James Tate, who wrote that the main challenge of poetry “is always to find the ultimate in the ordinary horseshit,” died yesterday in Massachusetts at age seventy-one. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the William Carlos Williams Award, Tate’s poems were “always concerned to tell us that beneath the busyness and loneliness of our daily lives, there remains in us the possibility for peace, happiness and real human connection,” wrote Adam Kirsch in the New York Times.
Tate was born in Missouri but lived in Amherst, Massachusetts, since 1971. “I’ve imagined that every character and every single event takes place in this town, Amherst,” he once confessed. But John Ashbery once opined that Tate is a “poet of possibilities, of morph, of surprising consequences, lovely or disastrous, and these phenomena exist everywhere.”
His poetry is often described as absurdist, and indeed the speakers in his poems come across as bewildered narrators who are as inquisitive as they are clueless—which is all part of their charm. His poetry has also been described as comic, ironic, hopeful, lonely, and surreal; “I love my funny poems,” he said, “but I’d rather break your heart. And if I can do both in the same poem, that’s the best.”
In his Art of Poetry interview, speaking to the intersection between humor and seriousness, he said,
Most people don’t have a sense of humor in the first place. So if they find themselves laughing at the end of an experience, they are almost distrustful of themselves—like, what happened to me? Today, for instance, on the tragedy side we could easily be talking about the hideous effect of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, or we could be talking about the Iraq war. But we can go out tonight and hear a great jazz band. We could spend a night with friends, laughing and drinking and toasting and saying how wonderful life is. Simultaneously, we all know that we’re enshrouded in tragedy, lies, and all kinds of evil. Torture, for God’s sake! And heaps of evil beyond what we can contemplate, and yet life is wonderful for those of us who haven’t been directly affected. So we walk around balancing the two all the time. I, for one, am not giving in. I am not going to walk around in tears all day long. I still want to have a good day if I can.
In my poems, I try—God knows, probably unsuccessfully—to bring that home. There’s a poem in my last book, “A Clean Hit,” where suddenly a bomb falls out of the sky and blows up this person’s house. And all of the neighbors come running down and they’re saying, “What the hell happened?” The guy whose house got bombed says, “Well, I voted for this president. They shouldn’t be targeting me.” They’re all trying to figure out what they did and what they didn’t do that could have caused this bomb to drop. Some of them think it’s a mistake. They say, “It happens all the time. Those reports pass through so many hands, by the time they reach the top somebody has gotten the address wrong.” So you can still have fun with the horror.
When I came out of my study, Ginny was standing there with
wet hair. “Are you going to town today?” she asked me. “I wasn’t
planning on it,” I said. “Oh, never mind,” she said. “What is it?”
I said. “I need some stuff for my allergies, but I can get it
tomorrow,” she said. “No, I can go. It’s no big deal. Just make
me a list,” I said. Ginny had to be at a planning session for the
League of Women Voters. I went back to my study to line up
several dozen lead soldiers on my desk. They were expensive antique
specimens I had saved since childhood. When I had them all lined up
the way I wanted them, I knocked them all down. Ginny shouted, “Are
you alright?” “It’s nothing, just a small accident,” I shouted back.
She said goodbye and left me the list on the counter. I made myself
a bologna sandwich and sat staring at the list. It all sounded like
stuff that could kill you. But if it could also stop your nose from
dripping and your eyes from running, then good. I walked back and
stood at the door to my study: all dead. Then I put on my jacket
and drove into town, which was crowded and bustling for some reason.
I found my secret parking space at back of the deli. In the drugstore
I roamed the aisles until I found the section devoted to allergies.
There seemed to be hundreds of products making great claims, all with
dire warnings: dizziness, fainting, nausea, etcetera. I felt myself
getting sick just standing there. Finally I found everything Ginny
needed. It was really quite expensive. It wiped out all the cash
I had. When I stepped outside, I saw a mob had gathered in the park.
I asked a woman standing next to me, “What’s going on?” “They’re
protesting,” she said. “Protesting what?” I said. “Just protesting.
You don’t need to have a special cause anymore. In fact that’s now
thought to be kind of quaint and old-fashioned. I do think it’s an
improvement, don’t you?” she said. “I always miss the old ways, until
they come back to haunt you,” I said. She moved away from me, as if
from a bad aroma. The police were moving in on the mob, nightsticks
at the ready. I heard one of them say, “What is this about?” The other
one answered, “Spoiled brats don’t know what to do with their Saturdays.”
Finally I made it to my car behind the deli, and it had a ticket on
it. This made me sad. There had been a flaw in my otherwise perfect
mission. I drove home and lined up the medicines on the counter.
I hoped Ginny wouldn’t faint and throw up, fall down the steps, and
crack her head open. I walked into my study and the first thing
I noticed was that all the soldiers were standing up. I was
certain I had knocked them down. Ginny had left the house. No
one was here but me. I didn’t like thinking of the possibilities.
Nonetheless, I walked from room to room, slowly, quietly, glancing
at every item carefully. Everything seemed to be normal, undisturbed,
leaving only the uprighted soldiers unexplained. I could just be
losing my mind. That was a simple explanation. Yes, that was it.
Unless the soldiers righted themselves. They are old and have experienced
thousands of battles. Maybe they’ve learned a thing or two. I
entered my study and sat down at my desk. With a sweeping gesture
I knocked them all against the wall, breaking several bayonets
and a leg or two. I sat there solemnly contemplating my deed.
Ginny wouldn’t be home for three hours. That seemed like a very
long time. I went into the living room and waited for them to regroup.
I had a feeling this was going to be a fight to the death, but still
I was surprisingly calm.