Sunday, January 19, 2020

23 Years after My Father’s Death: “A Poet’s Family Album”

The Poet’s Family Album

By Christopher Dickey

The closet between the kitchen and the laundry room was still locked the week after my father died, and it took a while to find the key. In that low-eaved house by the lake in South Carolina, there were so many keys. They were buried in cluttered drawers, strewn on dusty bookshelves, crammed into cheap cufflink boxes among discarded military insignia. There were keys to briefcases and suitcases, typewriter cases and guitar cases, and there were Phi Beta Kappa keys. My father, so proud of this academic distinction he’d earned, liked to carry extras. There were keys to other homes we’d lived in when I was a child and to offices at universities where my father had taught poetry; and keys to cars that were sold, or given away in fits of largesse, or crashed when he was drunk; keys to doors and filing cabinets in places unknown and unremembered by any of us who were here, now, alive. And, finally, hidden away by the maid who took care of my father during the years when he was dying, here was the key to the closet by the kitchen.
There was no obvious treasure left inside. Once, there had been silverware, but all of that was pawned and lost when the second marriage was ending. What remained, pushed back on a high shelf, was the baby book my grandmother started in 1923, the year my father was born.
Its pages were made of heavy black construction paper and no matter how carefully I turned them their edges crumbled and came loose in the string binding. The photographs were simple, sunlit pictures shaded in brown and white. I had seen them before, but looking at them had been different when my father was alive to laugh with me at his scrunched-up infant face or his sailor suit or the yearbook picture of Mrs. Osterhout, his elementary school principal, defaced with beard and glasses by his rambunctious pen. 
Here is a clipping from the school newspaper that says second-grader Jim Dickey was a member of the “Make Yourself Do Right Club.” What could that mean? I look around to see if there is anyone I can ask. But of course there is no one in the house now -- no one anywhere -- who would ever have known. 
There is nothing to do but continue turning the crumbling pages. Class picture follows class picture, and it is not until my father is almost a teenager in seventh grade that I begin to recognize him with any certainty. He is standing there at the back of the crowd on the top step of the E. Rivers School entrance, tall, square-shouldered and smiling. It is the smile that I recognize.
Now, as I look at them, the photographs are filling up with adolescent life. Young Jim Dickey, captain of the high school track team, is stripped to the waist and radiant with the sun, or he is in front of the house and all dressed up for a date with one of the pretty high-school girls glued to these black pages. The energy of his youth draws me in. The thin white edges of the Kodak paper become window frames and I feel as if, through the strong sepia light, I might find a holographic revelation --  might change the angle just a little, and just a little more to get a better look at this lithe boy soaring Apollo-like over a backyard high-jump bar, or this sneering running-back clutching a football, or this young cadet on his way to war with the insolent grin that wasn’t quite hiding his fear.
“What a handsome kid,” I say out loud. The phrase lingers in the empty house. It is something he used to say about others. About my son, for instance. “What a handsome kid.”
I did not know my father the handsome kid.
I knew some of the places where the pictures were taken, because I spent a lot of time in my grandparents’ house when I was little. I knew that driveway where the boy in the tweed suit stood with his sister and brother for an Easter Sunday photograph. Those steps in front of the place, and the yard in back, they were part of my life. I even knew where the sawdust pit was dug to receive the angelic high-jumper when he returned to earth. But the jumper himself, that child-boy-man in the pictures, I had never seen him alive.
Most of us have a moment after reaching middle age when we think we know our fathers not just as fathers, but as fellow men. Our own teenage resentments that linger so long suddenly give way to a sense that we’ve seen and done a lot of the same things as our fathers. They are old, but not so old. We are younger, but not so young. If we don’t understand everything about each other, really, at least we understand each others’ circumstances. And there’s also this: we actually knew our fathers when they were the age we are now. Maybe we were just kids, but we can remember glimpses of how they looked, how they acted, who they knew. No measure of memory, however, will take us back to the time when our fathers were teenagers full of dreams and fears, juiced up on testosterone, trembling at the prospect of a first kiss, feeling their way through to a future that was all expectation and no accomplishment. To reach them there requires an act of the imagination, or, perhaps, of the spirit.
In the months after my father died, destroyed by drink and gasping for breath at the end of his 74th year, I set out on a long search for the man I’d lost. I was writing a book about our life together and our life apart. When I was young he’d written a novel, Deliverance, that was made into a movie that made him, for a while, famous. The experience corroded everything in our lives. For most of two decades I blamed him for all that ever went wrong in our family. I left home and left him behind while I became a foreign correspondent covering other people’s wars. I came back to him -- we came back together -- only in the last couple of years of his life. In that time, and after he died, as I worked on my memoir I realized that what went wrong between us had only a little to do with his fame, or with Deliverance, and a lot to do with that kid in the crumbling old album. That boy I didn’t know was the person who haunted my father, the ghost that drove him. The same ghost had haunted me, and driven me from him.
Of course, other fathers introduce their phantom youth into their children’s lives. Maybe they do it by instinct, even by accident. But my father was methodical about it, whether we were watching football (that game he played so passionately and so briefly in high school and college) or reading together the work of other poets (A. E. Houseman’s violently sentimental “To an Athlete Dying Young”) or reading some of the most memorable poems that my father wrote himself -- about a boy riding his motorcycle to meet and make love to a girl in the back of a junked car; or older men talking high-school football; or fathers looking for their own youth as they play with their young sons. He just could not bear to let those years, that life, that energy of the handsome track star slip away from him. He wanted to recover it in his writing, his drinking, and in me. God, I was jealous of that young, unknowable father/ghost in the photographs.
For years after my father’s funeral was over and my memoir was finished, I couldn’t bring myself to look at those friable pages. They lay in a box under my desk at home. No key was needed, but I didn’t have the heart.
Then, just the other day, I opened the picture-book again. In the interval, the Poet James Dickey had come alive once more in the public consciousness, which was something he certainly would have wanted. But his image had been oddly, sometimes hideously twisted. He belonged, it seemed, to the Make Yourself Do Wrong Club. A mistress who’d been scorned long ago wrote a spiteful little book in which she talked about his drinking, his faithlessness, his baldness -- his baldness! -- and any other little curse her long-held fury could conjure against him. My own memoir, Summer of Deliverance, had been widely reviewed, and in almost everything written about it a fraction of a sentence from the first page was quoted: “My father was a great poet, a famous novelist, a powerful intellect, and a son of a bitch I hated.”  So even though the book was about love and reconciliation, anger was the headline. As a journalist, I should have known that would happen, and I was sorry for it. But there was more, and worse, to come. A mean-spirited selection of James Dickey’s letters had been published. A dreary biography had appeared that claimed my father’s entire world was a lie, and assumed that all the bawdy tales told about him at faculty cocktail parties were the truth. After a while, I and my brother, Kevin, and our young sister, Bronwen, quit reading this stuff. To others it seemed sensational, or ludicrous, or bathetic. To us it had the stench of exhumation, the ugliness of desecration. To clear the air I would go back to the poems and novels, which are as fresh and powerful as ever, and I went back at last to the sepia, sun-streaked world of my father’s youth.
As I opened the album in my own home, far from the house in Carolina that is now torn down, that boy who haunted James Dickey, and who haunted me, was no longer a threat, and no longer a stranger. I knew more than the smile. I could see into the eyes and recognize them, too. I knew the best of what he would become, and I could put aside the worst. I hadn’t forgotten anything, but I’d forgiven everything, because what time had taught me was just how much I missed him. How much I loved him. Other pictures of my father, some taken with cameras, some remembered, some imagined, clicked through my mind like a slide show, but I kept turning back to the track team captain, the back-yard Apollo. Now, when I say his name out loud, that is the image I see, and it is not defaced by age, or drink, or anyone else’s pen. That was the man my father had wanted to be, to remain, to re-become. Why not? If there is a happy afterlife, then this is the man he is.
I look into those young eyes. “You are a great poet, Dad, and in your own way you were a great father.” I am alone in my own home, but it does not feel empty. “Your sons and your daughter love you as much as you could ever hope they would,” I tell him. “And, Dad, it’s true, you are a handsome kid.”


Originally published in A Man’s Journey to Simple Abundance, edited by Sarah Ban Breathnach, July 2000.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

James Dickey: "How to Enjoy Poetry"

This article was commissioned as part of a paper company's corporate image campaign, which might have made Dickey a little uneasy. He was a survivor of the ad business in the "Madmen" era and he had no love for it. But as a professor who adored teaching he wanted to answer the question, and this piece, with reason, has been used in many classrooms since. (I am publishing the original text here after posting a recent Arabic version on Facebook.)

These notes encourage you to feel in your gut what you are reading, and suggest how you can write so that you make other people feel the power of the language, the images, the rhythm. In these few hundred words there are many lessons for the reader, yes, but also the poet, the novelist, the essayist, and the journalist—for anyone who is serious about writing.

By James Dickey

What is poetry? And why has it been around so long? Many have suspected that it was invented as a school subject, because you have to take exams on it. But that is not what poetry is or why it is still around. That's not what it feels like, either. When you really feel it, a new part of you happens, or an old part is renewed, with surprise and delight at being what it is. 

Where poetry is coming from. 

From the beginning, men have known that words and things, words and actions, words and feelings, go together, and that they can go together in thousands of different ways, according to who is using them. Some ways go shallow, and some go deep. 

Your connection with other imaginations 

The first thing to understand about poetry is that it comes to you from outside you, in books or in words, but that for it to live, something from within you must come to it and meet it and complete it. Your response with your own mind and body and memory and emotions gives the poem its ability to work its magic; if you give to it, it will give to you, and give plenty. 

When you read, don’t let the poet write down to you; read up to him. Reach for him from your gut out, and the heart and muscles will come into it, too. 

The things around us—like water, trees, clouds, the sun—belong to us all. How you see them can enhance my way of seeing them...and just the other way around! 

Which sun? Whose stars? 

The sun is new every day, the ancient philosopher Heraclitus said. The sun of poetry is new every day, too, because it is seen in different ways by different people who have lived under it, lived with it, responded to it. Their lives are different from yours, but by means of the special spell that poetry brings to the fact of the sun—everybody's sun; yours, too—you can come into possession of many suns: as many as men and women have ever been able to imagine. Poetry makes possible the deepest kind of personal possession of the world. 

The most beautiful constellation in the winter sky is Orion, which ancient poets thought looked like a hunter, up there, moving across heaven with his dog Sirius. What is this hunter made out of stars hunting for? What does he mean? Who owns him, if anybody? The poet Aldous Huxley felt that he did, and so, in Aldous Huxley's universe of personal emotion, he did:

Up from among the emblems of the wind into its heart of power,
The Huntsman climbs, and all his living stars 
Are bright, and all are mine.

Where to start 

The beginning of your true encounter with poetry should be simple. It should bypass all classrooms, all textbooks, courses, examinations, and libraries and go straight to the things that make your own existence exist: to your body and nerves and blood and muscles. Find your own way—a secret way that just maybe you don’t know yet—to open yourself as wide as you can and as deep as you can to the moment, the now of your own existence and the endless mystery of it, and perhaps at the same time to one other thing that is not you, but is out there. A handful of gravel is a good place to start. So is an ice cube—what more mysterious and beautiful interior of something has there ever been? 

As for me, I like the sun, the source of all living things, and on certain days very good-feeling, too. "Start with the sun," D. H. Lawrence said, "and everything will slowly, slowly happen." Good advice. And a lot will happen. 

What is more fascinating than a rock, if you really feel it and look at it, or more interesting than a leaf? 

Horses, I mean; butterflies, whales;
Mosses, and stars; and gravelly 
Rivers, and fruit

Oceans, I mean; black valleys; corn;
Brambles, and cliffs; rock, dirt, dust, ice...

Go back and read this list—it is quite a list, Mark Van Doren's list!— item by item. Slowly. Let each of these things call up an image out of your own life. Think and feel. What moss do you see? Which horse? What field of corn? What brambles are your brambles? Which river is most yours? 

The poem's way of going 

Part of the spell of poetry is in the rhythm of language, used by poets who understand how powerful a factor rhythm can be, how compelling and unforgettable. Almost anything put into rhythm and rhyme is more memorable than the same thing said in prose. Why this is, no one knows completely, though the answer is surely rooted far down in the biology by means of which we exist; in the circulation of the blood that goes forth from the heart and comes back, and in the repetition of breathing. Croesus was a rich Greek king, back in the sixth century before Christ, but this tombstone was not his: 

No Croesus lies in the grave you see; 
I was a poor laborer, and this suits me. 

That is plain-spoken and definitive. You believe it, and the rhyme helps you believe it and keep it. 

Some things you'll find out 

Writing poetry is a lot like a contest with yourself, and if you like sports and games and competitions of all kinds, you might like to try writing some. Why not? 

The possibilities of rhyme are great. Some of the best fun is in making up your own limericks. There's no reason you can't invent limericks about anything that comes to your mind. No reason. Try it. 

The problem is to find three words that rhyme and fit into a meaning. "There was a young man from..." Where was he from? What situation was he in? How can these things fit into the limerick form—a form everybody knows—so that the rhymes "pay off,” and give that sense of completion and inevitability that is so deliciously memorable that nothing else is like it? 

How it goes with you 

The more your encounter with poetry deepens, the more your experience of your own life will deepen, and you will begin to see things by means of words, and words by means of things. 

You will come to understand the world as it interacts with words, as it can be re-created by words, by rhythms and by images. 

You'll understand that this condition is one charged with vital possibilities. You will pick up meaning more quickly—and you will create meaning, too, for yourself and for others. 

Connections between things will exist for you in ways that they never did before. They will shine with unexpectedness, wideopenness, and you will go toward them, on your own path. 

"Then...," as Dante says,"... Then will your feet be filled with good desire." You will know this is happening the first time you say, of something you never would have noticed before, "Well, would you look at that! Who'd 'a thunk it?"

(Pause, full of new light) 

"I thunk it!"

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Pat Conroy: Lord let him die, but not die out.

Pat Conroy died last night, and his passing is a tremendous loss.

In 2007, ten years after James Dickey's death, Conroy gave a wonderful speech at the University of South Carolina reminiscing about his experiences as his student, and the impact Dickey's teaching had on his own writing. But it speaks to the work and the aspirations of all writers, and tells us much about Conroy himself. These are some excerpts from his hand-written text.

Here, Conroy alludes to Dickey's scandalous personal reputation, grabbing wild metaphors out of the sky, and out of James Dickey poetry, as only Pat Conroy could do:

Here Conroy talks about how much Dickey reminded him, at first, of his father, “The Great Santini.” But Conroy loved Dickey’s writing, and his teaching, maybe almost as much as he hated his own father’s brutality.

On these last two pages, Conroy puts "political correctness" in its place before a ringing conclusion, "a prayer," as he calls it, about the work of James Dickey that speaks to the hope of every artist.

Monday, February 08, 2016

An excellent review by Gary Kerley of James Dickey's "Death, and the Day's Light"

You must read this review, published here as a PDF by The South Carolina Review. 

"This important volume gives readers the chance to keep Dickey’s poetry at the center of his literary life, where it belongs."