James Dickey and the Narrative Mode of Transmission: The Sheep Child's Other Realm

By Peckham, Joel B. JR. | The Mississippi Quarterly, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

James Dickey and the Narrative Mode of Transmission: The Sheep Child's Other Realm


Peckham, Joel B. JR., The Mississippi Quarterly


IT MAY SEEM STRANGE TO UNDERTAKE A DIALOGIC ANALYSIS of a contemporary American narrative poet, especially when one considers how narrative has been devalued in contemporary anthologies. In his introduction to The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry, for example, J. D. McClatchy has argued that:

   it is clear that, despite the claims of other genres, the lyric has
   continued to dominate our poetry. Whether stretched by Allen Ginsberg and
   James Merrill, or compressed by Robert Creeley and Edgar Bowers, the lyric
   poem--the song of the self--best captures the mind in collaboration with
   the heart, the psyche with the rhythm of verse, best isolates aspects of
   the individual in history, best joins the human with intimations of the
   divine.(1)

While some might still question McClatchy's privileging the lyric over other genres as the "best" mode by which a poet can reach the realms of the heart, the mind, and heaven itself, there can be little argument that the lyric-expressive mode has dominated the world of American poetry in the latter half of this century. The reasons for this dominance are manifold. In James Dickey and the Politics of Canon Ernest Suarez argues that the Vietnam war and the involvement of many American intellectuals with the New Left Counterculture created a writing community distrustful of anything that might be seen as inauthentic: "Instead of philosophical inquiry, learnedness, or adeptness with forms, the new measure of quality became the ability to obliterate persona and/or regard poetry as `authentic self-expression.'"(2) Narratives then, particularly narratives in which the political and moral position of the author was not clear, were suspect. And for obvious reasons. By nature the narrative mode binds its speakers and listeners within a contextual framework and allows for the inclusion of voices whose own reliability is questionable because of their relationship to the narrative frame and whose existence likewise calls attention to the context-bound nature of the narrator's language. In narrative, the "self" and the "authentic" are extremely difficult to track down. It is not surprising, then, that as a writer of narrative-persona poems James Dickey was the object of so many attacks during the seventies. His reliance on the narrative mode and his insistence on using multiple personas made his work seem amoral to more politically engaged writers and earned him the censure of poets as diverse as Robert Bly, Adrienne Rich, and Galway Kinnell who were looking for more obvious indictments of violence and war.

Beyond the vagaries of poetic fashion, however, there is a basic philosophical underpinning to McClatchy's support of the lyric as opposed to other forms, especially narrative: poetic discourse traditionally has been structured around a monologic relationship in which the poet functions as an inspired transmitter of a divine vision who relates that vision directly to the reader. If we are to believe Bakhtin, poetry depends on a unitary concept of the word that would not allow for the multi-voiced, multi-layered heteroglot nature of narrative:

   Any way whatever of alluding to alien languages, to the possibility of
   another vocabulary, another semantic, other syntactic forms and so forth,
   to the possibility of other linguistic points of view, is ... foreign to
   poetic style. It follows that any sense of the boundedness, the
   historiocity, the social determination and specificity of one's own
   language is alien to poetic style, and therefore a critical, qualified
   relationship to one's own language (as merely one of many languages in a
   heteroglot world) is foreign to poetic style.(3)

The relative dearth of study, critical and scholarly, of narrative poetry in this country indicates the pervasive nature of our lingering conception of poetry as a unitary and entirely monologic form that survives inasmuch as the poet is able to strip his or her language "of other's intentions" so that the poet's words "lose their link with concrete intentional levels of language and their connection with specific contexts" (p. …

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