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CRUX by James Dickey


The Letters of James Dickey

by James Dickey & edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli & Judith S. Baughman

Pub Date: Nov. 14th, 1999
ISBN: 0-375-40419-8
Publisher: Knopf

Indefatigable literary estate agent Bruccoli (English/Univ. South Carolina, editor of the letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald, John O’Hara, and Vladimir Nabokov) amasses the documentary chronicle of Dickey’s metamorphosis from “scarcely educated jock” to award-winning poet. Despite the wide range of addressees, including Robert Bly, Philip Booth, Donald Hall, Richard Howard, Randall Jarrell, Denise Levertov, and Robert Penn Warren, Dickey is on truly intimate terms—whether aesthetic or personal—with very few. Concerning his art, his most revealing personal statements typically occur in early correspondence with fellow-poet James Wright in the late fifties and the sixties: how Dickey is out to make “a poetry that gives us life: . . . the live imagination as it leaps instinctively toward its inevitable (and perhaps God-ordained) forms”; why he writes about a few significant personal experiences (usually concerning his family) “in order to understand these times and states, and to perpetuate them.” Elsewhere, he relates to Wright vivid descriptions of a brawling debate with Jarrell and a winter deer hunt with friends and his son Christopher, during which Dickey improvised ballads. Unfortunately, in his later (post-Deliverance) letters, his grand-old-man status affords him too many opportunities for self-regarding pronouncements, such as judging fellow Southern writers and young poets. The quotidian aspects of a poetic career—and Bruccoli bluntly describes Dickey as a careerist—are well-documented, from Dickey’s popular speaking engagements and academic postings, through mundane dealings with magazines and publishers, to putting down rivals and sucking up to critics. (In one of the more amusing two-faced incidents, Dickey calls John Hollander “a literary pimp and time-server” but later sympathizes with Hollander about “nit-pickers who balk at your poems.—) For the appetite for life that drives Dickey’s poetry, his letters to his son Christopher, though comparatively few here, are best. In disagreement with Auden, Dickey writes, “Poetry makes plenty happen; it can change your life,” as this passionate and ornery epistolary collection proves.