As James Dickey is the first to point out, to pin him down as a literary fixture of the South--mainly on his reputation as the author of “Deliverance"--is to ig nore his broad, free-ranging life.
For a time in the 1960s, when he established himself as one of his generation’s leading poets, Dickey--who is “comin’ up on my big 7-0 birthday, on Ground Hog Day,” he says--seemed to be living everywhere: Madison, Wis.; Portland, Ore.; Italy; Atlanta, and even Northridge, where he was resident poet at then-Valley State College in the 1964-65 academic year.
Misconceptions about him abound. Though he is often thought of as the poet laureate of the bow and arrow, his subject has sometimes been the entire planet, as in his writings about Apollo 11 or “Falling,” his poem of an airline stewardess’s accidental fall from a plane toward Earth.
He may also be thought of as a man’s poet, but Dickey points out that his two best-known poems--"Falling” and “May Day Sermon"--"are not about hunters or canoe-ers or archers or fighters or pilots, but about women.”
Now, the woman’s-eye view is being pushed further with director John Gallogly’s staging and actress Bridget Hanley’s performance of “May Day Sermon"--now titled “Sermon"--at Theatre West.
Dickey, continuing his traveling ways, thought he might visit California to see what had been made of a poem he admits he never imagined would exist anywhere but on the page.
“In fact,” he says, looking out the window of a Hollywood Hills house he’s living in during his brief stay, “this completes a cycle for me, since I’ve done almost every other form of writing there is--poetry, novels, screenplays, literary criticism, essays, children’s books--everything but stage work.
“I didn’t have any doubts when John called me some four months ago. You see, I have a general psychological makeup in which I want to go toward a destination and see what the result is going to be. I’m not a person to hang back from anything. If he wants to do ‘Sermon,’ I’m happy for him to give it a try, and I’ll be there and see how the audience reacts. They may hate it. Well, I don’t know about hating it. Some will be shook up, though.”
Asked why, Dickey’s answer might well sum up a great deal of his enormous poetic output, as well as his two sprawling novels (including his 1987 “Alnilam”): “It is such a violent story. Bloody. But it was what I wanted to do.”
“Sermon” takes the form of a valedictory urging by a female preacher to a congregation of women and girls, and the source of her message is a legend of the Georgia woods about a preacher’s daughter, whipped with chains by her stern father for going off with a motorcycling stud. The daughter follows the sexual call of spring, and murders her father.
Inspired by the notion that, as Dickey once stated, God “can be made villainous by villainous people,” the poem’s initial source, as with all his work, was an image: “I was out huntin’ in north Georgia, and stopped in somebody’s barn to look for flashlight batteries, and I saw all these chains lying around on the ground. It struck me as sort of an ultimate image of cruelty. There’s somethin’ about chains that are particularly horrifying, much worse than rope. Years later, it surfaced in the poem.”
One of the rare poets to have actually read at a presidential inaugural (Jimmy Carter’s, in 1976), Dickey is in that tiny group of poets lionized by the academy and actually known to the public. (His collected works from 1948 to the present appeared this summer under the title, “The Whole Motion.”)
Critic Paul Zweig has described Dickey’s verse as “richly modulated hollers; a sort of rough, American-style bel canto advertising its freedom from the constraints of ordinary language. Dickey’s style is so personal, his rhythms so willfully eccentric, that the poems seem to swell up and overflow like that oldest of American art forms, the boast.”
There is a part of Dickey, though, that almost regrets his fame, or at least the constant interest in “Deliverance": “There are times when I wish I could be rid of that book,” he says with near fatigue in his deeply Southern voice. “People get the wrong things out of it, just as a page-turner. You do, though, like to think of yourself as a writer who can be seized upon at any level.”
He fondly states his principles--there is no God “but the void,” or how he stopped hunting “because I saw how hard it is for animals to stay alive.”
But one principle stands out: “I believe in letting the imagination have at it. I want to invent. Put down whatever words you can think of, to see where it will take you. That’s how I wrote ‘Sermon.’ I labored over it for years, but with an open mind and heart, with sort of a feeling of wildness about what I was writing.
“One part of me would ask, ‘Is this too wild?’ and the other part of me would say, ‘It’s not wild enough!’ ”
Where and When What: “Sermon.” Location: Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Universal City. Hours: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays, through Dec. 12. Price: $12. Call: (213) 466-1767.