Power lunch and poetry
By Craig Brandhorst, email@example.com, 803-777-3681
James Dickey — National Book Award winner, United States poet laureate, author of the bestselling novel Deliverance — was USC’s poet-in-residence from 1969 until his death in 1997. He was hired in 1968, though, and gave the commencement address on the Horseshoe in May of that year, making 2018 the 50th anniversary of his arrival at Carolina. In tribute, USC Times invited Carolina Distinguished Professor of English emeritus Don Greiner and Distinguished Professor of English emeritus Ben Franklin to discuss their friend’s legacy over lunch at McCutchen House, where the three dined together twice a week for nearly 13 years.
Ben, you didn’t come to USC until 1976, but Don, you were here when Dickey arrived, right?
DG: I’d come in ’67, and I was the greenest assistant professor in the history of this university. I’d gotten my assignment for spring of ’68, including a course called Modern American Writers. I thought, “OK, I’ll do Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and then move on up to recent writers.” And I wanted to add a hotshot poet. I knew nothing about James Dickey, but I did remember that someone named James Dickey had won the National Book Award for a book called "Buckdancer’s Choice" in 1966, so I assigned "Buckdancer’s Choice."
This next part is literally true. The department was in Davis College at the time, and I walked down to the secretary’s office to place a book order. A professor named Calhoun Winton, who knew Jim and his wife, Maxine, from their time at Vanderbilt, was walking toward me with this tall, nice-looking man, and Cal stops to introduce me, “Don, this is James Dickey.” I fumbled around like a kindergartner — “Cal, look at this syllabus I just filled out!” and, “Mr. Dickey—!” That probably got me in well with Jim. I mean, here I am, the acolyte, fawning at the great poet’s feet.
As you say, he’d won the National Book Award. Life magazine commissioned a poem commemorating the Apollo 7 mission. He appeared in Time. Nowadays, you probably won’t see a poet commissioned by a glossy popular magazine.
DG: That’s absolutely correct. But you’ve got to remember, it was the ’60s, the Cold War. I know this sounds extraneous, but it really isn’t. The big writers — Hemingway dies in ’61, Faulkner ’62, Frost ’63, T.S. Eliot ’65. These were American cultural heroes at the time because it was important to say, “Our writers are better than your writers,” meaning the Soviet Union’s. So, when a new poet suddenly burst through, I thought of that poet — and the students did, too — in the same vein. It was, “Oh, here are the replacements for lost Frost, lost Faulkner, lost Eliot.”
What did it mean for the English department to land such a renowned figure?
DG: Oh, it soared. As I understand, the president, who was a forward-looking president, Thomas Jones, selected four departments for an infusion of money — history, English, mathematics and chemistry. I came in as a beginner with three full professors and three assistant professors — six hires in one year. Two of the three full professors were already well-known, and the third became well-known. Then to hire Dickey and Morse Peckham, and the next year, Matthew J. Bruccoli — the department just took off.
Dickey obviously liked Columbia. He called it “the starry place between the antlers,” I think in Esquire. He meant the geographic location, being right between the mountains and the coast.
DG: And Jim could have gone anywhere, but one time I asked how he was recruited and he told me, “I had a one-on-one meeting with President Jones and I asked, ‘Why would I come here?’ ” Jones is supposed to have responded, “Do you like flowers and birds?”
He knew how to get to a poet.
DG: And an outdoorsman. It was the perfect pitch: “Do you like flowers and birds?” There’s your starry place between the antlers.
And now we’re eating lunch in the same spot where the three of you dined together for more than a decade — how did that tradition begin?
DG: Ben and I bonded when he got here. He had two small children, I had two small children. We’re both Americanists. I’m anti-Puritan [Ben taught Puritan literature], but I nonetheless welcomed him here. [Laughter] We both liked baseball, but he liked the wrong team. I love jazz, but I despise bebop, and he loves bebop. I like cool jazz — you get the idea. [Laughs] Ben and I taught on Tuesday on Thursdays, morning classes. Jim had afternoon classes. One day, I was on my way to my department mailbox before I met Ben at what at the time was the Faculty Club —
BF: This was in 1984.
DG: And Jim had shambled in with his big old ten-gallon hat, etc. — by that time, Jim and I were good friends — and he says, “Greetings! What are you getting ready to do?” He was supposed to go up for office hours, I think, but I said, “I’m getting ready to meet Ben for lunch. Why don’t you join us?” It was automatic from then on, even as he was dying. His assistant would drive him over with his oxygen tank and wheel him in his wheelchair.
What was so special about these lunches? He clearly enjoyed them.
DG: Jim was always interested in what we had taught that day. We talked about literature, obviously, but we also talked about sports, music, movies. Ben knew more about music, I knew more about movies, so conversation was easy. And after a while I think Jim knew that we weren’t going to rush home to write an article about “The Great Poet,” so he confided in us.
Well, you didn’t have a recorder running — and I won’t ask you to betray confidence now — but did he talk about any struggles with his work? I’m thinking of "Alnilam" , which he worked on for decades.
DG: Well, it’s so experimental. Many of the pages are split — like split screen in a movie. On one side, you’ve got what the hero is thinking, because he’s blind. On the other, you’ve got what is really going on. And that’s an extraordinary technique. Plus, the novel is awfully long. But I think "Alnilam" is one of those novels that will be rediscovered.
To answer your question, he talked a great deal about how to film his work. He became particularly interested in the movies before Ben got here, while he was writing the screenplay for "Deliverance." The movie was a smash hit. There was an opening here in town at the old Jefferson Square Theatre on Main Street and the place was packed. Jim walked up and down the aisle, with his ten-gallon hat on, talking to strangers — “Do you like it? I wrote this.”
Inevitably, it always comes back to "Deliverance."
DG: But he always wanted to be remembered as an American poet.
BF: And yet he wrote, I think, three really terrific novels. The last one, "To the White Sea" , was a common topic of conversation.
Some critics have argued that his poetry fell off after "Deliverance."
DG: He changed his style. The earlier poems — sorry, now I’m getting professorial — but they were compact. He liked Poe’s rhythm. I think he called it a “blood rhythm”: “All dark is now no more” [from “Sleeping Out at Easter,” 1960] — iambic trimeter. In “The Firebombing,” a great poem in "Buckdancer’s Choice" , you see these wide, wide lines. But it was so personal. It was about the guilt of not feeling guilt, dropping napalm during a bombing mission in WWII —
DG: That’s right. “As I sail artistically over...” He latched onto that style. Then he became more mystical. With the collection "Puella" , which is his attempt to get to the heart of womanhood, based on his second marriage, he began to lose some of his public.
You mentioned how "Deliverance" took the fame to another level — first with the book, then the film. Is it too much to say he became obsessed with celebrity?
BF: He was pretty interested in it. [Laughter] No doubt about that.
DG: When Jim was a consultant with the Library of Congress — every consultant was to have a little program through their term — he decided to bring in authors to speak and to record, and he had the young John Updike in. Updike had won the National Book Award in ’64 for "The Centaur." He was barely 30 years old. After that, he and Dickey kept in sporadic contact. So, one time I asked Updike about that, and he sent me a letter. I’m paraphrasing, but he said something like, “For all of Dickey’s brilliance, I think he had too much sense of himself as the great poet celebrity, walking Madison Avenue with that big ten-gallon hat, declaring ‘I’m a poet!’ ” He was very drawn to celebrity.
At the expense of the poetry?
DG: You know, Frost coined a phrase, “barding around”— making money by giving readings and talks. Dickey, if he wasn’t tipsy, was really good on stage. I think a lot of that poise declined, and he stopped getting invited.
BF: Well, because of his behavior. But he referred to it as “barnstorming for poetry.”
DG: On that subject, he once gave a reading in the old business school auditorium and read one of my favorite Dickey poems, “The Lifeguard,” about a boy who drowns and a lifeguard who can’t save him. That poem just kills you, the last line —
“Water, water, water…”
DG: That’s it, that’s right, but it needs to be read slowly, “Wa-ter, wa-ter, water…” And when he read that, we were all mesmerized. It’s a cliché, but you could hear a pin drop — and then Jim looks up, grabs the mic and says, “Isn’t that good?” [Laughter] The spell was broken. “Isn’t that good? Isn’t that good?”
Now, you called these lunches “power lunches.” Was that Dickey’s name for it?
BF: I don’t know. It just occurred. The PLG — the Power Lunch Group.
DG: It was mocking.
BF: Oh, heck no! [Laughter] It was dead serious!
He also described your group as “the haggard heroes.” I think that’s in the Henry Hart biography of Dickey ["The World as a Lie," 2001].
BF: That’s right. I haven’t thought about this in a long time. Though it’s actually “harrass’d” — “culture’s harrass’d heroes.”
DG: He wrote a poem in a kind of mock 18th-century style. There were two copies. One he gave to me, and one he gave to Ben. He was serious about what it meant, but he wasn’t trying to be Pope or Swift or Samuel Johnson. I’ve forgotten all the lines, it’s short, “Where culture’s harrass’d heroes find repose —”
BF: “And safe in intellect defy our foes…”
DG: That’s right, “And safe in intellect defy our foes.” Jim took it seriously — and we did, too. Harrass’d heroes defying their foes, meaning the anti-intellectuals — and there are a few of those in Columbia, you know. [Laughter].
BF: I interpreted that gesture as him saying how much he valued the Power Lunch Group. In one copy, he inserted Don’s name at the end, and in the other he inserted mine.
But you sometimes invited a fourth person to lunch, what you called a “mystery guest.”
BF: Yes. And that could be anybody. Other faculty, students, people from the community. Anybody. We might see someone walking toward us on campus — let’s say her name is Kim. We would say, “Kim, why don’t you join us for lunch?” And then at the lunch I would begin by saying, “It is so nice to have you here, Kim. We try to find people we consider interesting, who might edify us or somehow amuse us, and we think you will. Now, we want you to feel at ease, no pressure, but really, we expect you to perform. And not only that, but at the end of this lunch, the three of us will get together, discuss how you did and decide whether to invite you back. So far, though, we have invited no one back.” The guest always caught the humor, of course, and good conversation ensued.
DG: Ben was masterful at that! [Laughter] Of course, word got out that he was doing this, so occasionally we’d have a guest say, “Well, that’s great because I don’t want to come back!”
You joke about them needing to “perform.” How performative was Dickey?
DG: When it was the three of us, he was not. But with the mystery guest?
BF: Maybe to a degree. He wasn’t over the top, but he knew he was the focus of attention. And he could become kind of ugly. When he’d have a few drinks, and maybe he hadn’t eaten enough, he could be cutting. Not often, but I saw that.
DG: I did too. And I mean, the drinking myth was obviously an issue. If you go through the stars of 20th-century American literature, it’s just — alcoholic, alcoholic, alcoholic. I didn’t detect any problem with Jim’s drinking so long as he stuck to his two Heinekens. It was when he went to the double martini — sometimes he would have a couple of those, too.
BF: To me, the amazing thing about these lunches was that following them, he would teach — and people raved about his teaching. But there was a cumulative effect. Once, Jim made an extraordinary effort to meet us. We were on the patio, and Jim was late. He could barely get from the sidewalk to the fountain. Within an hour or so he was sweating, he was yellow with jaundice. That was right around the time when he collapsed, and his wife, Deborah, had to tear down here and take him to the hospital. That was the beginning of the end of Jim Dickey.
But he was a poet to the last — even in the hospital.
DG: Absolutely. Late one afternoon — whether he knew he was never going to get out of the hospital, I don’t know. But it was brutal. I pulled a little chair over, he took hold of my hand, and we talked about whatever it was we talked about. This will sound melodramatic, but he knew that one of my favorite poets is Robert Frost, and he looked up at me and said, without warning, “My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree.” That’s the first line of my favorite Frost poem, “After Apple-Picking.” So, I picked up, “Toward heaven still.” Then Jim, “And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill.”
I won’t recite the whole thing — and we started stumbling toward the end, we had to help each other — but by the last lines Jim had become really somber: “Were he not gone, / The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his / Long sleep, as I describe its coming on, / Or just some human sleep.” And, of course, the woodchuck will hibernate and return, but the human sleep — nothing, no resurrection. Our hands were gripping at that point. The nurses did not interrupt.
Was that the last time you saw him?
DG: I think it was.
BF: I visited him several times in the hospital, but once I stopped at the nurses’ station and looked across the hallway. The door was open and there was Jim with his daughter, Bronwyn, and I didn’t recall her having been on the scene for some time. Her presence indicated that the situation was dire and not a place for me, so I departed. He died that evening.
DG: His death was so significant to the university. Jim had collected an anthology of his students’ poems called "From the Green Horseshoe," so President John Palms insisted that the memorial service be on the Horseshoe. We put out 300 chairs, but over 700 people came. And we sent out formal invitations to major writers all over the country, really as a tribute to Jim. At the funeral, Ben and I were invited to help carry his coffin.
He was a towering figure, but he was also a scholar. And Ben alluded to his teaching, how popular he was.
DG: Ben’s heard this story a thousand times, but this one lunch occurred right after I’d taught my graduate seminar on the early American novel. Jim said, “What book are you teaching right now?” I said, “Last of the Mohicans,” and Jim didn’t wait a second — “Don! Do you remember that scene two-thirds of the way through where Natty Bumppo, Chingachgook and Uncas are trapped in the thicket and Magua and all the Hurons are all around them, and Natty says” — whatever Natty says. I forgot what Natty says. Jim didn’t. He asked, “What do you think he meant by that?” I thought, “My God, where’s my book? Where are my notes?”
BF: Worse than that — Hemingway is not a specialty of mine, but I was teaching a survey course on American lit, and I included a Hemingway story, something like “The Three-Day Blow.” Well, I walk into lunch and Jim asks, “What did you teach today?” He does the exact thing Don’s talking about —“Do you remember this line?” Well, no. I was prepared to teach that story, and I think I did a pretty good job, and yet there was that detail I didn’t remember. But Jim, who undoubtedly hadn’t read it in 20 years, he just knew it. What we’re talking about is his literary memory.
There’s a quote from the late Matthew Bruccoli, also a close friend — “James Dickey had the most retentive literary mind I’ve ever encountered. Drunk or sober, when he talked about literature, I paid attention.”
DG: That’s a great line from Matt, and we just gave you two examples.
That line appears in the Hart biography, which I know is kind of a polarizing book.
BF: There was a movement by Al Braselton — Alligator Al — and some other friends of Jim’s who were involved with "Deliverance" to make sure that Don and I and a few others participated in that biography. Al pitched to us the advisability of cooperating with Henry Hart, maybe at this very table, and we ultimately spoke with him.
DG: Ben and I were not going to talk to Henry at all. But we were convinced. Al had a session with him, and he validated Henry’s seriousness of purpose. We had no idea that he would turn the thing into what it became.
BF: There was a seriousness of purpose about that book, but what he did with it is another matter.
So when you saw the book, what was your response?
DG: [Sighs] Frustration? A little bit of anger? "James Dickey: The World as a Lie" is the title. Jim was fond of saying, “The poet doesn’t tell the truth. The poet makes the truth.” You take a mundane event and turn it into something. It’s not “lying.”
DG: That’s right. But Henry would track down something that really happened and then compare and contrast what Jim wrote or said about it and say, “See? He lied.”
BF: It’s called art. Here’s an example. Jim told me that once he was asked how, since he’d never been to Hokkaido, he was able to describe its landscape so memorably [in his novel "To the White Sea"]. He said that his description is the way it ought to be. He was a creator, not a duplicator.
DG: One poem that upset Henry was “The Performance”— “The last time I saw Donald Armstrong...” Armstrong was a flyer in WWII whose plane went down. In the poem, he’s captured by the Japanese and they chop off his head. But before they do, Armstrong tries to do this trick that he’s never mastered, and that’s to stand on his hands. Then he kneels down before the swordsman like a knight [before he is executed]. It’s a short poem, but moving. But Henry tracks all this down and says, “It wasn’t Donald Armstrong. It was the other guy in the plane. Donald Armstrong is the one who survived.” I thought, “Henry, who cares? The poem is great!” That’s the kind of thing that ended up in the biography.
Do you think that biography has adversely affected Dickey’s reputation?
DG: My sense is that his reputation as a poet was already in serious decline. I collect rare books, first editions, and one way to tell that — not the only way, but one way — is that Jim’s books are rarely in the catalogs anymore, whereas they once were.
BF: Hart’s book brought welcomed attention to Jim, but I doubt that it much influenced how the poems are read or influenced his reputation.
Regarding the work — he once described his style as “country surrealism.” It’s an intriguing description.
DG: Jim truly believed in this mystical relationship between humanity and the nonhuman, what you and I would call nature. If the human could exchange momentarily with the spiritual — he doesn’t mean religious, but spiritual, mystical — that particular human being’s humanity would be enhanced. And he tried it himself. And he wrote poems about it. “Springer Mountain,” where the guys are hunting deer with bow and arrow, which of course is sort of an idealistic way of hunting. In that poem, the poet figure sees the deer — this is country surrealism — and takes off all his clothes and runs with the deer. He laughs at his own foolishness, but he has been enhanced.
Did you guys ever accompany him on any of his hunting trips?
DG: [laughing]: No! I’d have to take off my striped tie!
In terms of legacy, I’m curious how you think he’ll be remembered?
DG: There was another contemporary writer, unfortunately deceased, named Frederick Busch. Jim liked Fred Busch. He came down here several times and we had lunches together. Fred believed that Jim would always be remembered, at the appropriate moments, as America’s great poet of WWII. Because it was more than just “The Firebombing.” There was “Drinking from a Helmet,” “The Performance” — he had many. In a way, that’s a wonderful compliment, but it’s also —
DG: That’s a good word for it. Because Jim would not want to be known only as that. I like Jim’s nature poems — I love “Springer Mountain,” which I’ve described. It’s comic — can you imagine taking off the striped tie and running with the deer? Remember, the poet figure has to come back to his regular life afterward.
Any other favorites? Or poems people should run out and read?
DG: I’ll mention four. Two are in the style that brought him national fame among people who care about poetry — “The Performance” and “The Lifeguard.” And then on the other side, the page-long lines of “The Firebombing” and “Falling.”
Weird poem, “Falling” — about a flight attendant who gets sucked out of an airplane, a true story.
DG: Yes. And a long poem, published in the New Yorker, probably in the late ’60s, before "Deliverance." Jim rarely went back to the style of “The Lifeguard” and “The Performance.” He continued to work in the style of “Falling.”
BF: I’d say my favorite is “The Shark’s Parlor,” if only because I know it best. Don knows everything about the poetry; I’m a fan of the novels. Incidentally, at the time of his death, Jim had been working on a novel called "Crux." I don’t know if you know this, Don, but Jim once showed me the dedication page of "Crux," which said, “To Don and Ben.”
DG: I did not know about that. What an honor.
BF: Well, he did not complete the novel. But at least at one time he intended to dedicate it to us.
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