Upon Studying Poetry With James Dickey

By Jason Gantt

When I was a senior at the University of South Carolina, I had the great fortune of studying verse composition with the late poet and writer in residence James Dickey. To be completely honest, I wasn't all that much of a fan of James Dickey at the time I took his class. I have come to find out that most Dickey fans are completely obsessed with his work. For instance, I've heard the great fiction writer Pat Conroy give talks on many occasions about how influential Dickey has been to him, and how as a student he read all of Dickey's works over and over in an obsessive attempt to write like him and to understand him. Well, this most certainly wasn't my position. As an undergraduate in English, I was more centered on American and British Romanticism, and felt then, as I do now, that when speaking of more modern American poets, Robert Frost really couldn't be out done.

In effect, it would be wrong to say that I went into Dickey's class as a diehard fan, like most of the other students I was enrolled with. His seminar on verse composition was offered to graduate students only, but it was rumored that he made exceptions. I called his office many times to see if it was possible to register in the course as an undergraduate, and, being that he was impossible to reach, I slipped a note under his door. He left a message for me with the English department.s administrative assistant saying that if I truly wanted to take his class I should be able to without question.

The only poem I had ever read at the time by Dickey was "The Lifeguard." If anything, I was more of a fan of fiction and while I found poetry wonderful and mysterious, I admired it from a humble distance, lacking confidence and faith that I could succeed in the medium. I had not even read Deliverance at the time, or seen the film, and so I bought a copy of the book to read along with the class as a sort of weirdo experiment in synchronicity. Looking back now I think that he would have gotten a kick out of that experiment, as he enjoyed the metaphysical aspects of synchronicity and similarly related topics, such as Jungian dream interpretation.

I was extremely nervous the first day, mostly because I was about to sit amongst a bunch of intimidating English graduate students. While USC may not house an over abundance of world acclaimed, best selling authors, it certainly produces its fair share of genuinely talented writers, and it is commonly known through underground conversation at places such as coffee houses, bars, and art galleries in Columbia, that USC's English graduate students are very competitive, snobbish, brilliant and artistically innovative. All I really wanted to do was find out if I actually had the ability to write poetry, whereas most of the other students, as I would come to find out, were already published, and were enrolling in his Dickey.s class in order to have him reviewuate their work.

The first time I ever saw James Dickey was when he walked into the classroom. I found a seat in the back of the room, plopped down and got out a notebook to take notes. The room was very small, and in the center of it was a large, rectangular table. All of the mighty graduate students were sitting around it, like knights awaiting their king, nervously twitching their pens, and at the head of the table was an empty chair. No one dared to sit in that chair, but I noticed everyone staring at it, in awe and anticipation. The aura of nervousness was ridiculous, and I remember thinking, God, what a bunch of pretentious nimrods (Dickey loved that term, specifically because it is both biblical and humorously offensive).

When the great teacher (and I refer to him now as a teacher before a poet because I believe he appreciated teachers more than poets) walked into the room, my eyes widened; not because here before me was someone who in a hundred years from now will be equivalent to Edgar A. Poe, or Yeats (God, how he loved Yeats), but because of his charismatic attire and massive presence. In walked a robust man with shiny hair, a smooth, leather-like but pale face, wearing dark sunglasses, a heavily worn western, and wrapped around him an Indian-suede jacket with dangling strips of leather hanging down, heavy boots on his feet and an assortment of what I presume to be Native-American jewelry around his neck. His fingers were dressed in rings, most notably a sterling silver thumb ring. The most prominent item around his neck was an Indian arrowhead. I was mesmerized.

He carried with him a briefcase. He placed it on the large rectangular table, took a seat, and began to pull books from it slowly, placing each one to the side very delicately, as if each were a precious item. He did not take roll (nor would he ever), but merely began the course by saying, "How many of you can tell me if tennis balls can change shape."

There was a small, hesitant chuckle among the students. He did not indulge us with a laugh, but reiterated with all sincerity the former question. We all sat there, dumb and intrigued.

He sighed heavily, reached into his briefcase, and pulled out a yellow tennis ball. Then he slowly stood, climbed on top of his chair, and then stepped onto the surface of the table. There he was before us all, an old man in Indian cloths, in a type of crouched-over position, waving the tennis ball in our faces. He did not chant, but I am almost certain that I heard melodic voices accompany him, mysteriously piercing the air in a dark rhythm. He had a haunting grin on his face, and he began to sway back and forth hypnotically as he waved the ball out in front of our drooling faces. He began to whisper over and over, ""Do you see it? Do you see it change? Watch it closely."

Of course, we were transfixed and amused, taken and baffled, and unable to even open our mouths. After a while, he climbed down from the desk, sat back into his chair and smiled a very satisfied grin. He then asked, "Did anyone see the ball shape-shift?"

No one budged.

He let a few moments pass and then he exhaled a horse, dry chuckle, and held the ball out in front of us again. He said, "You see, as the ball gets closer to your eyes, it appears to get bigger due to the simple laws of physics and optics. As it travels away, it appears to get smaller. Similarly, the sun and the moon appear small because of its distance, but we know better." Then he winked and smiled as his first of many profound observations sunk into our bones. He then added, "You see, students, we must see things this way if we are to be poets. It is the poet who can see what others can not. It is the poet who chooses to see beyond the laws of physics. The poet is, by definition, transcendental."

As the semester progressed, Dickey.s shining moments only increased. His knowledge of books surpassed anything I had ever expected, even after having studied with some of the world.s most prominent literary scholars. He would bring a multitude of books to every class, ranging from metaphysics, to Stephen Hawkings, to the poetry of Yeats and Keats, to text manuals on archery, French history, modern cinema, and Aristotle. He was an expert on subjects as random as Greek architecture, World War II aviation, and modern advertising techniques. I was, at all times, fascinated to hear him lecture.

As for the other students, most of them were very egotistical and often attempted to keep in synch with Dickey, but to no avail. No matter how comfortable I grew in his class, I never sat at the "big" table with the graduate students, mostly out of fear that he would call on me to answer a question. I was safe in the back of the classroom, far from his immediate attention.

As for my own personal training in the art of verse composition, the one compliment he gave me (in regards to my work) was in reference to my poem entitled "Wandering." He did not like the poem much as a whole but he did, however, enjoy sections of it immensely, and he told me that the poem's insight was very "brilliant," if not, however, "lacking." Like Dickey himself, I found this reaction interesting and baffling, if not difficult to interpret. Still, I was more than happy that he had actually taken the time to sit down with me and study my poem, and the carefully weigh a response. When Dickey was kind, he was as gentle as an angel, and when he was critical, he was deadly honest, and often brutal and merciless, and I was grateful that he treated my poem with sincerity and respect, despite it.s obvious inefficiencies.

To Dickey, the poet is one who observes life, and then translates it into beautiful language for the common man to understand. In other words, being a poet is about 90% observing, thinking, being, and experiencing, while actually composing the words onto paper is but the mere icing on the cake and incidental. A true poet can live his whole life without ever composing one line of verse, but this is not to say that Dickey did not value writing. In fact, he was obsessed with it. He encouraged our class to do as he did.write obsessively. He spoke of the many typewriters he kept around his house, and of how he sketched verse every waking second. I enjoyed discussing Jung with Dickey, and Dickey appreciated my love for Jung's mysticism and psychology. We often discussed Jung's Memories, Dreams, and Reflections, and Dickey encouraged our class to pay particular attention to dreams, as he believed that the dream world brought us closer to our purest, most aesthetic identities, thus providing us with glimpses of our divine potential. He sponsored the idea of keeping a writing pad by our beds, so that upon awaking we could jot down glimpses of the "other world."

On one special occasion Dickey invited our class to his house. That particular day was his birthday, and the English department's professors had been invited as well. After class, a fellow poetry student and friend drove us to the party. In our excitement we arrived first before any professors, students, and even Dickey himself did, and Dickey's wife and daughter, then 12, greeted us at the door. His house gave a beautiful view of Lake Catherine, and it was crammed with the great objects of a poet.books, guitars, a piano, typewriters everywhere, papers lying about, and more books. In fact, I have never seen so many books in one house in my life. There were books in his personal library, of course, swarming over massive bookshelves, but there were also books in the den, the kitchen, on tables, in chairs, in the bathroom, and among the many bookshelves along the hallway. Mrs. Dickey told me that she had spent a whole summer creating a library card catalogue system just for these books. Later, after Dickey arrived, I told him that I played guitar and was also a struggling singer and songwriter. He allowed me to tune a few of his cherished acoustic guitars. He then took my friend and I out into his backyard, along the humble waterfront of Lake Katherine, and he told us his thoughts on nature, and of how he loved the smell of pine trees, and lake water. He spoke of Deliverance and of archery, sailing, nature walks, and other things. He even pointed to certain trees and said things like, "That's where I was standing when I composed such and such line, in such and such poem..." I beamed as he spoke, and enjoyed the way his face lit up with excitement as he told his stories. Every now and then he would turn to me and ask, "What do you think?" and I would try my hardest to give him an honest answer about whatever question he proposed. To me, this was the magnificent thing about him.the way he would tilt his wise eyes down at you and with all sincerity ask your opinion about something. He actually listened to me when I would reply, and carefully weighed my words. The feeling this gave me was indescribable, this way he treated me as well as others. Despite my inferior intellectual training, he held me with sincere interest and respect. After a while the other guest arrived, and he beamed as the other professors arrived and brought gifts. It was a fine party, and I got to play the piano for his wife while the others admired his library and drank with him.

There are many other things that I remember about the man, but they are mostly bits and pieces. He had just completed To the White Sea when I took his class. He was doing a lot of traveling and promoting, and there was a James Dickey symposium and critical debate on To the White Sea shortly after the class ended. I attended the lecture and spoke with him briefly afterwards he signed my copy of To the White Sea, and then looked at me closely and said with his deepest sincerity, "I really miss our poetry class." That was the interesting thing about him. No matter how busy he was with being a famous writer, he was never above or beyond teaching our small poetry class. There are other sorted things I remember as well. He liked the fact that I appreciated Gus Van Sant movies, especially My Own Private Idaho, and that I was interested in Salvador Dali.

I remember very vividly the last day of our poetry class. He brought his beloved Zen and the Art of Archery with him and read selections from it. On this day he so brilliantly related poetry and art to archery.a combination of language and metaphysics. and I tried to keep up the best that I could. He encouraged us to publish our poetry, and to forever write and remain dedicated to the art of verse. As the class ended, we could all hear the trembling in his voice as he spoke of how much he loved teaching us. We did not know it then, but his failing health was beginning to creep up on him. Indeed, the very next year would be his last as a teacher at USC, as he finally succumbed to his failing body. He told us that he treasured our comments, and then he cried openly for a few minutes with us all around him.children graduating and leaving the nest.

I received a B+ for the class, while most of the other students received A's. I was a little upset by this, but in some weird way, I think that this was Dickey's way of complimenting me. He knew that the "B+" would aggravate me and drive me to work harder, and that to receive an "A" would be to classify myself in an odd type of generic, stale perfection. Then again, maybe just I'm lying to myself.

The next year, Dickey grew yellow with Jaundice, and almost unrecognizable in the pictures that The State and The Gamecock, the University.s college newspaper, published of him. I attended the memorial ceremony held on the Horseshoe at USC. Hearing his voice echo through the air as they played one of his then recent lectures through loud speakers pulled me back into the Dickey mindset. His voice on the recording was still warm and peaceful, if not shaky and weary. Pat Conroy was the featured speaker and spoke dearly of Dickey. After a few other speakers, the ceremony concluded with the "Dueling Banjo's" theme song from Deliverance. Earlier that day Ben Greer, my fiction writing professor, said openly to our class that Dickey's death signified the end of an era, and that he felt as if a huge spirit was lifting itself away from the campus. I thought his word a wonderful and effective statement that best enveloped what all of those who loved Dickey. students, colleagues, family. were all feeling.   I think about my experiences with Dickey from time to time and while I constantly try to apply all that he taught me when composing verse, mostly I am still drawn to that image if him as time he stood on the table in our class and danced his shaman tribute to the shape-shifting tennis ball. Or sometimes I think of the time I was with him briefly in the woods behind his house, and of the kind, thoughtful conversation he tried to give me.

As mentioned before, I have yet to become a great writer of poetry, but I think he would be pleased to know that I struggle with it every single day, always striving and following his advice to write obsessively. Most importantly, though, Dickey taught me that we can all be poets. observers, and life-translators. In the future, regardless of how I development in my writing, I will forever remain his student and I will hold tight to his words that often echo through my sleep, "Brilliant, Mr. Gantt, but so very lacking."