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January 08, 2005

Brain Candy (with commentary)

While I love to rant and rave over my favorite poets and poems, this is a case where a single person I haven't long followed wrote a single poem that captured my attention.

I added some text at the end which I lifted from The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-century Poetry in English, just to give us an idea where this haunting poem came from. Yes, I said "haunting" and yes, I ended that sentence with a preposition.

Here it is. Maybe it will haunt you, too.

The Heaven of Animals
James Dickey 1961

Here they are. The soft eyes open.
If they have lived in a wood
It is a wood.
If they have lived on plains
It is grass rolling
Under their feet forever.

Having no souls, they have come,
Anyway, beyond their knowing.
Their instincts wholly bloom
And they rise.
The soft eyes open.

To match them, the landscape flowers,
Outdoing, desperately
Outdoing what is required:
Thr richest wood,
The deepest field.

For some of these,
It could not be the place
It is, without blood.
These hunt, as they have done
But with claws and teeth grown perfect,

More deadly than they can believe.
They stalk more silently,
And crouch on the limbs of trees,
And their descent
Upon the bright backs of their prey

May take years
In a sovereign floating of joy.
And those that are hunted
Know this as their life,
Their reward: to walk

Under such trees in full knowledge
Of what is in glory above them,
And to feel no fear,
But acceptance, compliance.
Fulfilling themselves without pain

At the cycles center,
They tremble, they walk
Under the tree,
They fall, they are torm,
They rise, they walk again.

Dickey was born in Atlanta, Georgia. After serving as a pilot in the Second World War, he attended Vanderbilt University. Having earned an MA in 1950, Dickey returned to military duty in the Korean War, serving with the US Air Force. Upon return to civilian life Dickey taught at Rice University in Texas and then at the University of Florida. From 1955 to 1961, he worked for advertising agencies in New York and Atlanta. After the publication of his first book, Into the Stone (Middletown, Conn., 1962), he left advertising and began teaching at various colleges and universities. He became poet-in-residence and Carolina Professor of English at the University of South Carolina.

Dickey's third volume, Buckdancer's Choice (Middletown, 1965), won the prestigious National Book Award in Poetry. From 1966 to 1968 he served as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. In 1977 Dickey read his poem 'The Strength of Fields' at President Carter's inauguration. The Hollywood film of his novel Deliverance (Boston, 1970) brought Dickey fame not normally enjoyed by poets.

Dickey's poems are a mixture of lyricism and narrative. In some volumes the lyricism dominates, while in others the narrative is the focus. The early books, influenced obviously though not slavishly by Theodore Roethke and perhaps Hopkins, are infused with a sense of private anxiety and guilt. Both emotions are called forth most deeply by the memories of a brother who died before Dickey was born ('In the Tree House at Night') and his war experiences ('Drinking From a Helmet'). These early poems generally employ rhyme and metre.

With Buckdancer's Choice, Dickey left traditional formalism behind, developing what he called a 'split-line' technique to vary the rhythm and look of the poem. Some critics argue that by doing so Dickey freed his true poetic voice. Others lament that the lack of formal device led to rhetorical, emotional, and intellectual excess. The truth probably lies somewhere between these two assessments, and it will be left to the reader to decide which phase of Dickey's career is most attractive.

Dickey's most comprehensive volume is The Whole Motion (Hanover, NH, and London, 1992). His early poems are collected in The Early Motion (Middletown, 1981). Recent individual volumes include The Eagle's Mile (Hanover and London, 1990) and Falling, May Day Sermon, and Other Poems (Hanover and London, 1982). Dickey has also published collections of autobiographical essays, Self Interviews (Garden City, NY, 1970; repr. New York, 1984) and Sorties (Garden City, 197 1; repr. New York, 1984).

Text from The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-century Poetry in English. Ed. Ian Hamilton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. Copyright © 1994 by Oxford University Press.

Posted by Dan at January 8, 2005 10:41 PM

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