By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
|Photo by Archive Photos|
The scene was the University of Georgia’s Fine Arts Auditorium on a fall night in 1973. The occasion was a poetry reading. A sizable crowd more befitting a pop concert than a literary event had turned out, but then the headliner was someone who at the time possessed a celebrity more akin to that of a pop star than a poet. National Book Award winner for the collection Buckdancer’s Choice and former poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, James Dickey was most familiar as the author of the best-selling novel Deliverance and the screenplay for the subsequent hit movie in which, as if the writing credit weren’t enough, he portrayed the skeptical rural sheriff who interrogates the survivors of the disastrous canoeing trip at the heart of the tale — a group of middle-aged city boys played by Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight and Ned Beatty.
That Dickey’s appearance at the University of Georgia was destined to become what in those days constituted a happening made itself immediately apparent. After staggering to the lectern, the tall and imposing poet grabbed the microphone and in a contemptuous tone bellowed: “Shiiiiiittttt.” With that, Dickey, who was plainly drunk, launched into his performance, knocking out such well-known set pieces as “Encounter in the Cage Country” and “Adultery.” Between poems, he engaged in an incoherent patter with the audience while lumbering unsteadily across the stage, prompting a friend sitting next to me to wager that he would soon keel over. And indeed, about halfway through the evening, Dickey collapsed onto his knees, coming perilously close to pitching headfirst into the orchestra pit before regaining his feet.
Yet all this notwithstanding, Dickey’s readings themselves were everything they should have been. Even — maybe especially — when besotted, he was a superb interpreter of his work. The night’s showstopper was the poet’s celebrated “The Sheep Child,” with its “farm boys wild to couple with anything” who “keep themselves off animals” solely because they have heard that “in a museum in Atlanta/Way back in a corner somewhere/There’s this thing that’s only half/Sheep like a woolly baby/Pickled in alcohol because/Those things can’t live.” Such triumphs left most of us in the room enthralled by Dickey’s language and daring even as we were appalled by his hammy self-destructiveness. Walking back to my dorm, I felt I had been in the presence of a latter-day Dylan Thomas, only more so, for whereas Thomas had led a turbulent inner life, the big man I’d just heard had lived in the arena. As it said on the jacket of my well-thumbed copy of Poems 1957–1967, Dickey was an avid outdoorsman and former college athlete and advertising executive who, as a fighter pilot during World War II and the Korean conflict, had flown more than 100 combat missions.
Today, some 27 years later, my one exposure to James Dickey remains fresh in the mind. But only recently, thanks to Henry Hart’s exemplary new biography, James Dickey: The World as a Lie, have I learned the complete story of that long-ago evening and acquired a more accurate understanding of who the poet, who died in 1997 at 73, actually was.
As it happened — and as Hart, in one of the numerous researching triumphs that grace this book, amply documents — Dickey very nearly didn’t get to the University of Georgia for his reading. After taking off in heavy weather from his hometown of Columbia, South Carolina, the poet tried to commandeer the controls of the small plane that had been dispatched to fly him and a couple of English professors to the engagement, but the pilot — though he’d read all about his famous passenger’s aerial heroics — demurred. Once the craft reached altitude, Dickey relaxed, yet upon nearing the destination — which was socked in by clouds — he again attempted to pull rank, urging the pilot to make what by any measure was a suicidal blind landing approach. As before, an unequivocal “no” quieted the poet, and eventually the plane diverted to an outlying airport, touching down safely. There, the men rented the car in which they completed their journey and in which Dickey, stoking himself for his night’s work, consumed a six-pack of beer all by his lonesome.
A harrowing yarn, this. Here, however, is the kicker, a revelation first made by the poet’s journalist son Christopher in his poignant 1998 memoir, Summer of Deliverance, yet not fully detailed until now: James Dickey could not fly an airplane, having washed out of flight school during the early years of World War II. Which means, of course, not only that he could not have piloted the craft to his appearance at the University of Georgia but that his assertions — constantly reiterated during interviews — regarding his 100-plus combat missions were bald-faced lies. The truth is that Dickey was a radar officer attached to a bomber squadron in the Pacific and that he spent 1945 sitting in the belly of a P-61, watching blips on a screen during 38 sorties launched from the Philippines. During the Korean conflict, he saw no action at all, serving his tour of duty stateside.