By Dr. Jes Simmons

Retired English teacher and trustee of Longwood

Dr Gordon Van Ness is a 1972 graduate of Hampden-Sydney College who became Professor of English at Longwood College (later University) from 1987 until his retirement in 2018. A prominent scholar of poet and novelist James Dickey, Van Ness has just written what promises to be the definitive literary biography of, arguably, America’s most bewilderingly admired and rejected poet. James Dickey: A Literary Life will appear in early May from Mercer University Press, and joins his four other important scholarly books on the writer, beginning with Outbelieving Existence: The Measured Motion of James Dickey (1992), Striking In: The Early Notebooks of James Dickey (1996) and his two-volume collection of the poet’s letters, The One Voice of James Dickey: His Letters and Life, 1942-1997. In 2015, with the approval of the Dickey estate, Van Ness also edited and completed Death and the Day’s Light, the unfinished book of poems that Dickey was writing and compiling before his death in January 1997.

James Dickey has been on Van Ness’ radar since his undergraduate studies at Hampden-Sydney, where he first read Dickey’s poetry in an English class. During his graduate studies at the University of Richmond in the early 1980s, Van Ness was encouraged to write his master’s thesis on Dickey’s ninth book of poetry, The Zodiac (1976). Van Ness then chose to pursue a doctoral program at the University of South Carolina, where Dickey taught English and was honored poet-in-residence. Van Ness’s admiration for the poet grew over the next few years into a friendly friendship between the two men, whose names were Van and Jim. This connection is the crux and brilliance of James Dickey: A Literary Life because it allowed Van Ness to access and understand the poet’s personal self, even revealing not only Dickey’s aggressive insecurities hidden behind his self-glorification , his exaggeration and even his pranks, but also his non-poet persona as a college football and track star, fighter pilot war hero, daring whitewater canoeist and wildlife hunter armed with a bow and of an arrow and a dart. This latter image was further expanded by the stratospheric literary and financial success of Dickey’s debut novel, Deliverance. To further support this character, Dickey would occasionally drive to readings or hail a taxi while carrying deer hunting archery equipment and a variety of guitars. Van Ness sees how maintaining fiction only led to Dickey’s isolation from others, including members of his own family.

From the late fifties to the sixties, James Dickey became the public face of American poetry (a capital P). His fifth collection of poetry, Buckdancer’s Choice, won the National Book Award in 1966, and Dickey was twice named poetry consultant to the Library of Congress from 1966 to 1968. In 1969, Dickey also had the honor of poetically express the pride of the nation to land. two Americans on the moon in a poem titled “The Moon Ground” which was published in Life magazine and literally read aloud by the poet on national television on July 20, the day of the moon landing. Dickey’s rise to literary fame and public stardom culminated when he published Deliverance in 1970, followed by the hugely successful film in 1972, in which Dickey himself played a part.

Most critics agree that Dickey’s position at this peak began to slide as in the late 1960s – personally because of his growing alcoholism and culturally because of a shifting consciousness in America fueled by the civil rights marches, Vietnam War protests, the women’s movement, Watergate and environmentalism. The rugged, individualistic alpha male arrogance and exaggeration of Dickey’s public persona that also served as a heavy undercurrent to most of his poetry no longer spoke to or for the nation and especially his reading audience. of poetry.

Dickey’s literary and financial success through book sales and hundreds of readings at colleges and universities across the country — what he called the “poetry barnstorm” — robbed the poet of time. needed to write. Social drinking before and after the readings escalated into alcoholism. The result, critics noted, was a softening of the poet, a diminishing of his poetic powers and his energy as a writer. Yet Dickey wrote quite movingly, stretching and flexing the possibilities of poetry and overtaking critics who preferred the subjects and weight of his earlier poems and who showed an unsteady lack of bail or security with growth and changes that Dickey made to his poetry. the elongation of lines, the insertion of spaces between words or agglomerated phrases, and the hanging of a mobile of lines on a page in balanced imbalance, or the transition from the poet to the translation of foreign poets through what he described as improvisations or collaborations, as well as the production of a series of expensive coffee tables books where his poetry interprets or counterbalances the drawings, watercolors or photographs of visual artists. Like the wild and swift Cahulawassee River in Deliverance that needed to be dammed, tamed, and turned into a recreational lake, Dickey’s larger-than-life presence and influence quickly disappeared.

What never went away, however, was Dicky’s lesser-known success and influence as a college professor. From 1963 to 1997 the poet was also James Dickey, a university professor, skillfully and brilliantly teaching writing and literature in different institutions of higher education until settling more comfortably at the University of South Carolina at Columbia, where he taught as a distinguished poet. residence for nearly 40 years until his death. Dickey’s strengths and methodology as a student-loved teacher never seemed to wane or fall out of favor. In the classroom, Dickey captivated and even mesmerized his students, whether he spoke eloquently and eruditely from a vast array of poetry and poets or fatherly encouraged his students in creative writing, giving them the confidence to become the best possible poets.

Van Ness probably knew James Dickey better than anyone, and in James Dickey: A Literary Life his unique radar penetrates the stealthy technology of the poet’s self-created form to reveal Dickey’s vulnerabilities and fears, his sensitivity and his many kindnesses. . Van Ness writes with confidence and knowledge about the poet as a full human being that few really knew. In fact, “no one knew” is a refrain Van Ness carries throughout the book to help reveal James Dickey’s softer, more human qualities. Gordon Van Ness is one of those who knew, however, and this lens allows him to reveal Dickey as only he can.

Van Ness, in James Dickey: A Literary Life, may very well succeed in helping to resuscitate, revise and rethink Dickey’s poetry and career and thereby restore James Dickey to a prominent place in the canon of American poetry, making it rightly title his poems to the pages of anthologies for current and future study.

In a recent e-mail he sent me, Gordon complained about Dickey: “I sure miss him.” If Jim were here to comment on the eloquent and insightful James Dickey: A Literary Life of Gordon, I believe he would say, “Van, you did me well with this book. You did me well.