Tarn, Nathaniel 1928-

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TARN, Nathaniel 1928-

PERSONAL: Born June 30, 1928, in Paris, France; son of Mendel Myer (some sources cite Marcel) and Yvonne Cecile Leah (Suchar) Tarn; married Patricia Renate Cramer, 1956 (marriage ended); married Janet Rodney, 1982; children: (first marriage) Andrea, Marc. Ethnicity: "Earth." Education: Cambridge University, B.A. (with honors), 1948, M.A., 1952; graduate study at Sorbonne, University of Paris, 1949-51; University of Chicago, M.A., 1952, Ph.D., 1957; additional graduate study at London School of Economics and Political Science.

ADDRESSES: Home—P.O. Box 871, Tesuque, NM 87574. E-mail—[email protected].

CAREER: Writer. Anthropologist in Guatemala, Burma, and other countries, 1952-79; Jonathan Cape Ltd. (publisher), London, England, founder and director of Cape Goliard Press and editor of Cape Editions, 1967-69; Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, professor of comparative literature, 1970-84, professor emeritus, 1984—. Lecturer at colleges and universities, including University of Chicago and University of London, 1952-67; visiting professor at State University of New York—Buffalo and Princeton University, 1969-70.

AWARDS, HONORS: Guinness Prize for poetry, 1963; fellow, Wenner Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, 1979-81; poetry fellow, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 1983; Rockefeller Foundation fellow in Bellagio, Italy, 1988.


Old Savage/Young City (poetry), Jonathan Cape (London, England), 1964, Random House (New York, NY), 1965.

(With Richard Murphy and Jon Silkin) Penguin Modern Poets Number Seven: Richard Murphy, Jon Silkin, Nathaniel Tarn, Penguin (New York, NY), 1965.

(Translator) Pablo Neruda, The Heights of Macchu Picchu, Jonathan Cape (London, England), 1966, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1967.

Where Babylon Ends (poetry), Jonathan Cape (London, England), 1967, David Grossman (New York, NY), 1968.

(Editor and co-translator) Con Cuba: An Anthology of Cuban Poetry of the Last Sixty Years, David Grossman (New York, NY), 1969.

The Beautiful Contradictions (poetry), Jonathan Cape (London, England), 1969, Random House (New York, NY), 1970.

October (poetry), Trigram Press (London, England), 1969.

(Translator) Victor Segalen, Stelae, Unicorn Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1969.

The Silence (poetry), M'Arte (Milan, Italy), 1970.

(Editor) Pablo Neruda, Selected Poems, Jonathan Cape (London, England), 1970, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1972.

A Nowhere for Vallejo (poetry), Random House (New York, NY), 1971.

Lyrics for the Bride of God; Section: The Artemision (poetry; also see below), Tree Books (Berkeley, CA), 1973.

The Persephones, Christopher's Books (Santa Barbara, CA), 1974.

Lyrics for the Bride of God (poetry), New Directions (New York, NY), 1975.

Narrative of This Fall, Black Sparrow Press (Los Angeles, CA), 1975.

The House of Leaves (poetry), Black Sparrow Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1976.

The Microcosm, Membrane Press (Milwaukee, WI), 1977.

Birdscapes with Seaside, Black Sparrow Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1978.

(With Janet Rodney) From Alaska: The Ground of Our Great Admiration of Nature, Permanent Press (New York, NY), 1978.

(With Janet Rodney) The Forest: In Part (poetry), Perishable Press (Mount Horeb, WI), 1978.

(With Janet Rodney) Atitlán/Alashka, Brillig (Boulder, CO), 1979.

The Land Songs: Further Annotations from Baja California (poetry), Blue Guitar Books (London, England), 1979.

Weekends in Mexico (poetry), Oxus Press (London, England), 1982.

The Desert Mothers (poetry), Salt-Works Press (Dennis, MA), 1984.

At the Western Gates (poetry), Tooth of Time Press (Santa Fe, NM), 1985.

Palenque: Selected Poems, Oasis Press (London, England), 1986.

Seeing America First (poetry), Coffee House Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1989.

(Translator) Pablo Neruda, Four Odes, One Song, Labyrinth Editions (Honolulu, HI), 1990.

Views from the Weaving Mountains: Selected Essays in Poetics and Anthropology, University of New Mexico Press (Albuquerque, NM), 1991.

Flying the Body: Poems, 1991-92, Arundel Press (Los Angeles, CA), 1993.

(Editor) Natasha Tarn, Multitude of One, Grenfell Press (New York, NY), 1993.

(With Martin Prechtel) Scandals in the House of Birds: Shamans and Priests on Lake Atitlán, Marsilio Publishers (New York, NY), 1998.

The Architextures: 1988-1994, Chax Press (Tucson, AZ), 2000.

Selected Poems, 1950-2000, Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 2002.

Author and reader of Nathaniel Tarn Reading His Poems with Comment in the Recording Laboratory, March 23, 1971, and of Robin Skelton and Nathaniel Tarn Reading and Discussing Their Poems in the Coolidge Auditorium, March 22, 1971. Contributor to many anthologies in the United States, including Talking Poetry, edited by Lee Bartlett, University of New Mexico Press (Albuquerque, NM), 1987; American Poetry since 1950, edited by E. Weinberger, Marsilio (New York, NY), 1996; and Poems for the Millennium, edited by J. Rothenberg, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1998; also contributor to anthologies in France, Italy, Russia, China, Mexico, Spain, and the Netherlands. Contributor to periodicals, including Poetry New York, First Intensity, Times Literary Supplement, Observer, New York Times, Credences, Grand Street, Temblor, and Sagetrieb. Contributing editor, Conjunctions, PO&SIE, Courrier du Centre International de Poesie, and Modern Poetry in Translation.

SIDELIGHTS: Nathaniel Tarn's multicultural interests are seen in his early work as an anthropologist and continue in his work as an internationally acclaimed translator, poet, and critic. For his views on "the state of the art of poetry in this complex society," which is, as he once told CA, "a most complex business," he recommends the essay "Dr. Jekyll, the Anthropologist, Emerges and Marches into the Notebooks of Mr. Hyde, the Poet" in the literary journal Conjunctions. His contribution to American Poetry, the essay "Child As Father to the Man," he said, also gives insight into his writings.

Important influences on his poetry among moderns include Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Hugh MacDiarmid, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and Jack Spicer. In addition, poets from many countries—André Breton, Guillame Apollinaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Fernando Pessoa, and Rainer Maria Rilke—have shaped his poetic vision. Tarn's characteristic writing style is eclectic, having the inclusiveness and open forms of his masters. His poems refer to the myths, philosophies, political concerns, plant and animal life, and landscapes known to people from many nations and time periods. In The Beautiful Contradictions, Tarn states his personal objective: "It is up to me to call into being everything that is." Like Whitman's style, Tarn's style "is a very original mixture of the high and the low, the deliberately elevated and the humorously familiar," observed a Times Literary Supplement reviewer. Writing about Lyrics for the Bride of God in Harper's Bookletter, Hayden Carruth remarked that "Tarn has attempted . . . a poem in the grand modern matter, after Pound's Cantos or Williams' Paterson and . . . he has largely succeeded." Of the same book, a Choice critic noted that in this work, too, Tarn sounds "distinctly like Whitman, a Whitman writing about America in the 1970's. But his style is strikingly different and idiosyncratic, and his poems dazzle with a kaleidoscope of bright images."

A number of critics have responded negatively to Tarn's long sentences and catalogues. As a Times Literary Supplement reviewer said of The Beautiful Contradictions,"This is the poetry of a man who has come through a tremendous foreign reading list and lived to get it all mixed up for us." Other critics, however, responded more favorably. Of a later book, The House of Leaves, Times Literary Supplement contributor D. M. Thomas commented, "There was always a sense of continental ambition in [Tarn's] work, poems that seemed to wish the pages wider. To read his new collection is a little like flying over America: A Whitmanesque grandiloquence . . . , repetition upon repetition, accretion upon accretion. . . . Much of it is beautiful and true."

For a summary of previous stages in Tarn's development as a poet, American Book Review contributor Rochelle Ratner recommended Atitlán/Alashka: "Each previous book that Tarn published has been such a complete vision in itself that we tend to think it is his only vision. Atitlán not only shows the scope of Tarn's field, it shows the fusion of his various periods." Theodore Enslin remarked in the same issue of the American Book Review that in addition to showing the width of Tarn's range, this collection also shows "how an omnivorous appetite is controlled by a discriminating intelligence, at the same time that the rush of highly colored and charged language fills the landscape with both form and that form's detail." In At the Western Gates, Tarn added new resonance to his images while giving "free play to all the senses," observed a Voice Literary Supplement reviewer, who concluded, "With a prophetic sense of sure direction, his new poems move beyond their surface splendor into the depths beneath."

Of At the Western Gates, Artspace contributor Gene Frumkin commented, "while these poems are shorter and sing more, on the whole, than Tarn's usual pattern of work, the desert does make its appearance; neither positive nor negative in itself, it brings to the poetry a doubleness, an ambiguity which, as it develops, gives us a sure sign of this poet's mastery. Tarn is thoughtful, religiously, and he is a man whose concern lies with the total culture of any place; the songs of his birds and of his whales are the up and down of a cosmos, his encompassing effort to construct lyricism not only as music but as the music of mind's flow through the mystery of nature." Tarn's next book, The Desert Mothers, presents longer poems again, but Frumkin believed that the ideas the poems develop are more significant than their length.

Tarn once told CA that reviews often overemphasize his style, which he sees "as only one facet of the work as if there were no other facets. This concerns the 'rambling,' 'long sentences,' 'grandiloquent,' 'omnivorous' aspect. I believe that, if one looks at the books, there is an alternation between this aspect and another which is far tighter and more controlled. Also between lines, spread and compression. Among controlled, short-lined, simple works, I would place October; much of The House of Leaves; much of A Nowhere for Vallejo; and almost all of At the Western Gates. The poems in Seeing America First are extremely compressed: seventy poems, each one of which has the exact same number of spaces in each line when typed so that the poems are perfectly rectangular, justified on each side, looking like prose poems, but not prose poems. One cannot be less rambling than that!"

Explaining why he works in both shorter and longer forms, Tarn added, "The complexity/simplicity alternation responds to a belief I have that the fundamental contradiction in the poem's role in society is exasperated today more than at any other time in 'modernist/postmodernist' history. For the craft to progress, the poem has to improve on a long tradition of complexity, difficulty, even obscurity if it is to 'make it new' as Pound prescribed. On the other hand, the whole tradition has of late made it more and more difficult for poetry to find any kind of readership except among other poets. One of the ways of dealing with this is to write (at least) two kinds of poetry so as to give the work as a whole the optimal chance of reaching one or more publics."

Discussing his work in an entry for the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Tarn cited "a lifelong interest in religions and symbolic systems—primarily, but not exclusively, Classical, Judaeo-Christian, Mayan and Buddhist—has been a very powerful motivating force. A strong sense of the interrelationships of man and polis and a dark view of man's inhumanity to man have also provided the 'matter' of much poetry." Looking back over the years, he remembered: "In childhood and youth a passionate involvement with nature—especially ornithological and vegetal—occasioned many poems. Over the years, this has to some extent given way to an inextinguishable romance with culture in the form of great human works in any medium (the arts, architecture, technology) and a theoretical interest in the interplay between natural and civil ecology and conservation: that some can even discuss these apart from each other seems to me an impossible aberration."

Tarn also discussed his concern about the declining status of the poet and poetry in "our increasingly illiterate culture. At a very banal level, almost all of us poets of my age sense some kind of great difference between the life we used to have and the one we lead now. I dare say I was more fortunate than many in my beginnings, but I treasured the sense of having a publishing house, an editor, the occasional lunch, the pretense that one's vocation was of use to the world." Tarn noted that even as late as the 1960s, there was "extraordinary interest in poetry; the possibility of substantial and extremely well-attended readings; the sense of a potential (probably illusory) for significant political action. . . . All that began to give way—the very day, I believe, when the Vietnam War ended. Only the very smallest number of 'known,' 'famed,' 'noted,' 'awarded' bards now enjoys such luxuries. The world of publishing, sold out to corporatism, is deliquescing beyond all recognition. The culture overproduces 'poets' in the 'creative writing' schools while at the same time underproducing readers throughout the educational system at all levels."



Bartlett, Lee, editor, Talking Poetry: Conversations in the Workshop with Contemporary Poets, University of New Mexico Press (Albuquerque, NM), 1987.

Bartlett, Lee, Nathaniel Tarn, A Descriptive Bibliography, McFarland (Jefferson, NC), 1987.

Bartlett, Lee, The Sun Is but a Morning Star: Essays on Western American Literature, University of New Mexico Press (Albuquerque, NM), 1989.

Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 16, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992. Fisch, Harold, The Dual Image, [London, England], 1971.

McQuade, Molly, An Unsentimental Education: Writers and Chicago, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1995.

Tarn, Nathaniel, The Beautiful Contradictions, Jonathan Cape (London, England), 1969, Random House (New York, NY), 1970.


American Book Review, Volume 2, number 5, 1980, Rochelle Ratner and Theodore Enslin, review of Atitlán/Alashka.

American Poetry Review, Volume 1, number 2, 1984.

Artspace, Volume 5, number 1, 1985-86, article by Gene Frumkin

Boundary 2, Volume 4, number 1, 1975.

Choice, November, 1975, review of Lyrics for the Bride of God; April, 1977.

Conjunctions, number 6, 1984.

Credences, number 4, 1977.

Harper's Bookletter, October 13, 1975, Hayden Carruth, review of Lyrics for the Bride of God.

Judaism, fall, 1965.

Library Journal, June 15, 1965; April 15, 1971.

New York Times Book Review, September 25, 1966; May 21, 1967; May 7, 1972; September 7, 1975.

Poetry, June, 1968.

Saturday Review, October 9, 1965; December 13, 1968.

Spectator, January 1, 1965.

Sulfur, number 14, 1985/86.

Times (London, England), April 6, 1968; June 7, 1969.

Times Literary Supplement, January 7, 1965; October 12, 1967; August 7, 1969; April 9, 1970, review of The Beautiful Contradictions; August 4, 1972; May 20, 1977, D. M. Thomas, review of The House of Leaves.

Voice Literary Supplement, February, 1986, review of At the Western Gates.*