the poet’s six-foot-five frame. “I’m getting too old for this,” he said without conviction.

James Dickey would be sixty-two years old on Groundhog Day, and he is more than a little surprised to find himself still around, being a son of the Depression, a combat veteran of two wars and a risk-taker in life and letters. But he maintains his voracious appetite for life, still finding new ways to express himself, to enjoy and to devour what time will give him.

“When you’re my age, you do have a sense of time’s running out because the bib­lical three-score-and-ten, seventy, is a rea­sonable estimate for anyone’s lifespan. If that’s the case, I have eight years left. I have no desire to become a real old person, devel­oping physical infirmities and having to be looked after by someone. That’s not my way.”

Time: Mr. Dickey is extremely conscious of how he spends it. There is much left to do, much to view with a poet’s vision that is almost childlike. It’s a situation that often lends itself to a sense of pressure. “That’s a current I’ve been swimming in for a long time,” he said. “One learns to adapt, to cope, if he survives at all.” Standing there with the bow twisting languidly in one hand, privately rejoicing in a well-aimed shot, it was evident that James Dickey is accounting for all his moments, in one way or another, and that he is more than simply a survivor. He is a celebrator of life.

He nocked the arrow once again, this time in his backyard for the purpose of pic­tures. His three-year-old daughter, a pony tailed blond named Bronwen, played nearby. She crouched in a child’s manner, knees under arms, and plucked purple flowers at the edge of a withering garden, juggling her harvest and a blanket, trying to lose neither. Between posing for pictures and dispensing fatherly advice to the dis­covering child, Mr. Dickey talked about how he came to a sport uninvolved with time and pressure, only space.

Having flown more than one hundred missions as a fighter-bomber pilot in World War II, he was recalled by the Air Force at the outbreak of the Korean conflict. “When I got back,” he said, “I used to get out in the woods as much as possible and hunt to relax. On one trip, my son and I had the inevitable accident trying to cross a fence. The gun went off. No one was hurt, but that put an end to my gun hunting forever. Not long after, I went to a local archery range with a friend and shot a few arrows. I said: ‘This is for me. You can hunt, no one gets hurt and it’s a real challeng­ing and beautiful sport that takes place way out in the country’.”

At the time, Mr. Dickey was playing the role of Jingle Jim, a successful ad man. Archery, along with canoeing, provided an out from the doldrums of agency work. He had played football at Clemson A&M and run track at Vanderbilt but he found archery to be a form of athletics he had never encountered. “In archery, it’s the self­-control and being able to develop a hyper­-stillness that counts. That was a great challenge for me, because all my instincts go the other way. I want to run fast, grab a basketball and shoot, jump a hurdle or block somebody. I still have problems over­coming that. Archery is wrong for my tem­perament. That’s why I like it so much,” he said.

The aim and subsequent flight of an arrow have a meditative influence. “The effect is due to the body’s being in an intense state of physical tension and concentration. Within that, you try to achieve a high degree of relaxation and depersonalization—to get out of yourself and let the body take over.”

Being a precision sport, archery is a disci­pline; it involves a countdown or a fluid pattern defined by distinct positions of the archer’s upper body and his weapon during the draw. “A tournament archer tries to groove himself into that pattern and reduce himself, or elevate himself, to the level of a machine. The best ones, like Darrell Pace, can do that. You have to be completely detached to be as good as he is,” said Mr. Dickey.

Darrell Pace, a double Olympic gold medalist (1976 and 1984), is the best tour­nament archer in the world. His string of accomplishments and records is unprece­dented. In preparation for the 1984 Olym­pic games, he practiced less but shot as well as he ever has. He did lots of mental train­ing, watched old films of himself and men­tally refined his form and thought process. He is often not even aware when he is shoot­ing well. He says, “It just flows.”

Though Mr. Dickey avoids emphasizing the mystical aspects of archery, the impar­tiality of aiming is conducive to a sub­conscious receptiveness. And perception, however skewed, is the heart of Mr. Dickey’s craft. The significance of his poetry has sometimes been waived by those who hold introspection in a higher hand than the vis­ceral, but it has never gone unnoticed, pri­marily because of his ability to hammer what he senses, physically and emotionally, into verse that often stretches the limits of the art. He said, “The examination of one’s mind is not so important as to take prece­dent over everything else in existence. There is a big world out there and lots of things more interesting than yourself”

His poems do search inward, of course, but it is their earthiness and their gritty style that brand them distinct. He is able to culti­vate an intimacy with everything in his con­tact, with the most common encounters—his skin against a briar, a guitar strummed close to his ear, arrows in flight. A hunter, woodsman and indefatigable adventurer, his writing is flush with lines adopted from his experiences in the field: mountains and wild streams, the morning air of an autumn hunt and the lunge of deer. The subject of archery, particularly in the context of hunt­ing, has often fueled his creative efforts.

“When bowhunting, you have to live within the animal’s world, using your mind and senses to determine where he is, where he’s moving to. It’s hard enough to hit a deer with an arrow, but even harder to get close enough just to take a shot; you’re in his living room. Therefore, the identification with the animal is so complete you want to eliminate all the differences you can.”

I hang my longbow on a branch,
The buck leaps away and stops,
And I step forward, stepping out
Of my shadow and pulling over
My head one dark heavy sweater
After another, my dungarees falling
Till they can be kicked away,
Boots, socks, all that is on me
Off. 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 bones 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 naked to break
The ice from the streams with their faces
And drink from the lifespring of beasts.
He is moving. I am with him . . .

The excerpt from “Springer Mountain,” though a “creation rather than a re-creation,” is exemplary of Mr. Dickey’s keen awareness of himself and his environment. “Everybody is capable of doing the same thing if they just let go a bit and try to lose some of their inhibitions,” he said. In his case, he then turns to poetry to sift and sort the elements of his kaleidoscopic perception.

Mr. Dickey, now Carolina Professor of English and writer-in-residence at the Uni­versity of South Carolina, had no early ambitions of becoming a writer. Had he not joined the Army Air Corps in 1942, before finishing one year of books and football at Clemson A&M, he probably would have become an engineer. Looking for a clean shot at a new life upon his return in 1946, he enrolled as a twenty-three-year-old fresh­man at Vanderbilt, which had produced Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks and the Fugitive movement. He turned to literature in his studies and con­tinued his athletic career on the track as a hurdler. “I was interested in literature, but not from the standpoint of becoming a writer,” he said. “I thought if I worked hard I could develop enough of a critical sen­sibility to become a reasonably good critic.” Several of his professors, having read his first papers, encouraged him to pursue the craft, especially poetry, extending him the courtesy of writing about whatever he wanted rather than following regular class assignments. He was shocked. “I had no idea I would be cast in the role of a writer, much less a poet.”

The emphasis he placed on “. . . much less a poet” reaffirmed his initial surprise. Poetry is the height of the art; he believed that then, he believes it now.

“It’s the ability to say more in a shorter compass, penetrate with more economy of means and say more memorable things using the total resources of language, the greatest invention of the human race that has made everything else possible,” he said. “Poetry is the total marshaling of all the expressive possibilities of language, all of them: the rhythmic part; the part that’s mnemonic, that is, it is memory-inducing from the standpoint of making sounds sim­ilar to each other; and the making of words that call up pictures to the mind. All those things are channeled into one intense, insightful delivery of someone’s experience or point of view.” He held an imaginary hypodermic needle in one hand and probed a vein. “It’s like an extremely heavy dosage of something. Concentrated.”

“His work, and particularly its creator, made more than gentle wakes in literary waters, earning him distinction as genius by some and designation as a southern row-raiser by others.”

Even if such aspirations had not been instilled in him at Vanderbilt, he feels he would have come eventually to writing, cit­ing evidence of that direction from as early as the days of his pre-war youth. “I was looking over an old letter to my father the other day. It was from the time I played football at Clemson. Though somewhat illiterate, it gave a rather good description of what it’s like to drop back in the pass pocket and have all those big guys coming after you. I thought, man, if I had a student turn that in, I’d say: ‘Do some more of that’,” he said, remembering. “ ‘Do some more of that’.”

He was graduated from Vanderbilt with honors, but it was not until the age of thirty-seven that he published his first book of poetry, Into the Stone—with its poems grouped into “Family,” “War,” “Death and Others” and “Love”—and claimed the nat­ural world as a major source of his energy. The latency meant only that he had more to say. The fact became evident as he moved through the sixties with a prodigious pro­duction of poetry, essays and criticisms. His work, and particularly its creator, made more than gentle wakes in literary waters, earning him distinction as genius by some and designation as a southern row-raiser by others, those who saw only the drinking and carousing. On both ends of the spec­trum, certain of the labels were earned. Some were the gold dust of hype, often self-inflicted. But James Dickey refuses to be, cannot be, cornered by mere labels.

He is too varied a man—the archer, canoeist, hunter, egoist, humanitarian, rowdy, viewer of death and champion of life. And he’s used that multifaceted back­ground to formulate possibilities for his poetry and fiction. “One has to have experi­ences,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean he should pursue them just for the sake of experience with a capital E. Just pay close attention to those that come to you in the natural course of existence.”

In the natural course of existence? Recall Ed Gentry, the narrator of Deliverance and Mr. Dickey’s fictional self. He ambushed his murderous antagonist with a bow and arrow, having lain in wait in the branches of a low tree. The bow was patterned after one from Mr. Dickey’s collection and the characters after real people, acquaintances in adventure with whom Mr. Dickey has spent many days shooting rapids and bowhunt­ing in the North Georgia mountains.

In an interview published in Judith Crist’s Take 22, Burt Reynolds, who played one of the lead characters in the film adaptation of Deliverance and is a friend of Mr. Dickey, said, “I don’t think the rape actually hap­pened. Probably that started to happen and nobody did anything about it. And they came back [home], and Dickey regretted it. Knowing Dickey as I do, I think one of the great thrills of his life would be to kill some­body in the act of saving someone’s life.”

The image is a contrast to the man splitting pine cones with his arrows, the man with a distaste for the potential violence of guns; it is a contradiction for a man who endured two wars.

But statements of that ilk, and others sim­ilarly bold from his own lips, have often submersed the more personal James Dickey in the publicized aura of a raucous, unabashed, opinionated, formerly heavy­drinking daredevil who, to quote from the last line of “Cherrylog Road,” has at times appeared “Wild to be wreckage forever.”

The controversy has never much bothered Mr. Dickey, who said on that day partly set aside for leisure, talk and the dismissal of time, that if he hasn’t felt misunderstood, he’s often been over-understood. “I have certain things I believe in, more or less as abstrac­tions. But as far as going out and proving them every day, I don’t have to. That’s not the point. I think if you have a certain confidence in yourself, you don’t have to prove anything to anybody. Someone’s reaction to what another person does, and especially writes, is all just shakedown, with the help of the great­est critic of all: Time.”

In that which he has left, James Dickey knows there is much to come. “I feel like at the age of sixty-one, I’ve finally reached the beginning. There’s lots of people left to know, things to do and words to write.” He has plans to publish a novel he’s worked on for many years. It is about blind men in airplanes. His latest work, a children’s book, is on its way to the bookstores. If the right property comes along, he wants to do another movie script. He wants to go up to Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina, and get checked out on hang gliders.

For the meantime, he had had enough of the pine cones and pictures and wanted to move on to something else. Inside his den were scattered the objects of his many inter­ests—musical instruments, literally thou­sands of books, a working model of the solar system. He dropped his weapon, the “strange and very beautiful weapon,” in an easy chair and picked up his Martin six-string. Having practiced music for more than forty years, he enjoys an audience and readily met a request for “Dueling Banjos,” which he composed for the soundtrack of Deliverance. He played the Beatles, he played blues, and then paused in thought and said, “Let’s see, what can we do now? You wanna go sailing?”

Behind Mr. Dickey’s house, Lake Katherine lapped at the exposed roots of bank vegetation. James Dickey sat on the plankwood dock, his feet dangling in the water, and untied a few knots while his one-man crew unfurled the sail of his single-­masted Sunfish. Arms behind him and palms down, he then lowered himself into the cool water and began to bail the cockpit; water sloshed about his midriff and soaked into the tail of his shirt. The craft rocked in small waves and rubbed algae from the side of the dock. Wind snapped the dead sail as the lake bottom gave itself up and moved around his ankles and between his toes. ✦