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


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)


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

Camp of No Return

James Tate, 1943 - 2015

      I sat in the old tree swing without swinging. My loafer had fallen off and I left it on the ground. My sister came running out of the house to tell me something. She said, "I'm going to camp tomorrow." I said, "I don't believe you." She said, "I am. It's a fact. Mother told me." We didn't speak for the rest of the day. I was mad at her for getting to do something I didn't. At dinner I asked mother what kind of camp it was. She said, "Oh, just a camp like any other." I didn't really know what that meant. The next day they got her ready to go, and then they drove off, leaving me with the neighbors. When they got back everything was normal, except I missed Maisie. And I missed her more each following day. I didn't know how much she had meant to me before. I asked my parents over and over how much longer it would be. All they said was soon. I told some kids at school how long my sister had been gone. One of them said, "She'll never be back. That's the death camp." When I got home I told my parents what that boy had said. "He doesn't know what he's talking about," my father said. But after a couple of more weeks of her absence I began to wonder. That's when they began to clean out Maisie's room. I said, "What are you doing?" You said Maise will be back soon." My mother said, "Maisie's not coming back. She likes it there better than she does here." "That's not true. I don't believe you," I said. My father gave me a look that let me know I might be next if I didn't mend my ways. I never said a word about Maisie again.

Copyright © 2012 by James Tate. Used with permission of the author.

Copyright © 2012 by James Tate. Used with permission of the author.

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

There's a fortune to be made in just about everything 
in this country, somebody's father had to invent 
everything--baby food, tractors, rat poisoning. 
My family's obviously done nothing since the beginning 
of time. They invented poverty and bad taste
and getting by and taking it from the boss. 
O my mother
     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


Click the icon above to listen to this audio poem.


collected in

Learn about the relationship between poetry and prose with this collec...