"Who would have thought that the Old South, downtrodden and beaten by war and the greater horror of Reconstruction, would now have achieved the political initiative and ascendancy. Where else in history can you find it - the President and the poet, two Jimbos from Georgia."
He's made head lines before, this big-boned, intemperate man in the Great White Hunter's hat with the leopard skin band, the rusty 'suede jacket and claret polyester slacks, the deeply pouched eyes and slow, wilful grin.
James Dickey, chosen verse maker of the Carter administration, might seem a curious choice.
What is born-again Baptist Jimmy Carter, who lusts only-in his heart, to think of a man who has applauded adultery in his writing and claims not to understand "moderate" men, only the "excessives?"
Arrested once for driving under the influence and for disorderly conduct after plowing his car into a South Caroina utility pole and threatening to whip several police officers. Dickey told bill Moyers in a public TV "Conversation" last year that while he didn't want to commit suicide, he thought "death by violence" might do, perhaps getting "killed by a grizzly bear."
If other well-known poets whose social and political attitudes are antithetical to Dickey's bulldozing machismo are upset by Carter's choice, there has been little grumbling, in public at least, with the exception of Denise Levertov's comments in Seven Days magazine.
When asked to respond to her criticism of his defense of the war in Southeast Asia" and the "redneck racism and sexism" of his "personal attitudes," Dickey answers," - her, she's a failed poet."
But then Dickey - age 53, two and a half months widowed and two weeks wed, poet, teacher and professional raconteur - is known to pride himself on the quixotic gesture and the quotable quote.
Former football player, fighter-pilot, and ad man for fertilizer, Delta Airlines, and Coke, Dickey will represent America's poets at tonight's Inauguration Eve gala at the Kennedy Center, reading "The Strength of [WORD ILLEGIBLE] a poem written rapidly in recent weeks for the occasion.
Those who remember John F. Kennedy's inauguration and the slightly harrowing sight of an aging Robert Frost struggling with winds and afternoon glare to read a poem he had written years before, may be relieved to know that architects of Jimmy Carter's inaugural ceremonies are handling things differently, Dickey's reading will be televised nationally as part of an evening of artistic commemorations.
He was chosen, say the Carter people, because the President-elect considered Dickey the best-living American poet he know, his well-publicized fondness for the late Dylan Thomas, a Welshman, not withstanding.
"Dickey has an understanding of nature and roots and the land very similar to Jimmy Carter's," says Carter ad man, Gerald Rafshoon.
Fresh from the taping of what will be his [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] on "The [WORD ILLEGIBLE] "Douglas Show." Dickey, patting his TV make-up tan, explains his friendship with Carter by saying, "Over the years I met Gov. Carter a few times at public things, like the premiere of "Deliverance" (the movie version of Dickey's best-selling novel starring Burt Reynolds, in which Dickey threw out his paunch and made like a sheriff). Now I know him very, very well."
They were both Georgia boys who passed through Atlanta on their way to national prominence. Dickey, who began writing between nightly combat missions in the Pacific, returned from World War II to finish his BA and take an MA at Vanderbilt, a school esteemed for its literary tradition and its assocations with the Southern [WORD ILLEGIBLE] poets who celebrated the old-mannered, agrarian South with formal verse. Dickey taught, wrote, tried his hand at advertising copy. New York and Atlanta, resigned to devote all his time to verse, and in 1966 - a very good year - received his national Book Award for [LINE ILLEGIBLE] Appointed [WORD ILLEGIBLE] consultant at the Library of Congress.
He later joined the faculty [WORD ILLEGIBLE] University of South Carolina, and accept for various "sorties" abroad, has been there for the past six years, writing of time, place, the universal moon shots, and the inner lives of Americans, and commanding $3,500 for public appearances.
"When I saw that Jimmy Carter was making a strong run for the presidency, I wrote to him with a little advice," says Dickey. After crabcakes, two martinis and a beer he has suggested retiring to his and the new Mrs. Dickey's hotel room. Now he stands and begins to place back and forth - long, loping strides.
"It was after the first debate and I suggested he stay off all that statistical stuff and come up with some memorable rhetoric." He pauses in mid-anecdote for a small treatise on the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] and meaning of rhetoric, which is not, he insists, a pejorative term, but a word meaning "the art of persuasion."
"I told Carter that if he could come across with a little more fire and a little more eloquence" - qualities natural to [WORD ILLEGIBLE] at times half-preacher in his [WORD ILLEGIBLE] with him, and he should keep reminding his audience that the way things are is a damn mess, and none of it needs to be this way. I said he should link up Nixon and Ford every chance he got, contaminating Ford for having been part of the corruption and horror of Watergate and the debacle of Nixon," Dickey employs the French pronunciation with exagerated delicacy, as if still savoring the incongruity of a big Georgia boy knowing what such a thing as a debacle might be.
Of all this talk of a Southern ascendancy, he gleefully says, "The South is the wave of the future," and he's riding it for all it's worth, telling with mirth barely restrained how Barbara Walters sat under the moss-heavy live oaks of Middleton Plantation with im for the filming of South Carolina's Bicentennial salute, and said she never, ever wanted to leave.
And though he doesn't usually do occasional poetry, he says, the request for an inaugural poem, when it came in early December, was "special," because he believes "Jimmy Carter is the man destiny has cast in the role of deliverer." He chuckled at that.
He went to the Virgin Islands with his younger son, Kevin, 18, a basketball player at Washington and Lee, and decided that he wanted to write "not a political throw-away, but a good poem, as good as I could make it, in my style, but still bearing on the occasion."
"The Strength of Fields" is about a man walking near his hometown; about, says Dickey, "the enormous political power that this man has drawn from the strength of his context from the land - whether it's from peanuts or not doesn't matter. He's a man of the land and he knows the processes of nature."
"There is also a plea for kindness in it which I think is very touching," says Deborah Dodson Dickey, 25, who studied modern European poetry with him last fall and likes to write "little prose things."
The academic community was reputedly scandalized by their marriage barely two months after the death of Maxine Dickey, Deborah, whom Dickey calls his "god-damn angel," is a tall, athletic-looking woman with a broad brow and long dark hair who reassures him constantly, completes his sentences and says she loves just being with him because he's interested in "everything," even a dialogue between two cooks at Tippy's, a little restaurant the Dickeys frequent at home in Columbia.
What does Carter see in him, in a man whose appeal may lie in his enactment of the fantasies other men have, the fantasies of a certain place and time which is also Jimmy Carter's?
When asked about his Hemingwayesque pose of the poet as a man of action, Dickey seems suddenly tired and stretches out flat on the king-sized bed, saying he has "nothing in common with Hemingway." But a moment later he lifts himself on one elbow and says," Hell, I love Hemingway - he was one of the greatest phonies of all time, but he was a magnificent phony."
After all, it has been a long afternoon. But fearing perhaps that he is failing to make the right sort of impression. Dickey brings out his 12-string quitar and plunges into the "Dueling Banjos" theme from "Deliverance." He still hasn't removed his pancake make-up.