Eric Weissberg passed away on March 22, and his death is a reminder for me of the poet whose novel helped make banjo picking famous. Weissberg picked the banjo in that iconic scene in the 1972 film Deliverance based on the novel by poet and professor James Dickey. Dickey was the strongest influence on my early writing years and I maintained contact with my professor until shortly before his death. That writeup flooded my head and heart with memories.
Weissberg played many instruments, and he was anything but a backwoods hillbilly banjo picker. Weissberg’s instrumentals are featured on many famous musicians’ recordings, and he had formal training that included Julliard. His talents were remarkable. I didn’t know him at all except through the film.
When I saw a writeup about Weissberg’s passing, the impact on me was predictable. I became lost in memories of college, troubled times during the presidency of Richard M. Nixon, and the year I met the remarkable man who would become my husband.
The film Deliverance pushed Dickey into a broader public arena although his poetry had already established him as a giant among literary men and women. He was not only a brilliant poet, he was a gifted professor. His voice, when he read poetry, was an astounding instrument. I remember his son Christopher as a young boy coming to our class once. I also remember the poets Mr. Dickey brought to our campus at The University of South Carolina—Allen Tate, Richard Wilbur, Yevgeny Yevtushenko were but a few.
When Yevtushenko came to our city, Mr. Dickey arranged a party after the reading. I was lucky enough to be invited. Excellent wine flowed freely. We could drink beer and wine at 18 then, courtesy of the Vietnam War. The thinking went if you were old enough to get blown away for your country, you were old enough to drink beer and wine. That still makes sense to me.
I remember standing near the lake the Dickeys’ house was by, and talking poetry into the wee hours. Then we all piled into my oil-guzzling ancient Chevrolet to go party some more at the apartment I shared with some other girls. I remember Yevtushenko’s translator came too. The Russian poet showed us how to drink vodka—you bit into a bell pepper or onion and downed a shot. It was a night to be remembered.
Dickey was passionate about poetry, but once Deliverance came into the film market, he became absorbed in the personalities and celebrities involved in the project. He loved to tell us about Burt Reynolds, and he thought it a great experience for himself to have a cameo role as the sheriff in the film. My now-husband and I had been dating only a couple weeks when the film came out. I recall standing in line at the theater downtown and spotting Mr. Dickey with his wife Maxine.
I asked those in line with us if they minded if we let Mr. Dickey and his wife go ahead of us. “He wrote the book,” I told everyone. No one minded letting them ahead although I distinctly remember it troubling Maxine who didn’t want to appear entitled I think.
By Dickey’s later years, his health was not good. We spoke sometimes by phone, and he told me one night he really liked how my poems were coming or something to that effect. By then I was going back to my roots—formal poetry after abandoning it due to many professors and critics who viewed rhyme and meter as horrendous. Dickey wasn’t among those critics—he just liked poetry, period.
In a twist of fate, during one of his last hospitalizations, my mom who was a nurse helped care for Mr. Dickey. She knew who he was because he was the only reason I chose the college I went to.
Years after college, I was freelancing and one of my accounts was a nonprofit. The director knew how Dickey had influenced my writing, and one day as we were finishing up a meeting, he said he had a gift for me. To my delight, it was a copy of the broadside handed out to some guests at the inauguration of President Jimmy Carter. The broadside contained Dickey’s poem, “The Strength of Fields.” I had it framed, and it still hangs in my home, not because I admired Carter but because my professor wrote it.
More years later, after my second child was a freshman in high school, she had to pick a poem for one of her classes. I absent mindedly handed her a stack of magazines and books and told her her classmates might like James Dickey’s work. A few days later I asked her whether her classmates liked the poem she chose.
“Yep. They definitely did,” she said.
“What did you pick?”
And then she grinned that grin so much like her father’s, the one that told me she’d done something mischievous.
I laughed aloud at the thought of that poem being read and I imagined the look on the teacher’s face. Controversial subject of bestiality aside, I’ve always thought that a beautiful and haunting poem.
Both my daughters, by the way, loved the shock value in introducing literature that was for many off the beaten path. My older daughter took delight in reading part of Carson McCullers’ novel Reflections in a Golden Eye at a school event when she was in sixth grade. I still remember the chatter for weeks among the parent-ruling class I wasn’t part of.
I never did prohibit my children from reading anything in literature, and I still make no apology for that.
Weissberg made history with his talent in so many ways. For me, he will be indelibly sketched into my brain as that young fellow picking the banjo in a film based on a book written by a writer whose work continues to outlive him. I guess that’s the closest to immortality we flimsy humans can get.
(Kay B. Day/March 26, 2020)
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