April is National Poetry Month in the United States and Furry Poetry Month in our furry community. In the past four years we have seen several efforts by furry writers, especially in the FWG, to produce and promote poetry that is of interest to furries.
Here’s a story I put together recently as a small contribution to this month’s celebration.
Animals in the poetry of James Dickey
Since January of 2013 I have been posting modern era poems with animal themes in them to my Dreamwidth journal. Animal themes may be found in the work of many poets, but I have found only a few poets who have more than a handful of such poems. Ogden Nash and James Dickey stand out among fellow poets for their poems containing animal themes. Of those two, James Dickey is prominent in the number of his animal poems and in the way in which he treats the theme. I won't go into Dickey's biography here except to tell you that he was born Georgia in 1923, died in 1997, held the position of Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1966 to 1968. He was most publicly noted for writing "Deliverance" which was adapted into a movie in 1972. The poems I will list below are found in his book of poetry, [b]James Dickey, Poems 1957-1967[/b], Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, Connecticut, 1967.
James Dickey had a very personal style of treating the animal theme in his poetry. From the Poetry Foundation website page
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/james-l-dickey we read, " Dickey himself dubbed his style, which blurred dreams and reality in an attempt to accommodate the irrational, “country surrealism.”" Also from that site we find, “Many of Dickey’s poems also explore the perspective of non-human creatures such as horses, dogs, deer, bees, and hybrid animal forms. Such poems attempt to fuse human and nature into a transcendental vision of wholeness.”
And from the New Georgia Encyclopedia (an online encyclopedia about subjects related to the American state of Georgia) we see that, "Dickey’s basic subject is the individual as he struggles to negotiate his relationship with others and with the natural world. His poems often end with affirmations of unity or mystic comprehension, as at the end of “For the Last Wolverine,” where he pleads, “Lord, let me die / but not die Out,”. https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/arts-culture/james-dickey-1923-1997
The first poem of his I ever read was "Heaven of Animals" which impressed me as a good animal theme poem, one which I have shared with other members of the furry community. On my Dreamwidth journal you may find it along with the following other poems of his:
http://shining-river.dreamwidth.org/14314.html (For the Last Wolverine)
https://shining-river.dreamwidth.org/7441.html (The Heaven of Animals)
https://shining-river.dreamwidth.org/6868.html (The Sheep Child)
https://shining-river.dreamwidth.org/6170.html (Approaching Prayer)
https://shining-river.dreamwidth.org/6170.html (The Owl King)
Now "The Heaven of Animals" can be understood to be an imagination of an afterlife for animals, an idea that is not too difficult for us to grasp. Those other four poems begin to reveal how far the surrealism in Dickey's poetry can go. In "For the Last Wolverine" a wolverine, an elk, and an eagle together become a fantastic super animal that destroys the human causes of animal extinctions. "The Sheep Child" touches on human/animal sexual union and its eerie consequence. "The Owl King" is a long poem that I have some difficulty understanding, though it seems to be about a blind boy and an owl, related in some surreal fashion.
Death of animals and hunting them is also common in Dickey’s poems and occurs in four of the poems listed above. “Approaching Prayer” is about the author hunting a wild boar. Other such poems of his include: “The Summons”, “Winter Trout”, “Springer Mountain”, “Kudzu” ,“The Shark’s Parlor”, “Pursuit From Under” “Fox Blood” and “Sustainment”. Some poems are less overt than others in their treatment of death. “The Dusk of Horses” doesn’t start out sounding like a death related poem but it concludes with the lines,
[i]To pretend to sleep when led,
And thus to go under the ancient white
Of the meadow, as green goes
And whiteness comes up through his face
Holding stars and rotten rafter,
Quiet, fragrant, and relieved.
James Dickey grew up in the southern state of Georgia and had experience in hunting. The New Georgia Encyclopedia page tells us “. . . he failed flight school and became a navigator instead (for most of his life, however, he claimed to have been a bomber pilot). In 1945 he joined the 418th Night Fighter Squadron in the Philippines, subsequently flying missions in Okinawa and Japan.” The Wikipedia page tells us, “. . . Dickey served with the U.S. Army Air Forces as a radar operator in a night fighter squadron during the Second World War, and in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War.” We might assume that these experiences affected his expressions of death in his writing and in fact he has other human themed poems about violent death.
Finally, there are other animal theme poems that do not include explicit violence and death, these being the following: "Trees and Cattle", "Listening to Foxhounds", "A Dog Sleeping on My Feet", "A Birth", "To His Children in Darkness", "Chenille", " Goodby to Serpents", " The Escape", "Gamecock", and "Deer Among Cattle". Some of Dickey's poetry can be sweet, perhaps with some nostalgia for his childhood, as we read these lines excerpted from "Chenille",
[i]Love, I have slept in that house.
There it was winter.
The tattered moonfields crept
Through the trelllis, and fell
In vine-tangled shade on my face
Like thrown-away knitting
Before cloud came and dimmed
Those scars from off me.
My finernails chilled
To the bone. I called
For another body to be
With me, and warm us both.
A unicorn neighed; I folded
His neck in my arms
And was safe, as he lay down.
All night, from thickening Heaven,
Someone up there kept throwing
Bedspreads upon me.
Softly I called, and they came:
The ox and the basilisk,
The griffin, the phoenix, the lion–
Light-bodied, only the essence,
The tufted, creative starfields
Behind the assembling clouds–[/i]
Two more poems by James Dickey: