The Teacher

By  |  March 13, 2018
James Dickey c. 1970. Courtesy of Bronwen Dickey James Dickey c. 1970. Courtesy of Bronwen Dickey

An Introduction

From the 100th issue: “The Kingdom of the Other,” by James Dickey


 

I first saw James Dickey in the spring of 1969 at a literary festival in Knoxville, and I didn’t know who he was. We were in a sort of reception area between sessions of poetry readings and panels on the fate of Southern fiction, and my creative-writing teacher, Glenn Swetman, put an elbow in my back as though I were a child, which I just about was, and told me to go shake Dickey’s hand. As I told him my name, I watched my fingers disappear into his gigantic paw. “You wrote some of the winning poems in the poetry competition?” Dickey asked. I told him I did. We talked for half a minute, and I mentioned that I was finishing a bachelor’s degree that semester. Next thing I knew he called over a small gentleman in a gray suit who turned out to be Calhoun Winton, English Department head at the University of South Carolina. “Calhoun, offer this boy one of your teaching fellowships for the fall,” Dickey said. “I’d like to work with him.” 

Some people try hard to make their own luck, and some are just lucky. By the fall, I found myself in a poetry seminar with a man who I had come to understand was a major American writer, major in every way: major hat, major guitar, major hunting bow, and major acquaintance of nearly every living poet in the Norton Anthology of such people. He would read us a poem by Randall Jarrell and say something like, The last time I was at Randall’s house, we talked about how to squeeze the most out of a line of verse. Same thing with Richard Wilbur, Robert Penn Warren, and a host of others. 

As a teacher, he was big on form, asking his class to write sestinas, villanelles, and ballads. He said form and rhyme forced the good words out of a poet and were the starting points for free verse. Form brought out what was inside us in spite of ourselves. It was many years before I understood what he was getting at, the point about form putting a tap on our subconscious, making us turn inward and dig deep for the rhyming word that is both original and surprising instead of settling for the easy rhyme—to match “plants” not with “pants” but make “fire ants” work, even if that changed the course of the whole poem and made it go not where we wanted it to go, but where it should. If we could figure out how to do that, the poem would write itself, mining words from deep in our noodles. 

In “The Kingdom of the Other,” an essay adapted from a manuscript titled “Under the Social Surface,” written in the 1950s, Dickey says that our written words, meaning our take on everything from abstractions to the glint of a new pocketknife’s blade, are formed from our memories, those shape-shifting resources that turn into people and forests, train stations and the ruminations of characters. (I was very young—twenty-one—when I took Dickey’s class, and I needed to hear that something inside me could be fascinating to a reader.) Dickey taught me to remember conversations of great-uncles, the sounds of tugboat whistles in the big river downtown, my mother’s expression when she switched my legs for playing with fire. He questioned why we remember things at all—for example, something we saw twenty-one and a half years ago when we were watching an old aunt fold laundry. Maybe that was the only thing we remember from that whole year. But why that event of liver-spotted hands pausing a moment over a polka-dotted house dress? Why was such a thing held on to by the brain like a flash lingers on our retinas? Dickey suggests that such a memory has significance, and if we build on the sight of that dress in story or poem we make it important for a reader, as well. Each of us has his or her unique and private territory of memory that makes us able to achieve what no other writer in the world, past or present, can. Who else could write “Cherrylog Road” the way James Dickey did? Who but an ex–fighter pilot trained to kill from far aloft could write “The Firebombing” with such distance and reserve? Like every good teacher, Dickey listened to his own lectures. 

When Dickey writes about “entering into the kingdom of the Other,” which is his way of expressing that we should study the bits and pieces of the physical world, everything from grassblades to dental tools, I am reminded of his continued references in class to Gerard Manley Hopkins. Dickey was a man as unlike a small English Roman Catholic priest than any six-foot-three extroverted Georgia football player you could find, and yet he was drawn to how Hopkins looked at plow implements, trees, the flight patterns of hawks, the spots on a trout, how he was based in the “thisness” of the world. Dickey told us at length about the notebooks in which Hopkins spent afternoons describing a certain species of tree, on one page a mathematical or geometric description, on another an analysis of the many colors among the branches, and on for pages more. Dickey thought such meditation gave entrance to how the universe and every little part of it was mystical, or at least a mystery. What is the result of this refined, energized habit of looking at things? He tells us this and more in his essay. 

I worked under Dickey’s direction for three years. Sometimes, when he’d show up at his office and find me waiting at his door, he would put that big hand on my shoulder and squeeze hard, rearranging nearly every bone in my torso. During our office appointments, I found him to be open, encouraging, and helpful in his commentary when he had read what I was writing. Back in those days, before I switched to fiction, I’m sure he read some pretty bad stuff of mine, but he was too big a man to offer discouragement. Now and then he would read a good image I’d cobbled together and he’d circle it with a pencil and look me in the eye, and say, “Now what could be better than that?” I’ve taught writing for thirty-three years, and it’s still my favorite line. 


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