This essay is not an act of revenge.
“If you come on to any of my students, I’m going to come to your office and personally break your fucking neck.”
Ten students had signed up for what they thought would be James Dickey’s last class, Verse Composition, the deathbed sessions. When he was hospitalized soon after classes began, the department chair, Robert Newman, asked me to take his class for week—then for a week with the possibility of taking over for the semester if Dickey were unable to return to the class. He suggested I call Dickey in the hospital that afternoon, January 17, to check in with him about the class.
Of course, I had heard the rumors about Dickey’s unwelcome comments to (and unwelcome touching of) female students—tolerated, I supposed, because he was our own Great Man at USC, the Strom Thurmond of the literary cosmos. It had become part of his persona.
A recently hired assistant professor, I had had little interaction before with Dickey. The first time I remember meeting him was at a department party at the Faculty House, circa 1994, back when the Faculty House was a private club for faculty, filled with (mostly) white patrons and (mostly) African-American staff. Dickey stood to meet the new faculty as we were ushered forward. His leather jacket, we were told, was a gift from Burt Reynolds. Dickey ignored me and the other men, turning to our new female colleague and feebly twirling her around so that he could “get a better look.”
“Or if you teach any homosexual poets, I’m going to come to your office and personally break your fucking neck.”
The class would focus on student work, I assured him. It was a poetry workshop. And I was thinking: where is this anger coming from? In Henry Hart’s biography, James Dickey: The World as a Lie (2000), Hart says that in these last days Dickey found it galling that someone was taking his place in the classroom, so he lashed out at me. Hart’s biography also makes it clear that behind Dickey’s drunken womanizing persona lay a deep fascination with homosexuality—and perhaps anxieties about his own ambiguous sexual impulses.
Let me admit: I was intimidated by Dickey. Otherwise it wouldn’t have taken a couple of hours for the obvious reply to his comment about “homosexual poets” to hit me: Walt Whitman, W.H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Hart Crane, Robert Duncan, (let’s throw in T.S. Eliot, too, just for fun), Allen Ginsberg, Thom Gunn, Gerard Manly Hopkins, A.E. Houseman, Langston Hughes, James Merrill, Frank O’Hara, the great war poet Wilfred Owen, Adrienne Rich, not to mention Dickey’s own friend, Richard Howard.
In the fall of 1995, I had been attacked by a little conservative newspaper on campus for, they said, throwing out the traditional canon to teach “modern homosexual literature” by writers “such as Oscar Wilde.” It would have been laughable, maybe, if it hadn’t been only my third semester, and if it hadn’t been distributed in every student mailbox on campus, and if it hadn’t ended with a call to those who weren’t happy about my teaching at USC to call me or to contact me, both home phone and home address helpfully provided at the end of the article. I was untenured and unsure of the culture. Though I lived only three blocks from campus, I stopped walking to work. I got an unlisted number and an attorney.
And there I was, barely a year later, talking to a man whose work I admired, who was attacking me in almost the same terms as that conservative student rag.
“And if you’ve got an ax to grind in the class—particularly that ax—I’m going to come to your office and personally break your fucking neck.”
I fumbled through a response about how I didn’t have any ax to grind and hung up the phone, stunned by Dickey’s three-fold threat. I immediately called the associate chair (I couldn’t reach the chair) and told her what had happened. I went to a junior faculty happy hour, still shaken, and told my colleagues. I emailed a close friend, an email I still have. Though my chair had originally suggested I should visit Dickey in the hospital to update him on the class, when he called me later that evening, he said I didn’t have to interact with Dickey again unless he were also present.
That was Friday. Dickey died on Sunday evening, Jan. 19, 1997. I heard the news of his death on NPR the next morning, as I sat at the breakfast table with my partner. The semester stretched before me, a graduate writing workshop part of it. I had some very difficult shoes to fill.
Dickey started teaching at the University of South Carolina in the spring of 1969. He had been a military man (in both World War II and the Korean War), an ad man (in New York and Atlanta), and a college English teacher. From 1966 to 1968, just before his move to South Carolina, he had served as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress (a position that would later become Poet Laureate).
“So now, as far as I knew,” Dickey writes in the collection of essays Night Hurdling (1983), “South Carolina was soybeans, illiteracy, and maybe even pellagra and hookworm, and my chief mental image of it was of a dilapidated outhouse and a rusty ’34 Ford with a number 13 painted on it, both covered by kudzu.” It’s like a scene from a bad movie (or Deliverance) or maybe a memory from the brief period Dickey played football at Clemson, before leaving school to join the Army Air Corps during the Second World War. “Why should I become part of such an environment?”
Dickey says USC president Tom Jones “looked at me with sincere friendliness and said, If you like two things, you would like to live in South Carolina. What two things? I asked suspiciously. Flowers and birds, he replied. Talk on, I said.”
Flowers and birds? However much this anecdote (like so many Dickey told) has been embellished, I like to think it’s true. As I look up from my laptop, I can see the dogwood that fills my study window every spring with bloom, and the crepe myrtle just beyond, blooming now in this summer’s wicked heat. Every afternoon this week, a hummingbird whirs among the zinnias and the canna lilies. But I know that’s not the world of Dickey. Dickey’s world is snakes and sharks and buggering hillbillies, predatory violence and predatory sex, the elemental and brutal, blood and claw. Under every rock, a rattlesnake.
In Dickey’s best poems, he seems to be in touch with some kind of wild darkness, literal and metaphorical. I think about that amazing poem, “The Shark’s Parlor,” which USC’s MFA students have taken on as the name for their monthly readings. In it, an enormous hammerhead shark is baited with buckets of entrails and blood and hooked with a run-over pup by two boys drunk on the “first brassy taste of beer.” With the help of other men, they drag the shark out of the sea, dragging it by accident all the way into a beach house, where it thrashes the place to pieces, “throwing pints of blood over everything we owned.”
It’s the id in the parlor.
Among the items destroyed are movie magazines drenched with blood, and the boy’s buck-toothed photo—suggesting a darkness belied by Hollywood fictions, suggesting that what you drag up can destroy you, or at least the earlier versions of who you are. The boy-turned-man buys the house, a mark of shark’s blood on the wall, “black with time.” “It can be touched,” he says, only when he is drunk enough.
From Hart’s biography: Dickey tells a friend, “We hear all this about everybody having gay impulses. I just don’t. I can’t think about it without a sense of revulsion.” Hart adds, “What revolted him when sober, however, had often titillated him when drunk.”
Although I hadn’t read Deliverance before I arrived at USC in 1994, I did soon after. I remember thinking immediately that it was like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, adapted for 1970s America. For the frightening black woman at the heart of Conrad’s dark jungle, Dickey puts a buggering hillbilly in the dark rural heart of the Deep South, as if to say that the deepest fears of American culture are not race and gender but sexuality and class difference—things we don’t talk about, or can’t talk about without euphemism, misrepresentation, or denial.
The film’s male rape scene has been reduced in our pop culture lexicon to a joke, with the memorable punch line, “squeal like a pig,” but throughout the novel it seems clear that Dickey, through his protagonist Ed, is thinking carefully about what homo sex is and what it means. (Yes, I’m very aware of the strange coincidence of the name, Ed.) After Ed murders one of the rapists, he thinks, “If Lewis had not shot his companion, he and I would have made a kind of love, painful and terrifying to me, in some dreadful way pleasurable to him, but we would have been together in the flesh, there on the floor of the woods, and it was strange to think of it.” It’s a strange passage, and a strange way to reimagine male rape—“a kind of love”—but of a piece with the novel’s insistent attempts to think about what it means.
What are we capable of?
There’s a thin line between savagery and civilization in this novel. That thin line is suggested earlier in the novel, the night before the rape, in a scene that quietly and deeply moves me, though at that point it’s a thin line between us and nature (not savagery and civilization)—a wildness that is not quite or not yet the same as the darkness inside us. “Something hit the top of the tent,” writes Dickey: an owl. When the owl’s claws puncture the tent’s thin fabric, Ed reaches up to touch them. “All night the owl keeps coming back to hunt from the top of the tent,” and as the owl hunts the woods, Ed dreams himself hunting with it. And each time the owl returns to the tent, Ed reaches up to touch the claws.
That thin membrane of the tent separates him from the wild, but the wild pushes through. Ed wants to touch it, to be in touch with it. To be in touch with some wildness, some darkness.
From Hart’s biography: “After one of his groggy lunches in the late 1950s, Dickey picked up a handsome young boy, took him to his office at McCann-Erickson, and closed the door. A startled [colleague] happened to walk in on them. Dickey quickly explained: ‘I’m going to teach this boy how to write poetry.’”
As a poet, I learn from reading Dickey. Over and over in his poems, there are images that strike me with their surprising accuracy—like the sea in “At Darien Bridge,” that “used to look / As if many convicts had built it.” There are lines that stick with me, like “Wild to be wreckage forever” at the end of the oft-anthologized and very teachable “Cherrylog Road.” Or the wicked ending of “Adultery”: “Guilt is magical.”
I love the way the flat wildness of his earlier poems can give way to hallucinatory intensities, to madness and mythopoesis, to thicknesses of sound and sense. Of course not every poem moves me. In the famous long poem “Falling,” Dickey took a kernel of story—the real tragedy of a stewardess being sucked out of an airplane—and inflated it into an overwrought myth, imagining the woman in a free-fall striptease. Taking off her clothes, Dickey turns her into some kind of fertility goddess, with maybe a bit of Oz thrown in, her clothes coming down “all over Kansas.” I can’t separate the clunky sexism from the strained symbolism. But then I read “The Sheep Child,” a poem perhaps equally risible in its sexism but one that gives me chills, a poem that lifts a dirty joke about farmboys fucking sheep into myth itself, granting the supposed child a voice: “I saw for a blazing moment / The great grassy world from both sides.”
I love the poem “Venom,” which transforms a real Florida snake-handler into something godlike in a poem of almost incantatory language. Because of his built-up immunity to snake venom, the man repeatedly donated his own blood to snakebite victims, lying down “with him the snake has entered,” his blood flowing through both their veins. “They will clasp arms and double-dream / Of the snake.” I adore the father-son poem “The Magus,” in which a new father is like a wise man at Christ’s birth. I love that in books of poetry filled with darkness, light is a name for how we connect with one another, for what we can do, for the things we need to say. The snake-handler “shimmers / with healing.” The young father “is shining to tell you” that his son “is no more than a child,” but no less transcendent for that.
I love these poems of transformation—humans becoming godlike, gods that are mere men.
By the time I arrived at USC, Dickey was in ill health. I never had a chance to sit in on one of Dickey’s classes. I was never included in one of the regular “power lunches” he had with friends at the faculty club, to which selected guests were invited. We never chatted at the mailboxes about what we were reading, or walked across campus together as he waxed on about the poet’s mission. I don’t remember ever hearing him read.
And the only exchange I had with him was a surprising verbal assault from a dying man, a homophobic lashing out that left me shaken and angry.
The essay is not an act of revenge.
I think it may be a statement of regret.
When Dickey taught the graduate poetry workshop at USC, he taught it as a two-semester course, the first a series of exercises in formal verse (ballads, sestinas, sonnets, villanelles), the second semester focusing on poems based on dreams, fantasies, lies.
In my writing classes, I sometimes give an assignment: write a poem or an essay as an act of revenge. Such writing may not see print, but the students seem energized to tap into that darkness, that wild and visceral well of suppressed emotion that can gush up, surprisingly. Later, I give them a related but perhaps more difficult assignment: write a poem as an act of forgiveness.
I like to think James Dickey would approve.
Dickey, James. Deliverance. 1970. New York: Dell, 1994.
—-. Night Hurdling: Poems, Essays, Conversations, Commencements, And Afterwords. Columbia: Bruccoli-Clark Layman, 1983.
—-. The Whole Motion: Collected Poems, 1945-1992. Hanover and London: Wesleyan UP, 1992.
Hart, Henry. James Dickey: The World as a Lie. New York: Picador, 2000.
A slightly different version of this essay appears in The Limelight: A Compendium of Contemporary Columbia Artists, vol. 1, edited by Cynthia Boiter and published in 2013 by Muddy Ford Press in Columbia, SC. An earlier version also appeared in the James DIckey Review 30.2 (Spring – Summer 2014).
Ed Madden is a professor of English and director of the Women's and Gender Studies Program at the University of South Carolina. He is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Ark, a memoir in poetry about helping with his father's hospice care during his last months with cancer. In 2015, he was named the poet laureate of the City of Columbia, South Carolina.