Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Emerson in Vietnam: Dickey, Bly and the New Left

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Emerson in Vietnam: Dickey, Bly and the New Left

Article excerpt

James Dickey's career provides an especially clear example of the way history alters and informs the reception of a poet's work. Throughout his literary career, which began in the early 1950s, Dickey has expressed the belief that volatile and violent qualities are an inherent and sometimes desirable part of the human condition, while the loss of aggressive, instinctual urges is a form of castration which cuts off access to the full realm of experience. However, in the late '60s, Dickey's penchant for stating his views in extreme terms lead many critics to accuse him of possessing a brutal sensibility lacking social consciousness. Attacks on Dickey started in 1967 when Robert Bly, then co-chairman of American Writers Against the Vietnam War, called him "sick" and "sadistic" for his treatment of war in Buckdancer's Choice. Since then critics have often complained that Dickey's writings lack a moral arbiter. Dickey's use of violence in his writing has been widely viewed as symptomatic of this failure.

Without question, violence and aggression are integral parts of Dickey's vision, which finds its origins in the Emersonian tradition. Dickey sees history from a philosophically mystical vantage point that identifies violence and disorder as part of a larger scheme based on the primacy of the individual, a view for which the New Left literary establishment condemned him after the escalation of the Vietnam war. Examining these controversial elements of Dickey's poetry by situating them, and the adverse critical reaction to his work, within the historical backdrop of American culture and literature shows how the Vietnam war resulted in critics valuing the didactical over the dialectical and the communal over the individual. Dickey's complex metaphysics collided with the politics of a historical particular, the war, which generated a critical agenda that could not accommodate the philosophical underpinnings to his poetry. The poems I have selected to discuss--"The Performance," "Between Two Prisoner," and "The Firebombing"--are representative of Dickey's war poems, and they point to an Emersonian transcendentalism that perpetuates the metaphysics of the major American visionary poets.

Dickey's conception of the poet's function and effect on the reader distinctly parallels Emerson's. (1) For Emerson, "the poet turns the world to glass, and shows us all things in their rightful series and procession" ("The Poet" 230); for Dickey, "there is an essential connection ... between the world and you, and it is as a divine intermediary between you and the world that poetry functions, bringing with it ... an enormous increase in perception, an increased ability to understand and interpret the order of one's experience" ("The Energized Man" 164). For both men the visionary act is integrative, allowing one to unify and transfigure experience, or, as Dickey matter-of-factly puts it, "evoke a world that is realer than real" (Suspect 76). Like Emerson, Dickey wants his readers to draw upon long dormant psychic energies in order to discover a direct, active relationship to the world. Similar to Dickey's "energized man," the portrait of "Man-thinking" Emerson presents in "The American Scholar" describes not just a mind at work but an entire being actively using all of his or her faculties. (2)

In his first two books, Into the Stone (1960) and Drowning With Others (1962), Dickey presents poems that make up a primer for an aesthetics of renewal based on what Emerson called "symbolic perception," an ability to re-see the world. The majority of these poems are relatively short, typically describing a brief experience during which the poems' first-person narrator undergoes a change resulting in a more unified and aware self. In essence these poems are short dramatic parables showing the reader the process of becoming "energized." Ideally, participation in what Dickey calls "creative lies" awakens in the reader the potential to realize a similar change. …

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