James Dickey’s May Day Sermon

MSS035_VIII_may_day_sermon_press_kit_002

Original poster for James Dickey’s Sermon

May Day Sermon

to the Women of Gilmer County Georgia by a Woman Preacher Leaving the Baptist Church

 by James Dickey

 

Poet James Dickey was well-known for his strong self identification as a Southerner and his proclamations in the name of Southern-ness. In a 1987 interview, he stated, “the best thing that ever happened to me was to have been born a Southerner. First as a man and then as a writer.” As with much of Dickey’s writing, this statement was as earnest as it was self-aware, baring the realization of his privilege. Dickey went on to stress his resistance toward “the kind of regional chauvinism that has sometimes been indulged in by Southern writers” while aknowledging that his Southern legacy passed on to him a certain set of values,  “some of which are deplorable, obviously, but also some of which are the best things that I have ever had as a human being.” To be a Southern writer–from Dickey’s perspective–was to live with a constant sense of duplicity, within a foggy territory between “good” and “evil”. Dickey reflected that “the sense of evil, which is very strong with me, would not exist if I had no sense of what evil was.” (Spears)

MSS035_VIII_may_day_sermon_press_kit_006

James Dickey with John Gallogly and Bridget Hanley, 1996

Much of Dickey’s writing explores this sense of internal conflict, deconstructing the dubious privilege of his cultural inheritance as both Southern “man” and “writer”. One of his most notorious deconstructions occurs in his poem “May Day Sermon to the Women of Gilmer County Georgia by a Woman Preacher Leaving the Baptist Church“. The title is a full-fledged story in and of itself, immediately suggesting its narrator’s crisis of spirit and circumstance. The poem nevertheless unfurls in unexpected ways, forging a freedom from the ashes of the Southern Baptist language that it burns.

MSS035_VIII_may_day_sermon_press_kit_008

Bridget Hanley performing in a production of Dickey’s Sermon, 1996

Listen     O daughters     turn     turn
In your sleep     rise with your backs on fire     in spring     in your socks
Into the arms of your lovers:   every last one of you, listen one-eyed
With your man     in hiding     in fog where the animals walk through
The white breast of the Lord     muttering     walk with nothing
To do but be     in the spring laurel in the mist and self-sharpened
Moon

MSS035_VIII_may_day_sermon_press_kit_009

Bridget Hanley performing in a production of Dickey’s Sermon, 1996

With its monologic tone, “May Day Sermon” provided an apt template for spoken performance, and in 1993, the poem was adapted into a play–Sermon–directed by John Gallogly.

MSS035_VIII_may_day_sermon_press_kit_004

Original playbill for James Dickey’s Sermon

Here is a clip from a 1996 performance of the text by actress Bridget Hanley.

By the end of this text, the female narrator remarkably transforms the oppressive rhetoric of the church (and the community it embodies) into her own self-affirming declaration of deliverance, her own May Day Sermon. When asked how he hoped audiences would interpret the text, Dickey stated, “I would like people to see Sermon as a basic conflict between a traditional…society and the free spirit of someone–say the girl–who is determined–because of the abuse that shes undertaken–to free herself from all restrictions and to become a full woman with full sexual rights…no matter where it goes.”

For more James Dickey video and audio footage, visit the MLC’s digital archive at http://omeka.wustl.edu/omeka/exhibits/show/mlc50/james-dickey.

 

 

_

All images were taken from the Modern Literature Collection’s James Dickey Papers.

Dickey, J. (1967, April). May Day Sermon to the Women of Gilmer County Georgia by a Woman Preacher Leaving the Baptist Church. Retrieved April 27, 2016, from http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/unbound/poetry/dickey/mayday.htm

Spears, M. K. (1987, December/January). James Dickey as a Southern Visionary. Retrieved April 27, 2016, from http://www.vqronline.org/essay/james-dickey-southern-visionary

 

 

 

 

 

About the author

Meghan Lamb currently lives with her husband in St. Louis, where she is a fiction MFA candidate with the Washington University Writing Program and a Graduate Assistant with the Modern Literature Collection. She is the author of Silk Flowers (Birds of Lace) and Sacramento (Solar Luxuriance).