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James Dickey — Glorious Drunk

Bob Baker

August 31, 2011

The most amazing poetry reading I ever heard was by James Dickey. Our distinguished Cultural Officer in the U.S. Embassy, London, had arranged a formal reading by the American novelist and poet. Dickey was in London as the guest of his British publisher to talk about a new volume of poetry.

I had tagged along as “dogs body”, a general helper. I was a very junior officer at the Embassy. Before the reading began I put out copies of Dickey’s poetry books on a side table, distributed copies of his biography onto all the chairs before the audience arrived, and put Dickey’s personal collection of his poetry onto the lectern from which he would read . The reading was at the prestigious and beautiful Nash building of The Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) just down the road from Buckingham Palace.

Our tall, craggy Cultural Officer chatted with the British poets and publishers who eventually filled the hundred seat room. The ICA honcho welcomed the audience shortly before the seven p.m. hour appointed for Dickey’s reading. Then, we waited for him. And we waited for him. And waited.

My boss told me to call Dickey’s London publisher and find out where they were. I called from a side room. The publisher and Dickey were last seen heading to supper after a long bourbon filled afternoon in the publisher’s office. Nobody knew where they were, but the publisher’s secretary said they certainly knew about the reading and would surely show up.

My boss announced they were on their way after an unforeseen delay. We waited a bit more. The audience muttered unhappily. At last, there came a disturbance at the back of the room. The high, polished wood doors with brass handles were suddenly flung back with a bang. The publisher and Dickey strode in unsteadily to the front chairs left vacant for them and plopped down. The poet hulked in a rumpled brown suit with his tie askew.

My boss greeted them warmly and gave a brief, thoughtful and graceful introduction to Dickey’s work. Then he waved Dickey toward the speaker’s platform and lectern where Dickey’s personal portfolio of poems was already laid under the reading light.

Dickey rose heavily from his chair and after negotiating the two strides toward the platform, stumbled on the first of two steps up to it. The crowd gasped as he fell, but he caught himself with both hands, then raised himself and got up to the podium. A bleak silence filled the room as his flushed face and reddish eyeballs glared down at his black bound portfolio.

He roughly opened the book at random. He stared at it briefly, then turned it right side up and began to read slowly and thickly. The pall on the audience deepened more and more, a mixture of indignation, sorrow and embarrassment. My boss’ head was bent down as he stared at the floor. The audience were the elite of London’s writing world. The author of Deliverance was being true to his red neck peckerwood origins.

As Dickey read through his first poem his head rose, his voice gained timbre and clarity. Still better came from reading his second poem. By the time he had read the third poem he was erect. His voice silver and strong with precise enunciation and great song. He went on from power to power.

He ended a half hour later with a shower of beautiful images and melodies.
The audience all rose with a roar of applause. That literally red-necked peckerwood was also, by God, a real poet whose voice raised his spirit and ours. I even did something I rarely did at readings and bought two of his poetry books.

A couple months later I was waiting for a train from Oxford to London on a quiet evening. A British couple chatting, came and stood beside me as the train approached. The tweedy academic man asked the woman if she had been at the marvelous poetry reading by James Dickey, the American, in London at the ICA. Then the train doors opened. I jumped aboard, very glad I had been there too.

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