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Talking Tate: A Fake Oral History

November 19, 2014 | by

allen tate

Photo: Library of Congress

There’s no Writers at Work interview with Allen Tate—who was born today in 1899—but his name seems to pop up in nearly everyone else’s. By my count, he has cameos in nineteen of our interviews; he shuffles onstage to offer an apercu or to help someone or to drink or to be carried down a flight of stairs. And then he leaves.

Tate ran in many circles, in part because his teaching allowed him to move around so much. At one point or another he crossed paths with an astonishing number of his fellow writers: Robert Penn Warren and Robert Lowell, most prominently, but also Randall Jarrell, John Gould Fletcher, John Crowe Ransom, John Berryman, and Andrew Lytle. His walk-ons in The Paris Review interviews testify to his influence not just as a poet but as a friend. If you read these mentions of him in succession, as a kind of patchwork oral history, you get a strangely gratifying secondhand sense of the man, as if someone had painted his portrait based only on a description. Let’s give it a try—

Robert Giroux (The Art of Publishing No. 3, 2000):

There’s a memorable phrase of Marianne Moore’s about Allen Tate. T. S. Eliot or somebody asked her, What do you think of Allen Tate? And she said, That man is freckled with impropriety like a trout. Allen Tate was a Southern gentleman with impeccable manners. Who knows what she meant? She was a colorful talker, an original.  

Robert Lowell (The Art of Poetry No. 3, 1961):

I met Ford at a cocktail party in Boston and went to dinner with him at the Athens Olympia. He was going to visit the Tates, and said, “Come and see me down there, we’re all going to Tennessee.” So I drove down. He hadn’t arrived, so I got to know the Tates quite well before his appearance … Mrs. Tate was doing all the housekeeping. She had three guests and her own family, and was doing the cooking and writing a novel. And this young man arrived, quite ardent and eccentric. I think I suggested that maybe I’d stay with them. And they said, “We really haven’t any room, you’d have to pitch a tent on the lawn.” So I went to Sears, Roebuck and got a tent and rigged it on their lawn. The Tates were too polite to tell me that what they’d said had been just a figure of speech. I stayed two months in my tent and ate with the Tates.

[…] It was a very interesting year I spent with Tate and his wife. He’s a poet who writes in spurts, and he had about a third of a book. I was going to do a biography of Jonathan Edwards and he was going to write a novel, and our wives were going to write novels. Well, the wives just went humming away. “I’ve just finished three pages,” they’d say at the end of the day; and their books mounted up. But ours never did, though one morning Allen wrote four pages to his novel, very brilliant. We were in a little study together separated by a screen. I was heaping up books on Jonathan Edwards and taking notes, and getting more and more numb on the subject, looking at old leather-bound volumes on freedom of the will and so on, and feeling less and less a calling. And there we stuck. And then we decided to make an anthology together. We both liked rather formal, difficult poems, and we were reading particularly the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the evening we’d read aloud, and we started a card catalog of what we’d make for the anthology. And then we started writing. It seems to me we took old models like Drayton’s Ode—Tate wrote a poem called “The Young Proconsuls of the Air” in that stanza. I think there’s a trick to formal poetry. Most poetry is very formal, but when a modern poet is formal he gets more attention for it than old poets did. Somehow we’ve tried to make it look difficult … I think both Tate and I felt that we wanted our formal patterns to seem a hardship and something that we couldn’t rattle off easily.

Peter Taylor (The Art of Fiction No. 99, 1987):

[…] Allen Tate had called me from Chicago, and said, “Cal [Robert Lowell] is not himself at all,” and that he and Caroline Gordon had just put him on a train! Well, of course I was furious—Allen had no business putting him on a train. But I also knew that Allen had a great dramatic sense and I thought he must be exaggerating. I didn’t think it was true when he said that Cal was beside himself. He’d behaved strangely, frightened a child at the station, and he had picked up Allen and carried him down the platform. Allen was very small. Anyhow, Allen said I was to meet him with the police at the railroad station! Well that was something! Because some time before that, when the Tates were in Maine visiting the Lowells, Caroline had thrown a peanut-butter jar at Jean Stafford Lowell and Jean ran and called the sheriff, saying, “I fear for my life.” Allen was outraged. He said, “You don’t call the police on your friends.”

Robert Bly (The Art of Poetry No. 79, 2000):

I was buying toothpaste one morning, and the drugstore radio said that the police had picked up John [Berryman] trying to break into his own apartment the night before. This was a wholesome state university. I said, There goes John. He remarked that there was only one man in the country who would understand what had happened without asking a single question; he called Allen Tate in Minneapolis. Allen said, Come to Minneapolis, John. So John taught for years in the humanities department at the University of Minnesota and was marvelous.

Anthony Hecht (The Art of Poetry No. 40, 1988):

I have not felt the need to resort to cunning devices and secret caches of booze. I have never joined AA, or felt I needed to. But still, I had after a while acquired a reputation for drinking. I was amused by a letter from Allen Tate, in which he congratulated me on winning the Rome Prize (he had been my chief advocate on the committee that made the choice) and warned me not to drink too much at the Academy in Rome, lest I disgrace the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (which awarded the grant) and so offend the Academy in Rome as to persuade them never to admit another writer. You see, this was the first writing fellowship ever conferred. What amused me was that, as I saw it, Tate drank much more than I did in those days.

Richard Wilbur (The Art of Poetry No. 22, 1977):

Now as for our conflict, Edgar [Allan Poe]’s and mine, I object to him simply because he is far too much a fantasist. Or, as Allen Tate put it, the trouble with him is that his imagination does not proceed upward through the order of nature, moving toward the invisible through the visible. Instead, he tries to destroy the visible world on the assumption that if you do that, then the invisible world will rush in to take its place. Well, I question that formula, but I think it is an exciting mistake and resulted in a number of remarkable works.

Robert Bly:

[…] Bill Duffy and I started a magazine called The Fifties. On the inside front cover, we announced that “most of the poetry published in America today is too old-fashioned.” We developed various ways to infuriate people who had submitted old-fashioned poems. One was a card that read: “This entitles you to buy the new book of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, / as soon as it is published.” … One man wrote me, saying, You know who you are? You’re nothing but a Captain Bly pissing up a drainpipe! That was a strange metaphor. Allen Tate said something like: So people can write poems that are not in iambic? A cat can walk on its front legs too. So what? That was another strange metaphor.

Robert Lowell:

I could see how Tate was done, though Tate has a rhythm that I’ve never been able to imitate. He’s much more irregular than I am, and I don’t know where the rhythm comes from, but I admire it very much. Crane said somewhere that he could write five or six good lines but Tate could write twelve that would hang together, and you’d see how the twelve were built. Tate was somehow more of a model: he had a lot of wildness and he had a lot of construction.

Peter Taylor:

Allen Tate particularly made a great impression on me. I had him as my freshman English instructor at Southwestern and he was electrifying. He talked about the art of fiction, taking it seriously as a form. It was his genius as a teacher that he made young people feel the importance of literature, the importance of art. That came just at the right moment for me. I had already realized that I had a welter of stories I wished to tell. I had written stories, I had written poems, but I had no real principles of writing. When I became interested in the formal qualities, art and life itself meant something. Later in life, Allen Tate and I quarreled. I think he did me a great injury. But I was able to forgive him because that injury counted for almost nothing compared to what he taught me when I was young. The next summer I took a writing course with Tate, in fiction, and that was the real beginning. Allen liked my stories immensely. He wrote letters to Robert Penn Warren about them—at that time Warren and Cleanth Brooks were editing The Southern Review—and sent him two of my stories, without my knowledge. That was very like Tate. He was ever generous with young people, to the end of his life.



  1. Paul Opperman | November 20, 2014 at 11:03 am

    This is a wonderful woven fabric of an oral history. Another great source for more of this would be Poets in Their Youth, by Eileen Simpson, John Berryman’s wife – it gives an interesting perspective on the circle of Tate, Berryman, Lowell, Jarrell, and Schwartz from the point of view of keen and sympathetic observer.

1 Pingbacks

  1. […] For a number of reasons largely to do with his identification with the antebellum planter society of the South, Mr. Tate is not talked about much these days. So it was a surprise just now to run across this series of fleeting glimpses, the walk-on version of a literary life: “Talking Tate: A Fake Oral History.” […]

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