James Tate’s extraordinary poetry and person were life-altering forces for many people, myself included.
I came to UMass in 2000 to study with Jim (and with Dara Wier and Peter Gizzi) in the MFA program, a nervous, hopeful 20-something. Jim was a serious, devoted, wholly unflashy teacher, and later he became a friend, and we worked together on proofs for his books, testing the mettle of his copyeditors while surrounded by books and beautiful Amish quilts in his living room.
When my children were born, I slowed down and then stopped writing poems for awhile. Good thing poets don’t have the expiration dates of rock stars, I told myself and anyone who asked; I could start writing again at 40 and still have a 40-year career. That sounded pretty good for awhile, and at least succeeded in soothing my self-loathing about not making new work. This June, my 40th birthday arrived, and in July, Jim died. When J and I heard he was very ill and visited his wife Dara at his bedside, it still seemed somehow unfathomable that he would be gone soon. Jim had given a terrific reading at the Juniper festival only two weeks before. Just before he went into the hospital, a single advance copy of his new book of poems—his 17th!—arrived in the mail. His constancy, his primacy seemed unassailable to us, his students, friends, family, and readers, even though his health had been fragile for so long.
In the immediate aftermath, fellow poets flooded social media with favorite poems, anecdotes, recordings. Two friends got matching tattoos of the line “then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs,” which, repeated 23 times, constitutes Jim’s poem “Lewis and Clark Overheard in Conversation.” I think they’re looking for 21 more collaborators for this living art elegy. In a box of his late father’s things, J dug out the copy of Dreams of a Robot Dancing Bee which Jim had signed to his dad. The inscription reads:
To Roger – congratulations on your new truck. Jim
We sat up drinking wine and thinking of them both, and reading some of our favorite Tate poems aloud. I thought about starting to write again, more freely than before. As Jim said in a 2010 interview, a real writer writes “because they absolutely must,” not for success or approval or acceptance. To me this also means that writers need writing not just to understand or decipher their world, but also to misunderstand and encipher it. Jim was a grandmaster of slippage, bringing his reader into a situation she thinks she understands, then whipping the rug out from underneath her, letting her fall into something entirely new, startling, disconcerting, hilarious—and always true.
A Sound Like Distant Thunder
I had fallen asleep on the couch with the
TV on. Every now and then I would open an eye
and see someone get stabbed or eaten by a monster.
Once, a beautiful woman was taking off her blouse.
And then the phone rang. I couldn’t tell if it
was a TV phone or my own. I sat up, half-asleep,
and reached for the phone. “Howie,” a woman’s
voice said, “Is that you? You sound like you were
asleep.” “I was,” I said. I wasn’t Howie, but
I was in the mood to talk to this woman. “Howie,
I miss you. I wish I were in bed with you right
now,” she said. “I miss you, too. I wish you
were here with me right now,” I said. I hated
not knowing her name, and I didn’t know if I could
call her “honey” or “sweetie” or any other endear-
ment. “Why don’t you come over right now,” I
said. “Oh you know I’m in Australia. And my
work here won’t be done for another month. It’s
just hell being away from you this long,” she said.
“I love you,” I said, and I think I meant it.
“You mean the world to me, Howie. I couldn’t get
through this without knowing you love me. I think
of you all the time. I look at your picture
every chance I get. It’s what gives me strength,
that and our brief phone calls. Now go back to
sleep and dream of me, dream of me kissing you
and holding you. I have to go now. I love you,
Howie,” she said and hung up. And though my state
may be described as a gladdened stupor, I felt
like a Howie, I really did, and I believed in my
heart that the nameless, faceless one indentured
in Australia really loved me, and that my great
love for her gave her strength. I cozied up on
the couch and fell into a sweet sleep. But then
I heard a lion roar, and I feared for both of our lives.
“Howie!” she cried. “Save me!” But I
couldn’t. I was busy elsewhere, tying my shoe.
James Tate, from Return to the City of White Donkeys
One aspect of Jim’s particular genius was to get people laughing, and then they were ready to follow him anywhere, often straight into strange or dark places. The central premise of many of his later poems seems to me that our pat routines are one flicker of possibility away from a plunge into the unknown. Not the the unknown need be abysmal or frightening—often it is populated with goats, sexcapades, and sudden joy. But that it was waiting right there, on the other side of the next word, to be discovered. A room where Jim was about to read his next poem was a room that crackled with anticipation, his audience still grinning from their last ambush and hungry for the next one. Roars of laughter would occasionally make him start to giggle too, and I can remember more than one of his readings leaving me with tears of laughter and aching cheeks.
To do this, each unlikely move in his poems had to be entirely believable. This is the chief lesson I remember from his workshops. I remember bringing in a poem and having him zero in on one simile. The only thing he said was, “I don’t trust this simile.” I sweated over this for a long time (Jim didn’t usually say a lot about a poem, so one tended to interpret the runes later, preferably with a beer and a friend.), but I think I finally got it—if you don’t trust the simile, it all falls apart. Start over. Jim taught me that you can go absolutely anywhere in a poem if you take your reader with you. That’s the delicate balancing act: generosity toward the reader on the one hand, and uncompromising fidelity to imagination, possibility, discovery on the the other. The reason to write a poem was always to find out something you didn’t know before, to think something you hadn’t thought already, to create a new possible world. But always, always to have company there in that new space.
Jim was a voracious and ecumenical reader, and he loved poems that “worked” in many different ways. He read more contemporary poetry than almost any of us, and had little patience for students who didn’t read enough. A list of “recommended titles” showed up without explanation in one’s MFA mailbox early in the first year of the program, with over 200 titles on it, from Catullus to Whitman and Dickinson to Barbara Guest, Lisa Jarnot, and Terrance Hayes. Though there was no formal requirement set out, everyone knew that Jim’s specialty was grilling MFA candidates during their oral defense, and we had figured out that every title on the list was up for grabs. Many of us crammed and quizzed one another with trepidation: “Well, what should a person say about Elizabeth Bishop?” Those who had been through it before recommended expressing appreciation for Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens in particular. I never heard of someone failing their defense because of their performance on Jim’s quiz, but it did serve to underscore the importance of knowing one’s poetry family tree.
In class, and in any discussion about poetry, Jim was a bulwark against bullshit. One sidelong withering glance from him and you knew you’d said something stupid. His impatience with categorical statements came from his tremendous integrity, and his belief in poetry’s integrity as an art form. Well, if you write “because you absolutely must,” and freedom to discover is one of poetry’s enduring promises, you don’t mess around with people who want to put limits on where you can go. Retreat into a school or system and you take away the existential tightrope walk that makes it all a thrill.
An essential openness and vulnerability defined his understanding of Keats’ negative capability. To “dwell in mysteries,” was only possible if one was open to it, and that meant not “reaching after fact and reason.” Jim’s generosity as a poet makes a space for his reader to set reason aside, and “dwell in possibility,” as Dickinson wrote. A big part of his legacy is in teaching us to see the world that way, and not only poetry. Hundreds of his students have gone on to publish many dozens of volumes, teach legions of students (and in many cases they sent the most promising ones straight back to Amherst to study with Jim). But even Jim would say that those successes are not the reason we write.
Those of us who may not have many published titles under our belts are still nourished and challenged by our time with Jim, by the way that poetry reached us, touched us, and taught us to see the world as place of possibility. I learned from Jim that the world, like his poems, is full of trap doors, ready to ambush us with joy or pain at any moment, and that when we share this knowledge, when we are brave enough to walk forward into it, we can be truly alive. And that being truly alive is like being in one of his poems—it’s a fantastic place to be. I’m so thankful to have known him and read him, and so grateful that his poems will continue to enliven generations of readers to come. We will press the poems into the hands of new readers, knowing their power.
Read or listen to some of James Tate’s poems here:
The Poetry Foundation
Academy of American Poets
Charles Simic conducted a wonderful interview with Jim for the Paris Review
A marvelous tribute to his work appeared in Electric Literature