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James Dickey


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.

Selected Bibliography


Into the Stone and Other Poems (1960)
Drowning with Others (1962)
Two Poems of the Air (1964)
Helmets (1964)
Buckdancer's Choice (1965)
Poems 1957-67 (1967)
The Achievement of James Dickey: A Comprehensive Selection of His Poems (1968)
The Eye Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy (1970)
Exchanges (1971)
The Zodiac (1976)
Veteran Birth: The Gadfly Poems 1947-49 (1978)
Head-Deep in Strange Sounds: Free-Flight Improvisations from the unEnglish (1979)
The Strength of Fields (1979)
Falling, May Day Sermon, and Other Poems (1981)
The Early Motion (1981)
Puella (1982)
Värmland (1982)
False Youth: Four Seasons (1983)
For a Time and Place (1983)
Intervisions (1983)
The Central Motion: Poems 1968-79 (1983)
Bronwen, The Traw, and the Shape-Shifter: A Poem in Four Parts (1986)
The Eagle's Mile (1990)
The Whole Motion: Collected Poems 1949-92 (1992)


Deliverance (1970)
Alnilam (1987)
To the White Sea (1993)

By This Poet


Hunting Civil War Relics at Nimblewill Creek

As he moves the mine detector
A few inches over the ground,
Making it vitally float
Among the ferns and weeds,
I come into this war
Slowly, with my one brother,
Watching his face grow deep
Between the earphones,
For I can tell
If we enter the buried battle
Of Nimblewill
Only by his expression.

Softly he wanders, parting
The grass with a dreaming hand.
No dead cry yet takes root
In his clapped ears
Or can be seen in his smile.
But underfoot I feel 
The dead regroup,
The burst metals all in place,
The battle lines be drawn
Anew to include us
In Nimblewill,
And I carry the shovel and pick

More as if they were
Bright weapons that I bore.
A bird's cry breaks 
In two, and into three parts.
We cross the creek; the cry
Shifts into another,
Nearer, bird, and is
Like the shout of a shadow—
Lived-with, appallingly close—
Or the soul, pronouncing
Three tones; your being changes.

We climb the bank;
A faint light glows
On my brother's mouth.
I listen, as two birds fight
For a single voice, but he
Must be hearing the grave,
In pieces, all singing
To his clamped head,
For he smiles as if 
He rose from the dead within
Green Nimblewill
And stood in his grandson's shape.

No shot from the buried war
Shall kill me now,
For the dead have waited here
A hundred years to create
Only the look on the face
Of my one brother,
Who stands among them, offering
A metal dish
Afloat in the trembling weeds,
With a long-buried light on his lips
At Nimblewill
And the dead outsinging two birds.

I choke the handle
Of the pick, and fall to my knees
To dig wherever he points,
To bring up mess tin or bullet,
To go underground
Still singing, myself,
Without a sound,
Like a man who renounces war,
Or one who shall lift up the past,
Not breathing "Father,"
At Nimblewill,
But saying, "Fathers! Fathers!"

The Dusk of Horses

Right under their noses, the green
Of the field is paling away
Because of something fallen from the sky. 

They see this, and put down
Their long heads deeper in grass
That only just escapes reflecting them

As the dream of a millpond would.
The color green flees over the grass
Like an insect, following the red sun over

The next hill. The grass is white.
There is no cloud so dark and white at once;
There is no pool at dawn that deepens

Their faces and thirsts as this does.
Now they are feeding on solid
Cloud, and, one by one,

With nails as silent as stars among the wood
Hewed down years ago and now rotten,
The stalls are put up around them.

Now if they lean, they come
On wood on any side. Not touching it, they sleep.
No beast ever lived who understood

What happened among the sun's fields,
Or cared why the color of grass 
Fled over the hill while he stumbled,

Led by the halter to sleep
On his four taxed, worthy legs.
Each thinks he awakens where 

The sun is black on the rooftop,
That the green is dancing in the next pasture,
And that the way to sleep

In a cloud, or in a risen lake,
Is to walk as though he were still 
in the drained field standing, head down,

To pretend to sleep when led,
And thus to go under the ancient white
Of the meadow, as green goes

And whiteness comes up through his face
Holding stars and rotten rafters,
Quiet, fragrant, and relieved.

The Shark's Parlor

Memory: I can take my head and strike it on a wall     on Cumberland Island 
Where the night tide came crawling under the stairs     came up the first 
Two or three steps     and the cottage stood on poles all night 
With the sea sprawled under it     as we dreamed of the great fin circling 
Under the bedroom floor. In daylight there was my first brassy taste of beer 
And Payton Ford and I came back from the Glynn County slaughterhouse 
With a bucket of entrails and blood. We tied one end of a hawser 
To a spindling porch-pillar and rowed straight out of the house 
Three hundred yards into the vast front yard of windless blue water 
The rope out slithering its coil     the two-gallon jug stoppered and sealed 
With wax     and a ten-foot chain leader     a drop-forged shark-hook nestling. 
We cast our blood on the waters     the land blood easily passing 
For sea blood     and we sat in it for a moment with the stain spreading 
Out from the boat     sat in a new radiance     in the pond of blood in the sea 
Waiting for fins     waiting to spill our guts also in the glowing water. 
We dumped the bucket, and baited the hook with a run-over collie pup. The jug 
Bobbed, trying to shake off the sun as a dog would shake off the sea. 
We rowed to the house     feeling the same water lift the boat a new way, 
All the time seeing where we lived rise and dip with the oars. 
We tied up and sat down in rocking chairs, one eye on the other responding 
To the blue-eye wink of the jug. Payton got us a beer and we sat 
All morning sat there with blood on our minds     the red mark out 
In the harbor slowly failing us     then     the house groaned     the rope 
Sprang out of the water     splinters flew     we leapt from our chairs 
And grabbed the rope     hauled     did nothing     the house coming subtly 
Apart     all around us     underfoot     boards beginning to sparkle like sand 
Pulling out     the tarred poles we slept propped-up on     leaning to sea 
As in land-wind     crabs scuttling from under the floor     as we took runs about 
Two more porch-pillars     and looked out and saw     something     a fish-flash 
An almighty fin in trouble    a moiling of secret forces     a false start 
Of water    a round wave growing     in the whole of Cumberland Sound the one ripple. 
Payton took off without a word     I could not hold him either 
But clung to the rope anyway     it was the whole house bending 
Its nails that held whatever it was     coming in a little and like a fool 
I took up the slack on my wrist. The rope drew gently     jerked     I lifted 
Clean off the porch and hit the water     the same water it was in 
I felt in blue blazing terror at the bottom of the stairs and scrambled 
Back up looking desperately into the human house as deeply as I could 
Stopping my gaze before it went out the wire screen of the back door 
Stopped it on the thistled rattan     the rugs I lay on and read 
On my mother's sewing basket with next winter's socks spilling from it 
The flimsy vacation furniture     a bucktoothed picture of myself. 
Payton came back with three men from a filling station     and glanced at me 
Dripping water     inexplicable     then we all grabbed hold like a tug-of-war. 
We were gaining a little     from us a cry went up     from everywhere 
People came running. Behind us the house filled with men and boys.
On the third step from the sea I took my place     looking down the rope 
Going into the ocean, humming and shaking off drops. A houseful 
Of people put their backs into it     going up the steps from me 
Into the living room     through the kitchen     down the back stairs 
Up and over a hill of sand     across a dust road     and onto a raised field 
Of dunes     we were gaining     the rope in my hands began to be wet 
With deeper water     all other haulers retreated through the house 
But Payton and I on the stairs     drawing hand over hand on our blood 
Drawing into existence by the nose     a huge body     becoming 
A hammerhead     rolling in beery shallows     and I began to let up 
But the rope strained behind me     the town had gone 
Pulling-mad in our house     far away in a field of sand they struggled 
They had turned their backs on the sea     bent double     some on their knees 
The rope over their shoulders like a bag of gold     they strove for the ideal 
Esso station across the scorched meadow     with the distant fish coming up 
The front stairs     the sagging boards     still coming in     up     taking 
Another step     toward the empty house     where the rope stood straining 
By itself through the rooms     in the middle of the air.     "Pass the word," 
Payton said, and I screamed it     "Let up, good God, let up!"     to no one there. 
The shark flopped on the porch, grating with salt-sand     driving back in 
The nails he had pulled out     coughing chunks of his formless blood. 
The screen door banged and tore off     he scrambled on his tail     slid 
Curved     did a thing from another world     and was out of his element and in 
Our vacation paradise     cutting all four legs from under the dinner table 
With one deep-water move     he unwove the rugs in a moment     throwing pints 
Of blood over everything we owned     knocked the buckteeth out of my picture 
His odd head full of crashed jelly-glass splinters and radio tubes     thrashing 
Among the pages of fan magazines     all the movie stars drenched in sea-blood 
Each time we thought he was dead     he struggled back and smashed 
One more thing     in all coming back to die     three or four more times after death. 
At last we got him out     logrolling him     greasing his sandpaper skin 
With lard to slide him     pulling on his chained lips as the tide came, 
Tumbled him down the steps as the first night wave went under the floor. 
He drifted off     head back     belly white as the moon. What could I do but buy 
That house     for the one black mark still there     against death     a forehead- 
        toucher in the room he circles beneath     and has been invited to wreck? 
Blood hard as iron on the wall     black with time     still bloodlike 
Can be touched whenever the brow is drunk enough. All changes. Memory: 
Something like three-dimensional dancing in the limbs     with age 
Feeling more in two worlds than one     in all worlds the growing encounters.