“James Dickey: A Literary Life” by Gordon Van Ness 

For James Dickey, who believed in the “transcendence of the imagination,” as evidenced in a letter to Gore Vidal in 1988—“I make no distinction between fact, fiction, history, reminiscence and fantasy, for the imagination inhabits them all,” —Gordon Van Ness takes on a complex, passionate, revelatory—and often thorny—task in James Dickey: A Literary Life (Mercer University Press, 2022).

Determined to even the ballast of Dickey’s notoriety, Van Ness attempts to reconcile both the human and the myth of Dickey alongside untapped roots of Dickey scholarship. His particular focus is critical reexamination of Dickey’s body of work with attentive insight into Dickey as reader, scholar, critic, pedagogical creator, and master of his craft. As he writes in the introduction, “Dickey’s endeavors to promote poetry generally and himself specifically, frequently by also attacking fellow poets, resulted in ad hominem attacks by reviewers and critics who were more intent on criticizing Dickey’s personality than in examining his work.”

By making space to acknowledge Dickey’s predilection for myth and heroic journey both in his writing and in life, Van Ness sheds light on Dickey research that has been previously saturated in its focus on Dickey as a personality; Van Ness now sets forth a call for more thorough examination of Dickey’s writing prowess. In taking this approach, Van Ness not only artfully debunks some of the more apocryphal details that have dominated Dickey’s reputation—often by calling in vulnerabilities and Dickey’s admission that “he had been a coward all of his life,” but also overturns stones that remind us why Dickey’s poems continue to resonate, provoke, and illuminate through form, content, and subject. His case for resurrecting Dickey from the fall of literary grace is a compelling and crucial one.

Van Ness’s research is based on copious gathering, including excerpts from Dickey’s letters, interviews, published and unpublished work, and also Van Ness’s personal correspondence with Dickey (spanning decades), as well as Van Ness’s interviews with former students, colleagues, contemporaries. friends, military, and the Dickey family. This is to say nothing of his detailed drawing on Dickey’s published work on the writing process and authorship—proving that Dickey’s wisdom provides enduring gems for both green and seasoned writers alike, such as this one:

The first thing about poetry is that it comes to you from outside you, in books or in words, but that for it to live, something from within you must come to it and meet it and complete it. Your response within your own mind and body and memory and emotions gives the poem its ability to work its magic.

Or from a transcript of his final class in spring, 1997:

You can’t teach it [poetry]. You can point out when it occurs, but you can’t teach it. Verse, however, you can teach. Verse comes in a number of received forms which you can teach and learn. That is what we deal with. This is a class in verse . . . hoping to become poetry. With luck. The luck comes not from me. I don’t know where it comes from . . . from God. As Valéry says . . . God gives a poet one line. He has to work like hell for the rest of them. It is a matter of finding what goes with something that did come to you out of left field or from the blue. As Plato’s To ontos on—a world of perfect forms.

As part of a detailed assessment of Dickey’s literary life, Van Ness also shares exhaustive and fascinating revelations about Dickey’s authorship through discussion of his reading lists—local bookstore purchases, international texts, and squadron library borrows, to name a few—as well as a jeweler’s loupe look at previously unpublished texts including ledger notes, journal entries, poems, short stories, and Dickey’s shelved first novel, The Entrance to the Honeycomb. Such conscientious work in scholarship serves to remind us of the breadth of Dickey’s mind—not only due to his obsessive ledgers filled with detailed notes on ideas for work and assessments of past writing, but also his expansive interdisciplinary commitment to study beyond literature, including philosophy, psychology, music, art, anthropology, architecture, and history. Van Ness shares the following, previously unpublished, from Dickey’s notebooks:

Other entries cited what he termed ‘type figures,’ images and unusual phrases from his reading or imagination that he considered emotionally arresting or surprising, such as ‘drink the passage,’ ‘pitch of brightness,’ ‘rotting rust,’ ‘we hauled in the net of our routes,’ ‘tree threw a moment of shade’ . . .

The manner in which Van Ness engages the discussion is fresh and impactful. By merging previous critical scholarship on Dickey’s work with a more present perspective, all shaped by Dickey’s own admissions about writing process, Van Ness invites us to re-analyze our assumptions of Dickey, championing him again for his visionary grappling especially in terms of poetic craft. He reminds us of the power of a Dickey line, citing from 1962’s “A Letter”:

But words light up in the head

To take their strange place in the darkness,

Beneath the huge blackness of time

Which lies concealing, concealing

What must gleam forth in the end,

Glimpsed, unchanging, and gone

When memory stands without sleep

And gets its strange spark from the world.


Or from “Europe”:

Stand living, then, and deliver

What the dead alone can receive,

Whose eye is fixed

Amazingly on Form: whose look

Includes your body’s shape

As it should be. The dead this ground

Have made, that the live heart leap. Come

From the stone, and risk the spirit

Along the way are also revelations about Dickey’s navigations of the “I” in poetry— “Every poem ever written—and particularly those which make use of a figure designated in the poem as ‘I’—is both an exploration and an invention of identity.”  And how the pursuit of writing became a way to reconcile his own hauntings: “I am a haunted artist like the others. I know what the monsters know, and I shall know more, and more than any of them if I can survive myself for a little while longer.” This also included the untimely death of Dickey’s older brother Gene before his birth, of which Dickey said, “I have always felt a sense of guilt that my birth depended on my brother’s death.”

However, Van Ness remains undeterred by the myth of Dickey, continually turning us to the light by reminding us that Dickey is long overdue for reevaluation in contemporary letters. Van Ness’s critical revelations are many, but some include his tracing of the consequentiality of the image in Dickey’s fiction—including Alnilam, To the White Sea, and Deliverance—as well as in a catalog of his poems, with delves into “The Performance,” “The Sheep Child,” “The Driver,” and “The Enclosure,” among many others. He also encourages readers to see the “I” (and persona) in Dickey’s work as himself. As he writes of “The Performance,”  “[it] ostensibly centers on Armstrong [but] its real focus is Dickey himself, the poet who must reimagine Armstrong’s execution to render a reality far better and far different from the truth of facts, a lie that ‘makes the truth better than it is.’”

By forging this narrative pathway in Dickey scholarship, Van Ness gives us a ticket of passage into a compelling and complicated literary life, one that merits our attention, and one that calls for us to transform our own perceptions into fertile possibility: “Dickey believed in the reality of that redemptive transience, the prospect of imaginative re-creation, and while he believed, life was transformed magnificently enough.”

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