July 13, 2015

James Tate




James Tate died this week at age 71. His death came just before the publication of his new book, Dome of the Hidden Pavilion: New Poems.

One of the most popular poets of his generation, his work was often seen as a more accessible and entertaining version of poetry.

The new book is his 17th full-length collection.

An NPR piece on him by poet Craig Morgan Teicher describes his poetry this way:

"A Tate poem often features a hapless protagonist (usually a well-meaning man) who stumbles into a set of ridiculous circumstances that nonetheless don't seem particularly ridiculous to him. The tone is airy, bemused — "Some things don't deserve to be contemplated" — hiding profundity beneath a relaxed surface. This man might meet a few townsfolk, each of whom will make some remark on the circumstance, which will get weirder with each remark, and then the poem then ends with a clever zinger. Usually, the action turns on increasing communication difficulties. Tate may be the only poet whose main subject is the benefit of misunderstanding."

His poem "Like A Scarf," opens this way:

The directions to the lunatic asylum were confusing,
more likely they were the random associations
and confused ramblings of a lunatic.
We arrived three hours late for lunch
and the lunatics were stacked up on their shelves,
quite neatly, I might add, giving credit where credit is due.

This is his short poem "Goodtime Jesus":

Jesus got up one day a little later than usual. He had been dream-
ing so deep there was nothing left in his head. What was it?
A nightmare, dead bodies walking all around him, eyes rolled
back, skin falling off. But he wasn't afraid of that. It was a beau-
tiful day. How 'bout some coffee? Don't mind if I do. Take a little
ride on my donkey, I love that donkey. Hell, I love everybody.

In Teicher's tribute to Tate, he wishes that "what follows for him be as odd and pleasant as the scene in his new poem, "The Afterlife," in which a dead man — a ghost — falls into the speaker's backyard."

I just float
around," he said. "Well, I've never met a dead man. I'm
pleased to meet you," I said. "I think you're supposed to
scream or something," he said. "Oh no, I'm really pleased,"
I said. "It's really kind of you to drop by." "I didn't
drop by. It was the wind," he said. "And then the wind stopped
and I fell into the tree." "How lucky for me," I said. "You'll
be going with me, of course, when I leave. You'll never be
coming back," he said.

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