Robert Kirschten maintains that most formal analyses of Jams Dickey’s poetry have been unsatisfactory or at best only partially complete. Some critics have labeled Dickey an American romantic, while others have called him a mystic, a pantheist, a comic poet.
In James Dickey and the Gentle Ecstasy of Earth, Kirschten provides a fuller understanding of Dickey’s lyric vision by employing what Ronald Crane calls “multiple working hypotheses.” The first three of these—mysticism, neoplatonism, and romanticism—serve primarily to align general traits in Dickey’s poetry with familiar literary traditions. The fourth of Kirschten’s hypotheses—primitivism—is drawn from the field of anthropology. Kirschten shows that such anthropological concepts as magic, rites of passage, and ritual violence are vital in describing Dickey’s central methods.
After synthesizing the four hypotheses to establish a critical base, Kirschten investigates three crucial elements in Dickey’s poetry: his lyric speakers, central narrative devices, and poetic diction. The final chapter, in a culmination of the entire investigation, offers a reading of the long poem “The Shark’s Parlor.”
Kirschten’s study reveals a sure grasp of the philosophical principles of literary criticism as well as a wide range of reading, especially in the literature of romanticism. This lucid examination gives us genuine new insights into the work of one of the country’s premier poets.
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