poem index

sign up to receive a new poem-a-day in your inbox

About this poet

James Tate was born on December 8, 1943, in Kansas City, Missouri. His father was an American pilot killed in the Second World War in 1944, when Tate was five months old.

His first collection of poems, The Lost Pilot (Yale University Press, 1967), was selected by Dudley Fitts for the Yale Series of Younger Poets while Tate was still a student at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, making him one of the youngest poets to receive the honor. The collection was well-received, and influenced a generation of poets in the late sixties and seventies with its use of dream logic and psychological play. In a 1998 radio review, the critic Dana Gioia said about the debut: "Tate had domesticated surrealism. He had taken this foreign style, which had almost always seemed slightly alien in English—even among its most talented practitioners like Charles Simic and Donald Justice—and had made it sound not just native but utterly down-home."

During his career, Tate published more than twenty books of poetry, including The Oblivion Ha-Ha (Little Brown and Company, 1970); Hints to Pilgrims (Halty Ferguson, 1971); Absences (Little, Brown and Company, 1972); Viper Jazz (Wesleyan University Press, 1976); Constant Defender (Ecco Press, 1983); Distance from Loved Ones (Wesleyan University Press, 1990); and Selected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 1991), which won the Pulitzer Prize and the William Carlos Williams Award. More recently, Tate published Worshipful Company of Fletchers (Ecco Press, 1994), which won the National Book Award and The Eternal Ones of the Dream: Selected Poems 1990 - 2010 (Ecco Press, 2012).

Tate also published various works of prose, including a short story collection Dreams of a Robot Dancing Bee (Wave Books, 2001), a collection of critical prose, The Route as Briefed (University of Michigan Press, 1999), and a collaborative novel (with poet Bill Knott), Lucky Darryl (Release Press, 1977). He also served as editor of The Best American Poetry 1997.

About his work, the poet John Ashbery wrote in the New York Times: "Local color plays a role, but the main event is the poet's wrestling with passing moments, frantically trying to discover the poetry there and to preserve it, perishable as it is. Tate is the poet of possibilities, of morph, of surprising consequences, lovely or disastrous, and these phenomena exist everywhere... I return to Tate's books more often perhaps than to any others when I want to be reminded afresh of the possibilities of poetry."

Tate's honors include a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Poetry, the Wallace Stevens Award, a 1995 Tanning Prize, as well as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. From 2001-2007, Tate served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. He was married to the poet Dara Wier and taught at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst until his death in 2015.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

The Eternal Ones of the Dream: Selected Poems 1990 - 2010 (Ecco Press, 2012)
The Ghost Soldiers (Ecco Press, 2008)
Return to the City of White Donkeys (Ecco Press, 2004)
Memoir of the Hawk (Ecco Press, 2001)
Shroud of the Gnome (Ecco Press, 1997)
Worshipful Company of Fletchers (Ecco Press, 1994)
Selected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 1991)
Distance from Loved Ones (Wesleyan University Press, 1990)
Reckoner (Wesleyan University Press, 1986)
Constant Defender (Ecco Press, 1983)
Riven Doggeries (Ecco Press, 1979)
Viper Jazz (Wesleyan University Press, 1976)
Absences (Little, Brown and Company, 1972)
Hints to Pilgrims (Halty Ferguson, 1971)
The Oblivion Ha-Ha (Little, Brown and Company, 1970)
The Lost Pilot (Yale University Press, 1967)

Prose

Dreams of a Robot Dancing Bee (Wave Books, 2001)
The Route as Briefed (University of Michigan Press, 1999)
Lucky Darryl (with Bill Knott, 1977)

Success Comes to Cow Creek

James Tate, 1943 - 2015

I sit on the tracks, 
a hundred feet from
earth, fifty from the
water. Gerald is
inching toward me
as grim, slow, and
determined as a
season, because he
has no trade and wants 
none. It's been nine months 
since I last listened 
to his fate, but I
know what he will say:
he's the fire hydrant
of the underdog.

When he reaches my
point above the creek,
he sits down without
salutation, and
spits profoundly out
past the edge, and peeks
for meaning in the
ripple it brings. He
scowls. He speaks: when you 
walk down any street 
you see nothing but
coagulations
of shit and vomit,
and I'm sick of it.
I suggest suicide;
he prefers murder, 
and spits again for 
the sake of all the 
great devout losers.

A conductor's horn 
concerto breaks the 
air, and we, two doomed 
pennies on the track, 
shove off and somersault 
like anesthetized 
fleas, ruffling the 
ideal locomotive 
poised on the water 
with our light, dry bodies. 
Gerald shouts 
terrifically as
he sails downstream like 
a young man with a 
destination. I 
swim toward shore as 
fast as my boots will 
allow; as always, 
neglecting to drown.

From The Lost Pilot, published by Yale University Press, 1961. Copyright © 1961 by James Tate. Reprinted with permission.

From The Lost Pilot, published by Yale University Press, 1961. Copyright © 1961 by James Tate. Reprinted with permission.

James Tate

James Tate

The author of numerous collections of poetry, James Tate's collection Selected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize and the William Carlos Williams Award

by this poet

poem
They didn't have much trouble
teaching the ape to write poems:
first they strapped him into 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
poem
     My daughter has lived overseas for a number
of years now. She married into royalty, and they
won't let her communicate with any of her family or
friends. She lives on birdseed and a few sips
of water. She dreams of me constantly. Her husband,
the Prince, whips her when he catches her dreaming.
Fierce guard
2
poem

 

Click the icon above to listen to this audio poem.

2