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James Lafayette Dickey (2
February 1923 – 19 January 1997) was an American poet
He was appointed the eighteenth Poet
Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in
Dickey was born to lawyer, Eugene Dickey, and Maibelle Swift in Atlanta,
Georgia where he attended North
Fulton High School in Atlanta's Buckhead neighborhood.
In 1942 he enrolled at Clemson
Agricultural College of South Carolina and
played on the football team as a tailback. After one semester, he left school
to enlist in the Army Air Corps. Dickey served in the U.S.
fighter squadrons during the Second
World War, and in the U.S.
Air Force during the Korean
War. Between the wars he attended Vanderbilt
University, graduating with degrees in English and philosophy, as well as
minoring in astronomy. He also taught at the
University of Florida.
From 1950 to 1954, Dickey taught at Rice University (then Rice Institute) in
Houston. While teaching freshman composition at Rice, Dickey returned for a
two-year air force stint in Korea, and went back to teaching. (Norton
Anthology, The Literature of the American South, 809) He then worked for
several years in advertising, most notably writing copy and helping direct
creative work on the Coca-Cola and Lay's Potato Chips campaign. He once said
he embarked on his advertising career in order to "make some bucks." Dickey
also said "I was selling my soul to the devil all day...and trying to buy it
back at night".
He returned to poetry in 1960, and his first book, "Into the Stone and Other
Poems", was published in 1960 and "Drowning with Others" was published in
1962, which led to a Guggenheim fellowship (Norton Anthology, The Literature
of the American South)
Buckdancer's Choice earned
him a National
Book Award in 1965. Among his
better known poems are "The Performance", "Cherrylog Road", "The Firebombing",
"May Day Sermon", "Falling", and "For The Last Wolverine".
After being named a poetry consultant for the Library of Congress, he
published his first volume of collected poems, "Poems 1957-1967" in 1967. This
publishing may represent Dickey's best work—and he accepted a position of
Professor of English and writer-in-residence at the University of South
Carolina at Columbia.
His popularity exploded after the film
version of his novel Deliverance was
released in 1972. Dickey had a cameo in the film as a sheriff.
The poet was invited to read his poem "The Strength of Fields" at President Jimmy
Carter's inauguration in 1977.
In November 1948 he married Maxine Syerson, and three years later they had
their first son, Christopher;
a second son, Kevin, was born in 1958. Two months after Maxine died in 1976,
Dickey married Deborah Dodson. Their daughter, Bronwen, was born in 1981.
Christopher is a novelist and journalist, lately providing coverage from the
Middle East forNewsweek.
In 1998, Christopher wrote a book about his father and Christopher's own
sometimes troubled relationship with him, titled Summer
of Deliverance. Kevin is a radiologist and lives in New
England. Bronwen is currently a writer in New York City.
James Dickey died six days after his last class at the University
of South Carolina, where from 1968 he taught as poet-in-residence. Dickey
spent his last years in and out of hospitals, afflicted first with jaundice and
later fibrosis of
the lungs. He also suffered from alcoholism.