Dillard, R(ichard) H(enry) W(ilde)
DILLARD, R(ichard) H(enry) W(ilde)
Nationality: American. Born: Roanoke, Virginia, 11 October 1937. Education: Roanoke College, Salem, Virginia, 1955–58, B.A. 1958 (Phi Beta Kappa); University of Virginia, Charlottesville (Woodrow Wilson Fellow, 1958–59; DuPont Fellow, 1959–61), M.A. 1959, Ph.D. 1965. Family: Married 1) Annie Doak in 1965 (divorced 1975); 2) Cathy Hankla in 1979. Career: Instructor in English, Roanoke College, summer 1961, and University of Virginia, 1961–64. Assistant professor, 1964–68, associate professor, 1968–74, since 1971 chair of the graduate program in contemporary literature and creative writing, and since 1974 professor of English, Hollins College, Virginia. Since 1973 vice-president, Film Journal, New York. Contributing editor, Hollins Critic, Hollins College, Virginia, 1966–77. Since 1992 editor-in-chief, Children's Literature. Member of literary board, Virginia Center of the Creative Arts; member of editorial advisory board, New Virginia Review. Member of Roanoke County Democratic Committee and delegate to state political conventions. Awards: Academy of American Poets prize, 1961; Ford grant, 1972;O.B. Hardison, Jr. Poetry award of the Folger Shakespeare Library, 1994. Agent: Blanche C. Gregory, 2 Tudor City Place, New York, New York 10017. Address: Box 9671, Hollins College, Virginia 24020, U.S.A.
The Day I Stopped Dreaming about Barbara Steele and Other Poems. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1966.
News of the Nile. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1971.
After Borges. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1972.
The Greeting: New and Selected Poems. Salt Lake City, University of Utah Press, 1981.
Just Here, Just Now. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1994.
A New Pleiade: Selected Poems. N.p., 1998.
Screenplay: Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster, with George Garrett and John Rodenbeck, 1966.
The Book of Changes. New York, Doubleday, 1974.
The First Man on the Sun. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1983.
Omniphobia. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1995.
Horror Films. New York, Monarch Press, 1976.
Understanding George Garrett. Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1988.
Editor, with Louis D. Rubin, Jr., The Experience of America: A Book of Readings. New York, Macmillan, and London, Collier Macmillan, 1969.
Editor, with George Garrett and John Rees Moore, The Sounder Few: Essays from "The Hollins Critic." Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1971.*
Critical Studies: "Watersmeet: Thinking about Southern Poets" by Kelly Cherry, in Book Forum (New York), 3, 1977; "Ladies in Boston Have Their Hats: Notes on WASP Humor" by George Garrett, in Comic Relief: Humor in Contemporary American Literature, edited by Sarah Blacher Cohen, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1978; in The Writer's Mind: Interviews with American Authors edited by Irv Broughton, Fayetteville, University of Arkansas Press, 1990.
R.H.W. Dillard comments:
Although I have thought a good deal about what I am doing in my poems, I do not know that I really am able to express the results of that thinking very clearly, except (I hope) in the poems themselves. Allow me, then, to offer in place of an introductory statement about my poetry excerpts from three poems that might do the job.
The first, from the poem "News of the Nile," is just a description of the source of my poems' experience in the broadest sense: "All these things I have read and remembered, / Witnessed, imagined, thought and written down …"
The second, from the poem "Construction," may be a bit more helpful, for it is as close as I have come to an explicit esthetic statement, and it also makes explicit my central concern with the vital involvement of seeing and saying, of action and belief:
To say as you see. To see as by stop-action,
Clouds coil overhead, the passage of days,
Trees bend by the side of the road
Like tires on a curve, plants uncurl,
How the world dissolves in the water of the eye:
The illusion speed produces. The reality of speed.
A result: to see as you say,
As gravity may bend a ray of light.
To say the earth's center is of fire:
Life leaps from the soil like sun flares.
To see the world made true,
An art of rocks and stones and trees,
Real materials in real space,
L'esthétique de la vitesse.
The third, from the long poem January: A Screenplay, is a prayer that states briefly the faith and the humility that I hope is at the heart of everything I do:
For my sorrow in this depth of joy,* * *
Gift beyond reward, I'm sorry.
for the joy I feel in this broken world,
This sorrow, this woe, I thank you,
I thank you.
Taking work from his first three books, R.H.W. Dillard's The Greeting: New and Selected Poems (1981) established him as an unusual and important contemporary poet. The earliest of the three volumes, The Day I Stopped Dreaming about Barbara Steele and Other Poems (1966), is a highly sophisticated and humorous collection. Also his most traditionally formal, it is impressive in its sardonic rendering of a wide range of experiences. Sometimes, however, in labored attempts to charge the ephemeral with beauty and significance, Dillard comes across as an overly witty aesthete, thus compromising some of the emotional qualities of the poems.
News of the Nile (1971) develops Dillard's voice in a different, interesting direction. The witty, stylized, intellectual voice of the first volume becomes more autobiographical and personal, even troubled. Influenced by his study of horror movies, Dillard examines the perverse side of human nature—blood lust, cannibalism, the macabre. Such poems as "Night of the Living Dead," "Event: A Gathering; Vastation," and "Act of Detection" revel in the horrific. Not all of the poems in the volume deal with such subjects, and some give poignant accounts of a more personal nature.
Dillard's third book, After Borges (1972), represents a mature achievement, arising out of a profound experience with the Argentine writer's work. Returning to the wit that fueled his first volume, such poems as "Round Ruby," "What Can You Say to Shoes," "Sweet Strawberries," and "Wings" express joy and pathos at life's absurdities and trivialities as well as at its beauties. The series of poems that purport to be "after the Spanish of Jorge Luis Borges"—"Limits," "The Other Tiger," "Argumentum Ornithologicum," and "Epilogue"—are more introspective, serious, and complex. "Epilogue," for instance, gives an introspective account of the poet setting "out to shape a world"; the poem ends in self-confrontation at a "face, wearing / And worn, warm as worn stone. / A face you know: your own." It is not surprising that Dillard is attracted to the intellectual labyrinths of Borges, but what makes the book interesting is how Dillard's poems appropriate Borges's musings and reshape them into a felt, personal response to the work of the Argentine writer.
In The Greeting: New and Selected Poems Dillard shows the versatility of his published work as well as the direction of his later poems. Indeed, the collection brings together much of the best work from his earlier books. One of its most interesting achievements is a sixty-page screenplay in verse. Called January, it tells a story of two lovers who are forced to carry on a long-distance relationship across the Atlantic. Adopting a style reminiscent of Yeats's dreamy dramas of the romantic Irish past and of Robbe Grillet's film Last Year at Marienbad, Dillard depicts a hazy, rose-colored world of vague emotions, shifting settings, and constant longing. Although the conclusion, which emphasizes the message "The only knowledge is love," is somewhat banal and some of the language is flat, the parameters of the project are ambitious. The screenplay illustrates not only Dillard's devotion to film but also his interest in expanding the genre confines of poetry. It is worth noting that he attempts such expansion again in his novel The First Man on the Sun (1983) by including a long section of poetry by one of the characters.
In Just Here, Just Now (1994) Dillard combines several of the qualities of his earlier books. Returning to the techniques of his second volume, in which he used a great many references to horror films, and of his third, in which he appropriated Borges, Just Here, Just Now relies heavily upon allusions to film, culture, and art for its success. Although there are places where Dillard's strong personal voice shines through, the reliance on allusion can seem overly cerebral:
And my case, in fact, will seem
Quite insecure if I depend
Only on the Tractacus
Or make Whitehead and Russell
My solid ground, my fact …
In addition to these, there are allusions to Hart Crane, Poe, Rousseau, Frankenstein, Lawrence Becker, and George Garrett—all in the first seventeen pages. Even so, Dillard at his best can be found in this rather brief book, especially in the epistolary poems "Autumn Letter to London," "Winter Letter to Bluefield," and "Spring Letter to Paradise," which successfully combine his erudition with a strong, emotional voice.
—Richard Damashek and