Along with Howard Nemerov, one of the truly great poets of the last half-century - but not nearly so admirable a person. So many of his splendid poems are not listed here - ones that I would freely list among my favorites: 'Walking on Water, ' 'The Lifeguard, ' 'Listening to Foxhounds, ' 'A Screened Porch in the Country, ' 'Approaching Prayer, ' 'Angina, ' 'The Sheep Child' (in its original typographical form, lost in the PH version) , 'Buckdancer's Choice, ' among others.
Perhaps the most authentic reflection of his own experience, the most accurate reflection of the man he became, is the carefully crafted 'Adultery.' If I were listing what I consider his best poems, it would place near the top, but it is not one of my personal favorites. My personal favorite, I suppose, is 'Hospital Window, ' for it depicts his experience and my own, as well as so many others': the last responsibility of our fathers is to teach us how to face death.
His poery - much, much of it - is characterized by its passionate intensity, yet also the everyday ordinariness of its experiential sources, and most especially by the mythic dimensions of his vision. Almost always he deals with something that happens everyday, whether to men or animals; but almost always there is a veil of the supernatural cast over the experience, revealing its dark shadows, its psychological depths, and Dickey's inability ultimately to access the infinite toward which he's always reaching.
I say, MEN and animals, for his women are mostly scenery: schoolgirls (first loves) , on the one hand, or mythologized demi-goddesses on the other - or quite simply absent, in absentia, not accessible. Dickey - the ex-football player, the flyer in WWII and Korea, the former advertising agent - himself graduates to become a Stereotype, the Visiting Pofessor - alcoholic, womanizer, faithless husband, alienated father, the Object of Public Attention (particularly after the Burt-Reynolds movie of his novel 'Deliverance) . And always beyond him, the Infinite he did not (could not) attain except in momentary, orgiastic detachment.
His poetry is fascinating. He first came to my attention sometime in the mid-sixties with a poem in The New Yorker. 'Falling, ' is based on an actual occurrence (reported in a newspaper clipping) , the loss of a stewardess from a plane flying high over mid-America. Her destiny is to fall, fall, fall to her death ('AH, GOD' are the last words) , but in so doing to achieve mythic meaning - to fall, as it were, into divinity.
I am currently working on my own poem, a monologue called 'J. D. and She, ' spoken by one of the women with whom the Visiting Professor had casual - but not so satisfying - sex.
The Heaven of Animals
Here they are. The soft eyes open. If they have lived in a wood It is a wood. If they have lived on plains It is grass rolling Under their feet forever.
Having no souls, they have come, Anyway, beyond their knowing.