William Dickey is one of my friend’s favorite poets. I’d never heard of him before she introduced me to his work, describing him as a contemporary of the Beats whose poetic style remained traditional in a way that separated him from the popular poetic culture of the era. It’s true that reading Dickey, I wouldn’t immediately guess his dates were 1928-1994. His poems are timeless in the sort of way that makes it easy not to try to place them within a certain century or decade, except where the details let you in to a poem’s particular moment: the inclusion of refrigerators, the mention of a particular war or disease, or a particular person’s death, as in Dickey’s “The Death of John Berryman,” written shortly before his own death in 1994.
Like Adrienne Rich, Dickey won my favorite poetry prize, the Yale Series of Younger Poets award, which was awarded to him by W.H. Auden in 1959. He taught for many years at San Francisco State and there’s an extensive collection of his poems at the Gay and Lesbian Center at the San Francisco Public Library. Here’s the first poem of his I ever read:
Nothing exists that is not marred; therefore
we are obliged to imagine how things might be:
at its green uttermost, the shore
white to exaggeration, white before
it was checked and clouded by its spent debris.
Nothing exists that does not end, and so
to knowledge we must deliberately be untrue:
murmuring that you will not go, when you will go,
promising to do always what you cannot do:
hold the sun steady, and the sky new.
No one exists who can be loved the same
by day as by dark; it is that sleeping place,
we attempt to follow into and cannot trace,
that makes us lie, saying we know his face
as if we knew even half of his true name.
~ William Dickey