James Dickey was born in Atlanta, Georgia. After a year at Clemson College he enlisted in the air force and was posted to the Pacific. Upon his return he studied at Vanderbilt, graduating with an MA in 1950, and having determined to be a writer. In that same year he had his first important publication when The Sewanee Review accepted his poem "The Shark at the Window." He began teaching at Rice University with the initial intention of finishing his doctorate, but was recalled to the air force during the Korean War -although, contrary to some of his own later accounts, he stayed in the US, working at a number of military bases in the south. Dickey had a tendency to inflate biographical details, exaggerating his flying exploits in the Pacific in the Second World War, for example. Upon his return to Rice, Dickey struggled to publish his poetry and creative prose, and lost interest in completing his doctoral dissertation. Dickey's poems in these years mirror the formal vein of Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, and the early work of Robert Lowell, although a few years later his work became more experimental in form. He left Rice in 1954 when he won a Sewanee Review Fellowship, and spent a year in Europe before taking another teaching position, this time at the University of Florida. He left the Florida job abruptly, before his contract had finished, oppressed for the moment by the world of academe. From 1956 to 1961 he worked as a copywriter for advertising agencies, first in New York and then in Atlanta.
During his business career Dickey continued to work hard at his writing, working on the novel that would become his best known, Deliverance (1970), and on the poems that went into his first two books, Into the Stone and Other Poems (1960), and Drowning with Others (1962), both of which were well received. His poems began to appear in The New Yorker and other prestigious journals, and he began to receive invitations to read his poems at colleges and high schools. The award of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1961 prompted him to leave advertising. After another year in Europe, Dickey taught at a number of colleges, and published Helmets (1964) which was a finalist for the National Book Award. He won the award with his next book, Buckdancer's Choice (1965), usually considered his finest volume of verse, and this led to his appointment as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1966 to 1968, a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award, and the Melville
Cane Award of the Poetry Society of America. Babel to Byzantium: Poets and Poetry Now, a book of essays and reviews, appeared in 1968. At this point in his career Dickey could make serious claim to be one of the two or three most important poets of his generation.
Dickey's poems have been described as "gothic" and "surrealist" in their treatment of nature, fear, and human sexuality. These qualities are represented in his well-known "The Sheep Child." The poem opens describing the legends held by "farm boys wild to couple" about a "sheep-child" preserved in alcohol "in a museum in Atlanta / Way back in a corner somewhere." The poem then goes on to imagine the short, intense experience of such a creature's "blazing moment" of birth and death "In the summer sun of the hillside." Equally powerfully imagined is "Falling," based upon the actual incident of a 29-year-old flight attendant falling to her death after being sucked out of the plane when an emergency door sprang open. In the long fall to her death, Dickey imagines her going through a series of intense emotions, stripping off her clothes in a kind of ecstasy, and serving in her fall from the sky as a fantasy love goddess to the dreaming farmers below.
Following his Library of Congress appointment Dickey began teaching at the University of South Carolina, where he stayed until his death, even continuing to teach his classes when barely able to breathe in his last illness. The popular success of Deliverance when it was published in 1970, and its subsequent filming - for which Dickey wrote the screenplay - made him a celebrity, and a large sum of money. But he never received the same kind of critical acclaim or popular success in his poetry or prose work again. He developed a serious drinking problem, which became part of the boisterous, aggressive persona he brought to his many poetry readings in the 1970s. His celebrity was reinforced when he read his poem "The Strength of Fields" at President Carter's inauguration in 1977, but by the late 1970s his poems appeared less and less frequently in prestigious magazines and his reputation as a poet began a long decline. However, for some years he continued to command high fees for his popular readings and large advances for his novels, and was often called upon by northern literary journals to represent the voice of southern writing in essays and reviews.
Dickey continued to be productive in the 1980s and 1990s, although his reputation became more regional and his following more local. Nevertheless he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1988. His last new book of poetry, The Eagle's Mile (1990), contained many poems that had been written in the early 1980s. His collection The Whole Motion: Collected Poems 1945-1992 did not garner a great deal of attention, and where it did the main consensus was that Dickey's strongest period had been 1947-57, and that his writing since then had suffered from a lack of discipline.
In 1994 Dickey became seriously ill, a condition brought on by his many years as an alcoholic, and he never fully recovered his health.
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