LAST WEEK, THE American poet James Tate passed away at the age of 71. Tate published over 20 books, won the Pulitzer Prize, and taught several generations of poets at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Partisan asked poets, critics, and editors, some of whom are former students of Tate's, to share a few sentences about the man and his work.
James Tate will be remembered in some circles for a great many of his late, bitterly comic, almost free-associative poems, and for his role in bringing to international significance the MFA program at UMass-Amherst: without his presence there, and without his winking, scowling, mischievous late styles, the 1990s and early 2000s in (at the least) US poetry would not have sounded as they did. He'll be remembered widely, and for a long time—as other tributes have noted—for the serious gravity of his first book, The Lost Pilot (1967); and he deserves to be remembered, as well, for single later poems that circulate widely—more widely than most other good poems; as widely as great comic sketches on YouTube, almost—as high points of late-century light verse, which (like all the best light verse) make sharp points about the disappointments of real life, the constraints of social expectations, the arbitrariness of nearly everything. I heard James Tate read "How the Pope Is Chosen" at a public event in 1994; I never saw Tate, or Popes, or poodles, or microscopes, or the presence of human beings in this world, in exactly the same way ever again.
James Tate is the poet who increased my capacity to fearlessly wonder. It’s been over 10 years since I was his student at UMass-Amherst, but I still hear his voice. I’m still learning from him. He was that kind of teacher—he said things that are clear to me only now. He could see the poem his student most wanted to write, even if the student didn't know what he was talking about at the time. Jim could see the future in this way. He believed it. And he shared that with us. What a joyous thing.
I never got over “The Lost Pilot.” By that I mean, James Tate's early poem had such an impact on me that I found it difficult to love his later work. I did spend many hours at my office desk in the '80s trying to stifle my laughter reading Shroud of the Gnome, and through the '90s I continued to read his work, marveling at his powers of invention, but I never returned to that original state of bedazzlement. As a poet, I fully understand the drive—the need—to change and experiment in one's art, but as a reader, I remained forever in love with the magic he conjured in that early poem: the dead father, orbiting like a cast-off god, the surrealism of the son’s imaginings of his face, preserved ("it grew dark / and hard like ebony") the control of line and deft line breaks—and especially the speaker's enormous yearning for the dead father, forever flying, never dying, preserved in his imagination. Tate's voice in that poem, fantastical and lyrical, passionate and intelligent, put this reader into a dream of life that was realer than life in its portents, regrets and tragic humor. Thank you, James Tate.
One day in 1970 a package arrived from San Francisco. A dear friend had sent me a book by a poet named James Tate, The Oblivion Ha Ha, which I opened and read. I could never afterward be the same. Tate’s quick imagination, his insouciant, ever-bemused manner, and his simultaneous love of randomness and elegance drew a bead on both casual puritan and stern accountant.
Here was major style. As if the world had been made as guilty pleasure.
And what a relief from the more autobiographically-sourced, formally constricted, and directly ethical poets that I had admired and was trying to be and love still.
Of course, many insisted then and now that the book was not so fine as his previous book, The Lost Pilot, which showed the same maker, working with a little less surrealism and a little more obedience to loosely carved period style, but isn’t that beside the point? Like wishing to reduce Ashbery to Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror or trying to restrict Bugs Bunny to a long ago Saturday morning.
Once I was called into a high school faculty meeting in East Tennessee to explain myself for having exposed a group of juniors to Tate’s toxic phrase: “the fire hydrant of the underdog.” And was defended by the principal, who began, “Ladies and gentlemen. Fire hydrants. Underdogs. These are things our students see every day. My little boy helps me castrate hogs. He calls it, “cutting the meanness out of them.”
All of James Tate’s work seems whispered to the side to a cool buddy while the instructor drones on. Like Beckett, Nabokov, and Rimbaud, he is the secret bad friend, one of the grand princes of whimsy, a riot, a constant subversive, a liberator.
Of all his books, silly and grand, goofy and loafing, my favorite is The Ghost Soldiers, a prose work that transcends genre, and in its beautifully controlled hysteria, renders the manufactured images of the war on terror to a sequence of brilliant caricatures.
Now his death confuses me, as if a part of a great city that I had depended upon for direction were suddenly missing, and, of course, only he would have had the sensibility to make deep laughter from such an image, and I am grateful.
"Poet of possibilities, of morph," John Ashbery said of James Tate. At his best, each of his lines felt like an unlikely discovery that couldn't have been predicted, might never have happened, yet there it was, occasion for wonder and sometimes laughter. A poet who offered a distinct and total grammar of encounter with the world, invited you to try it on. Take life seriously, his poems urge, but don’t throttle it: admit the weird, court the light. Often I reread "The Lost Pilot," the title poem from the 1967 collection that brought him notice in America when he was just 24. It lives in me like a pop song: unshakeable, irregular enough for its turns to greet each reading as surprises, a permanent mystery with perennial pleasures.
I love the idea of clean laundry flapping in
the wind. It’s timeless, a new beginning, a
promise of tomorrow. Clothespins! God, I love
clothespins. We should stock up on them. Some
day they may stop making them, and then what?
When I revisit these lines, from James Tate’s poem “At the Clothesline,” I don’t know whether he’s revelling in the sight of a weighted, colourful, dancing clothesline, or whether he’s making fun of the notion of revelling in the sight of a weighted, colourful, dancing clothesline. In either case, it’s hard not to take it personally. I once spent an entire month gleefully researching a magazine article on clothes pegs. I’m in love with laundry and with the act of pinning all that dripping evidence along a thread in the sky. Is Tate? The poem behaves in such a straightforward manner—with its lulling phrases (“I love the idea of,” “and then what?”) and chatty clichés (“I love her in a million ways,” “break your heart”) that my uncertainty deepens with each reading. I think Tate has descended into this archetypal scene—part drudgery, part transcendent beauty, part social and political minefield—so precisely with his tellingly imprecise language, that it tosses up (as wind-whipped wash) all the contradictions it contains. The new beginning, the circling hawk, the watched woman’s unknown thoughts. What is the great storm at the poem’s end? It could be many things, but feels—like so much in Tate's comedic, unexpected poetry—inevitable.
James Tate’s poems seem the essence of serious play. The reader is drawn in by Tate’s likeable, low-key American vernacular, only to find the ground suddenly shifting and a wild new reality emerging. Both speaker and reader blink in the light of the surreal, which is, after all, a reflection of life's absurdities, cruelties and joys, both small and large. Tate’s connections to O’Hara and Ashbery have been noted—I see similarities to fiction writers, too, such as Paul Auster. I will miss Tate’s bemused humour, the wry wit that poetry needs in every age.
I wish I could say Keats or Milton first made me see the possibility of poetry, but it was actually James Tate, and in particular his poem "The Lost Pilot." For me, somebody who didn't have a classical education but was interested in writing poems, Tate offered that bridge. None of Keats' odes look easy, but Tate’s eulogy to his father demonstrated that strange choices in image and a disarming, ambiguous tone built around plainspoken statements could have liftoff. Of course, what Tate achieves is the furthest thing from easy. We should all be so lucky. Still, we lucked out and got him.
I heard Jim Tate read at Iowa in the fall of 1974. He was introduced by Charles Wright, the most easy-going poet between two coasts. That evening, however, Wright leaned over the podium, fixed the audience with a Kentucky glare, and said slowly and ponderously, "JAMES TATE OPERATES AT THE FRONTIERS . . . OF THE IMAGINATION!" The whole auditorium burst into laughter. Flummoxed, Wright whirled around, walked to the chalk board, and wrote "JAMES TATE," then underlined it twice and sat down. Tate took the mishap in good spirits, as if somehow the evening had become a James Tate poem. He's the only poet I've ever heard who giggled at his own poems, and probably the only one whose poems gave him the right to.
When I got the news of James Tate's death, so many memories pushed in, like clowns out of a clown car: him sharing gossip about some long ago infamous incident over a conspiratorially smoked cigarette; that day in class when he summed up a difficult poet's oeuvre in three perfect laconic words; an awkward moment at my house in Minneapolis when he spotted the early books and chapbooks of his I’d collected and said, “Wow, thanks for buying all these!” and I, dumbfounded as usual, lamely replied, “Thanks for writing them!” These fragments and others give me glimpses of the person I’ll miss, the mind that so productively trod a path between a loping, wary hermeticism and an unabashed wonder at the world—so I hold on to them, as I do with the writings.
It is an incredible world, isn’t it? Out my window a squirrel tucks something away in a neighbor’s eaves and the afternoon birds are faintly trilling; inside, Kelly and I have taken all the books off that shelf and we’re reading from them, starting with the most recent, The Zoo Club—which suddenly stands revealed, like in some magic act, as a decisive, talismanic preparation for this day, for him and for us. And it makes sense: this kind of magic is one of the powers of great poetry, and James Tate is surely a great American poet. So this time I’ll say it with steadier footing, and with love: thank you, Jim, thank you for writing all your amazing poems.
Every poet gets to choose his or her own family. James Tate, whom I met in a worshipful company of fletchers, is my best uncle…now removed. No one could William Tell the workaday, hairlined by the weird, like him. If a poet chases the slantwise truth, Tate’s angle on that task was purely his own. His was a poetry of ostensibly minor moments, casually approached via the well-rubbed paths of the American vernacular; work which, especially at a poem’s close, could suddenly stand up and upset the world, slick as a three-card-monte street artist. Here he is, leaning as far back in his front porch chair as Mark Twain, in “The Motorcyclists”:
Do you know that I have never understood what they meant
by "grassy knoll." It sounds so idyllic, a place to go
to dream your life away, not kill somebody. They
should have called it something like "the grudging notch."
But I guess that's life.
What do we learn from those lines? Wisdom, anguish, and hilarity make terrific pen pals. “Go deep,” Uncle Jim said to me one fall, pigskin pressed against his ear. The other arm flat out, patting the horizon down.
Alan Michael Parker
I met James Tate a few times, and I had the good fortune to host him for a reading, but I didn’t know him personally, although I wish I had, given how his students attest to his brilliance. Nevertheless, I feel indebted to his generosity. Early in my career, reading Tate’s poems gave me permission: I could be a poet of ideas as well as things and write in pursuit of my eccentricities. At once wry and sweet, Tate’s poems have a kind of pathos distinct from that of his contemporaries, for he could be meditative when others were urgent, and epistemological when others were sociological. I love that about his writing.
Years ago, when I asked him to contribute to a poetry project I was editing, he responded by saying that he was writing stories—and then he paused a long time, and added, “But they’re poems. They’re always poems. I just call them stories.” I have thought of this remark often, and now, I see its prescience in relation to the genre-bending we read so much of today; it’s true, I think, that in his writing he understood the narrative problems of the lyric (and the lyric problems intrinsic to narrative) long before most of us.
I have a lot of feelings about Jim Tate, first and foremost having to do with my gratitude for him as a teacher, and poet. Like so many others, I revered and loved him for being a sweet and gentle and stern and brilliant and complicated poetry father. I also have many private feelings, ones intimately bound up with the experiences I had when I was first starting to really write poetry, during those pre-internet years in the mid-1990s when I was studying with him and Dara Wier and Agha Shahid Ali in Amherst, Massachusetts. I’m not sure I can put these feelings into words: they seem to be located in Jim’s poems. I find them there and the poems seem not to express those feelings, but to conjure and enact them, inside and outside of time, in me.
No one had a greater influence on me poetically than Tate, though that influence has as much to do with how he worked and thought about poetry as the style itself, which was inimitable. I learned how to be a poet from Jim: how to sit down and work every day and be serious and patient and follow the totally free movement of the imagination as manifest in the material of language. Not because he taught me, but because he showed me. All of us who were near Jim and Dara in those years knew how they were working, and we saw the brilliant results.*
I would like to say this: don’t let anyone tell you Jim Tate was a certain “kind” of poet. Especially not a surrealist, which is how he is often described. To call the poems “surrealist" is incorrect, because the surrealists were really interested in something else, language as a kind of mind and soul changing substance. Jim wasn’t doing automatic writing or creating collages or merely juxtaposing images. In Jim’s poems, there is almost always some kind of situation, or organizing principle, along with a total freedom of language and the imagination. In other words, they are poems. If he is a surrealist, then we all are, or should be.
Jim could do anything in his poems, and did. Throughout his whole life as a poet, he was just as comfortable with narrative as with a lyric that is more experiential, present in and exploring a particular state of mind or orientation toward the word that is full of contradiction and humor and darkness. You will see what I mean if you read his first Selected Poems, as well as the newer one, The Eternal Ones of the Dream, which together will give you a sense of his entire body of work. Jim Tate was a great American poet, maybe even the greatest of the past 50 years. His influence is everywhere in American poetry, on those who don’t realize it as much as those who do.
*An excellent and very sweet description of how Jim worked, and how he thought about poetry, is in this Paris Review interview he did with Charles Simic.