James Dickey, one of the stars in the American firmament, died this past January. For certain of us, he was the most powerful, the most loved, poet from the 1960’s onward. By the time I met him in ’67 or ’68 he had brought out Poems 1957-1967, which included Buckdancer’s Choice, winner of the 1966 National Book Award. He was on his way to a reading somewhere, and his plane had a layover in New Orleans, so I drove down from my farm in central Louisiana. I was fox-hunting back in those days and knew his poems about the same. We talked some about that, and I listened to him play his guitar. It always went with him then, just like any troubadour’s.

He struck mc then and later as someone who felt intensely and wanted you to feel the same way. The poem, he thought, is the poet’s gift to others, the feeling that “through poetry you are actually enabled to live more, to participate more deeply in your own existence.” Above all else, he celebrated the natural world. He said that the natural world was infinitely more important to him than the man-made world, and he did not want, nor did he want others, to lose the deep and necessary intimacy with natural process, the great wheel of existence with its birth and death of plants, animals, and men.

For all his exultation in the physical world, he was a very literary man. Immensely intelligent and widely read, he was a complete man of letters, which included an insightful and wide-ranging critic and, of course, a novelist. It is mildly ironic that if you ask the average American whether he has read Dickey, he acts puzzled, but if you mention the man who wrote Deliverance, he smiles and agrees—confirming what many know, that a novelist is almost unknown in America unless a book of his is made into a movie. As Nicole Kidman says in To Die For, “You’re nobody unless someone sees you on TV.”

His poems were very accessible, and I think that was why he had such a large public. Many of us had been reared on Eliot and Dylan Thomas, poetry that seemed to need an interpreter to come along with it to explain the Sanskrit or “Abaddon in the hangnail cracked from Adam,” etc. It was Dickey’s belief that at least on a “first level,” any literate, reasonably educated person ought to be able to understand the poem. He said he wanted to be simple without being thin; something for a child and something for critics that they had not had much of. The dramatic or narrative frame was strongly evident, never some disembodied voice.

Dickey’s public performances had much to do with the reinvigoration of young people’s interest in poetry. A man of large physical stature, he was of heroic proportions otherwise; fighter pilot with a hundred missions, star football player, musician, canoeist, archer—just name it. He was instrumental in insisting on higher fees for readings, and many poets have benefited. He said if the university can afford to give a football coach two thousand dollars a talk, it could do the same for poets. Panache, yes, but he believed a poet was worth something, not just a surrogate for real action.

A presence such as Dickey’s, and presence it was, looming so large on the national landscape, was bound to draw out detractors: other strong personalities, but also the sissies and neuters. He could not easily be ignored. Like the cracking of ice when spring comes, or a fresh breeze in the houseplant world of Eastern taste arbiters, such energy could be threatening, and occasionally the little animals would pack-up to try to bring the big animal down, but they did not succeed. In the beginning I said a star had died, but as we know, its light keeps on coming. As far as we know.