James Dickey: The Toad in the Word-Garden

Elizabeth Boleman-Herring

He was old when last I saw him. He’d quit fighting the mirror. His hair was clipped short, unlike the Cinnabon concoction of the 70s. No more that hopeful objet trouvé swirling over the noble dome. No more the lie. He was heavy, like an old boxer; like Hemingway, top-heavy. And he wore that red, fishnet T-shirt, that garish shark’s tooth necklace, that flat-brimmed hat, no longer like a rake; but like an old stage actress who refuses to tone down her look. So what if my eyeliner’s crooked, by damn? I will be seen!Elizabeth Boleman-Herring

By Way of Being

By Elizabeth Boleman-Herring

At the Tomochihi archery range in Virginia (Photo: Christopher Dickey).

At the Tomochihi archery range in Virginia (Photo: Christopher Dickey).

“A poet is someone who stands outside in the rain hoping to be struck by lightning.”
James Dickey

I don’t mean to sell the poet so long or at such great length, but I do this principally because the world doesn’t esteem the poet very much. They don’t understand where we are coming from. They don’t understand the use for us. They don’t understand if there is any use. We are the masters of the superior secret, not they. Not they. Remember that when you write.”James Dickey (Unsourced Quote)

Author’s Note: I was a graduate TA and poetry student of James Dickey in the mid-1970s at the University of South Carolina, and poems I wrote in his class were included in From The Green Horseshoe: Poems by James Dickey’s Students. The cranky old eminence and I stayed in touch through the 1980s; this essay was written back then after hearing him read at Manuel’s Tavern in Atlanta, one of his favorite watering holes. The poem, dedicated to him, which follows the essay, appears in my collection, The Crowded Bed: Erotic, Light & Formal Verse.

Elizabeth Boleman-HerringPENDLETON South Carolina(Weekly Hubris)—July 2018— Several Sundays ago, I heard Jim Dickey read again, at Manuel’s Tavern here; and the old anger flared up. Can this thing die, I thought, this rage?

You wouldn’t know I’m an angry person. I don’t look the part. It’s hard, too, for anyone who’s ever owned an eyelash curler and/or spent night after sleepless night working on the “turn” in a sonnet to articulate anger. But I’m a person with a veritable pilot light in my soul, whose phthalo-blue flame never goes out. Hearing Dickey just eased the thermostat around from “Simmer” to “Boil.”

I got my MA in English at the University of South Carolina in Columbia—that desert on The Broad—and I nurture a cordial hatred, still, for the graduate department of English there . . . of which James Dickey was part, if not parcel.

Seeing the poet at Manuel’s, surrounded by sycophants, “The James Dickey Newsletter”’s editors et al, for God’s sake, the pentameter-groupies, just reminded me of my own season in hell in Columbia. Never choose to live in a city that comprises a major army base, the seat of South Carolina’s you’ll-excuse-the-term government, and the state university’s flagship: what was I thinking? Well, my father (a professor there) had just died, I’d lost, therefore, any hope of funding to attend the Medical University of South Carolina, to which I’d been accepted, and the English Department offered me a full, fat Teaching Assistantship.

It wouldn’t have been so bad, there at Manuel’s, if I’d felt the poet were armed against the beaks that fed on him; if he’d turned, at intervals and, say, flipped the videographer the bird; or refused, noisily, to autograph those damned mimeographed newsletters (these idiots hadn’t even the sense to get those marketable signatures in hard bound editions of his works). But, no, Dickey, as always, was getting off on the applause. Thus, my rage. The rage of someone watching a trained bear—who towers above his owners—dance.

He deserved the applause, of course. If he’d stopped, shut down, in 1970, or even before, gone dry, he’d have deserved the applause.

I stood up applauding when he finished reading, as I’ve stood for Lowell, MacLeish, Bishop, and Henry Taylor. But when Dickey looked into my eyes (or yours) and purred, “I’m the greatest living American poet,” forgive me, I wanted to puke.

I was reminded of another poet/pugilist, one Muhammad Ali, and I wanted to say, “Whoa, Big Fella! What have those little gelded prima donnas back on The Broad, those fawning critics, those tenured publishers of periodical bumf done to you? Why have you settled for so little? Greatest living American poet? Three empty adjectives to the holy noun. And the two in the middle don’t count? Come back to the raft, Jim, Honey, before you drown out there.”

I won’t name names. (One professor at USC took a student who threw a pie in his faceoh such a just dessert-to court: imagine.) And there are still people at USC I wouldn’t help out of a gator-infested water-hazard.

There’s a fellow, for example, who’s been trying to metamorphose, for 30 years now, into William Faulkner. Faulkner would have got away from him fast, towards the nearest wet bar, had he lived long enough. Funny thing about “scholars” of this ilk: they prefer their subjects quite dead. (A fellow down the hall set up his own shop in John Hawkes, but wasn’t as content: Hawkes is still kicking.)

Dickey was still very much alive at Manuel’s, but they’ve already started in on him, too, settling like glossy black Muscae domesticae, their compound eyes full of bibliographies, check lists, and critical editions. Listen to this quote from a representative “James Dickey Newsletter”: “To deconstruct, to revise, to qualify, to refute, to reformulate, or, quite simply, to criticize Deliverance . . . is the purpose of this issue.” More simply, I think, it was meant to castrate, to un-man Jim. “Jim!” I wanted to holler, “rise up and shake off these buzzing ephemera. The sterile groves of academe are no place for a poet, least of all now. Give no one your blessing, a heavy-weight’s belt; least of all yourself.

Do I begin to paint him, though, as large as those grinning idiots of the colleges, who intend to market him ad æternum, churning out paper after paper, each with its own colon-broken title?

Dickey in his library.

Dickey in his library.

I draw him on this scale because he stood in, stands in, for me for every poet in the university bread line, every artist who, logey with too much luncheon beer, faces a classroom of earnest sophomores or trembling graduate students, on an afternoon when, in another year—one of those good, lost years—he or she would have been writing.

I was one of those grad students of his, and Dickey was my teacher. I didn’t learn a damn thing from him the three years I sat at his table, but just being there with him several days a week kept me writing. The man, unlike Professor G., never pilfered my few original critical ideas to publish as his own nor, like Dr. M., verbally bludgeoned me in the classroom, stopwatch in hand. (Does anyone now remember him?)

Dickey did not teach: he did not damage. He just sprawled lazily at the head of the cheap Formica round table in his ridiculous hats and multiple watches and suede fringes—his aging hippie attire—and he free-associated, as one will do, full of alcohol. Show and tell. Generous. Moving. All over maps we hadn’t seen, yet.

Which is not to say Dickey was a nice man. Oh, far from it, when he even acknowledged one’s presence. He really disliked quote complicated end-quote women, that is women not home changing diapers, inspiring poetry, or licking boots. (I have endless proof of this misogyny. He emitted enough verbal evidence in my presence over the years to support my thesis. Dickey: “Well, Miss Davis, have you finally got married?” “Yes,” said my friend, whose child had just died. Dickey: “Any children?” Miss Davis: “No,” (sadly). Dickey: “. . . but many, many abortions, I feel sure.”

I got wise to this failing of his early in our first year and never turned a poem in to him for critiquing with my real name attached. He had no idea who we all were, term to term, so I invented an alias, E. Albrecht, and actually published under that name for years. (Many editors share Dickey’s prejudices, I learned.) Dickey felt women wrote one way; men, another. But he liked E. Albrecht’s work, and never accused him, or her, of “writing like a woman.” (All these years later, I write under both my parents’ names: a sort of poet-Prius.)

What Dickey did with those small afternoon writing classes was pitifully basic. He read to us from other poets’ work. He read us people we’d not have found ourselves—Rupert Brooke, Conrad Aiken (“all lips and no teeth,” according to Dickey: one of his great, surely stolen, quotes), the terse giants of The Greek Anthology. Few contemporaries. Dickey didn’t share a stage well, nor need he have. He read to us from the greatly gifted dead, and he rambled on about them. I hardly ever took notes. The Aiken quote alone has stuck. More vivid than what he said about anything was the sound of him. He forced tears out of you with Greek couplets. He convulsed you with Brando impersonations. He seduced you with his poems on adultery.

And, one day, he came in excited. He’d just written something and he wanted to read it to us. Oh yes, Kiddies, he still had it in him. They—the professors—hadn’t got to him, yet; made him one of them, yet.

There were able young writers at USC back in the mid-70s, people like Paula Goff , Gary Kerley, Susan Bartels-Ludvigson, some of whose work is as good as that of the greatest not-now-living poet. I have only a few poems I’d put up against his good work, and yet I say, honestly, that I probably would not have written them had I not “sat in” with Dickey. (Or, perhaps, that I wouldn’t have wanted to study under him if I hadn’t been laboring, even then, to write such poems. Same thing.)

But it’s not the quality of his work, finally, that I stood up for in places like Manuel’s Tavern. It was the production, the drive. He just had to do it, keep at it, produce, produce. Some of it, of necessity, really isn’t good. Whole books, in fact, seem like wilderness areas he had to write his way through with a machete, arms flailing. But, still, he comes back at you. And, all those years after Deliverance, there was even a new novel. I rejoiced for him.

He was old when last I saw him. He’d quit fighting the mirror. His hair was clipped short, unlike that Cinnabon concoction of the 70s. No more that hopeful objet trouvé swirling over the noble dome. No more the lie. He was heavy, like an old boxer; like Hemingway, top-heavy. And he wore that red, fishnet T-shirt, that garish shark’s tooth necklace, that flat-brimmed hat, no longer like a rake; but like an old stage actress who refuses to tone down her look. So what if my eyeliner’s crooked, by damn? I will be seen!

He was a performer, a leading lady, a ham. He took the stage all right. He was driven to do the thing right, to instruct you about sound, and then get up and wait for the applause. Why should I blame him?

When he finally stood down at Manuel’s, and the damned videographer was running back the reading, all Jim could say to me, after his usual little burst of chauvinist insults and jabs—Oh Lord! I believe he delivered them with affection—was, “Write!” Meaning letters. To him. But I knew who handled all his incoming mail, just as a TA, an extremely able one, Shaye Areheart, had graded all our papers back at USC.

And so I doubt that a letter saying, “Get the hell out of Columbia before it’s too late, and take Paula Goff with you,” would get through. Before it was, finally, too late.

I would have liked to see him get away, to an island like Robert Graves’s, with his second wife and daughter, and reams of letterhead and pens pilfered from the USC English Department. But would my applause, would yours, have been enough, way out there? Be audible at that distance? Or was it just the rustling of the professors’ papers that carried at the end, the sound of his recorded voice played back to him . . . the voice of The Greatest Living American Poet?

Marianne Moore defined poetry as “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” I so wanted Dickey to escape, before the dons got hold of the toad, too.

P.S. The very last time we met, I went down to Columbia, to the lake house, to interview him. Slyly, at the end, when the recorder was turned off, he said, “Didn’t I once seriously try to put the make on you? Before Deborah? And failed?”

“Yeah, Jim,” I said. “As I was leaving, you told me I was too stuck up and Vassar-y ever to be one of ‘your women.’”

Last thing I got to say to him. Made him laugh.

Poet Marianne Moore and Muhammad Ali, at Toots Shor’s in Manhattan.

Poet Marianne Moore and Muhammad Ali, at Toots Shor’s in Manhattan.

Fake Garden: Fake Toad, Too
By Elizabeth Boleman-Herring

. . . imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”Marianne Moore

A fool, I went out to the house of The Poet
Set in the midst of His big manmade park
Where trees are adorned with some old punctured bullseyes
And squirrels go bananas from eating their bark.
(It’s radioactive. They glow in the dark.)

Yes, all that’s therein has the mark of the pencil.
Shrubs look like capital letters in drag.
Tulips must rhyme and come up in pentameter.
Anything au naturel gets a frag.
(According to Poet, Demeter’s a hag.)

I picked up one plastic leaf after another
Searching for what Henry James might term real
And found in the potting soil—plaster of Paris—
Some eyes and some skin that at least had the feel
Of a creature, albeit right under my heel.

Yes, a toad’s what I found, and He looked up uncovered,
Pecksniffian countenance masking His fear,
“Why you are not permanent, plastic, pentameter!
In short you’re not something I’ve written, My Dear!
How in The Poet’s name did you get here?”

And feeling unwanted, I fled from the garden.
Fig leaf a’flapping, I exited right.
I left Him still shouting mechanical curses
Surrounded by sheer Bufonidæan blight,
His semi-dark garden succumbing to night.

Yet I know he’s still out there composing in blackness
Repeating ad nauseam two words: I am.
And I know that creating his moribund matrix
Made of formerly real Toad a sad sickly sham
Who for true flesh and blood couldn’t give a goddamn

(So I leaped on my donkey and fled, Marianne.
I picked up my skirts and my poems and I ran
Right back to the small bitter plot that I know
And the one small green leaf I’ve been able to grow.)

For James Dickey,
Columbia, SC.

Note Regarding Images 1 and 3: James Dickey drawing a bow; Marianne Moore and Muhammad Ali, at Toots Shors in Manhattan.

Provenance: This essay appeared most recently in “The South Carolina Review,” Volume 44, No. 2, Spring 2012.

Further Reading:

James Dickey (1923-1997),” Original entry by Hugh Ruppersburg, New Georgia Encyclopedia, University of Georgia, June 7, 2002.

The Burden of James Dickey,” by Peter Davison, “The Atlantic,” August 1998.

The Teacher,” by Tim Gautreaux, “Oxford American: A Magazine of The South,” Issue 100, March 13, 2018.

Marianne Moores ‘Poetry’: Why did she keep revising it?”, by Robert Pinsky, “Slate,” June 30, 2009.

To order Elizabeth Boleman-Herring’s memoir and/or her erotic novel, click on the book covers below:

Elizabeth Boleman, Greek Unorthdox: Bande a Part & a Farewell to Ikaros

Elizabeth Boleman Herring, The Visitors’ Book (or Silva Rerum): An Erotic Fable

About Elizabeth Boleman-Herring

Elizabeth Boleman-Herring, Publishing-Editor of Weekly Hubris, considers herself an Outsider Artist (of Ink). The most recent of her 15 books is The Visitors’ Book (or Silva Rerum): An Erotic Fable. Thirty years an academic, she has also worked steadily as a founding-editor of journals, magazines, and newspapers in her two homelands, Greece and America. Three other hats Boleman-Herring has at times worn are those of a Traditional Usui Reiki Master, an Iyengar-Style Yoga teacher, a HuffPost columnist and, as “Bebe Herring,” a jazz lyricist for the likes of Thelonious Monk, Kenny Dorham, and Bill Evans. (Her online Greek travel guide is still accessible at www.GreeceTraveler.com, and her memoir, Greek Unorthodox: Bande a Part & A Farewell To Ikaros, is available through www.GreeceInPrint.com.)
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2 Responses to James Dickey: The Toad in the Word-Garden

  1. Anita Sullivan says:

    So glad to have this personal account of Dickey, who’s always been on my list of “need to read more”poets. I only have 1 book of his, “Poems 1957-67” which as you say was before he went dry. Your account reminds me of his poem “The Sheep Child,” which I love. The poems in this collection feel pretty genuine to me, not self consciously trying to be that “greatest poet.” So, we have at least this!

  2. Elizabeth Boleman-Herring says:

    Anita, he was a monument on the landscape, and there are early poems–you name one great one–which show what he was capable of. I was “fortunate in” Barks, Dickey, then Henry Taylor (at American U); and, then, Andrews, Leigh Fermor, Mike Keeley, and Friar. I was most fortunate in my teachers and mentors.

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