Mention of "The Sheep Child" here has called to mind all kinds of recollections from the Atlanta of my youth, in which, among literary circles at least, James Dickey loomed large. Everyone had a tale, either of generous encouragement, or booze-infused arrogance and aggression--sometimes both. I myself had witnessed his (probably inebriate) overbearing on a literary panel (he insisted on answering every question from the audience, even if specifically addressed to another panel member), but also treasure a letter he typed (how quaint typing now seems!), addressed "Dear Mr. Stallings," (sic) when my manuscript was a Yale finalist, encouraging me to keep at my work "for me, for poetry, and for Yale" as if he were Coach Dickey and I a quarterback...

Dickey was also that very rare thing in the suburban sprawl of Atlanta in those days (before the scene was dominated by academic programs at GSU, Emory, even Georgia Tech)--a genuine poet the city could claim for itself. The self-created myth of course seems to have swallowed the man. One winces slightly now to see, as the first sentence of his bio on the back cover of The Early Motion: James Dickey is a former night-fighter with more than 100 missions in World War II, an athlete, hunter, and woodsman, and author of the novel and screenplay Deliverance, It reminds me that the root of "authentic" is violence--the Greek for murderer.
One is equally surprised to see, as a blurb from Choice that "his poetry is essential to modern American poetry studies.
Is it much studied or read anymore? It seems that the drive for authenticity in the legend has sunk the authenticity of the poetry.
But surely it is time to relook at his poetic accomplishments. I'm not sure when I became truly aware of his work as opposed to the anecdotes. "The Sheep Child" struck me early on, partly because I knew the dusty State capitol museum--which displayed jars of pickled animals, including a two-headed snake, and the odd freakish new-born calf or lamb--quite well from my childhood when my father used to take us there to look at the arrowheads.
I have long been haunted by poems from his early books, collected in The Early Motion. They are, among other things, bold rhythmic experiments, in unrhymed anapests--what Dickey calls "the night rhythm." It is interesting that for Dickey, American poetry is not pivoted between the grand organ chords of Whitman and the a cappella of Dickinson, but between the intoxicating chant of Poe and the sober speech rhythms of Williams. By divorcing the lilt of "Annabel Lee" from rhyme, Dickey achieves a very different American sound--dreamy, Southern perhaps, elegaic (with those falling cadences at the end of lines), but not forced--it is not only iambics that are "natural" to English. And it is a meter of great versatility, since the anapests freely admit of iambic substitution without losing their swing. (One would wish to see more rhythmic experiment of this kind among contemporary poets... )
My favorites of these early poems are probably "The Lifeguard" and "The Heaven of Animals." But another poem I always go back to is "The Poisoned Man." About a man who has been bit by a rattlesnake, it expands to incorporate the Fall in a way that could be, in another writer, heavyhanded, but carried off by the anapestic pulse, the images, and the close:
When I rose, the live oaks were ashen
And the wild grass was dead without flame.
Through the blasted cornfield I hobbled,
My foot tied up in my shirt,
And met my old wife in the garden,
Where she reached for a withering apple.
I lay in the country and dreamed
Of the substance and course of the river
While the different colors of fever
Like quilt patches flickered upon me.
At last I arose, with the poison
Gone out of the seam of the scar,
And brought my wife eastward and weeping,
Through the copper fields springing alive
With the promise of harvest for no one.
I love the colors flickering like the patches of quilts, and the copper fields (like copper heads?) springing alive--and the last line that snakes directly into the memory.

Originally Published: February 25th, 2008

A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012). Her new verse translation of Lucretius (in rhyming fourteeners!), The Nature of Things,...

  1. February 25, 2008
     marilyn nelson

    How nice to read a reappraisal of Dickey's experiments and accomplishments. Thanks!
    "The Sheep Child" was the first Dickey poem I read, in the pages of The New Yorker, sitting in an easy chair on a Saturday afternoon in an apartment in Chicago in the summer of 1967. It blew off the top of my head.
    Marilyn Nelson

  2. February 25, 2008
     Don Share

    Did you guys know that there's a James Dickey Newsletter and Society?
    More must-see Dickeyana can be found here.

  3. February 26, 2008
     Robin Kemp

    Oh, wow! "The Sheep-Child!" "I ate my one meal of milk and died staring!" I think this was the first Dickey poem I ever read, followed closely by "Falling," and both made a huge impression on me. I thought, wow, if I could write a poem that wild, that'd really be something. I'm not sure that I could write anything like either of those poems, but I'm happy enough that he did it.

  4. February 29, 2008
     Alicia (AE)

    Thanks for these comments.
    Robin, the only other successful lyric poem to deal with bestiality of all things is Delisa Mulkey's beautiful and sensual Pasiphae poem. Do you know it?

  5. February 29, 2008
     Don Share

    Robin, I'm so glad you mentioned "Falling" - what a wild poem! I never get on a plane without thinking of it.
    Alicia, you have to know that if you mention Paiphae, I'm going to bring up Basil Bunting:
    So is summer held to its contract
    and the year solvent; but men
    driven by storm fret,
    reminded of sweltering Crete
    and Pasiphae's pungent sweat,
    who heard the god-bull's feet
    scattering sand,
    breathed byre stink, yet stood
    with expectant hand
    to guide his seed to its soil;
    nor did flesh flinch
    distended by the brute
    nor loaded spirit sink
    till it had gloried in unlike creation.
    Back to Dickey, I've heard lots of stories about him... but when I was a fledgling editor, he was wonderful to work with, and he told me some swell stories.