I became a convert to James Tate’s poetry when he published Constant Defender and Reckoner in 1983 and ’86 respectively. I was asked to review his work for the Washington Post Book World, and this in part is what I wrote:
“Tate brings to his work an extravagantly surrealistic imagination and a willingness to let his words take him where they will. Nonchalant in the midst of radical uncertainty, he handles bizarre details as though they were commonplace facts. [Tate’s poetry draws upon] so rich a fund of comic energy that it may well prove an antidote to the anxiety some readers feel with poems that refuse to lend themselves to instant analysis.”
What I did not suspect was the break-out success that occurred a few years later with Distance from Loved Ones. Tate had always had a unique comic sensibility – he was hilarious but with an edge, almost a menacing edge. He continued to write poems that enlarged the boundaries of the comic imagination. But suddenly there was an overflow of wonderful prose poems – the title poem of Distance from Loved Ones, for example -- and for the next twenty-five years, Jim managed to reinvent the prose poem as a form while turning them out at an astonishingly prolific rate. Some could be read as parables, some as shaggy dog stories; there were those that depended on a single idea carried to an extreme and others in which the dialogue took over. He was a master of the uncanny.
It is quite possible that no poet of our time has done more to integrate narrative and poetry than has James Tate. Poets are greater than the sum of their influences, but to get an idea of where Tate comes from you would need to consider the tales of the "grotesque and arabesque" of Edgar Allan Poe, the French surrealists with their exaltation of chance and accident, the casual diction of New York School poets and the value they place on variety and possibility, and the wild fabulism of certain South American writers – an assemblage that suggests a diversity of impulse while conveying only the vaguest idea of what Tate was up to when he undertook to satirize a concept in such prose poems as “National Security” or “Bounden Duty."
For the writer interested in the prose poem there is no one’s work that will prove as rewarding as that of James Tate. In Dome of the Hidden Pavilion, Jim’s latest book, scheduled to appear from the Ecco Press in August, there is a poem entitled “Invisible,” which I find charming although it doesn’t have the metaphoric richness of, say, “The Key to the Universe” in the same book. The story in “Invisible” is deliberately banal, concerning the chance meetings of two men. One of them knows the other, or acts as if he does; but the speaker tells us he “didn’t know the man,” so the encounters are always just this side of ghostly. When the mysterious stranger calls him Chester, the speaker exclaims, “How did he know my name?” It turns out that both men have been “here” for many years: "“But I’ve never seen you here before,” I said. “Maybe one of us is invisible,” he said." There is a further twist but I cite this exchange not only for the beauty of the logic but because of the resonance of the repeated “here” and because the title fits the poem expertly and with stunning simplicity.
I had the good fortune to collaborate with Jim on The Best American Poetry 1997. He read the poems of the year with the generosity and eclecticism that the task requires and with such acumen that the book remains a classic of the series. As an editor I learned much from Jim’s judgments and instincts – he enlarged my sympathies as a reader. We did most of our work by telephone but when we got together to confer, we discovered that we shared a taste for Tanqueray martinis and responded to an exhibition of Elizabeth Bishop’s paintings with the shared conviction that one of her pictures would suitably grace the cover of our anthology. And so it did.
We have lost too many important poets in the last twelve months. But I feel the loss of James Tate with an especially sharp pang. He was one of our best, most original and exemplary poets. Read his books – any or all of them – and know, as surprise follows surprise, that the experience will change you forever.
(Ed note: James Tate and Dara Wier visited the New School for a poetry forum with David Lehman in the fall of 2008. You can read our account of their visit here. sdh)