Despite the quiet and contemplative sadness that permeates some of his most well-known poems, James Tate was one of the few poets who dared to mess with joy and wonder on a regular basis. He unbuttoned the top button of Poetry’s Oxford shirt and kissed it on the mouth.
The fact that his book Worshipful Company of Fletchers won the National Book Award and that his Selected Poems won the Pulitzer seems so beside the point. He somehow managed to tap into the great mysteries of the world without making such a big fucking deal about the whole thing. His poems made poetry and life seem a little more possible, approachable, enjoyable.
I mean, for example, when it’s time to pick a new pope, who else can you turn to besides James Tate? His poem "How the Pope Is Chosen" is a great example of the associative, jokey style he pioneered and played with over the course of more than 30 books. I’m searching for a few lines to excerpt and talk about, but it’s so hard to do without diminishing the awesomeness of the poem. It’s like trying to talk about the greatness of that chicken joke by only quoting and talking about the line “To get to the other side.” This un-excerptable quality reveals one of the geniuses of Tate. The poems sound so casual that you forget how carefully they’re constructed. He finely tunes the tonal shifts and sneaks in little jokes and paradoxes so that you notice something new after second, third, and even 13th readings.
As a professor at UMass-Amherst and as a prolific poet, Tate influenced tons of contemporary American poets. Without Tate, you don’t have Heather Christle’s wild-eyed wonder or Zach Schomburg’s narrative surrealism. You don’t get the whimsical worlds of Wendy Xu’s You Are Not Dead or the personas of Jaswinder Bolina’s Phantom Camera. You certainly lose some of Mark Leidner.
He influenced me, too. There was all kinds of stuff tacked to the door of the office I had during poetry grad school. Posters for readings, a rainbow sticker, some old tape holding nothing. There was also one poem, which was hung up right at eye level. It was written by James Tate, and it was perfect for someone who was about to attempt a career in writing, teaching, or anything else for that matter:
Teaching the Ape to Write Poems
They didn’t have much trouble
teaching the ape to write poems:
first they strapped him to the chair,
then tied the pencil around his hand
(the paper had already been nailed down).
Then Dr. Bluespire leaned over his shoulder
and whispered into his ear:
“You look like a god sitting there.
Why don’t you try writing something?”
In nine short lines this poem presents one of the great paradoxes of writing. You need ego to write—to do anything, really—but your ego is also the thing that holds you back the most. Watching a writer trying to strike a balance between the beast and the god within is what makes reading poems so fun. Tate struck that balance often, and he made you laugh while he was doing it.
Maybe the best thing you can do right now is the thing that I just did, which is accidentally get caught up reading Worshipful Company of Fletchers while you’re supposed to be working on something else. If you don’t have time to browse, check out “Autosuggestion: USS North Carolina,” “A Missed Opportunity,” and “Little Poem with Argyle Socks.” Why not take a few moments to read some poems? You look like a god sitting there.