Bought a copy of Crux, The Letters of James Dickey, the other day at a very good used bookstore, Alias on Sawtelle in West LA, and stumbled upon this bizarrism. According to the book, in 1971, Gordon Lish proposed that a well-known photographer take pictures of the “top ten US poets”, and then James Dickey would write a paragraph response to each, stating why he was a superior poet. Lish suggested among others: Robert Lowell, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, Gary Snyder, J.V. Cunningham, (someone should have told him to change his name away from junior varsity), Allen Ginsberg, Galway Kinnell, Alan Dugan, and Howard Nemerov. James Dickey wrote back to Lish’s proposal:

“As to your astonishing note of October 28th, I hardly know what to say. You surely must know that I could not consider for a moment doing something like this. I have no intention whatever of getting into the Hemmingway-Mailer camp, and talk all around the game rather than playing it.”
“Incidentally, aside from Lowell, none of these other people you list would be even in the first fifty American poets, as far as I, personally, am concerned. Ginsberg, Snyder, Creeley, and Duncan indeed! Lord, Lord!”
“The ten best poets, I think are—(in no particular order)
1. Pound (I guess he is still American)
2. Auden
3. Dickey
4. Lowell
5. Wilbur
6. A.R. Ammons
7. Wm. Stafford
8. Elizabeth Bishop
9. John Berryman
10. James Wright”
It’s somehow funny that he says “no particular order”, but then proceeds to number them, and create a hierarchy in the spelling of the names: the first five are solely last names, the next two have abbreviated first names, (as if their first names are shrinking away), and the last three have first and last names. Gold, Silver, Bronze?
That he lists himself third, in the third-person, is icing on a perverse cake.

Originally Published: March 24th, 2007

Jeffrey McDaniel is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Chapel of Inadvertent Joy (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013). Other books include The Endarkenment (Pittsburgh, 2008), The Splinter Factory (Manic D, 2002), The Forgiveness Parade (Manic D Press, 1998), and Alibi School (Manic D, 1995). His poems have...

  1. September 13, 2007
     Robert Vasquez

    I've always found James Dickey's comments and letters fascinating. Although I never met him (but would have loved to), I've met others who did and talked about "big Jim Dickey" with both awe and amusement. Hence, his list strikes me as in keeping with the persona that Dickey cultivated (which poet of renown hasn't done so even indirectly?).
    As for the poets on Dickey's list, I must say that Auden, Lowell, Wilbur, Stafford, Bishop, Berryman, and Wright have defined American poetry and have influenced many poets (myself included), but many others are currently in the process of re-defining the canon and influencing a new generation of poets (my list, in alphabetical order, is certainly arguable and not complete by any means): Ai, Ashbery, Bly, Dove, Forche, Gluck, Hall, Hongo, Kinnell, Levine, Rios, Stern, Strand, Walcott, and C.K. Williams, to name just a few).
    Dickey's list, if nothing else, illustrates how American letters at one time excluded people of color from any prominence within the worlds of publication and academe. In contrast, if a contemporary poet of Dickey's stature hasn't heard of or read a poem by Rita Dove, Alberto Rios, or Derek Walcott, he or she must live in an ivory tower that's delapidated and in need of remodeling.