Sunday Poetry: The Bee, By James Dickey

The Bee

To the football coaches of Clemson College, 1942

One dot
Grainily shifting we at roadside and
The smallest wings coming along the rail fence out
Of the woods one dot of all that green. It now
Becomes flesh-crawling then the quite still
Of stinging. I must live faster for my terrified
Small son it is on him. Has come. Clings.

Old wingback, come
To life. If your knee action is high
Enough, the fat may fall in time God damn
You, Dickey, dig this is your last time to cut
And run but you must give it everything you have
Left, for screaming near your screaming child is the sheer
Murder of California traffic: some bee hangs driving

Your child
Blindly onto the highway. Get there however
Is still possible. Long live what I badly did
At Clemson and all of my clumsiest drives
For the ball all of my trying to turn
The corner downfield and my spindling explosions
Through the five-hole over tackle. O backfield

Coach Shag Norton,
Tell me as you never yet have told me
To get the lead out scream whatever will get
The slow-motion of middle age off me I cannot
Make it this way I will have to leave
My feet they are gone I have him where
He lives and down we go singing with screams into

The dirt,
Son-screams of fathers screams of dead coaches turning
To approval and from between us the bee rises screaming
With flight grainily shifting riding the rail fence
Back into the woods traffic blasting past us
Unchanged, nothing heard through the air-
conditioning glass we lying at roadside full

Of the forearm prints
Of roadrocks strawberries on our elbows as from
Scrimmage with the varsity now we can get
Up stand turn away from the highway look straight
Into trees. See, there is nothing coming out no
Smallest wing no shift of a flight-grain nothing
Nothing. Let us go in, son, and listen

For some tobacco-
mumbling voice in the branches to say “That’s
a little better,” to our lives still hanging
By a hair. There is nothing to stop us we can go
Deep deeper into elms, and listen to traffic die
Roaring, like a football crowd from which we have
Vanished. Dead coaches live in the air, son live

In the ear
Like fathers, and urge and urge. They want you better
Than you are. When needed, they rise and curse you they scream
When something must be saved. Here, under this tree,
We can sit down. You can sleep, and I can try
To give back what I have earned by keeping us
Alive, and safe from bees: the smile of some kind

Of savior–
Of touchdowns, of fumbles, battles,
Lives. Let me sit here with you, son
As on the bench, while the first string takes back
Over, far away and say with my silentest tongue, with the man-
creating bruises of my arms with a live leaf a quick
Dead hand on my shoulder, “Coach Norton, I am your boy.”

– by James Dickey

This poem can be read with so many meanings and on so many levels that it staggers my desire to write about it. Since this poem has not been widely anthologized and is not one you’ve likely read before, a large part of me simply wants to say “go back, read it again, and tell me what you think it’s saying.”

The poem is compelling because of the story it tells. A man sees his son running toward a highway to escape the sting of a bee, and runs as hard as he can to save him, while imagining his college football coach screaming at him, urging him on. In a world where many poems have less action than a tea party, this poem stands out as one that appeals to the action-oriented soul. Finding screaming football coaches in poetry is as unexpected as finding car chases in a Merchant/Ivory period piece.

If you want to see how far afield a scholar can go with a poem, here is an analysis from a professor at Prairie View A & M University. In it, he claims that Dickey is comparing himself to the bee itself when he writes “Old wingback, come/to life”. No. Simply no. Hell no. A wingback is a football position in a formation that Clemson used when Dickey played there.

To misread Dickey’s attempt to regain his younger self as a singularly ridiculous pun like that almost ruins the entire poem. And the claim that he is calling on the bee to “come to life” when it is stinging his child into traffic and that he would familiarly call the bee “old wingback” as if it were an old friend with a nickname is to ignore the logic of them poem entirely. If there were truly gods of poetry, I hope they would smite poetry professors like Robert Kirschten who publish such nonsense.

But there are depths to be plumbed in this poem. When he speaks of going “Deep deeper into elms”, I cannot help but think of the “lovely, dark and deep” woods that Robert Frost stopped by on that snowy evening.

And notice the layering of father images in this poem.

Dead coaches live in the air, son live

In the ear
Like fathers, and urge and urge. They want you better
Than you are. When needed, they rise and curse you they scream
When something must be saved.

At the end, Dickey expresses his gratitude by claiming to be his coach’s boy. All that screaming and the arm-bruises that made him a man he accepts as necessary and important.

Finally, while I was unable to find a recording of Dickey reading this poem, I did find something fascinating in my research. Here is a copy of a speech in which Kevin Dickey – the boy in this poem – speaks of the actual incident that sparked the poem.

(Note: Sorry for missing a couple weeks – I’m back on schedule, though, and determined to keep up the series of Sunday poems.)

8 Responses to “Sunday Poetry: The Bee, By James Dickey”

  1. Roxanne says:

    Shag Norton is a fictional version of my grandfather, Coach "Rock" Norman (see pg. 59 in "The World as Lie: James Dickey" by Henry Hart), which makes this poem extremely emotional for me. I only wish I could have met Dickey before he passed to thank him for such a surprisingly sentimental homage–not just to my grandfather, but also to my alma mater, Clemson.

    By the way, I'm a former KC resident. Do you frequent The Writers Place? I know of no better venue for poetry performance, and I miss it so!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for publishing this poem. I have looked for it in vain a few times in the many years since I read it as a senior in high school. The joy it brought to me, as I found it here on your blog, was profound. I loved the poem as a high school football player and poetry lover; it has so much deeper meaning for me now as a middle aged father of two sons that tears were streaming down my face, re-reading it after all these years.

  3. rossboss says:


  4. not liam says:

    guy got an 85 on this poem

  5. liam says:

    i wish i had an 85

  6. I was glad to come across this posting of “The Bee.” You may be interested in this item I just put up on a new Tumblr site that mentions it:
    Best regards, Chris

  7. gonemild says:

    Thank you, Christopher!

  8. Mitch Rushing says:

    I came across this poem my plebe year at the Naval Academy ‘83 and searched for it today as my high school coach is organizing a reunion. Thinking…

    “coaches live in the air, son live. In the ear
    Like fathers, and urge and urge”

    And yes, tears were streaming down my face once again.

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