The Difficulties of Being Major: The Poetry of Robert Lowell and James Dickey

by Peter Davison As time takes its toll of those who brought American poetry into flower after World War I, who are the likely successors to Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens. William Carlos Williams, and Theodore Roethke? Mr. Davison, whose latest book of poems, THE CITY AND THE ISLAND, was published by Atheneum last year, nominates Robert Lowell and James Dickey for the honor.

THE common lament on our campuses is the dearth of “major poets,” and the critics are scuttling to find one. If they cannot find him, surely they can invent him: study someone until he turns out to be major by simply dominating the course catalogues. The distinction between major and minor in poetry has not often been useful except when discriminating between a Homer, a Dante, a Shakespeare, a Goethe — and the others. Yet today critics pick over the contemporary and nearcontemporary crops of poetry with all the concentration of cannery workers sorting and grading fruit.

W. H. Auden, in the introduction to his recent fascinating anthology 19th Century British Minor Poets (Delacorte, $6.00), sets down some suggestive rules in the matter:

One cannot say that a major poet writes better poems than a minor; on the contrary the chances are that, in the course of his lifetime, the major poet will write more bad poems than the minor. ... To qualify as major, a poet, it seems to me, must satisfy about three and a half of the following five conditions.

1. He must write a lot.

2. His poems must show a wide range in subject matter and treatment.

3. He must exhibit an unmistakable originality of vision and style.

4. He must be a master of verse technique.

5. In the case of all poets we distinguish between their juvenilia and their mature work, but [the major poet’s] process of maturing continues until he dies. . . .

Before going a step further, note that Mr. Auden, not a native American, omits one criterion that most American poets would probably put at the head of their list: The major poet tries harder, is more ambitious, more “serious.” We think we must huff and puff in order to blow the house down. Of all American poets of fifty or under, there are only two who could yet be thought in the running to pass Mr. Auden’s tests: Robert Lowell and James Dickey. In most respects they are as different as American poets can be. Lowell is a son of New England; Dickey, of the South. Lowell comes from and makes much of one of America’s great aristocratic families; Dickey writes as a Populist without politics. Lowell looks constantly to the civilized past to Rome (both pagan Rome and Christian Rome), to the puritan ethic and the puritan neurosis, to the city (both in Europe and in America), to the dramatic aspects of poetry, to the sound of voices, to the tradition of Coleridge and Matthew Arnold and T. S. Eliot. Dickey, no less learned than Lowell, carries the literary past more lightly, but his poems explore our overgrown forest of archetypal scenes and situations; they deal with animals and hunting, with war and wounds, with drowning and flying; with domestic life rather than family history; with pantheism rather than Catholicism; with death and transfiguration rather than funerals; with transformations of shapes and states of being rather than with the damage wrought by time and society. In form, Lowell leans toward the elegy, the dramatic monologue, the verse play; Dickey toward the dithyramb, the narrative, the sermon. Lowell looks to the Atlantic Ocean and across it, Dickey to the great American wilderness and within the continent.

Robert Lowell has been publishing work of the first quality for over twenty years, and he has received ample recognition almost from the start. A privately printed volume, Land of Unlikeness (1944), was soon followed by Lord Weary’s Castle (1946), which, incorporating the earlier volume, was immediately rewarded with a Pulitzer Prize. Lowell was barely thirty. Lord Weary’s Castle was notable not only for the force and intensity of the poems it contained but for the complexity and variety with which it echoed the literary and cultural assumptions of the day. These years just after World War II were the heyday of American Studies in the universities, of a self-conscious literary nationalism. Lord Wear’s Castle, despite its Scottish title, was full of allusions to the principal figures and settings of the American literary tradition: Jonathan Edwards, Hawthorne, Melville (the Melville of Moby Dick and Billy Budd), Salem, New Bedford, Nantucket, Boston, and graveyards, graveyards, graveyards. The New England of this book and of the next, The Mills of the Kavanaughs, was a bleak helpless landscape filling up with the dead and memories of the dead. The puritan ethic and its failures were violently contrasted with the presence everywhere in the poems of Roman Catholic ritual, for in those days Lowell had been received into the Catholic faith and had not yet left it.

Heaven and earth showed themselves in the repeatedly opposed symbols of the rainbow and the whale, those lightest and heaviest of things: “Atlantic, you are fouled with the blue sailors, Sea-monsters, upward angel, downward fish.” The violence and terror that have always lain at the heart of Lowell’s poetry were there in plenty:

The bones cry for the blood of the white whale,
The fat flukes arch and whack about its ears,
The death-lance churns into the sanctuary, tears
The gun-blue swingle, heaving like a flail,
And hacks the coiling life out. . . .

In Lord Weary’s Castle and The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951), the theme was memento mori, and it was as much a social and prophetic indictment hurled at decaying New England as it was an echo of the late-medieval, plague-haunted absorption with the facts of death and decay. Corruption lay at the heart of the New England achievement in the capture of slaves, the slaughter of whales, the

Photograph of Robert Lowell by Elsa Dorfman. imposition of theocracy, and the death of ancestors. The early poems of Lowell circled obsessively around the presence of original sin but held out no hope for the bestowal of grace.

The Mills of the Kavanaughs is the most richly melodic, the most hieratic, the most New-Englandhaunted of all Lowell’s work. The stylistic influence of John Crowe Ransom is more evident in this book than in any before or since. It is today the least accessible and the least notorious of Lowell’s books, and it contained (as had Lord Weary) a few “imitations,” poems in which Lowell used a model from a foreign language to write a poem of his own which resembled, and in certain respects translated, the original. He has made dramatic versions of Racine’s Phèdre, of stories by Hawthorne and Melville, of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound; and he has published a whole volume of imitations of lyrics and satirical poems from numerous languages which he cannot himself read.

For some years after the appearance of The Mills of the Kavanaughs Lowell appeared to be floundering in search of a new poetic style, having abandoned the rich textures that he had embroidered in his first two books:

. . . you trip and lance
Your finger at a crab. It strikes. You rub
It inch-meal to a bilge of shell. You dance
Child-crazy over tub and gunnel, grasping
Your pitchfork like a trident, poised to stab
The greasy eel-grass clasping and unclasping
The jellied iridescence of the crab.

This is preternatural writing, of the kind that the sea and its contents often seem to arouse in Lowell, teeming, aggressive, chaotic, frenzied, gulping at violence for the taste of it.

Lowell’s next phase was heavily, absorbedly, reminiscent. During the fifties he wrote poems about history, elegies to his friends, evocations of his family. In the last section of Life Studies (1959) he suddenly abandoned all rhetoric, all dogma, all evasion, all displacement of violence, and spoke as himself, naked, in “Man and Wife”:

Tamed by Miltown, we lie on Mother’s bed;
the rising sun in war paint dyes us red;
in broad daylight her gilded bed-posts shine. . . .
All night I’ve held your hand,
as if you had
a fourth time faced the kingdom of the mad —
its hackneyed speech, its homicidal eye —

Or in “Skunk Hour”:

One dark night, My Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull;
I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .
My mind’s not right. , . .
I myself am hell;
nobody’s here —

These poems were shocking in their confessional directness, and they struck their first readers with terrific impact. As one of the book’s reviewers, I must confess that my admiration was at first outweighed by my discomfort. Viewed in the perspective of Lowell’s total work, Life Studies now seems to me his highest achievement.

The synthesis of Life Studies was consolidated in For the Union Dead (1964), which contains some masterful pieces but also much that is trivial —fleeting and unresolved recollections of the past, friendships, love. The patrician begins to reassert himself. There is renewed talk of law, of the decadence of the present day. The magnificent title poem contains all these elements. The Boston monument to Robert Gould Shaw and his Civil War Negro troops has a Latin motto that says “They gave up everything to serve the state.” But the poet calls on childhood memories of the South Boston Aquarium, when a teacher gave his class “an unhealthy, eager, little lecture on the sewage—consumption of the conger eel.”The contrast is drawn once again between New England’s tradition (“On a thousand small town New England greens, / the old white churches hold their air / of sparse, sincere rebellion”), its illusions (“. . . Hiroshima boiling / over a Mosler Safe, the ‘Rock of Ages’ / that survived the blast”), and its actuality:

The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere, giant finned cars nose forward like fish; a savage servility slides by on grease.

This book, it seemed, was Lowell’s farewell to Boston. Once more it looked as though his autobiographical effort had left him beached. He was, once more, turning to a more generalized past and prophesying on the American Experience; but there is more ol the whale than the rainbow in his new work. In Near the Ocean (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1967, $6.00) he is gasping for air. Even in appearance it differs from his earlier books: it is bulkier, more expensive, decorated with uninspired drawings by the Australian artist Sidney Nolan, padded out to look grand. And it has returned to some of the themes of Lord Weary’s Castle (“. . . one more line / unravelling from the dark design / spun by God and Cotton Mather”). The book contains only seven new original poems, none very long; the balance, 71 out of its 128 pages, are imitations, mainly from the Roman. Lowell has written better.

The new poems reveal more clearly than his past work the tug-of-war between the impulse to personal poetry on the one hand, and the Imperial Style on the other. Alas, the Emperor has won out, the Napoleon who has so often served as a character in Lowell’s poems.

The opening poem in Near the Ocean, “Waking Early Sunday Morning,” was first printed in the New York Review of Books in August, 1965. In its original version it was stupendous. For almost the first time in his career, Lowell had in one poem brought the squalor and disappointment of personal life into collision with the horrendous impersonal forces in the world. For some reason, however, he thought better of this poem before including it in Near the Ocean, and in its 1967 version numerous lines have been deleted and weak substitutions have been made. The deleted lines are in italics:

Oh to break loose like the Chinook
Salmon jumping and falling back,
nosing up to the impossible
stone and bone-crushing waterfall. . . .
Time to grub up and junk the year’s
output ,a dead wood of dry verse:
dim confession ,coy revelation,
liftings, listless self -imitation,
whole days when I could hardly speak,
came pluming home unshaven, weak
and willing to read anyone
things done before and better done.. . .

More significantly, perhaps, compare these two versions of the ninth stanza. Is the later version in any real respect an improvement on the earlier?


Empty, irresolute, ashamed,
when the sacred texts are named,
I lie here on my bed apart,
and when I look into my heart,
I discover none of the great
subjects: death, friendship, love and hate —
only old china doorknobs, sad,
slight useless things to calm the mad.


When will we see Him face to face?
Each day, He shines through darker glass.
In this small town where everything
is known, I see His vanishing
emblems, His white spire and flag-
pole sticking out above the fog,
like old white china doorknobs, sad,
slight, useless things to calm the mad.

Is not the second version the more elevated but the less poetic? Has not the author withdrawn himself and sent an understudy? Is not the new voice that of the custodian of culture rather than the poet? The 1965 version oscillates with increasing intensity between the public and the private dilemma, back and forth with perfect emotional rhythm, until the poem’s great humming conclusion:

peace to our children when they fall
in small war on the heels of small
war — until the end of time
to police the earth, a ghost
orbiting forever lost
in our monotonous sublime.

The 1965 version stretches the imagination taut between the private and the public agony until we can hardly bear it; the 1967 version, its stanzas’ order chopped and changed, becomes a sermon on the inefficacy of religion to calm the savagery of our time.

Would that one knew why this poem, and the others in Near the Ocean, should have been made so grim, cold, dutiful. As in his earlier work, Lowell locates the destructive element in the sea, in marine images of horror and fascination. Now, however, the terrible attraction of the swallowing sea becomes aligned with his Old Roman comparison between the Golden Age and the present corruption — as though, standing near the ocean, he were horribly compelled to plunge into New England waters and strike out hopelessly for the shores of the Old World. The personal style has faded away, and the poetry of imperium has dominated and replaced it. The Dynamo has won its victory over the Virgin, and there is little left but resignation:

Sleep, sleep. The ocean, grinding stones,
can only speak the present tense;
nothing will age, nothing will last,
or take corruption from the past.

JAMES DICKEY began publishing poetry in 1957; and in an explosive ten years his work has developed in remarkable ways technically and imaginatively, yet all his poetry has dealt with the same central concern. The world is not for him a classical structure of society based on a City governed by law, with a terrible ocean nibbling at its edges. For Dickey the world has depth and dimensions that can be explored only by a sensibility that penetrates deeper and deeper beneath the guises of reality in the hope of finding a unity at the center. His poetry is, in the words of his poem “Buckdancer’s Choice,” “the thousand variations of one song.” Unlike Lowell, whose work had matured in technique before he was thirty, Dickey, starting from scratch at thirty-four, brought a fully inhabited imagination to his work, but he had to find his own technique, a rhetoric that would enable his ideas and sensations to move freely in verse. It took him almost ten years to reach his full powers.

How was he to express his mystical intentions in concrete images? At the outset his poems sought elemental strength similar to the simple, gentle, poignant language of Edwin Muir. Lines like these, opening “The Heaven of Animals,”

Here they are. The soft eyes open.
If they have lived in a wood
It is a wood.
If they have lived on plains
It is grass rolling
Under their feet forever . . .

bear a blood relation to the mysterious magnificence of Muir’s “The Animals”:

They do not live in the world,
Are not in time and space.
From birth to death hurled
No word do they have, not one
To plant a foot upon,
Were never in any place.

The similarity is more than stylistic. The older Scottish poet concerned himself with the same range of urgencies as Dickey: the “archaic companionship” of man and nature; the appearances of God in the world; the spirits of animals, trees, and water; the symbols of dream; the mysteries of flying and drowning in elements other than earth. Stylistically, Dickey’s rhythms imitated Muir’s in being unpretentious, conventional, deliberately unruffled; but there were more turbulent currents to trouble Dickey’s underground river than Muir’s still waters.

Dickey’s work is a search, in a sense, for heaven on earth. He seeks order and resonance in the inchoate; ransacks through obsession, through trial and error, changes of costume and skin, through transformation of personality and the accidents of experience, to discover some sort of relation between the human and animal worlds, a bridge between the flesh and the spirit, and, more than these, a link between the living and the dead. One source of this concern, frequently reiterated in Into the Stone (1960) and Drowning With Others (1962), emerges in reference to his dead brother:

I look in myself for the being
I was in a life before life. . . . I cannot remember my brother; Before I was born he went from me Ablaze with the meaning of typhoid.

This brother is radiant with life in the poet’s dreams and in his fantasies of companionship and resurrection. He is an alter ego which borrows the poet’s body and connects the poet with the world outside.

But he is hardly the only medium. Dickey’s atavistic vision is like an echo, taking on shapes that shift into one another imperceptibly, unpredictably, mystically, as in “Inside the River”:

Break this. Step down.
Follow your right
Foot nakedly in
To another body.
Put on the river
Like a floating coat,
A garment of motion,
Tremendous, immortal. . . .
Live like the dead
In their flying feeling.

Drowning and hunting are frequent images in the early poems. To drown is to become one with water, one with the dead. To drown in nature is to die on behalf of it, to enrich nature by losing yourself. Those who live are already the dying; only the dead therefore are spared the threat of extinction.

In his first two books Dickey had already established his poetic identity as a man restless within the confines of himself who must always be putting on other shapes (armor, helmets, hides, feathers, water) so as never to be only a single self, so as to become others, to rescue others (“The Lifeguard” is a particularly interesting poem on this theme). He remarks with amazement: “Someone lay with his body shaken / Free of the self. . . .” The ultimate way of becoming more than the self is to die. Dying unites us with others, with the animals, with the animal in ourselves; and the only way to understand the secret of death is to penetrate, to thrust, to cleave beyond the surfaces of nature to the ultimate kinship.

However, his technique was still at some distance behind his aspirations. He was handicapped as a poet by having come to his craft late, already knowing what he wanted to say, but not how to say it. Most of the poems in the first two books, as also in Helmets (1964), leave the reader with the feeling that the poem has begun at the wrong place, or ended too late, after the reader’s attention has already been used up.

Yet there are vibrant exceptions, like “Fence Wire,” “Cherrylog Road,” “The Scarred Girl,” and “Drinking from a Helmet.” In the last, several of Dickey’s obsessive themes join forces: during World War II the poet is in a line of soldiers waiting for water. He sees his face reflected in the water in a dead man’s helmet: “I kept trembling forward through something / Just born of me.” To see himself in another’s helmet brings back once again Dickey’s sense of substituting for his dead brother: “I knew / That I inherited one of the dead.” The poem leads the poet backward in time, “into the wood / Until we were lost.” Dickey had yet to discover a technique that would liberate him from his natural limitations — or else one that would take advantage of them. This poem, the last in Helmets, may have been a turning point. It brought him face to face with the memory of war, with the painfulness of the past remembered, and it embodied his theme in a narrative setting. He could no longer confine himself to sequences of images clustered around a central statement which was often weaker and less pungent than the images themselves, and sometimes even banal. He had to find a method which would enable him to move backward and forward in time as well as in space, and he had to escape from the tyranny of the dactylic drone.

With Buckdancer’s Choice (1965) Dickey began to break free, and this volume brought him the National Book Award. He now opened up and exploited the possibilities of narrative —poetic narrative, not mere prose narrative in verse. Moreover, his liberation seemed to be accompanied by a liberation of violence, as though personal memories and poetic themes alike had long been suppressed. Now he began recovering for poetry his war experiences. Was it the memory of war, opened up almost twenty years afterward, that suggested new rhythms to him? Or was it the fighter pilot’s memory of flying? Both themes, hereafter in his work, made their presence more keenly felt than before. More urgent, too, is the reality of the past side by side with the present. A new metric, a new emphasis on narrative, the exploration of new themes and the extension of old ones, a freer use of the dimension of time — these four elements distinguish Dickey’s maturity from his early work. In his themes of communion with the dead and the kinship of nature, he had established the possibility of a new voice in American poetry as clear as that of Theodore Roethke; but to attain it, he would have to win through to the clarity of Roethke’s vision and to the resonance of Roethke’s music.

The three major poems in Buckdancer’s Choice are “The Firebombing,” “The Fiend,” and “Slave Quarters.” All three have taken on narrative progression, and all three skip in great leaps backward and forward in time and space. A fourth narrative, “The Shark’s Parlor,” is a carnival of violence which falls short of success because the poet declines into his old habit of summing up at the end, in a moral which might have suited a poem of images but which is out of place in a poem of narration. “The Firebombing” explores the relation between the corpulent householder of 1965 and the napalmscattering pilot on a run over Japan of twenty years earlier: “when those on earth / Die, there is not even sound. . .”

It is this detachment,
The honored aesthetic evil,
The greatest sense of power in one’s life,
That must he shed in bars, or by whatever
Means, by starvation
Visions in well-stocked pantries . . .
I swing
Over directly over the heart
The heart of the fire. . . .

“The Fiend” is a dazzling performance in its characterization of a middle-aged Peeping Tom and his transcendent relationship with the women he peers at from trees and bushes at night. This poem is the first of more to follow that explore the realms of sexual aberrance:

It will take years

But at last he will shed his leaves burn his roots give up Invisibility will step out will make himself known to the one He cannot see loosen her blouse take off luxuriously with lips Compressed against her mouth-stain her dress her stockings Her magic underwear.

In these poems the mature technique makes itself manifest: long lines with stresses far apart, emphatic pauses punctuated by typographical spaces, frequent repetition of words and rhythms, looping syntax. Sometimes the old dactylic cadence appears, especially in short poems, but it is much altered in the direction of subtlety.

The full power of Dickey’s poetry becomes apparent in the new part of his new book, Poems 1957-1967 (Wesleyan University Press, $6.95). The breakthrough goes far beyond what might have been expected in the previous books.

I have had my time dressed up as something else,
Have thrown time off my track by my disguise.

The rhythms are now remarkable indeed, and flexible as acrobats:

She was a living-in-the-city Country girl who on her glazed porch broke off An icicle, and bit through its blank bone: brought me Into another life in the shining-skinned clapboard house Surrounded by a world where creatures could not stand, Where people broke hip after hip.

Dickey’s oldest theme, that of man’s reincarnation as angel, returns in strange and novel form:

I always had
These wings buried deep in my back:
There is a wing-growing motion
Half-alive in every creature.

It emerges again in “Falling,” a very long but not really successful poem about a stewardess who falls from an airliner and strips as she falls. In “The Sheep-Child" he investigates a theme as old as the Minotaur, sexual relations between man and beast, in terrifying eloquence:

I saw for a blazing moment
The great grassy world from both sides,
Man and beast in the round of their need. . . .

In “Sun,” “Power and Light,” “Adultery” (“. . me with my grim techniques. Or you who

have sealed your womb / With a ring of convulsive rubber “). he deals with domestic relations and the love-hate between man and woman. In “Encounter in the Cage Country” he returns once again to the animals, but with a wolfish intensity that is new:

the crowd

Quailed from me I was inside and out
Of myself and something was given a life-
Mission to say to me hungrily over
And over and over your moves are exactly right
For a few things in this world: we know you
When you come, Green Eyes, Green Eyes.

All of Dickey’s development, and all of his thematic complexity, are wrapped up in one long poem which opens Poems 1957-1967. “May Day Sermon to the Women of Gilmer County, Georgia, by a Woman Preacher Leaving the Baptist Church” contains everything that Dickey, at this stage, can put into a poem. The new metric and syntax are there; the obsessive theme of death and renewal and repetition and eternity; the transformations of the earthbound, the archetypes of country life. It strains toward universality. Only time will tell whether it retains it; but this poem contains in one place everything James Dickey has been developing toward.

If American poetry needs a champion for the new generation, Dickey’s power and ambition may supply the need. His archetypal concerns are universal to all languages and will no doubt carry over into translation; his sense of urgency is overwhelming; his volume, his range, his style, his technique, his process of maturing — all might supply W. H. Auden’s five categories (and so might the number of bad poems he has written!). There is no need for pessimism, yet there may continue to be a danger of overblowing. Such writing as Dickey’s requires a vast fire to keep the caldron boiling. If he were to encounter a slight recession of energy, such as that which seems lately to have overtaken Robert Lowell, Dickey’s value as a poet might easily enter into a decline just at the moment when his reputation, like Lowell’s today, has reached its apogee.