James Tate, who died last summer at the age of 71, after being in poor health for many years, was one of the most prolific and admired American poets from the time his first book, The Lost Pilot, was selected for the Yale Series of Younger Poets in 1967, while Tate was still a student at the University of Ohio. The title poem is dedicated to his father, a B-17 pilot who was killed on a bombing raid over Stuttgart during World War II when his son was five months old. The plane crashed, but his remains were not found, though the rest of the crew survived. In the poem his son imagines him still orbiting the Earth and hopes to cajole him to land for an evening so he can touch and read his face the way a blind man touches a page in braille, promising that he would not turn him in, nor force him to face his wife so he can go back to his crazy orbiting without his son asking and trying to understand what it means to him.
Tate was born in Kansas City in 1943 in a family that had no memory of ever living in any other state except Missouri. Both of his maternal grandparents worked in a bank. The others in the family were shopkeepers, clerks, plumbers, and handymen, and the women they married were deeply religious, spoke in tongues, attended churches with names like Full Grace Tabernacle of the Holy Spirit and believed in faith healing. Tate’s father’s father was a one-legged caretaker of the Kansas City Zoo and lived in the shack on the premises where Tate and his mother were to stay after her husband was inducted into the Air Force. Though he did poorly in high school, after graduating he got in touch with a college he knew had to accept him, Kansas State in Pittsburgh, where to his surprise he started enjoying his classes and taking his studies seriously. He wrote his first poems there while ransacking the library and reading Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, García Lorca, Rilke, Apollinaire, and other great modern poets.
With the sole exception for a handful of early poems, what makes Tate’s poetry unlike that of most American poets is that it is not centered on his life. The speaker in them, he said, was a Beckett-type, some nameless representative of humanity. This, of course, is not what one would expect from a poet from an unusually interesting past, nevertheless, this is the kind of poet Tate was. He hated narcissists, saying he had no wish to make love to himself in a mirror. Unlike poets eager to buttonhole the reader and unburden themselves, Tate saw the world the way a short story writer would, more fascinated with the lives of other human beings than with his own. Alongside poetry he wrote stories all his life and even planned a novel at one time.
His first book is still worth reading. Beyond its much-admired title poem, there are others in which Tate’s astonishing gift for images and his ear for colloquial language are already present. The ten books he published in the next thirteen years are full of poems so different in style and temperament that they could be the work of more than one poet. There are short lyrics, longer poetic sequences, and prose poems, many of them as original as any written in American poetry and full of surprises. “You go back to your desk with the intention of writing a suicide note,” he said, “and end up writing the funniest piece you’ve ever written.” Solemnly funny is what he was like as a poet. Surrealism was an influence in his youth, however, writing only one kind of poem for the rest of his life did not appeal to him.
In his later books, the profusion of styles of the earlier books is gone and replaced by poems that are much more prosy and narrative, sounding often like fables and parables, but managing nevertheless to have their impeccable inner logic and to be as tightly structured as his earlier ones. They are set in a nameless small town in New England with a typical main street, bank, post office, coffee shop, and a cast of locals that appear ordinary except there’s something not quite right about them and the world they live in. “On the way to work this morning,” a poem of his starts, “the newsman on the radio said, ‘A big part of reality has been removed, it has been reported. Details are not available at this time. It’s just that, I am told, you will find things different on your drive to work this morning.’”
Reading his last book, Dome of the Hidden Pavilion, I came to understand that Tate’s poetry is all of a piece. A poet who lost his father in one war and kept him alive for years imagining that he survived, lost his memory and went on living in some other part of the world, ends where he started with a feeling of horror at our new wars, their ghost soldiers and the unhappiness they bring. If he was inconsolable about his father, so were these contemporary Americans whose heartache he tried to imagine. He coped with his ghosts by making up stories, which often turned out to be poems, and poems which turned out to be stories—it didn’t make any difference to him what one called them. He wrote every day even in his final years while he was ill and in great pain. The real secret about Tate turned out to be his sense of humor which he kept to the very end. After he died, his wife found this poem in his old typewriter. It’s the last one he wrote and this one was about him.
I sat at my desk and contemplated all that I had accomplished this year. I had won the hot dog eating contest on Rhode Island. No, I hadn’t. I was just kidding. I was the arm wrestling champion in Portland, Maine. False. I caught the largest boa constrictor in Southern Brazil. In my dreams. I built the largest house out of matchsticks in all the United States. Wow! I caught a wolf by its tail. Yumee. I married the Princess of Monaco. Can you believe it? I fell off of Mount Everest. Ouch! I walked back up again. It was tiring. Snore. I set a record for sitting in my chair and snoring longer than anybody. Awake! I set a record for swimming from one end of my bath to the other in No Count, Nebraska. Blurb. I read a book written by a dove. Great! I slept in my chair all day and all night for thirty days. Whew! I ate a cheeseburger every day for a year. I never want to do that again. A trout bit me when I was washing the dishes. But I couldn’t catch him. I flew over my hometown and didn’t recognize anyone. That’s how long it’s been. A policeman stopped me on the street and said he was sorry. He was looking for someone who looked just like me and had the same name. What are the chances?
I should add something here myself since Jim was one of my oldest and dearest friends and we’d known each other since 1965 at the University of Iowa. But I won’t ‘cause I’m afraid it’ll be too private and sentimental. But I will say one thing. Back in 19-something, many years ago, I wrote that the greatest lyricists of the 1960s were Bob Dylan and James Tate. I believed that then and I really believe it now. They both went on to work hard as hell all the time—Dylan on his songs, Jim on his poems. His poems got better and fuller and richer and tighter. Hell, they could’ve given him the Nobel Prize!