Constantly Risking Absurdity and Death: The Poetry of James Dickey

Recently a friend of mine — a poet of great enthusiasms and strong opinions — was touting James Dickey’s “The Sheep Child” to the skies. For him, it represents the single great achievement of Dickey’s career, eclipsing all his other writings to stand alone as an example of what a poet can do — but almost never does — if he is lucky enough, and the stars align, and the moment of poetic magic has finally arrived after a lifetime of dutiful obeisance to the Muse. In a review of Christopher Smart’s “A Song to David,” at the end of his volume of criticism, Babel to Byzantium (1968), Dickey has written of that lightning stroke of creative energy which all poets wait for, and hope for, if they have nerve and talent enough to receive it:

How shall we deal with the mad in their perfect disguises? From the beginning we have suspected them of magic and have wanted what they have, the revelations. But how may we come by these and still retain our own sanity? What must we do in order to connect safely with the insane at their clairvoyant and dangerous levels?

He then speaks of going into such poems “clutching sanity like an amulet,” and though “The Sheep Child” does not represent the visions of someone insane, it does reach for a revelation beyond the bounds of ordinary human experience. To penetrate and understand the life of animals — without losing his own humanity — is an ambition Dickey devoted much of his life towards realizing. “The Sheep Child” is an attempt to reach that understanding, to see “for a blazing moment / The great grassy world form both sides.” And then, like Ishmael, to come back psychically undamaged to tell the rest of us all about it.

Poets, though, love a challenge whether it is formal or thematic, and for poets like Dickey the opportunity to write about a half-sheep / half-human child must have been irresistible.

In one of his more notable poems from A Coney Island of the Mind (1968), poet and co-founder of City Lights Bookstore Lawrence Ferlinghetti presents us with a memorable image of the artist as a tightrope walker, “constantly risking absurdity and death” as he performs above the faces of the adoring crowd. Even the slightest misstep here or there will send him hurtling into “empty air.” For poets who are also “super realists,” this is a perpetual danger. The riskier the subject and proposition a poem undertakes, the harder it is to pull off and the more likely it will end in disaster. Poets, though, love a challenge whether it is formal or thematic, and for poets like Dickey the opportunity to write about a half-sheep / half-human child must have been irresistible. To succeed practically assures critical acclaim and, following that, the grateful and widespread response of readers.

“The Sheep Child” is inarguably one of Dickey’s best poems. It is certainly his oddest, and anthologized and written about admiringly over the last fifty years or so. If I ask myself why — why has it been singled out as one of Dickey’s best — I cannot answer that it is more powerfully imagined or more well-written than much of his other work. Anyone assessing Dickey’s work might include “The Heaven of Animals,” “The Lifeguard,” “Cherrylog Road,” “The Scarred Girl,” “The Performance,” “Drowning with Others,” “Buckdancer’s Choice,” “In the Tree House at Night,” “A Birth,” “The Hospital Window,” and perhaps “The Summons” among his best work. “What, then? What qualities does “The Sheep Child” possess that has garnered such attention and gained the loyalty of so many readers, including my friend? In many ways, it is typical of Dickey’s general style, exhibiting the same traits as his work as a whole: extraordinary diction, startling imagery, an hallucinatory rhythm devised to mesmerize the reader, along with an imaginative premise that leads to what some critics have described as southern Gothic.

I suspect the poem has become famous as a result of its odd implications. It surely ranks as one of Dickey’s quirkiest, proceeding from a premise that attempts to convince the reader to suspend disbelief as it walks the line between real tragedy and sheer preposterousness. No matter how many times I encounter this poem, I have a hard time suppressing a smirk each time I read “The boys have taken their own true wives in the city…The sheep are safe in the west hill pasture.” These assertions, especially the latter, might serve as the punch line for an unseemly joke. I can easily imagine someone reading them as ludicrously perverse, and laughing out loud.

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