James Dickey: Four Commentaries by Laurence Lieberman on Dickey Poems


[Editor's Note: To mark the 50th anniversaries of publication of James Dickey's Buckdancer's Choice in December of 1965 and its selection for the National Book Award in February of 1966, the Fall/Winter 2015-2016 issue of Valparaiso Poetry Review offers four new commentaries on Dickey poems by Laurence Lieberman.] 





     James Dickey’s poem “Farmers” is, provisionally, a translation of an unfinished piece—a “fragment”— by the French poet Andre Frenaud. The work is unique in The Eagle's Mile, a primarily rhapsodic and transcendent book. ”Farmers” begins with a tally of failings of the subject:


There are not many meteors over the flat country


Of the old; not one metaphor between the ploughblade

                                                           And the dirt

                                                                      not much for the spirit, not enough

To raise the eyes past the horizon-line

Even to the Lord, even with neck-muscles like a bull’s

For the up-toss. The modest face has no fear…


The lack of drama and stellar events in the life chosen by the protagonists (“not many meteors”), as well as boredom of the unvaried landscape (“flat country”), are perhaps the less serious drawbacks of this occupation. Far worse, nothing ever happens that can inspire flights of imagination (“not one metaphor”), and these farmers also seem to be deprived of the religious spirit.

     The opening of Dickey’s poem “Weeds” proposes a daring goal for his verses to aspire to, the building of a bridge between “stars and grass.” His ambition will settle for no less than to sweep between these two antipodes of the author’s spiritual wayfarings, to “find some way to bring them to one level.”  The two far extremes of the spirit’s reach in this book’s poems are variously signaled by such telling phrases as “alive with the spirit-life of height” and “boundless / earthbound… joy like short grass.” But “Farmers” is the one work that restricts itself to the horizontal world of “the flat country of the old,” a life that is coldly bounded by monotonous sameness and repetition, “so nailed by your steps / into the same steps.”

     How can a vocation that is so lacking in the flights of most writings in this book, in particular, measure up? What are the strengths that will compensate for the many drawbacks in the career of farmers that will justify the final awarding of the poem’s high accolade—“figure of honor”? And indeed, why did Dickey begin the poem with such a dispiriting case against the farmers, if he meant to lavish terms of highest praise, finally, on the livelihood of the “slogger” with “modest face” and “no fear”?

     Evidently, the author began writing with the intention of translating—or collaborating with, as he puts it—an unfinished fragment of a poem about farmers by the French poet Andre Frenaud. My best guess is that he was drawn to (fascinated with) the original work’s ambivalences, its curious shufflings back and forth between the farmers’ bleak limits and saving graces. Perhaps the “fragment,” too, kept the reader constantly off guard by the sudden shifts between pros and cons of farm life, suspense building over which side of the contest would prevail at last. And much though Dickey surely has held the career of farmers in high esteem all his life, the fragment may have shaken him into an awareness that most poems in this collection set a very high bar on values that would appear as shortcomings in the life of farmers. The risky and exciting challenge for Dickey, then, would be to tackle this one subject that might severely test the proud high-flier virtues of a man struggling to galvanize the eagle-like traits in his own personal makeup.

     Most compelling in this work, I feel, is the teetering vacillation between pluses and minuses in the farmer’s vocation. It’s a dizzying ride for the reader who struggles to stay aboard the verse-boat’s swervings, which is perhaps best revealed by the surprise juxtaposition of “Slogger—Figure of glory.” And the passage that follows expertly perpetuates the nervous imbalances I’m noting:



Figure of glory


Less and more than real, fooled always

By the unforeseeable: so nailed by your steps

Into the same steps    so marked by wisdom calamitously come by,

And always uncertain, valiantly balancing,

So stripped, so hog-poor still, after a long day

In the immemorial, that I cannot say to you

Where you will hear me,

Farmer, there will be no end to your knowing


The pastures drawn breathless by the furrow,

                                                                 The fields, heartsick, unquenchable     arid  


                                                                                  The forgivable slowness…



On Sunday, you come back Monday to the laying-out

In squares of your infinite land…



This passage best captures the special controlled waveriness of the poem’s electrifying style. I presume that the seesawing that keeps the reader in uneasy tenterhooks in such a block of lines kept the author in suspense, creatively, as the poem’s composition unfolded. He stacked the odds so sharply against the farmers at the start to put the usual tenets of this book’s avian vision to the severest test. Ideally, he mustn’t know, himself, which way the scales of judgment—in favor of, or against—the farmers will ultimately tip…. While writing the poem, he cannot know the final score—there must be high gamble in the trials of imagery, in the misty weather of words. He must know that he can lose his bet for the work’s risks to ring true.


And indeed, any set of values that fails to recognize the exaltation of farmers must collapse under its own ethical weight.





     One of the leading motifs of James Dickey's early career was his exploration of the consciousness of women. "May Day Sermon" and "Falling" were the two masterworks in this mode. In "May Day Sermon," his Faulknerian command of Southern speech vernacular electrified the voice of the lady preacher. In "Falling," written in the third person, an equivalent intimacy is achieved by the sustained wonderment of the falling stewardess's free association of images in quest for survival. Both poems achieve a remarkable credibility in hypnotic projection of the mind-set of the female persona.

     Virtually all poems in Dickey's late volume Puella are uttered in the simulated voice of the poet's second wife—Deborah. No fewer than three poems in his last collection, The Eagle's Mile, resume his studies of the nature of woman's sensibility.

     Despite its somewhat cryptic start, the brief concise poem "Weeds" develops into an obliquely compelling love lyric:


Stars and grass

Have between them a connection I’d like to make

More of—find some way to bring them


To one level any way I can,

And put many weeds in amongst. O woman, now that I’m thinking,

Be in there somewhere! Until now. Of the things I made up

Only the weeds are any good: Between them,


Nondescript and tough, I peer,

The backs of my hands



At the sides of my face, parting the stringy stalks.

Tangible, distant woman, here the earth waits for you

With what it does not need

To guess: with what it truly has

In its hands. Through pigweed and sawgrass


Move; move sharply; move in

                               Through anything,

                                                                   and hurt, if you have to. Don’t come down:


                                                                        Come forward. A man loves you.


All of the meditative ruminations are addressed to a single listener who is not present, "O woman." Midway through his soliloquy, the speaker summons the "tangible, distant woman" to come to him. The linking of woman with weeds reveals, by indirection, a special side of her character. Woman, too, is "nondescript and tough," and amazingly, both stars and grass may come together in her, or "a connection... between them" may ignite through her. She and the weeds may strike a man as unnatural, or wrongly placed, until he gets to know them better. They are entities that would seem to challenge, or shake up, the natural order of things. Like weeds, woman comes to be seen as the improbable wild card, factor X, that reshuffles the poles of existence. The male persona recognizes woman to be both stellar—astrally placed—and moving toward him "through pigweed and sawgrass.” Only she can bring the heavens and grasslands "to one level."

     As much as any poem in James Dickey's oeuvre, "Weeds" is a metaphysical depiction of womanhood. But the work's inquiry is both a search for a novel view of the cosmos and a fresh take on the nature of woman. At the finish, the speaker leaves off from his mind-quest and shifts abruptly to a tone of intimacy and endearments. His address to the woman has turned personal. Her goddess part stays up in the stars (“Don’t come down”), but their relationship will probably be painful (“hurt, if you have to”). And in the wider context of this book, the woman remains at the tangible, distant height of those glorious circling eagles.

     "Weeds," in my judgment, is also one of the key works that elucidates the latest turn in Dickey’s art of prosody. Its thesis advances clues to his latest collection’s earned—if neglected by most critics—status as a breakthrough book, establishing new frontiers in Dickey’s art. In most poems of The Eagle's Mile, the images strive for the nondescript toughness of weeds. In Dickey’s new lineation and stanzaic choppiness of form, parts of the poems may freely interrupt and irreverently subvert the normal regularities of Dickeys more patterned earlier forms. Those recurring grasses. Predictable shapes. The late mode is a versification full of weedy surprises. In his craft, the writer avoids the likenesses of grassblades’ neatness. Polished edges. Instead, he’s “parting the stringy stalks,” and his writing wand risks loops and swirls.

     Until now, he says, “of the things I made up / only weeds were any good.” Indeed, these late poems adventurously mix and match those “things I made up”: actualities—“stars and grass” (which began this poem), beaches, birds, horses, oceans, rivers, mountains—which become enduring symbols in Dickey’s ongoing creation of this book’s terrestrial, oceanic, riverine, aerial and astronomic mythology. He postulates they’re all things he has “made up,” but they are basic entities that belong to us all equally, though he has devised newly charged prototypes of them in these meditative verses.





     In James Dickey’s poem “Circuit,” the speaker is preoccupied with an exercise in idle curiosity. He’s taking a relaxed stroll down the beach, and for the first seven lines, he manages to resist the temptation to draw any parallel between the performance—if you will—of beaches and his own human rounds. He knows well enough that his mind selflessly at play will not remain perfunctory for long, but he delays impinging on his human selfhood by fancying that the beaches have a mind of their own:


Beaches; it is true: they go on    on

And on, but as they ram and pack, foreseeing


Around a curve, always    slow-going headlong


                                                   For the circle

                             swerving from water

But not really, their minds on a perfect connection, no matter

How long it takes. You can’t be

On them without making the choice

To meet yourself no matter


How long. Don’t be afraid;

It will come    will hit you


Straight out of the wind, on wings or not,

Where you have blanked yourself


Still with your feet. It may be raining


In twilight, a sensitive stripping

Or arrow feathers, a lost trajectory struck

                                                  Stock-stilling through them,

                                                        or where you cannot tell

If the earth is green or red


Basically, or if the rock with your feet on it


Has floated over the water. As for where you are standing


Now, there are none of those things; there are only

In one shallow spray-pool    this one


Strong horses circling.  Stretch and tell me, Lord;

                                                                   Let the place talk


This just may be it.


Many poems in this cycle begin with the author struggling to induce in himself a purity of meditation on the world of Nature, held at bay, kept outside his delimited personal identity. He would continue, for as long as possible, to put to the test—to challenge—whatever preconceptions we take for granted about parts of our world. He knows that our almost inescapable tendency is to let our human personality and biases distort the purity of our perceptions. One of the great rewards for the reader of these poems is to savor the frequently sustained purity of that witnessing. That investigative questioning…. In this poem, his personal distance falls away in the middle of line 7: “You can’t be / on them without making the choice / to meet yourself no matter how long.” In the closely related poem “Daybreak,” the persona keeps his impulse to humanly analogize the setting in abeyance for l4 lines, exactly half of the poem. But in “Circuit,” even as he surmises that the curving beaches he meanders across are striving to form a complete circle—“their minds on a perfect connection”—he projects his human mind into the circuitry, since the speaker’s  “making the choice to meet yourself” echoes that perfect connecting of beaches.

     At this juncture, the speaker’s passion to make this human “circuit” seems modeled after Theodore Roethke’s grand struggle in late works of his “North American Sequence.” In “Journey to the Interior” particularly, he was searching for the right places in the landscape of the American northwest that could mirror and reveal the seat of his soul. And that is the formula for Dickey’s quest in his poem. His all-day wanderings on beaches are a pursuit of such a self-collision, and the providential meeting with himself will very likely be ushered in by high-flying birds or “strong horses circling,” those two favorite animal divinities in this author’s pantheistic world-view.

     The unforeseen moment—“Don’t be afraid; / It will come    will hit you / straight out of the wind, on wings or not”—is the apocalyptic meeting with himself.  It occurs with the innocent shock of an accidental happening. “You have blanked yourself  still” suggests a passivity of the persona. As the speaker muses upon the happenstance conditions that may best lead to the revelatory moment, he drifts into an image drawn from a favorite hobby of Dickey’s—hunting animals with bow and arrow: “It may be raining / in twilight, a sensitive stripping / of arrow-feathers, lost trajectory struck / stock-stilling through them….”

     In the world of spirits, old lost trajectories are saved, waiting for us to reclaim them, and likewise, they bulwark our hidden selves. Dickey’s arrow-feathers is an image that sculpturally conveys this. An arrow was fired in the past, and it went astray (“lost trajectory”), but the arrow continued, unbeknownst, to seek its target. And now, it “hit you,” so you will stop still in your tracks , wait and listen: “As for where you are standing / now… in one shallow spray-pool     this one / strong horses circling. Stretch and tell me Lord; / let the place talk / This may just be it.”

     For today, this one tide pool is the place. He must “stretch” to find himself here. The good Lord helping, guiding, this is where he may recover his lost soul.





You sit on solid sand banks trying to figure

What the difference is when you see

The sun and at the same time see the ocean

Has no choice: none, but to advance more or less

                                                                                        As it does:


Which were, a moment ago, actual

Bodiless sounds that could have been airborne,

Now bring nothing but face-off


After face-off, with only gravitational sprawls

Laid in amongst them. To those crests

                                                                                       Dying hard, you have nothing to say:

                                                                       you cannot help it


If you emerge, it is not your fault. You show: you stare


Into the cancelling gullies, saved only by dreaming a future

Of walking forward, in which you can always go flat


Flat down where the shallows have fallen

Clear: where water is shucked of all wave-law:

Lies running, runs


In skylight, gradually cleaning, and you gaze straight into


The whole trembling forehead of yourself

Under you, and at your feet find your body


No different from cloud, among the other

See-through images, as you are flawingly

                                                                   Thought of,

                          but purely, somewhere,


Somewhere in all thought.


In “Daybreak,” the speaker is engaged in intellectual reverie. He is sitting on “solid sand banks,” observing the sun’s slow ascent from the horizon over the sea . But so far from exulting over the beauty of sunrise, the classic poetic response, he is dispassionately mulling over the endless succession of small wave crests rolling into shore. He views their sadly predictable and monotonous collapses into “gravitational sprawls” as a history of failures and missed opportunities to become airborne: “You sit…nothing to say.”

     In the book The Eagle's Mile, which celebrates the majesty of high-flying birds, and coming—as this poem does—immediately after “Night Bird”’s  amazingly haunting sounds overhead, it would be difficult to miss the overtones of disappointment in “waves, / which were, a moment ago, actual / bodiless sounds that could have been airborne, now bring you nothing but face-off / after face-off, with gravitational sprawls/ laid in amongst them….”

     A few lines ahead, we learn that this author of poems identifies, painfully, with “those crests dying hard,” since they obviously seem to mimic the numerous collapses of small waves of vision in his failed tries to make weaker fragments of verse become “airborne.” To take flight. As in the previous poem “Night Bird,” a key motif, here, is the persona’s struggle to spread his own wings.

     Gradually, the sullen speaker regains his composure and even a guarded optimism. He comes to recognize that even though his creative spirit shares something of the sinuous rises and falls of the sea breakers rolling ashore, the power of his human imagination can rebound from any number of his spirit waves deflating, and going flat: “You stare / into the cancelling gullies, saved only by dreaming a future / of walking, in which you can always go flat / flat down where the shallows have fallen / clear, where water is shucked of all wave law.” But this persona’s human resilience saves him from ever having to be “shucked of all wave law,” no matter how many times he falls and goes “flat down.”

     The finish of the poem (last eight lines) busies itself with a single amazing image that—beyond explanation—shakes the reader into a sudden grasp of the narrator’s full recuperative powers.

     As prophesied in other poems of this cycle (“circuit,” etc.), the persona meets himself here, by surprise. He had no idea he was searching for this facsimile of his profile. He stands, stupefied, gazing at his own image outspread underfoot, his “whole trembling forehead” become one with the “gravitational sprawls” of the afterwave spread of waters.

     In the “skylight” of daybreak at his feet, his reflection and overhead clouds come together as “see-through images,” and he then realizes that he may become “airborne” directly from the flatness of shallows, which little wave crests can never do. Thus, he finds that he is superior to the fallen sea waves, “saved only by dreaming a future….” In the wavelets of his spirit, after many falls, collapses of vision, he may recover, becoming purified in a flatness underfoot (“in skylight, gradually cleaning”), and he will find himself ready to pursue flights in the future. Periods of flatness are not static, but foster purification and recovery. Rebirth of waves of vision.

     To retrace the magical circuit of this work, the speaker had been mulling—with idle curiosity—the possible metaphysics of small waves collapsing, “dying hard” in shallows near shore; their crests lost in “canceling gullies” and “gravitational sprawls,” ending in flatness. The deathly flatness of water that has lost its power to rise into waves (“water is shucked of all wave law”). But suddenly, he is astonished to discover himself mirrored in the fallen shallows. His own body transformed, renewed, cleaned and purified, made ready, once again, for “dreaming a future.”

     His human essence is bespoken in that power of recoveries. 


Laurence Lieberman is the author of fourteen collections of poetry, most recently The Divemaster: Swimming with the Immortals (Sheep Meadow Press, 2016), and three books of literary criticism.