A Dickey Encounter

By Mike Mattson

I just finished reading an interview with James Dickey that was done in 1974 in his Columbia, South Carolina home ("Writers at Work", Viking press, 1981. Edited by George Plimpton).

I recently began a freelance writing career and have started to pick up information about some of my favorite authors. Dickey is one of them. I was touched by Deliverance, having read it when I was a boy (I'm now 35).

The over-riding sense that the reader comes away from while reading this interview, is how much of a Man he was. He reminds me of Hunter Thompson or Hemingway - just telling the truth as he sees it, unabashedly. He makes no effort to conceal his disdain for some of his poetic colleagues. In our current "politically correct" society, his views would be condemned as "arbitrary", "biased" or "Republican". Indeed, they were condemned.

I find it refreshing and thought that you may want to show or include the book in your "Work" section. Dickey fans will surely find it informative and entertaining. I thoroughly it enjoyed it.

Here are a few excerpts from the interview that made me laugh out loud --

"Interviewer: It's always ironic that the more successful a person gets, the more under attack he comes. I've noticed that there is an increasing amount of bitterness by a great number of people toward your work. Do you have any sort of response to their criticism?

Dickey: Most the time I don't even know what it is. It seems to me that a lot of it is politically oriented. For some reason or other I've had the right-wing monkey put on my back. But I'm not right wing; I'm not left wing; I'm not any wing!

Interviewer: You got into what you call your one political foray when Yevtushenko was here, in this country. Why?

Dickey: Well, he's a close friend. I like him very much, but I profoundly disapprove of the kind of thing he does. He uses poetry as a pretext for making bohemian speeches. He's a great deal better poet than Allen Ginsberg, but he does the same sort of thing. I don't think poetry is well served by that. Poetry can speak on topical things eloquently. Look at Yeats on the riots of 1916, for example. But we should not be led into the corner of assuming that poetry is no good which does not speak on news items. If a man wants to write about the circle that's made in the water when a fish jumps, he should be able to write about that and should not be charged off as irrelevant because he's not writing about the Vietnam riots.

Interviewer: It seem Allen Ginsberg is the diametrical opposite of you.

Dickey: I certainly hope so. I think Ginsberg has done more harm to the craft that I honor and live by than anybody else by reducing it to a kind of mean that enables the most dubious practitioners to claim they are poets because they think, If the kind of thing Ginsberg does is poetry, I can do that! They damn themselves to a life of inconsequentiality when they could have been doing something more useful. They could have been garbage collectors, or grocery store managers. Poetry is, Yeats has said, "a high and lonely profession." It Is very easy, too easy, to pick up on the latest thing in the newspapers and write a poem. That's all Ginsberg does. He just doesn't have any talent. I'll do a Ginsbergian poem or a Robert Bly poem for you right now.

Interviewer: Do you consider them in the same school?

Dickey: Well, not exactly the same, but they take off from the same…launching pad. Their poem goes:

It is the hour when the Americans in Vietnam are Examining their hands.

The dead are lying below the tangles of jungle brush. All over Minnesota snow is beginning to fall over the missile silos."

On Sylvia Plath -

Interviewer: How do you respond to the emergence of Sylvia Plath as a celebrated figure?

Dickey: She's not very good. She's just someone who killed herself out of literary desperation-out of desperation to be literarily notable. Someone ought to write an article called "The Suicide Certification," which assumes that if you're a poet and you kill yourself, then you have got to be good. No way.

On Robert Frost-

Interviewer: Has the poetry of Robert Frost, particularly the country poems, been of interest to you?

Dickey: I don't care much for Robert Frost, and have never been able to understand his reputation. He says a good thing, now and then, but with a strange way of averting his eyes while saying it which may be profound and may be poppycock. If it were thought that anything I wrote was influenced by Robert Frost, I would take that particular work of mine, shred it, and flush it down the toilet, hoping not to clog the pipes.

Interviewer: Did you know him?

Dickey: Yes, I knew him slightly, and spent a couple of afternoons with him when I was teaching at the University of Florida in 1955, and a more sententious, holding-forth old bore who expected every hero-worshiping adenoidal little twerp of a student-poet to hang on his every word I never saw."

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