After receiving a master's degree from Harvard University and attending Oxford University on a Fulbright scholarship, American poet William Dickey became an English professor and taught at Cornell and Denison Universities before joining the faculty at San Francisco State, where he taught for almost thirty years.

Brown Miller, writing in the San Francisco Review of Books, called Dickey "a national treasure," although he remained largely unknown even to dedicated followers of contemporary poetry. The reasons for Dickey's relative obscurity, as Miller noted, were that the poet "works harder on the writing of his work than the promoting of it, does only three or four readings a year, and often prefers to publish his poetry with small, independent presses whose books are lovingly crafted works of art in their own right." Dickey's talent, however, was not unknown to critics; it "was recognized early when his first collection, Of the Festivity, was chosen to be published as part of the Yale Series of Younger Poets in 1959," Thomas Goldstein wrote in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Dickey's "balanced observations and parables captured the imagination of no less a judge than W. H. Auden," Goldstein praised. The British poet said in the collection's introduction that great poetry contains a personal vision conveyed in lines that have "the power to speak" as they record keen observations, and that Dickey's poems satisfy these criteria. "The critical consensus about the volume supports Auden's judgment . . . [that] many of the poems are great," Goldstein reports. He feels that Dickey's humor and seriousness achieve an "equilibrium" in Of the Festivity.

Some reviewers noted that in later books the balance tipped toward the darker, sometimes nightmarish elements of Dickey's personal vision. Humor became sardonic in the poet's fourth collection, observes Goldstein, who noted that the jokes made in More under Saturn were made "at someone's expense." Hudson Review contributor Vernon Young believes Dickey was "best when firmly confronting the public condition with serene loathing . . . or, alternatively, treasuring the private hour, reverent, but skeptical." Writing in Parnassus, Paul Zweig acknowledged this distance, but praised the poet's "willingness to entertain difficult ideas" in comparison "to the overly simple . . . bent of so much contemporary poetry." Abstract ideas often function successfully as theme in the poems, and for this reason, readers "may tend to miss the earth in them," commented John R. Reed in a Poetry magazine review. Dickey received a silver medal from the Commonwealth Club of California for More under Saturn in 1972.

The Rainbow Grocery, winner of the 1978 Juniper Prize from the University of Massachusetts Press, and The Sacrifice Consenting were also generally well-received. Poems in The Rainbow Grocery "are more loosely constructed, more sexual, and more frenzied" than poems in Of the Festivity; "cynicism has overcome the humor," and "the terrors of the subconscious have overcome the rational mind" in these poems, Goldstein believes. For others such as Robert B. Shaw, however, the jesting and despair maintain a precarious balance. When so poised, comments Shaw in Poetry, "Dickey writes a rare and enviable sort of poem, truly humorous and truly serious at once." Miller concurred: "In his work generally and in The King of the Golden River and Brief Lives [both published in 1985] specifically, [Dickey] integrates insight and feeling to an outstanding degree," achieving gracefulness of phrase without "sacrificing a raw, gutsy contact with reality."


  • Of the Festivity (poems), foreword by W. H. Auden, Yale University Press, 1959, reprinted, AMS Press, 1971.
  • (Contributor) Paul Engle and Joseph Langland, editors, Poet's Choice (anthology), Dial, 1962.
  • (Contributor) William Cole, editor, Erotic Poetry (anthology), Random House, 1963.
  • Interpreter's House (poems), Ohio State University Press, 1963.
  • (Contributor) Anthony Ostroff, editor, The Contemporary Poet as Artist and Critic: Eight Symposia, Little, Brown, 1964.
  • Rivers of the Pacific Northwest (long poem), Twowindows Press, 1969.
  • More under Saturn (poems), Wesleyan University Press, 1971.
  • Sheena, designed and illustrated by Paul Funge, Funge Art Centre (Gorey, Ireland), 1975.
  • The Rainbow Grocery (poems), University of Massachusetts Press, 1978.
  • (With Adrianne Marcus and Wayne Johnson) Carrion House: World of Gifts (satire on mail-order catalogues), St. Martin's Press, 1980.
  • The Sacrifice Consenting (poems), Pterodactyl Press, 1981.
  • Six Philosophical Songs, Pterodactyl Press, 1983.
  • Joy, Pterodactyl Press, 1983.
  • Brief Lives (poems), Heyeck Press, 1985.
  • The Fish Upstairs (audiocassette), The Watershed Foundation, 1985.
  • The King of the Golden River, Pterodactyl Press, 1985.
  • In the Dreaming: Selected Poems, University of Arkansas Press (Fayettville, AK), 1994.
  • The Education of Desire, University Press of New England, 1996.
Contributor of several hundred poems to New Yorker, Harper's, Saturday Review, Atlantic, and other periodicals. Former managing editor of Western Review and editorial assistant for Civil War History.

Further Readings

  • Dickey, William, Of the Festivity, foreword by W. H. Auden, Yale University Press, 1959, reprinted, AMS Press, 1971.
  • Ostroff, Anthony, editor, The Contemporary Poet as Artist and Critic: Eight Symposia, Little, Brown, 1964.
  • Antioch Review, spring, 1963.
  • Hudson Review, spring, 1970; winter, 1971-72.
  • New England Review, autumn, 1979.
  • New York Times Book Review, September 6, 1959; July 5, 1964.
  • Parnassus, fall/ winter, 1972.
  • Poetry, January, 1960; May, 1964; April, 1973; December, 1982.
  • San Francisco Review of Books, August, 1987.
  • Saturday Review, July 25, 1959.
  • Sewanee Review, winter, 1965.
  • Times Literary Supplement, May 7, 1964.
  • World Literature Today, spring, 1965.
  • Yale Review, December, 1959.
  • Who's Who in America, 48th edition, Marquis, 1994.
  • New York Times, May 11, 1994, p. D24.