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Poet Inebriate

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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.

Not surprisingly, a trumped-up war record was just one of the many pieces of his persona that Dickey either inflated or flat-out invented. True, he played freshman football at Clemson University, but from conversations with teammates and a reading of old school papers, Hart discovered that he was at best a middling performer. And yes, the poet — who often wore camouflage in public — liked to tramp around in the woods carrying a â bow and arrow, yet even his boon companions told Hart that he was, in reality, a tenderfoot. Then, there are the years in advertising. Dickey maintained that due to his prowess as a wordsmith, he was widely known as “Jingle Jim,” but while he labored at McCann-Erickson on the Coca-Cola account, he had nothing to do with such slogans as “The Real Thing.” Rather, he banged out generic copy for small-town bottlers to use in various localized promotions.

All of which prompts the inevitable question: Why the countless deceits? Dickey’s well-practiced answer, while personally evasive, is one that other less-than-veracious artists down through the ages have advanced. “The poet,” he was fond of saying, “is not trying to tell the truth: He’s trying to make it.” By this logic, Dickey’s liberties with the facts were essential to his process, providing him with a kind of creative mask. And on the evidence of his best work — of which Hart is an astute reader — he employed the mask to great effect. Whether it be in poems like “The Firebombing,” an account of the napalming of Japan during World War II, or “The Bee,” a meditation on the debt football players owe their coaches, he regularly produced images of genuine power and originality. Little wonder that in 1967, The Atlantic Monthly ranked Dickey and Robert Lowell as America’s only “major” poets.

Yet Dickey’s fabrications were not, of course, all in the service of art. Many were in the service of a sloppy, self-gratifying id that, when not driving the poet to betray wife, children and friends, was driving him to drink. (Not surprisingly, there were nights like the one I witnessed at the University of Georgia on campuses all across America during the 1970s.) The extent of Dickey’s philandering is particularly dizzying. At almost every venue where he read and at every school where he taught — most especially at Cal State Northridge during the 1960s — he bedded women with an exceptional zeal. Based on remarks by both the poet and his friends — not to mention an analysis of the infamous sodomy scene central to Deliverance — Hart suspects that Dickey was overcompensating for an unresolved homoerotic impulse. But even if this was not the case, there’s no doubt that he was loath to confront difficult issues of manhood. As Dickey himself confessed, he lived in a state of “perpetual adolescence.”

At Dickey’s funeral, novelist Pat Conroy — a friend and former student of the poet — declared: “Pity the biographer of James Dickey. If this biographer . . . gets all of the far-flung outrageous stories on paper, then the life of James Dickey will make Ernest Hemingway look like a florist from the Midwest.” Hart quotes Conroy’s comment in his introduction, thereby setting the bar high for himself. That he has cleared it, there’s no doubt. Not that the work is unflawed. Throughout, he experiences problems with narrative tautness, unveiling a piece of information too soon here, missing a scene’s natural ending point there. And occasionally, he includes extraneous details, chief among them lengthy explications of the poet’s many coffee-table books and aborted screenplays. But these are small points. What Hart has accomplished here is to disabuse his readers of the Dickey myth while at the same time paying homage to the work the myth fostered. James Dickey may have been able to lie to the world, but not to Hart. This is the biography the poet deserves.

JAMES DICKEY: THE WORLD AS A LIE | By HENRY HART Picador USA | 811 pages $35 hardcover


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