On February 2, 1923, James Dickey was born in Buckhead, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta.
His interest in poetry was awakened by his father, a lawyer who used to read his son famous speeches. As a boy Dickey read the work of Byron, and later, a volume of Byron's poetry was the young poet's first purchase. As a boy—at six feet three inches—Dickey went on to become a high school football star, eventually playing varsity at Clemson College in South Carolina.
In 1942, Dickey left school to enlist in the U.S. Air Force. In between combat missions in the Pacific, he read the work of Conrad Aiken and an anthology of modern poetry by Louis Untermeyer, and developed a taste for the apocalyptic poets, including Dylan Thomas and Kenneth Patchen.
When he returned from the war, Dickey enrolled at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, where he studied anthropology, astronomy, philosophy, and foreign languages, as well as English literature. Encouraged to write more poetry, Dickey spent his senior year focusing on his craft, and eventually had a poem published in the Sewanee Review. Determined to write, he pursued graduate work, first at Vanderbilt, then at Rice University in Houston, Texas.
The Air Force recalled Dickey to train officers for the Korean War. On his return he took a position with the University of Florida, though he resigned in April 1956, discouraged by the institutional nature of teaching.
At the age of thirty-three, Dickey moved to New York City, where he was hired to write advertising copy at the prominent McCann-Ericson agency. He stayed in New York for several years before moving to Atlanta agencies.
In 1960, Dickey's first collection, Into the Stone and Other Poems, was published, and he soon abandoned his lucrative career to devote his life to writing poetry full-time. In 1961, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and spent a year in Italy with his family. Two of his most famous volumes of verse, Helmets (1964) and Buckdancer's Choice (1965), for which he was awarded both the Melville Cane Award and National Book Award, were published soon after. Dickey then taught, lectured, and wrote.
"I came to poetry with no particular qualifications," Dickey stated in Howard Nemerov's Poets on Poetry. "I had begun to suspect, however, that there is a poet—or a kind of poet—buried in every human being like Ariel in his tree, and that the people whom we are pleased to call poets are only those who have felt the need and contrived the means to release this spirit from its prison."
Applauded for their ambitious experimentation with language and syntax, Dickey's poems address humanity and violence by presenting the instincts of humans and animals as antithetical to the false safety of civilization. Called "willfully eccentric" by the New York Times Book Review and "naturally musical" by the Chicago Tribune Book World, Dickey's work testifies to the power of the human spirit, especially under extreme conditions.
From 1966 to 1968, Dickey held the position of Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, an office that would later become the Poet Laureate.
In 1970, he penned his best-selling novel, Deliverance. The book, which was later made into a major motion picture, exposed readers to scenes of violence and nightmarish horror, much as his poetry had done. Though the novel was well received, Dickey remained devoted to poetry.
"Poetry is, I think, the highest medium that mankind has ever come up with," he asserted in a 1981 interview. "It's language itself, which is a miraculous medium which makes everything else that man has ever done possible."
In 1977 Dickey read at President Carter's inauguration, and later served as the judge of the Yale Younger Poets Series.
By the end of his life, Dickey had gained fame for his poems and stories of the South and recognition for his Renaissance lifestyle. A writer, guitar player, hunter, woodsman, and war hero, James Dickey died in South Carolina after a long illness in 1997.