The Sheep Child

Farm boys wild to couple
With anything      with soft-wooded trees   
With mounds of earth      mounds   
Of pinestraw      will keep themselves off   
Animals by legends of their own:   
In the hay-tunnel dark
And dung of barns, they will   
Say    I have heard tell

That in a museum in Atlanta   
Way back in a corner somewhere   
There’s this thing that’s only half   
Sheep      like a woolly baby
Pickled in alcohol      because   
Those things can’t live.      his eyes
Are open      but you can’t stand to look   
I heard from somebody who ...

But this is now almost all   
Gone. The boys have taken   
Their own true wives in the city,
The sheep are safe in the west hill
Pasture      but we who were born there
Still are not sure. Are we,
Because we remember, remembered
In the terrible dust of museums?

Merely with his eyes, the sheep-child may   

Be saying      saying

         I am here, in my father’s house.
         I who am half of your world, came deeply
         To my mother in the long grass
         Of the west pasture, where she stood like moonlight
         Listening for foxes. It was something like love
         From another world that seized her
         From behind, and she gave, not lifting her head   
         Out of dew, without ever looking, her best
         Self to that great need. Turned loose, she dipped her face   
         Farther into the chill of the earth, and in a sound   
         Of sobbing      of something stumbling
         Away, began, as she must do,
         To carry me. I woke, dying,

         In the summer sun of the hillside, with my eyes
         Far more than human. I saw for a blazing moment   
         The great grassy world from both sides,
         Man and beast in the round of their need,
         And the hill wind stirred in my wool,
         My hoof and my hand clasped each other,
         I ate my one meal
         Of milk, and died
         Staring. From dark grass I came straight
         
         To my father’s house, whose dust
         Whirls up in the halls for no reason
         When no one comes      piling deep in a hellish mild corner,   
         And, through my immortal waters,
         I meet the sun’s grains eye
         To eye, and they fail at my closet of glass.
         Dead, I am most surely living
         In the minds of farm boys: I am he who drives
         Them like wolves from the hound bitch and calf
         And from the chaste ewe in the wind.
         They go into woods      into bean fields      they go
         Deep into their known right hands. Dreaming of me,   
         They groan      they wait      they suffer
         Themselves, they marry, they raise their kind.

James Dickey, “The Sheep Child” from The Whole Motion: Collected Poems 1945-1992. Copyright © 1992 by James Dickey. Reprinted with the permission of Wesleyan University Press, www.wesleyan.edu/wespress.
Source: James Dickey: The Selected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 1998)

Writing Ideas

  1. “The Sheep Child” gives voice to an unusual, even monstrous, speaker. Imitate the poem’s form by first introducing a hybrid creature of your own invention and then allowing it to speak. What tone might its speech take? What form—lament or riposte?
  2. As Maria Hummel notes in her poem guide, Dickey was something of a poetry shock-jock, advocating “the creative possibility of the lie.” Try taking on a taboo topic and treating it toward poetic ends. Think about how formal techniques, such as Dickey’s use of pauses, or conventions like pastoral, can help nuance or complicate a seemingly unseemly topic.

Discussion Questions

  1. How do hearsay, gossip, and legend shape Dickey’s poem? Look for the repeated use of the verb “say”: what effects does Dickey achieve by distributing the poem’s voice across multiple speakers? Consider the paucity of the first-person pronoun in the opening section versus the preponderance of it in the second.
  2. How would you characterize the relationship between the poem’s opening lines and its closing? What continuities or disjunctions do you see between the non-italicized and italicized sections? Think about word choice, image, and line spacing. Who is being addressed in each section?
  3. How does Dickey create acts of description through unconventional spacing, line breaks, and repeated use of words or images? Does description in “The Sheep Child” ever become judgment? That is, what is the attitude of the poem toward its content? How would you characterize the way various speakers are presented? Why might Dickey depict this situation the way he does?

Teaching Tips

  1. Dickey’s poem is bound to generate discomfort and possibly disgust (though perhaps also some morbid fascination). Rather than suggest that everyone have the same experience of the poem, give students time to free-write about their initial impressions and reactions. After they’ve written for a few minutes, lead a discussion on Dickey’s choice of subject, as well as style. Is he being sensational? Pointed? What kinds of commentary do your students see at work in his poem—both in form and content? Ask students to think about taboo or sensational subjects as “fit” topics for poetry: do they think certain things shouldn’t be addressed in a poem? Why not? What about certain kinds of language? Your discussion might extend to include other poems that court outrageousness: Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” Frank Bidart’s “Herbert White,” or Bernadette Mayer’s “First turn to me…” Ask students to consider why poets might choose these subjects as well as think about how they choose to treat them—what kinds of poetic devices, techniques, and conventions are on display? What’s the relationship between form and content in extremis?
  2. Have students read the first paragraphs of Maria Hummel’s poem guide to “The Sheep Child.” Then have them do some reconnaissance work on James Dickey, and the controversy around the publication of “The Sheep Child.” Tell students to think about the whether Dickey’s poem should be taught in schools? Should other controversial poems of Dickey’s? Have them research and build a “defense” of Dickey and his poem. Or, alternatively, have them prepare a case against “The Sheep Child” and other contentious Dickey works. 
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