Learning from James Dickey

I’m reading James Dickey’s Babel to Byzantium, a volume of short essays about poets and poetry, so I’m reading up on Dickey’s biography. This man was clearly a force of nature.  Randy Smith in his essay “Writer, Reader, Student: Into the Maw of the Monster” reminisces on taking a course in verse composition with Dickey:

 “I do not think I exaggerate to say that Dickey stood wordless by that window for two or three full minutes.  Some brave students risk little smart-ass smiles at one another; however, one girl across the table from me looks sick, or like she might have to drop out of graduate school altogether.  Finally, Dickey returns to the head of the table, takes his seat, clears a path between the books, and does what even to this day makes me nervous when I remember it—he stares at each of us, without speaking and without smiling, for fifteen or twenty seconds apiece.  By this time, the silence in the room is palpable; I have begun to wonder if I can control my own bowels; I can tell by the faces of others that I am not alone.  Finally—and I mean finally—Dickey breaks his silent stranglehold by singling out one poor guy at the other end of the table and confronting him, “Son, why are you in this class?”  In turn, without comment from himself or facial response, Dickey poses that question to each of us, and we each answer, wondering if this is some test for remaining in the class or even at the University.  Afterwards, Dickey looked at us all and said (paraphrasing a quotation from Auden I think), “The only reason for being in here is that you like to fool around with words.”  That day—and I wonder if it happened literally to someone in that room—Dickey scared the shit out of us.

Perhaps oddly, I wish I had been able to take a class from him too.