Go ahead, cue the dueling banjos.
But be prepared for a richer, fuller James Dickey experience this year at the James Dickey Die-Hard Weekend, the feature event of the inaugural Southern Artists Celebratory Series.
Dickey is best known as the author of Deliverance, the classic 1970 city-slickers-in-hillbilly-land novel that became the Oscar-nominated film starring Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds.
As devotees of contemporary Southern literature know, however, Dickey contributed much more to the landscape of American literature — as a professor, literary critic, novelist, and poet.
“He sought to say things in a way that was transcendent,” says Mary Ann Kohli, director of the Charleston Clemente Course, which provides two free college-level humanities courses to the homeless and disadvantaged. Kohli organized the event this year as a way to fund the Clemente program and raise awareness about significant Southern artists.
“By attending these events, the more affluent fans of the arts could thus provide those less fortunate with equal access to the arts,” she says. “At the same time that this idea was germinating, I was engaged in a growing friendship with Deborah Dickey [the author’s second wife and widow], who lived around the block from me. We shared a love for the humanities, a career as English instructors, and prior graduate work at USC. In fact, I had been a student of James Dickey when he was USC’s poet-in-residence. Both Deborah and I agreed that a celebration of her husband’s work would be a boon to Clemente and a tribute to a great American poet.”
While acknowledging that Deliverance is probably the author’s best work of fiction, Kohli emphasizes the importance of his poetry. Dickey served as the 18th Poet Laureate to the Library of Congress, and his collection Buckdancer’s Choice earned the National Book Award and the Melville Crane Award in the mid-’60s.
“Many critics have considered Dickey one of the greatest of the post–World War II poets,” says Kohli. “He was always reaching to approach and exceed former poetic expressions, looking for the ultimate power and meaning that could be squeezed into the fewest words.”
In addition to highlighting some of the author’s major poems — including “The Lifeguard,” “The Performance,” and “The Leap” — and a few that have yet to be anthologized, the poetry portion of the event will also examine the man behind the words.
“The audience will delve beneath Dickey’s public persona,” says Kohli. “In contrast to the image of ‘toughness’ that constantly threatened to overwhelm and subsume him, Dickey possessed an extraordinary delicacy of soul that was perhaps the most beautiful part of him.”
These attributes will be on display in the two little-known films about his life. The first, Lord, Let Me Die, But Not Die Out, follows the poet on a reading tour, while Two Poets, Two Friends is an exploration of the enduring friendship between Dickey and Southern-lit giant, Robert Penn Warren.
“The recorded conversation with Warren simply sparkles with the tremendous admiration and respect Dickey felt for his fellow poet,” says Kohli. “All of us speculate as to the person behind the poem, but these spontaneous films provide us with just such an insight.”
Without a doubt, the high-noon screening of Deliverance will be great fun, but don’t miss the other enriching celebrations of this legendary Southern artist.