A formative experience in original form.
Gray’s Sporting Journal
It was the year of Russia’s boycott, Reagan’s reelection, and Orwell’s famous book. I was 23, working for a southern lifestyle magazine in Atlanta. My first major assignment was a profile of James Lafayette Dickey: 18th poet laureate of the United States and National Book Award winner; river runner and raconteur; hell-raiser and hunter. Most famously, he was the author of Deliverance, whose toxophilite imagery had long since been seared in the public imagination. One day, my editor called me into his office and said, “I want you to go bowhunting with James Dickey.”
Innocent to how literary genius worked (or profiles, for that matter), I called the famous poet and, to my astonishment, got him on the phone.
“I’ll do it for five thousand dollars,” he said.
“Uh, I don’t think we can do that, sir.”
“Well, I can’t just go hunting with you for nothin’.”
My editor instructed me to call “Jim” back and ask if I could simply come up and interview him about poetry and archery. The ensuing stalk lasted several weeks, eventually leading me to a pay phone in the parking lot of a Columbia, South Carolina, motel. It was Saturday afternoon, and Dickey answered his phone.
“You want to go to a football game?” he drawled. I agreed, got directions to his house, then reached to hang up the receiver.
“And, hey . . .”
“Bring me some beer.”
“Okay,” I said, and started to hang up again.
“Hey . . .”
“Make it tall boys . . . and don’t let my wife see it.”
I tried to hang up a third time.
“. . . and Hey!”
“Make it the Bull.”
Within the hour, we were polishing off a sixer of Schlitz in the parking lot of Williams-Brice Stadium, home of the Gamecocks. We fairly floated to Dickey’s seats on the 50-yard line, and even with a limp and 40 years of age on me, he was towering, intimidating. I don’t remember anything of the game except that Dickey spent much of it with binoculars perched on his nose, unapologetically ogling the cheerleaders.
He called the recurve a “strange and very beautiful weapon,” then pulled one off the rack for me.
Nor do I remember what we talked about that first night, only that he invited me to his home the next day. His low-slung ranch house stood on the shores of a small lake near University of South Carolina, where he was Writer in Residence and professor of English. Inside, every available wall space was lined floor to ceiling with books. In his study, a chorus of guitars stood propped against one wall. There were multiple typewriters, each with a different work in progress. He had a model of the solar system on his desk, having covered the Apollo 11 moon walk for Life. There was also a bow rack holding at least a dozen recurves and longbows, one of which Fred Bear had given him while consulting on the filming of Deliverance. He called the recurve a “strange and very beautiful weapon,” then pulled one off the rack for me. We went outside to shoot at makeshift targets in the front yard.
After loosing an arrow and splitting the wings of a rogue pinecone, he laughed and said, “Thing about it, could you be that serene in the face of a charging grizzly?” At that moment, I absolutely believed he could.
We went back to his study, where he dropped the bow on a recliner, then picked up his Martin six-string and deftly picked out a Beatles tune. He told me how he had composed “Dueling Banjos” for the movie, and talked about flying combat missions as a bomber pilot in World War II. Clearly brilliant, he peppered his conversation with quotes from Blake and Byron. Later, we went outside and sailed around the lake in his Sunfish dinghy, Dickey tacking to and fro like a kid at summer camp. He said he wanted to take up hang gliding—at age 62. By then he could have told me he’d composed “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and I would have believed him.
Two weeks later, I called “Big Jim” again because I felt like I didn’t have enough for my profile. He generously told me to come back up, and this time we stayed in the study, probing his ideas on language, on living fully, and on bowhunting as a portal to nature. I asked him what I should be reading, and he quipped, “Read all of the Faulkner you can, and then read all of Hemingway to get the Faulkner out of your system.”
He wrote down a list of five other recommended books, and then gave me some of the best advice on writing I’ve ever received, saying: “Listen to what everyone has to say about what you’ve written. Take what you can use, and ignore the rest.”
If the encounter didn’t exactly change my life, it at least gave me a glimpse into a genuine life of letters. Here was a man who once called the poet’s vocation “so unpromising that it was ludicrous.” Yet he’d somehow made it work, early on learning that there was money, if not in poetry, then in performance. In the 1960s, his “barnstorming” poetry tours had played to packed university halls and cultural gatherings. And for a glowing period before and after the 1970 publication of Deliverance, James Dickey had been a literary god.
Then his wings began to melt. By the time I met him, he was already deep in the grip of alcohol. Worse, he’d brought out the same self-destructive urges in others. His first wife had drunk herself to death in 1976 when her esophagus ruptured, dying at age 50 “in an explosion of blood,” clutched in his arms. His second wife, from whom we’d hidden the six-pack, became a cocaine and heroin addict who once stabbed Dickey with one of his own broadhead arrows and later conked him on the head so hard that in 1986 he had to have the fluid drained from his brain. Trapped in a downward spiral, he became more parody than poet, the flame of originality doused in malt liquor, dysfunction, and deceit. He died 20 years ago this year—at age 73—wreathed in oxygen tubes, fibrotic and jaundiced, soberly trying to reconnect with what was left of his estranged and often terrorized family.
After he passed, there was a minor industry in both honoring and humiliating his shade, including an agonized memoir by his son, the war correspondent Christopher Dickey, called Summer of Deliverance.
Then came the 832-page biography by Henry Hart called James Dickey: The World as a Lie. Both sought, in part, to expose the myths Dickey had built around himself. He hadn’t piloted bombers in World War II and Korea; he was a radar operator. (Yet he did fly 38 combat missions and received five Bronze Stars.) He hadn’t composed “Dueling Banjos” (but he could play the hell out of a 12-string). He wasn’t the gridiron star he’d often claimed (though he had played a year at Clemson A&M). We learned that the South’s virile man of letters—the legendary Lothario—had struggled with impotence. James Dickey, we learned, simply made the world up as he went.
But it was artifice in the service of art. Despite the fact that he never actually killed anything with his bow (much less murdered a hillbilly), Dickey had been able to distill the bowhunting ethos in his poem “Springer Mountain,” in which the archer suddenly hangs his longbow on a branch, ceremoniously disrobes, and follows a buck through the forest in a mythical attempt to “. . . drink from the lifespring of beasts.”
Eventually, he sent me a note saying how much he enjoyed my profile, without, of course, correcting any falsehoods I had helped perpetuate. But I never much cared. To the contrary, I bought a bow and a guitar.
In refreshing my memory about that formative experience, I came across the vintage documentary online called Lord, Let Me Die but Not Die Out. The title is from Dickey’s poem “For the Last Wolverine,” and the movie follows our poet on a 1969 reading tour. You know, back when a six-foot-three wandering bard could still board a commercial airplane toting a recurve bow and broadhead hunting arrows.
At one point, he hops in a New York taxi, recurve in hand, and the cabbie asks what he does for a living. Dickey says he is a poet, with “a novel coming out.”
“Do you have a certain thing you write about?”
Dickey pauses, flashes that ivory grin, and says, “I try to tell what it’s like to be alive on the planet.”
There may be no better definition of any writer’s task, and in the end, all we have left to judge are the words themselves. As the poet says to the vanishing wolverine in its inevitable moment of extinction:
I take you as you are,
and make of you what I will . . .
Lord, let me die but not die out. ✦