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William Faulkner once told the Paris Review, “I’m a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.”
Faulkner’s fellow southerner, James Dickey, could relate to that statement.
“He really did think that poetry was the finest calling of a man or a woman.”
James Dickey held poetry to very high esteem, according to his son, the journalist Christopher Dickey.
Here & Now’s Robin Young spoke to Chris about “The Complete Poems Of James Dickey,” a new book that collects the 331 poems his father wrote during his lifetime.
“My father came to believe that you could be a god, that you could, through poetry, through language, get in touch with experience and understanding of experience that you could not approach any other way,” Chris said. “He really did think that poetry was the finest calling of a man or a woman.”
James Dickey answered that calling.
When Chris was a teenager he spent a summer on a movie set with his father.
They were making the film version of his father’s classic novel “Deliverance,” with director John Boorman and actors Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight.
It’s the story of a canoe trip gone wrong in the Georgia wilderness. It’s a brutal movie at times. There’s a scene of male rape. It’s a pivotal point in the film, but Chris Dickey says his father’s book is about a lot more than that.
“He was really interested in the idea of nature in the sense that there was something in nature that you could become. In many of his poems people are transformed – at least in their imagination – they’re transformed into animals, and that poetry of ecstatic transformation really has a kind of beauty to it, which is very much part of the novel but is really kind of lost in the movie.”
So for James Dickey there was the pull of the wild, but there was also the pull of the south and childhood.
Dickey, who died in 1997, was born in Atlanta in 1923. He grew up in a neighborhood called Buckhead.
In 1969, he wrote a poem about going back to his old neighborhood, looking for the kids he knew there. It’s called “Looking for the Buckhead Boys.”
Here are a few lines that I just love:
“If I can find them, even one,
I’m home. And if I can find him catch him in or around
Buckhead, I’ll never die: it’s likely my youth will walk
inside me like a king.”
Bonus audio: Chris Dickey talks about appearing in one of his father’s favorite poems:
Video: James Dickey reads one of his most famous poems (c. 1969):
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