James Dickey, Existentialism, and “The thousand variations of one song”

On 11 October 1953, James Dickey attended a public lecture on existentialism at Rice Institute in Houston, where he had joined the faculty as an English instructor in fall 1950. Recalled for the Korean conflict at the end of his first semester, however, he then served at Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Alabama, and at training command centers at Keesler Air Force Base in Gulfport, Mississippi, and Connally Air Force Base in Waco, Texas, before returning to Rice in fall 1952. The talk was presented by his colleague and close friend, Lester Mansfield, with whom Dickey would stay in 1965 while in Paris on a Sewanee Review fellowship. In 1970, he dedicated The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy to Mansfield, the only volume he ever dedicated to someone outside his immediate family. Following the book’s publication, Dickey had written to James Wright on 19 October about his colleague, who by then was teaching in the French Department at Hunter College, declaring, “If you don’t know him, you should meet him. He knows more about modern French literature than anybody in the world, and you would love him” (One Voice 97). Like Dickey, Mansfield was disgruntled at Rice, which both men believed underpaid them, stifled their creativity, and undermined their teaching with its antiquated academic organization.

In a 1996 interview several months before he died, Dickey described his friend as a “rebellious spirit” and “a strange, shadowy character” (Hart 174), attributes which had intrigued him. Mansfield used his lecture not only to inform and educate his audience about existentialism but also to organize his own thoughts regarding its complex and seemingly contradictory ideas. In so doing, he cultivated Dickey’s nascent understanding of this philosophic and literary movement then currently centered in France, where Mansfield had been born. If Dickey’s military training and combat service in the Pacific had initially freed him from the provinciality of his Southern childhood, the ideas he gleaned from existentialism further enlarged his understanding of the world by relating the individual to the larger social and artistic culture in which he lived. A decade later Dickey extended these existential principles to provide a literary basis for the poems he wanted to write.

Mansfield’s lecture, in effect, initiated Dickey’s gradual movement from his apprentice poems of the fifties, those overtly imitating modernism, to those he characterized as his “early motion,” works published between 1960 and 1967. “The Self as Agent,” an essay he first published in 1968, derived from this transformation, revealing how Dickey had translated the philosophic underpinnings of existentialism into the poetic principles that guided his new work. In particular, his poem “Buckdancer’s Choice,” which had appeared in the 19 June 1965 issue of The New Yorker, encapsulated the existential imperative to continually re-create the self and the art that reflected one’s identity. Its “thousand variations of one song” involves the ever-changing nature of both poetry and the self and exemplifies the poems in which Dickey exhibits the existential principles to which Mansfield’s lecture exposed him.

I

Mansfield’s lecture, titled “Existentialism: A Philosophy of Hope or Despair?” and later published in the October 1954 issue of The Rice Institute Pamphlet, was less a formal treatise or manifesto of the movement than a personal effort to place the philosophy in its historical context, explore the principles on which it was based, and suggest how it had extended itself literarily. Mansfield centered existentialism in post-World War II Paris, when the human condition caused by the conflict compelled the philosophy into being more than a mere ingredient of human thought, a period when it “ceased to be a problem for professional philosophers and became a force, a conviction, a climate” (3). He singled out Jean-Paul Sartre as the leader most directly responsible for the current vogue and cited Sartre’s participation in the French Resistance, that is, in the specific personal experiences that caused those in the underground movement, in the torture and peril and humiliation they faced, to understand that there was something in the human spirit that could never be taken away and that “like a hard unalterable core at the center of the human spirit, […] may be called—perhaps for want of a better word—liberty” (2). Though Sartre was later shown not to have been an active participant in the Resistance, the idea immediately appealed to Dickey, whose own combat in the Pacific theatre as a member of the 418th Night Fighter Squadron forever changed him. “You can never do anything in your life,” Dickey later declared, “that will give you such a feeling of consequence” (Self-Interviews 137-38). The conflict had exposed him to the brutality and savage intensity of fighting, where he had seen blackened Japanese soldiers huddled in caves, incinerated by American flame throwers, and the remains of kamikaze pilots shackled to their planes, their blood now dried on the instrument panels like rust. Dickey’s participation in the war altered his essential self from a callow teen interested in girls, motorcycles, and sports to an artist deeply committed to discovering personally-determined meaning and values through poetry.

In his lecture, Mansfield asserted that in Sartre’s world, “every man is endlessly involved in specific situations, that his reality depends on his being so involved, and that each situation is a facet of the history of the world” (7). More importantly, Mansfield continued, is the role of liberty, which is anchored in personal experience, “and particularly the sort of experience that he, Sartre, had undergone in France where liberty had ceased to be a slogan and become something you fight and die for” (9). Existentialists, therefore, centered themselves within the subjective self in what Mansfield termed “the pure ‘I’” (13), declaring, “Man is that creature who always chooses, and the reason, simple enough, is that he is always in a situation, he is always at the center of a network of circumstances in which he cannot remain fixed except, of course, at the risk of ceasing to exist” (14). The individual, in other words, never “is”; rather, he is always “becoming.” Therefore, there was no such thing as an abstract man but always a “man-plus-a-situation” (15) in which he must choose. To choose not to choose was nevertheless also a choice. Since circumstances were continually changing, so too was the individual. However, when the individual, Mansfield asserted, felt that he were advancing into the future as if it were sheer emptiness, that person experienced what existentialists termed “dread” or “anguish” or “hollowness” from which there was no exit. Forever in the process of “becoming,” of “denying” who we were or are in order to actualize who we will be, we are always “in suspense” (16), always advancing or retreating: “Our existence has nothing to fall back on except the capacity to go forward” (16).

Finally, Mansfield focused on what would become a crucial point for Dickey: “if man’s fundamental desire is to attain what we may call the certitude of being, and if his very liberty is employed in a constant seeking of its own denial, then all our justifications, all our flights, all our fabrications, are themselves manifestations of that liberty” (20-21). Human beings, Mansfield concluded, are engaged, totally and inevitably, such that one’s liberty is always manifested here and now and nowhere else. In choosing ourselves, we choose the world as well, continually creating and then destroying ourselves “like a lord in its own domain” (23). As Inez, one of Sartre’s main characters in his 1944 drama No Exit (Huis Clos) states, “One always dies too soon—or too late. And yet one’s whole life is complete at that moment, with a line drawn neatly under it, ready for the summing up. You are—your life, and nothing else” (45).

II

The question raised by the title of the lecture was significant because, as Mansfield stated, “we are not only condemned to be free; at the same time we are condemned to deny our freedom” (21). The individual, existentialists contended, affirmed himself by denying himself. In the process of “becoming,” one’s existence manifested itself in the negation of who one was. The paradox was irreconcilable and placed a serious and sensitive individual like Dickey in a quandary. It suggested both the absence of God, a tenet that contradicted Dickey’s parental upbringing, and a denial of the Romantic ideal of the essential Self, which Dickey affirmed. Such an existential dilemma was philosophically troubling, requiring him to adopt a practical approach. “Man no longer has to depend upon any kind of supernaturalisms,” he told Bill Moyers in a conversation on 25 January 1976, “nor can he rely on them.” He then cited Sartre’s famous formula—“Man is free to act but he must act to be free” (Night Hurdling 91). As Ernest Suarez has noted, morality for Dickey subsequently became “a subjective construct devoid of a supernatural touchstone” (53). Indeed, although Dickey throughout his life liked church rituals, he was never a practicing Christian after childhood, frequently observing to others, “God is so much more than God!” Like Sartre, he avoided the religious implications inherent in the philosophy, realizing that, properly speaking, no solution to this dilemma existed. As Mansfield had phrased it, “the very endeavor to achieve what amounts after all to a kind of ‘relativism’ of the absolute, an uneasy pact between subjectivity and circumstance, or more broadly, between idealism and materialism, is exceedingly dangerous” (24). Instead, Dickey committed himself to the idea of existential becoming by choosing liberties more directly representative of literature—the existentialist as poet. “It is quite possible,” Dickey declared, “that I am oversimplifying, and drawing the lines too sharply. If the personality and being of the I-figure and the poet himself were entirely separate from each other, it would be much easier to discuss the two. But, of course, that is not—and could not be—the case. What happens is that the poet comes on a part of himself inadvertently; he surprises this part and then uses it, and, as he uses it, he more fully discovers it” (162). Dickey, in effect, was rebuking T.S. Eliot. After all, he wrote in “The Self as Agent,” “it is part of the way in which the human being makes identifications to take the persona of the poem for the poet himself: to make him personally accountable not only for the poem’s form and its insights but for the events which the poem describes, translated back into the world of real human beings and non-mental objects” (Sorties 157-58).

For Dickey, artistic creation came to serve as a self-conscious analogue to the existentialist’s ontological notion that existence is a continual process of becoming. For many poets, he maintained, the “most significant creation […] is his fictional self.” Indeed, Dickey continued, “the poet comes to feel,” while writing, “that he is releasing into its proper field of response a portion of himself that he has never really understood” (156-57). Consequently, the poet “feels a strange freedom”—perhaps a sense of existential liberty—as well as “a new set of restrictions,” owing to the formal demands of his art “when he realizes that he can call into play—can energize—any aspect of himself he wishes to, even if he does not yet know what it is to be: any self that the poem calls for”:

His personality is fluid and becomes what it is most poetically profitable for it to become, in the specific poem in which it comes to exist. Poems are points in time when the I-figure congeals and takes on a definite identity and ascertainable qualities, and the poet is able to appear, for the space of the poem, as a coherent and stabilizing part of the presentation, observing, acting, and serving as a nucleus of the unities and means and revelations of the poem, a kind of living focal point—or perhaps it would be better to say that he finds himself living the focal point.

From poem to poem, moreover, no I-figure remains obligated to act in conformity with the poet’s other selves (160-61).

III

As Mansfield presented it, existentialism was a particularly rigorous system of belief, a philosophy committed to a form of truth that defied ordinary reality in that it contradicted itself. “Perhaps this is why,” he argued, “the best of existential writing is not to be found in tracts and essays—such as this one, for example—but in works of a creative and semi-creative nature” (2-3). He noted a number of novelists and playwrights of postwar France who could scarcely be called philosophers whose work nevertheless bore the existential stamp. “Most important among those,” Mansfield declared, “are Albert Camus, Mauric Blanchot, and Simone de Beauvoir, and many are little-known writers of the postwar generation who have fallen under the influence of existential doctrine” (3). Being, it was clear in their writings, was not to be found in the past but rather in the future, a fact that explains Sartre’s comment that each of his characters “after having done anything whatsoever, can do anything whatsoever” (20). In poems beginning with the publication of Dickey’s first collection, Into the Stone, published in 1960, his poetic personae reflected his existential effort to re-create himself through his characters, each of which he termed the “I-figure” or what Mansfield had labeled “the pure ‘I’.”

As James Breslin has observed in his critical study, From Modern to Contemporary: American Poetry, 1945-1965, Dickey’s problem during the fifties was part of a larger phenomenon—his literary grandfathers, artists such as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams, all of whom had risen to prominence in the twenties, remained clearly established. Eliot, for example, had published a Collected Poems in 1936, and in the postwar period Stevens, Williams, and Pound had all issued major collections, an effort, so it seemed, to consolidate their work. The publication of Paterson (1946-51) and The Pisan Cantos (1948), however, demonstrably revealed that modernists could extend their ideas into unexplored areas, continuing their dominance and achieving a literary hegemony. They remained formidable if not venerated. While Time had judged The Waste Land a hoax in its 3 March 1923 issue, labeling it a “new kind of literature […] whose only obvious fault is that no one can understand it,” the magazine had enthroned Eliot on its 6 March 1950 cover, acknowledging his “Olympian judgments” and asserting, “Mr. Eliot is secure and honored in his high place as one of the foremost men of English letters.” Despite the fact that poets such as Langston Hughes, Kenneth Rexroth, and Randall Jarrell were all writing poetry different from that of the modernists, magazines remained dominated by the midcentury formalism that obscured Dickey’s view of a larger literary landscape, a fact best indicated in his 1956 review of Randall Jarrell’s Selected Poems in which Dickey offered two different views of Jarrell. An era did not appear to be ending. Dickey and others of his generation, in other words, had no literary fathers, no one who had loudly broken through the status quo to establish a new perspective or a new direction.

Because no one among the mid-century generation of poets had been able to press beyond modernist criteria for what poetry should be or do, Dickey had initially adopted their emphasis on strict objectivity, craftsmanship, and the use of ritual and myth, all in order to “fit in,” to out-modern the modernists by exhibiting even more craft and a witty learnedness so as to be accepted by reviewers and adherents to New Criticism. Early published poems, for example, including “The Shark at the Window” (1951), “Of Holy War” (1951), and “Utterance I” (1953), all consciously deferred to modernist principles, examples of the well-made poem. He had detailed in his journals how the conscious manipulation of technical devices, such as meter and rhyme, would reinforce narrative intent and dramatic situation, a process he termed “the building of the rational poem” (Striking In 114). For Dickey, the technical device in these early apprentice poems became a crafted three-beat line. Mansfield’s 1953 lecture, however, constituted the turning point for Dickey’s new approach to his work, a poetics that centered the poet within his poem. He would later write, “I have never been able to dissociate the poem from the poet, and I hope I never will. I really don’t believe in Eliot’s theory of autotelic art, in which the poem has nothing to do with the man who wrote it. I think that’s the most absolute rubbish!” (Self-Interviews 24). What Dickey now insisted on with his poetry, thanks to his introduction to and understanding of existentialism, was the liberty of the poet to create any situation or persona that established his own reality, an optimistic self-assertion into the future.

That understanding, however, arrived only with difficulty. When he moved beyond his early work into what Dickey labelled his “central motion,” abandoning lyrical moments in favor of a sprawling, almost prosaic format, poems that included “Falling,” “The Fiend,” “May Day Sermon,” and “The Eye-Beaters,” form or structure nevertheless remained a concern. Terming this new technique “a block format,” a seeming wall of words down which the reader must climb, Dickey also utilized a split-line in which bursts of words resembled the manner in which the mind associates verbally, the gaps themselves almost serving as punctuation. Even in what would be considered his late motion, poems such as “Pine” and “The Eagle’s Mile,” form mattered; the lines were balanced on the page, resembling branches off the main trunk of a tree such that the reader sensed a thematically-centered structure.

Dickey therefore never fully distanced himself from a belief in, and need for, poetic form, citing Robert Frost’s belief that art was a momentary stay against confusion and adding, “But you have to realize that in the last analysis, it’s actually the order of art only. Art must have this order; it would not be possible except for the divine disorder of human experience” (Self-Interviews 185). However, while Dickey arguably never strayed far from his formalist beginnings, having learned his trade from the poet-critics of New Criticism, what remained of foremost concern was his liberty to do—and be—whatever he wished. Commenting on techniques of poetry, he wrote in his early notebooks, “To a mind which cultivates words and images, the poem will seem to leap into them, as an animal creates his own shape in the net that confines him. The net is nothing without the beast, but perhaps it would be better were he free” (Striking In 113). Form, however, was simply the means by which Dickey presented his various personae, the measure by which he developed and realized his poetic selves and made them personally accountable. For existentialists, the net was not important; the beast was.

In the years following Mansfield’s lecture, Dickey never stopped involving himself with French existentialism. While traveling in France on his Sewanee Review fellowship, for example, he attended a lecture by Camus at the Sorbonne.  His daughter Bronwen later recalled in a 7 March 2018 email to me, “I remember talking to him about Sartre and Camus when I started high school. We discussed No Exit and The Stranger, and he told me about Sartre’s relationship with Simon de Beauvoir. We also discussed Beckett around the same time because I was reading Waiting for Godot during winter break. At some point, he mentioned everybody in passing (Kierkegaard included), and we had books by all of them in the house.” David Havird, a former student, remembers in a 3 March 2021 email to me that when Dickey, four years before his death in 1997, was invited to Centenary College to receive the John William Corrington Award for Literary Excellence, he brought with him Camus’s essays in French. “The edition,” he stated, “was a small-format (though rather thick) leather-bound book, the leather being pliable, not stiff, and brown. This was one of a number of books he brought, but I remember its being out and open in the on-campus suite where he was staying.” Forty years later, Mansfield’s talk in 1953 and French existentialism still held Dickey’s attention.

IV

In spring 1985 Dickey and I were having lunch in Columbia, South Carolina. He noticed my copy of Self-Interviews, which I had brought to query him about a specific point he had made during those interviews Barbara and James Reiss had conducted in June 1968. I inquired about the wide experiences he had had in his life as an athlete, combat aviator, businessman, classroom teacher, and poet who had travelled extensively and given frequent readings to varied audiences. He relished their diversity, he claimed, and reached for my copy of his book, thumbing through it knowingly until he reached the desired page. “It does give you,” he read aloud, “an idea of the infinite possibilities of human relationships, the infinitely large number of combinations with people that are always possible under any circumstances” (50). Then he reached for the black, felt-tip pen in his shirt pocket, underlined the passage, and wrote “Yes  Yes  Yes!!!”

Our conversation continued. He inquired what I had thought of his essay “The Self as Agent,” which he had included in his 1971 collection of journals titled Sorties. Though the book contained six other compelling and insightful critical pieces, he wanted to center on this one. I had read the entire book while writing my thesis some five years previous and had been intrigued not only by the ideas in “The Self as Agent” but also by its critical and philosophic acumen.

The essay opens with a direct, unambiguous declaration: “Every poem written—and particularly those which make use of a figure designated in the poem as ‘I’—is both an exploration and an invention of identity” (Sorties 155). The statement openly insisted upon the continual creation of self, an existential imperative, and although Dickey slightly qualified the statement by declaring that the persona is “correspondingly conditioned far more by the demands of the poem as a formal linguistic structure than by those of the literal incident upon which it may be based” (155), he nevertheless correlated the persona with the poet who has created him. As such, Dickey declared that the persona assumed a personality that “fitted more or less well, more or less perfectly, to the realm of the poem,” what he termed “his fictional self” (156). However, while the personality of the I-figure might never occur, and while the poet was under no obligation to make him do so, “the author’s personality as it changes from poem to poem is not assignable to any single poem. A certain Protean quality is one of the poet’s most valuable assets” (156). Dickey saw the poem, and the persona within it, as being dependent upon one another and by their relation to himself, who was creating this “situation”: “the poem is a realm that is being created around the I-figure as he is being created within it” (157). “During the writing of the poem,” Dickey asserted, “the poet comes to feel that he is releasing into its proper field of response a portion of himself that he has never really understood” (157). Indeed, throughout his career, Dickey demanded the liberty to do so, the freedom not to lock himself into a certain literary style or method that precluded any subject matter or persona. Simply stated, he was free to do or be anything he wished, or as he stated in Self-Interviews, “the province of the poem is the poet’s, and in it he is God” (32). To limit himself, to fail to explore the possibilities inherent in a poem, would negate what existentialists would say was potential being, the power to determine What Is, leaving the poet “hollow” or “anguished.” What makes a writer complete, Dickey asserted, was the “emotional and physical commitment to the situation about which he is writing” (Sorties 85). “More and more,” he wrote in a journal entry, “I see myself as the poet of survival” (83), an identity achieved by continually re-creating himself through his personae. He insisted on what existentialists termed “the certitude of being.”

V

“The better the poet is,” Dickey proceeded to declare in “The Self as Agent,” “the more personalities he will have, and the more surely he will find the right forms to give each of them its being, its time and place, and its voice,” adding that the poet “has a personality large enough to encompass and explore each of the separate, sometimes related, sometimes unrelated, personalities that inhabit him” (160-61). Beginning in the sixties, Dickey’s insistence as a poet on the utter freedom to create a persona who may or may not be resemble himself and to have that figure be or become whatever he wished became a starting point for his poetry. Reviewers and critics might have termed it poetic license, but Dickey declared that the poet was a secondary Creator. “The real poet,” he asserted, “opts for the truth of the poem as against the truth of fact, the truth of truth” (160).

American literature has a long history of artists creating stories about themselves or assuming masks to create or enlarge their self-identity or enhance their popularity, not the least of whom was Robert Frost. His mask of being a kindly grandfather figure late in his career made him a beloved cultural figure but belay a mean-spirited, ungracious personality. Dickey, however, elevated the number of exaggerated stories, use of masks, and variety of poetic personae into an art form in itself. Throughout the decade, Dickey reveled in the freedom mandated by existentialists. By using his poetic personae, he transformed himself or, at a minimum, an aspect of himself, into whoever or whatever piqued his interest. Sometimes Dickey used a first-person persona—a Southern slave owner who has fathered a dusky child (“Slave Quarters’), a lifeguard failing to save a drowned child (“The Lifeguard”), a poisoned man (“The Poisoned Man”), a hobo during the Depression crucified on a boxcar (“A Folk Singer of the Thirties”), and a magus (“The Magus”); sometimes, he used third-person fictional selves whose points of view dominated the poems or shared a perspective—a sleeping man possessed by a being (“The Being”), a homicidal voyeur (“The Fiend”), a sheep child (“The Sheep Child”), a blind child (“The Owl King”), a trout (“Winter Trout”), a girl whose beauty is revealed only after a terrible car crash that disfigures her (“Scarred Girl”), a truck driver (“Them, Crying”), a dead Southerner (“Sled Burial, Dream Ceremony”), a rabid nocturnal animal (“The Head-Aim”), a stewardess falling to her death (“Falling”), and a woman preacher (“May Day Sermon”). Even in his fiction, Dickey projected himself, declaring in Sorties that he was Lewis Medlock in Deliverance: “I am Lewis; every word is true” (75). In his classroom settings, moreover, or on his extensive reading tours, he enlarged the existential mandate by assuming masks or playing roles, sometimes simply out of boredom with the repetitiveness of daily routines or sometimes just to see how far his invention could be creatively carried and accepted. Frequently, for example, he exaggerated his college athleticism, wartime accomplishments, or hunting prowess. Allowing his listeners to believe his tall tales and fabrications and thus the persona he wanted to assume, Dickey frequently enhanced his football and track skills, improved his archery and tennis talents, misspoke about his hunting and canoeing adventures, and invented stories about his combat experiences. He told close friends, fellow writers, and academic colleagues, for example, that he has been a successful Clemson halfback and would have played in the National Football League had not a physical injury precluded it. He wrote to James Wright on 3 October 1958 that he had finished Vanderbilt on a track scholarship and set a high hurdles record for the South in 1947 at the Cotton Carnival Meet in Memphis. “I think the record is still standing,” he stated, “though I am not sure” (One Voice 282-84). Despite being a flight navigator, having washed out in his effort to fulfill his dream of becoming a pilot, he verbally promoted himself, claiming to have flown one hundred missions. Once, he related the story of how he had frantically dodged a swarm of Japanese planes while in a dogfight over the Pacific and how his tail gunner had watched pieces of fuselage fly off as enemy gunfire raked the plane. He told his son Christopher that he had been shot down over Borneo, bailed out over the ocean, and been miraculously rescued by a submarine. None of the tales were true, but by deliberately re-creating himself, by enlarging his identity as a combat hero, more readers and critics believed—and relished—what they believed to be the “truth” of James Dickey. Long before his best-selling and critically acclaimed novel Deliverance (1970), his son Christopher declared, “my father had begun to make himself up,” concluding, “He would not tolerate for a second the world as it was.” Indeed, Dickey agreed with the 19th-century philosophy Nietzsche: “No artist tolerates reality,” which explains his statement that “One gets so tired of the truth. One wants to make another kind” (Sorties 103).

Once, after reading an interview in which he claimed to have run bootleg whiskey down from the Georgia hills in a souped-up automobile, I asked Dickey why he had invented such a story. “You were never a bootlegger,” I said, “You never did anything like that.” He looked me straight in the eyes and responded, “It’s all part of the creative process.” He believed, and believed absolutely, in what he termed “the creative possibilities of the lie.” “I think lying, with luck sublimely, is what the creative man does,” he wrote in 1971. “Picasso once said something to the effect that art is a lie which makes us see the truth, or which makes truth better than it is. That is very much my feeling. When you see this, then you can act in your own way” (Self-Interviews 32). Dickey needed to re-invent himself, needed to assume a new skin, and he was never loathe to try to “be” or “become” whatever he wished, a mandate underscored by a journal entry: “Why is the sense of starting over so important to me?” (Sorties 6). Plato would have viewed Dickey’s insistence on creativity negatively. “The poets,” Plato had written, “the poets lie too much,” and would have banned them from The Republic. Dickey declared that the insult should have been construed differently. “To be most genuinely damaging to the poets,” he wrote, “the philosopher might better have said, ‘Our poets do not lie creatively enough; I prefer the real world untouched by their fabrications based upon it.’ For it is within the authentic magic of fabrication (a making-up as a making) that the I-figure moves, for as he receives his kind of reality—both an imposed and a discovered reality—from the poet and from language, so his being, his memorability, and his effect increase, and his place in his only world is more nearly assured” (Sorties 161-62). The statement mandates the importance of the creative enterprise—what it was for Dickey (that is, an artist whose medium was words) and what its implications were for both the poet and reader. It underscores the importance of “being” and “becoming.”

In a later entry, he elaborated: “Why this longing for new people? Ah, that can never be understood, or relieved. It is beyond belief, and stronger than anything else in life: this intolerable longing for something unknown that comes to me in the center of one’s comfort” (61). Dickey’s need to choose other identities by positing himself in different situations not only occurred in specific poetic personae and in his creative exaggerations and stories but also in his frequent impersonations.  According to David Havird, a student who was attending Dickey’s classes, Dickey at a faculty party claimed to have received a telephone call from Marlon Brando, who wanted to be the lead in his television movie Call of the Wild, for which Dickey had written the screenplay. To the incredulity of those around him, he recited the conversation while impersonating Brando. On another occasion he pretended to be Lionel Barrymore who played Dr. Gillespie in the Dr. Kildare movies of the thirties and forties. Other times he would try Robert Lowell, affecting the latter’s Southern murmur. Jim Mann, another Dickey student, remembers his imitating the voice of John Crowe Ransom. Meeting the elderly poet, Dickey had asked him of his plans now that he had retired from Kenyon College. Would he write more poetry? Dickey imitated his answer in a high genteel voice: “Ah, no, Mr. Dickey. I think I’ll buy a small town newspaper and write myself a column,” which he pronounced “col-yum,” which Dickey took as a regional pronunciation of Ransom’s. On another occasion, while Dickey and I were talking on the telephone, he began to imitate the voice of John Beresford Tipton from the television series The Millionaire, played by Paul Frees, the veteran character actor and voice artist. Dickey liked stepping out of who he was and assuming, if only temporarily, a new self which he could at any time summarily dismiss. “He was always something of a showman,” his second wife Deborah remembered. “He liked being playful.” Dickey’s amusing, decidedly amateurish impersonations were not symptomatic of self-exploration or an existential process of becoming; he simply wanted the attention. Such showmanship, however, did permit him to briefly assume a mask, outwardly becoming some Other, a more social, more playful endeavor to extend his identity than the serious efforts of poems in his “early motion.”

VI

The Early Motion, published in 1981, contained the volumes Drowning with Others (1962) and Helmets (1964) but not Into the Stone (1960), most of which by 1965 Dickey considered influenced too much by formal modernism. Even The Whole Motion: Collected Poems, 1945-1992 (1992) did not contain all of the poems first published in Into the Stone. However, Buckdancer’s Choice, which had followed Helmets in 1965 and which had won the National Book Award the following year, was not included in The Central Motion: Poems 1968-1979, which was published in 1983. It is possible to argue that Dickey considered the volume a hybrid, portraying aspects of both volumes, and consequently not appropriate for inclusion in either “motion.” The title poem, however, serves as a correlative to the existential attitudes that Dickey had assimilated from Mansfield’s lecture more than a decade earlier.

Like many of the poems in Dickey’s “early motion,” “Buckdancer’s Choice” was grounded in personal experience. Discussing the poem in Self-Interviews, he stated that its genesis derived from his mother, who suffered from angina pectoris, and her “warbling” as she rested in bed. She had “a beautiful warble,” Dickey remembered, “I loved to hear her. In some strange way I connected her whistling with the old minstrel shows where the name ‘Buckdancer’s Choice’ originally came from.” A buck dancer was a buck-and-wing dancer, the principal dancer of the old-time minstrel shows. The showmen of buck-and-wing had developed in the days of slavery, but after the Civil War, minstrel shows became popular, and ex-slaves who had danced on the plantations participated, the dance itself a fast and flashy clogging, usually performed in wooden-soled shoes and that combined clogging styles, high kicks, and complex African rhythms and steps such as the shuffle and slide made popular by vaudeville. Dickey wanted to bring these elements together—the invalid mother with a heart condition and the dying tradition of minstrel shows revived in this woman’s incidental whistling of the old-time minstrel show music, “Buckdancer’s Choice” (139-40). He did so not by centering himself in a traditional Greek or Christian myth, as he had done earlier, for example, in “The Vegetable King” (1959) or “Sleeping Out at Easter” (1960). Rather, “Buckdancer’s Choice” concerns his mother as she warbles the song and its infinite variations, her “gift of tongues,” while Dickey, then a little boy, listens unseen in the hall outside her door.

Richard Calhoun and Robert Hill correctly observe that the poem centers on “its sense of mission to the survivors of the world” (65), focusing on the lesson Dickey had learned as a child when he heard the warbles his mother whistled all day to herself. The opening is emphatic: “So I would hear out those lungs,” the persona declares, of a woman dying of breathlessness who nevertheless “Yet still found breath enough / To whistle.”  Her voice causes him to imagine “the classic buck-and-wing men / / Of traveling minstrel shows,” and to realize “what choices there are / For the last dancers of their kind, / For ill women and for all slaves / Of death, and children enchanted at walls.” The music, Calhoun and Hill assert, “symbolizes the mother’s vigorous, almost evangelical spirit” (65). One is immediately reminded here of another of Dickey’s early poems, “The Performance,” where Donald Armstrong is beheaded by his Japanese executioner but only after he has accomplished “All things in this life that he could.” While dying, they both bravely make choices.

Calhoun and Hill, however, fail to discuss the poem’s call to deliberately and continually “become,”  never explore the existential mandate to “be” through “the thousand variations of one song,” the warbling “Through stratum after stratum of a tone / Proclaiming what choices there are / For the last dancers of their kind.” For Dickey, the mother’s choice not to be silent but rather to sing, despite knowing that finally the individual voice will fail, becomes a “gift” that an artist must cultivate. As the little boy standing in the hallway himself dying of breath, Dickey now knows the need for choice, for variation, for new identities, so that he becomes “Not dancing but nearly risen / Through barnlike, theatrelike houses / On the wings of the buck and wing.” The effort, in other words, becomes not only the mother’s gift to her son, the child who remains “enchanted” by her warble, but also to him as a future singer, a poet. The warble is a trope for the existential imperative to choose.

In its focus on mortality and the imperative to continually create one’s self, “Buckdancer’s Choice” serves as a model for Dickey’s interest in and depiction of existential tenets. Other examples serve as well and underscore the importance of Mansfield’s lecture to his poetry. “By Canoe through the Fir Forest,” for example, published in the 16 June 1962 issue of The New Yorker, follows the speaker as he and a companion travel ever more deeply into a fir forest, into needles, over white stones, and on ripples that “feel no death.” The more deeply they canoe into the wilderness, the more intensely and more intimately Dickey’s poetic self identifies with the environment; his italics emphasize his intent:

As I taste the fretted light fall
Through living needles to be here
Like a word I can feed on forever

Or believe like a vision I have
Or want to conceive out of greenness.
While the world fades, it is becoming.
As the trees shut away all seeing,
In my mouth I mix it with sunlight.
Here, in the dark, it is being.

Dickey has the freedom to become whatever he wants. “Falling,” published in the 11 February 1967 issue of The New Yorker, also depicts mortality and the existential imperative to choose one’s identity. A stewardess is accidentally sucked out of an airplane in mid-flight and discovers herself in the “void ………. falling ………. beginning to be something / that no one has ever been.” As she plummets to her death, Dickey actually plots out the process of self-determination as choices present themselves to the young woman, knowing that “One cannot just fall ………. just tumble screaming all that time ………. one must use / It.” Realizing she cannot maneuver her body to dive into a lake, she disrobes, shedding the regulation airline uniform that defines her so as to land in a field, “inexplicable ………. unquestionable,” an unexpected fertility goddess whose furrows from her mortal outline stretch for miles, drawing sleepwalking farmers “toward the dreamed eternal meaning of their farms.” Dickey determines who she will be before finally dying, “that tragic cost,” but she has died with her life now existentially complete.

VII

 To the students in his Verse Composition class at the University of South Carolina, Dickey frequently cited Hart Crane’s dictum, “New thresholds, new anatomies,” a statement that depicted the existential belief that the individual self must be restricted by absolutely nothing. In pursuing this idea, however, he extended what Mansfield termed “the initiative of choice” (15) to include the use of masks and role playing, even to impersonating others. Together, all his “identities” constituted “the thousand variations of one song.” Mansfield’s presentation, simply stated, had opened the door to Dickey’s eventual realization that the poet was, or could be, “a showman.” For Dickey, existentialism was a philosophy that personally and literarily promised new beginnings, a sense of ever-renewing possibilities even in the midst of time’s diminishments. Like Mansfield’s “the pure ‘I’” and Dickey’s “I-figure,” these identities possessed what the existentialist Paul Tillich termed “the courage to be.”

At the conclusion of his lecture, Mansfield sought to answer the question posed by his title. While it was true, he argued, that “man is the fabricator of his own destiny” and “free to make of it what he will” (23), such optimism yielded a distinctly less optimistic cast when it also “affirms that his freedom is not relative but absolute, that man must fashion his own time out of nothing, that his true history is not in his past but in his future, and that not statesmen or generals or leaders of industry but each human being is profoundly and inescapably accountable for the way of the world” (23). Throughout his career, Dickey, who never involved himself in politics to the extent that Allen Ginsberg or Robert Lowell did, remained focused not on philosophy, but on literature, particularly poetry. He would have agreed with John Updike’s statement in “Religion and Literature” that the writer was “a supplier of values” and with Wallace Stevens’s direct injunction: “In an age of disbelief, or, what is the same thing, in a time that is largely humanistic, in one sense or another, it is for the poet to supply the satisfactions of belief, in his measure and in his style” (62). Dickey likely agreed with Mansfield’s final assessment that existentialism is both optimistic and pessimistic, embracing its optimistic emphasis on identity, fabrication, and becoming, but dismissing the existential stress on cultural accountability. A poet’s choices may have suggested specific values that culture should adopt, but pure freedom demanded he go wherever he wished. Or not.

 

Works Cited

Calhoun, Richard, and Robert Hill. James Dickey. Boston: Twayne, 1983.

Dickey, Christopher. Summer of Deliverance. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.

Dickey, James. Night Hurdling: Poems, Essays, Conversations, Commencements, and Afterwords. Columbia and Bloomfield Hills: Bruccoli Clark, 1983.

—. The One Voice of James Dickey: His Letters and Life, 1942-1969. Ed. Gordon Van Ness. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2003.

—. Self-Interviews. New York. Dell Publishing, 1970.

—. Sorties. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971.

—. Striking In: The Early Notebooks of James Dickey. Ed. Gordon Van Ness. Columbia and London: U of Missouri Press, 1996.

—. The Whole Motion: Collected Poems, 1945-1992. Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, 1992.

Hart, Henry. James Dickey: The World as a Lie. New York: Picador, 2000.

Mansfield, Lester. “Existentialism: A Philosophy of Hope or Despair?” The Rice Institute Pamphlet (October 1954): 1-25.

Suarez, Ernest. James Dickey and the Politics of Canon: Assessing the Savage Ideal. Columbia and London: U of Missouri P, 1998.

Updike, John. “Religion and Literature.” More Matter: Essays and Criticism. New York: Knopf, 1999. 50-62.

Gordon Van Ness

Gordon Van Ness

Gordon Van Ness was Professor of English at Longwood University for more than thirty years before retiring in 2018. He has authored or edited six books on James Dickey, including his two-volume collection of Dickey's correspondence, The One Voice of James Dickey: His Letters and Life, 1942-1997 and most recently a biography, James Dickey: A Literary Life.
Gordon Van Ness

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Author: Gordon Van Ness

Gordon Van Ness was Professor of English at Longwood University for more than thirty years before retiring in 2018. He has authored or edited six books on James Dickey, including his two-volume collection of Dickey's correspondence, The One Voice of James Dickey: His Letters and Life, 1942-1997 and most recently a biography, James Dickey: A Literary Life.