Tate, James (Vincent)

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TATE, James (Vincent)

Nationality: American. Born: Kansas City, Missouri, 8 December 1943. Education: University of Missouri, Kansas City, 1963–64; Kansas State College, Pittsburgh, B.A. 1965; University of Iowa, Iowa City, M.F.A. 1967. Career: Visiting lecturer, University of Iowa, 1965–67, and University of California, Berkeley, 1967–68; assistant professor, Columbia University, New York, 1969–71, and Emerson College, Boston, 1970–71. Since 1971 member of the English Department, University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Since 1967 poetry editor, Dickinson Review, North Dakota. Currently associate editor, Pym Randall Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Barn Dream Press; consultant, Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines. Awards: Yale Series of Younger Poets award, 1966; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1968, 1969, and fellow, 1980; American Academy award, 1974; Guggenheim fellowship, 1976; Pulitzer prize for poetry, 1992, for Selected Poems, National Book award for poetry, 1994, for Worshipful Company of Fletchers; Tanning prize, Academy of American Poets, 1995. Address: Department of English, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Massachusetts 01002, U.S.A.



Cages. Iowa City, Shepherds Press, 1966.

The Destination. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Pym Randall Press, 1967.

The Lost Pilot. New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University Press, 1967.

The Torches. Santa Barbara, California, Unicorn Press, 1968; revised edition, 1971.

Notes of Woe. Iowa City, Stone Wall Press, 1968.

Mystics in Chicago. Santa Barbara, California, Unicorn Press, 1968.

Camping in the Valley. Chicago, Madison Park Press, 1968.

Row with Your Hair. San Francisco, Kayak, 1969.

Is There Anything. Fremont, Michigan, Sumac Press, 1969.

Shepherds of the Mist. Los Angeles, Black Sparrow Press, 1969.

The Oblivion Ha-Ha. Boston, Little Brown, 1970.

Amnesia People. Girard, Kansas, Little Balkans, 1970.

Deaf Girl Playing. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Pym Randall Press, 1970.

Are You Ready Mary Baker Eddy?, with Bill Knott. San Francisco, Cloud Marauder Press, 1970.

The Immortals. Santa Barbara, California, Unicorn Press, 1970.

Wrong Songs. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Halty Ferguson, 1970.

Hints to Pilgrims. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Halty Ferguson, 1971; revised edition, Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1982.

Nobody Goes to Visit the Insane Anymore. Santa Barbara, California, Unicorn Press, 1971.

Absences: New Poems. Boston, Little Brown, 1972.

Apology for Eating Geoffrey Movius' Hyacinth. Santa Barbara, California, Unicorn Press, 1972.

Viper Jazz. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1976.

Riven Doggeries. New York, Ecco Press, 1979.

The Land of Little Sticks. Worcester, Massachusetts, Metacom Press, 1981.

Constant Defender. New York, Ecco Press, 1983.

Just Shades. University, Alabama, Parallel, 1985.

Reckoner. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1986.

Distance from Loved Ones. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1990.

Selected Poems. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1991.

Worshipful Company of Fletchers: Poems. Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco Press, 1994.


Lucky Darryl, with Bill Knott. New York, Release Press, 1977.

Short Stories

Hottentot Ossuary. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Temple Bar Bookshop, 1974.


The Route As Briefed. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1999.

Editor, with David Lehman, The Best American Poetry 1997. New York, Scribner, 1997.


Manuscript Collection: Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin.

Critical Studies: "James Tate and Sidney Goldfarb and the Inexhaustible Nature of the Murmur" by R.D. Rosen, in American Poetry Since 1960-Some Critical Perspectives, edited by Robert B. Shaw, Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, Dufour, 1974; in American Poetry Observed: Poets on Their Work, edited by Joe David Bellamy, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1984; "The Desperate Buck and Wing: James Tate and the Failure of Ritual" by Donald Revell, in Western Humanities Review (Salt Lake City, Utah), 38(4), winter 1984; James Tate issue of Ploughshares (Boston), 11(1), 1985; "The Masters Can Only Make Us Laugh: Authority in the Poetry of James Tate" by Lee Upton, in South Atlantic Review (Atlanta), 55(4), November 1990; James Tate issue of Denver Quarterly (Denver), 33(3), fall 1998.

James Tate comments:

I am in the tradition of the impurists: Whitman, Williams, Neruda. I am trying to combine words in such a way as to lend a new life, a new hope, to that which is lifeless and hopeless. If the vision in the poems is occasionally black, it is so in order to see more clearly the fabric of which that blackness is made and thereby understand the source. If the source is understood, there is the possibility of correcting it.

In my poems it seems one of the recurring themes must be the agony of communication itself; despair and hatred are born out of this failure to communicate. The poem is man's noblest effort because it is utterly useless.

I use the image as a kind of drill to penetrate the veils of illusion we complacently call the real world, the world of shadows through which we move so confidently. I want to split that world and release the energy of a higher reality. There is nothing I will not do, because I see a new possibility each day.

*  *  *

James Tate, the son of pioneers, is from Missouri, the "showme" state. As such, he inherits the antic skepticism of Mark Twain as well as the prismatic images and adamantine syllabics of Marianne Moore. For instance, the eight-syllable lines of "The Shop Keeper" from The Lost Pilot, Tate's first collection, inventory the life of the merchant who "just broke a two dollar /thing":

You close the door and leave to find
your home. Afraid to think of what
business is coming to, you
think of sleep, dishwater, gaslamps,
cypress, eggshells, hell; what you are
coming to—bells, rags, big Sunday.

"You," which along with "you are" frames the stanza, is no more than his stock, and the poet is no more substantial than his eggshell images. This specular "you" allows Tate not only to reckon himself along with his shopkeeper but also lets him echo the old-timer's anxiety ("what is the world coming to?") and tap out his pentameter journey home. Several of the best poems in The Lost Pilot are apostrophes that conjure up the absent, such as the titular elegy to his piloting father, who died around his son's age (twenty-three) in World War II. The memorial tercets of "The Lost Pilot" preserve a tender Whitmanesque anaphora: "If I could cajole /you to come back … /… I would touch you … I would touch your face … I would /discover you, and I would not /turn you in." But the ageless father, orbiting like John Glenn, cannot hear his apostrophizing son, who "cannot get off the ground." As in Vaughan's elegy to Herbert and his generation—"They have all Gone into the World of Light"—Tate takes his gravity-and grave-defying father's place on earth.

With Absences (1972) Tate hangs up his shingle as a nihilist. Nothingness, of course, was in the air. The French existentialists Sartre and Camus were colonizing American universities, and the American surrealists, Mark Strand and W.S. Merwin in particular, were making much of the nothing of shadows and mirrors. But Tate's negations, less philosophical than countercultural, are attempts at purging the suburb from him and his poetry. Nearing the untrustworthy age of thirty, Tate fears not the void but saying "exactly what is expected of me." The sequence "Absences" thwarts these expectations:

We should all be behind bars.
I am the commuter
no matter how unreachably far away
I can imagine a wife
serving dinner
of light bulbs & garbage cans.
How do you like your mashed potatoes?
With pins in them.
Pretty soon I am talking
to the secretary
of her personal secretary,
a faithful wife, in herself,
a jaspered morning.

The surrealist violence here pierces both sitcom living and confessional poetry. But the Christian guilt, which needs a crime (adultery) to explain it, comes from John Berryman, the dark descendant of Whitman and Williams whose Dream Songs haunts Tate's work. The "wife" and the "secretary" are one, and both remain conventional while providing the commuter with a "jaspered," if guilt-ridden, moment. Tate reckons, "I have sung 200 songs … addressed to WOMAN to WOMAN to WOMAN." Tate's "woman" (not "a woman") is too often the gaily apostrophized earth mother or airhead: "Rubberducky that part of woman /that has to be going to the store /… sexual eggs, I touch you." But when Tate lets women be subjects rather than simply vehicles for his subjectivity, he writes with conviction and pathos. In "A Friend Told Me" Tate addresses his ex-love:

stood there on the step,
snow turning scarlet
on your velvet hat,
wishing a larger pain
would soak you up.

The missing "you" in Tate's address mirrors the woman's blushing wish to disappear. To be sure, this wish reflects Tate's own embarrassment. But the woman remains a suffering, self-conscious character whom the narrator does not soak up.

In Tate's Reckoner the suburbanites are as two-dimensional, and Tate as hyperdimensional, as ever. In fact, Tate's patented surrealist diction is really comic hyperbole that, like Huck Finn's tall tales and colorful diction, keep his verse from collapsing into expectations. In "Jelka Revisited" the stunned commuters who have just lost their luggage on the plane (note the distance traveled since "The Lost Pilot") stand "pig-headed in Poisonville, bleeding lemonade /onto the drip-dry tarmac." They are not "eyeless in Gaza, spilling lemonade onto their clothes." In "The Dead Man's Medicine" we learn that "some orphans are stricken /with typhoid, and that is going to blemish our jubilee." It is not simply "the children are sick" or merely a "party." This hyperbolic diction both inflates the once minimal lines of Tate's verse and gives his poetry a festive, holiday atmosphere. But we also find Tate more talkative, less anxious about rattling on like his neighbors:

Disconsolate bunglers, incalculable cloves,
the Ship sang. Ginger scurvy.
Then I took one of them around to see chlorophyll
working in the meadow, and later bought him
a porkpie hat. Night was coming on, hell,
night had come and gone and I was still
reading, reading my way through the library.

The dark night of the soul has passed from Tate's accommodating, but still pleasantly surprising, later style, nearer Ashbery's than Berryman's. "Hell" is just another cuss word. But people should not expect to recognize themselves too clearly in Tate's poems. Once a Missourian, always a Missourian; the leopard cannot change its spots. In these famished times, however, "the famous bones /of the spotted leopard /are all they have."

—John Shoptaw