Sunday, December 20, 2009

Top Posts for 2009 on Valparaiso Poetry Review Blog

Edward Byrne's terrific essay on "The Last Lecture" of James Dickey in Number 4:

1. Inaugural Poem by Elizabeth Alexander
2. Elizabeth Alexander Comments on Her Inaugural Poem
3. John Ashbery, Pierre Martory, and Jackson Pollock
4. James Dickey’s Last Lecture: What It Means to Be a Poet
5. Rating Great Poets and Considering Contemporary Concerns
6. Sylvia Plath and Nicholas Hughes: Mother and Son
7. John Updike and John Cheever
8. John Ashbery Presentation at NBCC Ceremony
9. Craig Arnold, “Scrubbing Mussels,” and David Wojahn
10. W.S. Merwin Wins Pulitzer Prize in Poetry

This is the top of Ed's post:

“ . . . this will almost undoubtedly be my last class forever.”

James Dickey was born on this date (February 2) in 1923. Dickey’s reputation as a contemporary poet rose quickly to the highest levels in the early 1960s with publication of his first three volumes of poetry—Into the Stone (1960), Drowning with Others (1962), and Helmets (1964). About that third collection, Richard Howard later declared Dickey “as the telluric maker Wallace Stevens had called for in prophesying that the great poems of heaven and hell have been written and the great poem of the earth remains to be written (Alone with America: Atheneum, 1969).

However, in 1965 James Dickey produced Buckdancer’s Choice, winner of the National Book Award and one of the great collections of poetry of its time. In fact, this book, too often overlooked by recent readers of poetry, contains some of the more original and compelling poems to contribute to the body of contemporary American literature. Indeed, Dave Smith speaks of Dickey’s first decade of poetry in his book of criticism, Local Assays: On Contemporary American Poetry (University of Illinois Press, 1985), that it is “often as good as American poetry has gotten.”

In one of the three chapters concerning James Dickey in Unassigned Frequencies, Laurence Lieberman’s 1977 book of criticism on contemporary poetry, Lieberman describes the persona he finds in Dickey’s poems as “a unique human personality. He is a worldly mystic. On the one hand, a joyous, expansive personality—all candor, laughter, and charm—in love with his fully conscious gestures, the grace and surety of moves of his body. An outgoing man. An extrovert. On the other hand, a chosen man. A man who has been picked by some mysterious, intelligent agent in the universe to act out a secret destiny.”

Lieberman considers the major poems in Buckdancer’s Choice—such as “The Firebombing,” “The Fiend,” and “Slave Quarters”—as works in which “the conflict between the worldly-mindedness of modern life and the inner life of the spirit is dramatized.” Regarding Dickey’s fifth collection of poems, Falling (included in Poems 1957-1967), and its amazing title piece, Lieberman admires the poet’s “joy that’s incapable of self-pity or self-defeat. There is a profound inwardness in the poems, the inner self always celebrating its strange joy in solitude, or pouring outward, overflowing into the world. No matter how much suffering the poet envisions, the sensibility that informs and animates him is joy in the sheer pleasure of being.”

Anyone who met James Dickey may have encountered the poet’s “sheer pleasure of being.” His presence was felt whenever he entered a room, and his forceful personality certainly evoked various reactions, positive and negative, from those whom he engaged with his thoughts on poems, poets, poetics, and sometimes politics. In a chapter titled “James Dickey’s Motions” from Hunting Men: Reflections on a Life in American Poetry (LSU Press, 2006), Dave Smith explains that “Dickey cunningly and rightly counted on notoriety to carry his poetry to an audience usually indifferent to academic poems.” Additionally, his eagerness and ability to attract attention often led to instances of friction, controversy, and confrontation with a few fellow poets and critics, including an ongoing public feud with Robert Bly, especially during his difficult later years, much of which is chronicled in Henry Hart’s informative biography of Dickey, James Dickey: The World as a Lie (Picador, 2000) and Christopher Dickey’s more intimate and further insightful book about his father, Summer of Deliverance: A Memoir of Father and Son (Simon & Schuster, 1998). ...

This video clip, which Ed put on his site accompanying the post is interesting, but it is not nearly as strong as the audio from the last class. If there is enough interest from the public, I will post that here, too:

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