- James Dickey and Life
The intersection of experience and imagination has been a starting point for criticism at least since antiquity. Aeschylus wrote The Persians (472 BCE), the only Greek tragedy based on history (and contemporary history at that!), about the escape of King Xerxes of Persia from the battle of Salamis (480 BCE) in the Persian War, widely considered the first true world war, as defeat for the Greeks would have meant Persian domination of Europe. Though the playwright gave an accurate account of the battle, the exchanges between the chorus of Persian elders, the mother of Xerxes, and even the ghost of his father are clearly imagined. Nevertheless, the play was never faulted for historical inaccuracy, any more than were the speeches that the historian Thucydides (ca. 460-ca. 399 BCE) put into the mouths of his contemporaries in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE). Here is what he had to say about memory and imagination:
With reference to the speeches in this history, some were delivered before the war began, others while it was going on; some I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one's memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said.
Historians create truth with facts, poets with their imagination, but the real "truth" is often best served by combination of the two in both genres. It has been ever thus. [End Page 161]
In his last major interview, James Dickey described his process of composition with particular reference to his poem "A Dog Sleeping on My Feet":
"A Dog Sleeping on My Feet" was written more or less as I write most things I do, including novels and screenplays . . . It begins with an image, something I see in my mind's eye . . . It could be a photograph. It could be something real that happened. I would emphasize that the poet works with whatever comes to him. If you ask him if he works from experience, a real poet would have to say that you must define experience, because experience is anything and everything that has ever impinged on your imagination. It can come from things that have actually happened to you, or things that someone has told you about: stories, anecdotes, jokes. It could be something you just made up or something you saw in a movie; or a painting or a photograph could have suggested it to you . . . But the main thing the poet must remember is, never to be bound by facts because he's not trying to tell the truth. He's trying to make it.
In three of Dickey's poems, purportedly about events in his own life and involving people he felt affection for, the visual images that form the climaxes of these poems involve scenes that were not witnessed by Dickey himself, but were imagined by him, very likely with the help of famous photographs or stories that appeared in Life magazine.
One of Dickey's favorite poems, "in terms of the meaning it had" when he wrote it, was "The Performance." A pilot, Donald Armstrong, is captured by the Japanese after his plane crashes. He is forced to dig his own grave in the sand, but before being beheaded, he performs a series of impromptu gymnastic exercises, concluding with a successful handstand before he kneels down to suffer his fate.
In the 1970s Dickey claimed, "Almost every word of 'The Performance' is literally true, except that the interpretation of the facts is my own." He later clarified, "The poem isn't about the facts of Armstrong's death, because the narrator is trying to imagine them." [End Page 162] The facts are that Second Lieutenant Donald H. Armstrong (1921-45), a native of Pennsylvania who lived in Buffalo, New York, before the war, was a flier in Dickey's Army Air Corps squadron, the 418th Night Fighters. Armstrong had left behind in the States a...