Saturday, December 31, 2005


When I was in grad school, I was in author James Dickey's last poetry class.

Jim is a difficult person to describe in moderate terms. He was a bastard. He was charismatic. He was a force of nature. When he walked into a room, he sucked out all the air and left people gasping and gaping in his direction.

Writer Reynolds Price described him for The New York Times thus:
James Dickey was a member of that puzzling and self-punishing tribe of American writers -- a tribe that included Hemingway, Faulkner and Robert Frost -- who wanted the public to think they were anything but artists. As Hemingway was the big-game hunter, Faulkner the gentleman farmer and rider to hounds, and Frost the cracker-barrel codger, so Jim Dickey worked hard to be taken for an archer, a country guitarist, a lady-killer or a Viking berserker stoked with mead. Anyone who spent more than two consecutive days in the Dickey presence, however, knew that -- at least as much as Hemingway, whose sensibility was as delicate as eggshell -- Dickey was an artist, a poet to the utter bone.

James Dickey, Size XL

When I first saw Jim, I was an underclassman and he scared me silly. I was standing at a window in one of the countless little bureaucratic offices that a university has, shuffling some paperwork back and forth with the clerk. Suddenly, this presence loomed up behind me. I looked out of the corner of my eye ... and up and up.

Jim was dressed in a white cowboy suit, complete with white boots and a snowy Stetson, which made his massive 6'4" frame look even more intimidating. Ignoring those waiting in line to be served, he boomed out instructions to the clerks who scurried to do his bidding.

After he stalked out, the clerk who was helping me leaned over the counter and asked in a quiet voice, "Do you know who that was?"

I shook my head no.

"That was James Dickey, the Great Man."

Yes, the Great Man. Always spoken in capital letters and hushed tones.

Later, in grad school, my media arts advisor, a Dickey scholar, kept encouraging me to take a class with Jim. After he (rightly) pointed out that any aspiring writer should take a class with the most famous and successful writer available, I relented.

My first day in class found Jim Dickey a greatly reduced man. He was in a wheelchair and on oxygen. His body was a shell of itself. However, he was still an awesome presence -- mind sharp and tongue sharper.

Toward the end of that first class, Jim was giving a brief biography of his life -- fighting in WWII and the Korean conflict, growing up a hillbilly in Georgia...

It was here that I started to laugh.

No one else in the class was laughing. They just looked at me in horror.

"What is funny, young lady?" Jim asked coldly.

"Sir, in just that moment, you reminded me of my Grandmother who recently passed away. She grew up in a small college town in the foothills of North Carolina. Everyone in that town worked at the college, was family of someone who worked at the college, or attended the college. She always claimed to be "just a hillbilly," but she was no more a hillbilly than you are."

That proved to be a moment of bonding for us.

The whole hillbilly thing was one of his good ol' boy exaggerations to establish a more exotic persona. Jim felt that a poor hillbilly pulling himself up by his worn bootstraps to high literary echelons sounded a lot better than a middle-class kid from the suburbs of Atlanta getting to that same level.

Jim attracted but hated sycophants, or, rather, he had no respect for sycophants. The fact that I'd both noticed and pointed out to him that his story was a bit of a fabrication, earned me some small amount of respect.

For me, it was an "emperor has no clothes" moment. I'd seen through a bit of the facade and it was less scary back there after that point.

Though much of Jim's public persona was fictional, his knowledge of literature, poetry, and other subjects was extraordinary and quite real. He was a talented and exacting teacher who suffered no fools.

During the short time that I knew Jim, his health continued to deteriorate. At the start of the spring semester of 1997, his health was so frail that we were told that we would be having classes at his home.

One day, he asked us to go around and recite the first lines of our favourite poem and he'd tell us who wrote it. He did just that until he got to me:
He would declare and could himself believe
That the birds there in all the garden round
From having heard the daylong voice of Eve
Had added to their own an oversound,
Her tone of meaning but without the words.
Jim frowned and thought. "I don't recognize that," he admitted. "Who wrote that?"

"Robert Frost."

A look of amazement crossed his face. "Frost? It doesn't sound like Frost. He usually had an ironic tone to his poetry, but that seems romantic."

A few of us stayed after class that day to talk with Jim. He confided in me that I'd surprised him with the Frost poem. He didn't know he could still be surprised by poetry at his time of life.

He may have been being kind to tell me that, but it made me happy that I'd given Jim the gift of a happy surprise when he wasn't expecting one.

Four days later, he passed away.

Never Again Would Bird's Song Be the Same

He would declare and could himself believe
That the birds there in all the garden round
From having heard the daylong voice of Eve
Had added to their own an oversound,
Her tone of meaning but without the words.
Admittedly an eloquence so soft
Could only have had an influence on birds
When call or laughter carried it aloft.
Be that as may be, she was in their song.
Moreover her voice upon their voices crossed
Had now persisted in the woods so long
That probably it never would be lost.
Never again would birds' song be the same.
And to do that to birds was why she came.

For the coming year, I wish nothing but happy surprises for all my friends and family.


Blogger oneslackmartian said...

Damn. Sorry, but that was a great post. "The Leap" is one of my favorite poems. I can't imagine being in the same room with Dickey, more less having a conversation with him.

Monday, January 02, 2006 2:57:00 PM  

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