"The Sheep Child" stands as a model for other Dickey poems. Its sensational topic, which provoked objection from some audiences in the 1960s, still has the power to unsettle the even more tolerant and "worldly" readers of the 1980s. Focusing on the offspring of a sexual encounter between a human and a sheep, the poem definitely has "presentational immediacy," if not simple shock value. The sheep child speaks most of the poem from inside its jar of alcohol in an Atlanta museum, a narrative strategy that has led Dickey himself to say half-jokingly, that he thinks the poem "can hardly be faulted from the standpoint of originality of viewpoint."
But there is another speaker in the poem, a farm boy who has grown up believing in the myth of the sheep child and who lures the reader into the poem the way a good carnival barker pulls a crowd into the side show tent. . . .
By this point, readers are anxious to see this strange creature, and curiosity acts as the force to pull them along into the poem just as it would carry them past the gate and the tarpaulin flap at the county fair. The voice drawing them in is that of the pitchman, confident and confidential, saying what the farm boys say to "keep themselves off / Animals by legends of their own." The tone is that of the insider, of the one who has been there and knows and cannot disbelieve the legend, wondering,
Because we remember, remembered
In the terrible dust of museums?
An irresistible momentum is created by the absence of end punctuation and by the heavy enjambment in the first two stanzas, effects that contribute greatly to the reader's involvement in the poem. An air of complicity, of being party to an astonishing revelation, makes each of us as attentive as a farm boy hearing the tale for the first time "In the haytunnel dark / And dung of barns." The entire poem leading up to the sheep child's monologue has a sotto voce quality, underscored by the repetition immediately before the creature speaks:
Merely with his eyes, the sheep-child may
Be saying saying
This is vintage Dickey style, using repetition as a suspense builder, as an eerie fanfare to introduce the sheep child we've all been waiting to encounter. If the voice here sounds like the one used by children when telling ghost stories, the resemblance is no accident. In fact, the entire poem follows the ghost story pattern, complete with the unidentified source of information whose accuracy and veracity are implicitly beyond question: "I heard from somebody who. . . ." And when the sheep child finally talks, he speaks in the other-worldly voice appropriate to telepathic communication from within a bottle of formaldehyde. The sheep child's speech is set in italics, presumably to emphasize its eeriness even further.
What Dickey employs in "The Sheep Child" and in many other poems is a kind of folk narrative, story-telling characterized by its simplicity and straightforwardness. Because of its casual directness, "The Sheep Child" disarms and engages the reader with the immediacy of an oral presentation. Anyone within earshot would probably draw near to hear such a tale, just as most who start reading the poem find themselves swept along from line to line. Dickey intends to do more than startle; he uses the opportunity, after he has gained our attention, to explore one of his favorite themes--the relationship between the animal and human worlds. The sheep child is significant not as a grotesque mutation, but as a privileged creature who "saw for a blazing moment/ The great grassy world from both sides." Having a complete understanding of both "Man and beast in the round of their need," the creature possesses the kind of unified vision Dickey seeks throughout his work.