Late last year, I saw John Ashbery give a reading at Pioneer House, in Brooklyn. At one point, he read a prose poem by James Tate, who died last summer. It was, Ashbery said, Tate’s final poem—so incontrovertibly final, in fact, that it had been discovered in the poet’s typewriter soon after his death. What Ashbery went on to read was terrific: as I recalled, it opened in a comic mode, riffing on all these bogus feats Tate claimed to have accomplished that year (hot-dog-eating contest winner, arm-wrestling contest winner, et cetera) and building to a quiet, rueful meditation on aging.
It seemed almost too perfect to have been plucked unedited from a typewriter, so much so that I wondered, in passing, if maybe it were a sly, prankish tribute. I knew, or I thought I remembered, that Ashbery and Tate had been close. “He has developed a homegrown variety of surrealism almost in his own backyard,” Ashbery had written of his friend in 1995—a variety in which we find “something very like the air we breathe, the unconscious mind erupting in one-on-one engagements with the life we all live, every day.” The poem Ashbery had read was so rich with those “eruptions” that I knew it had to be Tate’s.
I’m happy to say that Tate’s final poem appears in the Spring issue of The Paris Review, along with four new poems by John Ashbery. Below you’ll find a photo of the poem as it was found in Tate’s typewriter. His last line, given the circumstances, has a new resonance. What are the chances? Read More
Behold: our new Spring issue, with a cover by Adrian Tomine and a shade of yellow bright enough to bring the thaw. It includes an Art of Nonfiction interview with Luc Sante, who talks about growing up in the New York of the seventies and eighties and his fascination with “the intersection of specific time and place”:
This goes back to my teenage years. I would think, Jeez, 1972 feels so different from 1971 … I meant the feeling on the street, the feeling emanated by people, songs, the contents of the songs, what people were wearing. Trying to reproduce that elusive factor—it’s something I’ve tried to write about many, many times, and it’s impossible. I can only do it, kind of, by indirection. But my spelunking in that direction has nourished a lot of my work.
Sante contributed our portfolio, too: an annotated collection of the magazine covers, collages, flyers, and ephemera of his youth.
And Robert Caro, who has devoted himself to a five-volume life of Lyndon Johnson since 1976, discusses the Art of Biography:
Rhythm matters. Mood matters. Sense of place matters. All these things we talk about with novels, yet I feel that for history and biography to accomplish what they should accomplish, they have to pay as much attention to these devices as novels do.
You’ll also find James Tate’s final poem, discovered in his typewriter after his death; a story by Witold Gombrowicz never before published in English; the fourth and final installment of Chris Bachelder’s comic masterpiece The Throwback Special; new fiction from Jensen Beach, Benjamin Hale, Dana Johnson, Craig Morgan Teicher, and Anne-Laure Zevi; and poems by John Ashbery, Mary Jo Bang, Erica Ehrenberg, Amit Majmudar, J. D. McClatchy, Morgan Parker, Mary Ruefle, Frederick Seidel, and Cynthia Zarin.
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.” Read More
The Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is both a misnomer and an anomaly. It has long dedicated itself to the task of promoting the reading and writing of poetry and has, for eighty-five years, served as a niche for poets the world over. While its reputation has bloomed over the years, thanks largely to word-of-mouth praise, it has never fared well financially, partly due to competition from larger stores and the Internet, partly because poetry has never been popular with the masses, and partly because its founder seems to have done everything in his power to ensure that his store not be turned into a business.
Located on Plympton Street in Harvard Square, the Grolier occupies just 404 square feet of space and is dwarfed by the neighboring Harvard Book Store. A white square sign with meticulous black lettering juts out near the top of the store entrance. The font size decreases from top to bottom, much like on an eye exam chart, and one can just make out, at the very top, a finely done illustration of three cats (or is it the same cat?) dozing, grooming, and turning their backs on the viewer.
Upon ascending a small flight of steps, one is greeted by the sight of an abundance of colorful spines—approximately fifteen thousand—neatly arranged against nearly every flat surface of the shop. These volumes are neatly balkanized into several categories, including anthologies, used, African-American, early English, Irish, Russian, Chinese, Iranian, Indian, Latin, classical Greek, Japanese, Korean, East European, Spanish, and Catalan.
Above the towering shelves are approximately seventy black and white photos (many courtesy of the photographer Elsa Dorfman) of poets and other members of the literati for whom the Grolier has served as a meeting place for well over half a century. Among the Grolier’s most illustrious visitors, most of whom are smiling or gazing sagely and serenely ahead in the photos, are T. S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, e. e. cummings, Marianne Moore, James Tate, Donald Hall, and Helen Vendler.
Off to one side at the front of the store sits a lean shelf of chapbooks and a donation jar; a small note says that the chapbooks have been generously donated by the author and that monetary contributions to the shop would be greatly appreciated. Directly across this bookcase is the cash register, propped up on a desk and flanked by sundry items, including bookmarks, promotional literature, pamphlets, business cards, and commemorative pens. On the wall right adjacent to the register hangs a certificate from Boston Magazine honoring the Grolier as the best poetry store of 1994. Read More