I think I have been reading James Tate all my so-called adult life. At least an early defining moment occurred when a poet-friend observed one day, out of the blue, nearly four decades ago, “James Tate is the most inventive poet in America.”
It is the kind of statement one instinctively wants to oppose—like “So-and-So is the batter I’d most want up in a hit-and-run situation in the late innings.” And you are almost forced to say, “No way. Such-and-Such is.” But something strange was happening. I had read that first, prize-winning volume, The Lost Pilot, which I thought was very good, but my friend was reading subsequent work published in The Destination and The Notes of Woe and The Torches, chapbooks that have now nearly vanished from the official Tate bibliography. And then my friend did something that is very unusual with people who make statements like “James Tate is the most inventive poet in America”: he offered proof, specifically a poem that used the word “lamasery” (a monastery for lamas) and used it not once but three times, creating each time a somewhat different sense of the word.
I have been reading Tate avidly ever since, and I must confess that one time I paid dearly for this habit. About twenty years ago I taught a graduate poetry workshop in which students read and discussed several books by contemporary poets, a not uncommon feature of a workshop syllabus. In this course I received the worst student evaluations I’ve ever received, perhaps the worst I’ve ever seen. Some of the negative judgments were understandable—“The teacher seemed to like Louise Glück’s poetry more than mine”—and some were even fair—“The professor made us write some of our poems in stanzas”—but there were several (!) like this one, which I quote in its entirety: “In this course we had to read (and buy) a whole book by James Tate. Heinzelman should never be allowed to teach a poetry-writing class again.” This too was a defining moment in my adult life.
I assume that most of us now do not share this residue of hostility towards Tate’s poetry, though it is interesting to me how strangely alike my student’s negative reaction is to that of Tate’s admirers. On the back cover of a book of his I was reading recently it says that Tate is “extravagantly surrealist” and “an elegant and anarchic clown.” My student would have agreed with this exactly, but without applauding. Many of us do read Tate, of course, to find out what, exactly, is “like a gabardine cicada / balancing in the niche between this chasm and that nocturne,” but in a way it doesn’t matter what is like it. So much depends upon what happens here, on this side of the likeness, so to speak, where “chasm” somehow has to lie down in the same niche with “nocturne” (for don’t cicadas tend to sing at dusk?) and where a “gabardine cicada” is less surreal than a precisely observed image of the color and texture of the insect’s carapace. Without meaning to bedim any of Tate’s antic glow, I want to say that his poems often operate according to a severe, even ferocious, logic that is not clownish, though it may force laughter. As Wallace Stevens said in another context, “It is almost the color of comedy. / But the strength at the center is serious.” It seems to me that the very great strength of James Tate’s poetry is its furiously comedic but not quite humorous rejoinders to what he himself calls “the dismaying, leprous, sustained smallness.”
In Distance from Loved Ones, Tate extracts the following sentence from fellow Massachusetts citizen Henry David Thoreau to use as an epigraph: “If you are chosen / town clerk, / forsooth, you cannot go to / Tierra del Fuego / this summer; but you may go / to the land of infernal fire /nonetheless.” At first, reading this sentence printed in lines as verse, I thought Tate might have made it up until I recalled where it occurs, as prose, in Walden. And in the wonderfully archaically entitled volume A Worshipful Company of Fletchers, these eccentric lines from fellow Amherst resident Emily Dickinson serve as epigraph: “I always ran Home to Awe when a child, if anything befell me. / He was an awful Mother, but I like him better than none.” Suddenly you no longer think, “James Tate is the most inventive poet in America.” Instead, you start asking yourself how in the dickens did this venerable company of literary ancestors come to sound so remarkably like James Tate.
Kurt Heinzelman is a poet, translator, editor, and scholar. His most recent book of poems is Intimacies & Other Devices. He is an Honorary Professor at Swansea University (Wales), a former Director of Creative Writing at the University of Texas at Austin, and Co-Founder of Bat City Review.