R.I.P. James Tate

My favourite poet died a few days ago. I only just heard about it today. His name was James Tate. He won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and was highly regarded in his field, but unless you're really into poetry you may not have heard of him. Which is a shame, because he wrote some of the most accessible, witty, not to mention profound and heartbreaking poems too. He was known as a surrealist and certainly his quirky, uniquely compelling poetry/storytelling style cemented itself in later years into fable like poetry tales. He was anything but predictable as an artist.

That sounds very academic and impersonal. In truth I had a minor (major) crush on the man for most of my college years at UMASS Amherst, where he taught poetry. It wasn't a romantic crush so much as a "I want to live in your garden shed and catch occasional droplets from your brain because you amaze me so" type crush. He only taught MFA poetry students, and I was a lowly undergrad, but it didn't stop me seeing him read, getting excited when I'd catch a rare glimpse of him in Bartlett Hall on campus, or more often in downtown Amherst, trundling around in his old Mercedes. UMASS felt like a rather mundane school to me when I first got accepted, it was a fall back, a safety school, the one we could afford. I was wait listed at Smith and felt distinctly like I'd not lived up to my academic potential by going to this rather behemoth state school known more for its sporting than artistic side. And then I discovered James Tate. Somewhere in the stacks of the library one night I came across a few slim volumes of his poetry, and I was hooked.

His early stuff was more blatantly romantic with more than enough tortured love poems to enthral the young reader, but he was a trailblazer fairly early on for a new style of poetry that broke most of the rules and somehow still made sense as poetry. He would eventually become ever more surrealist in style - but I think it does him a disservice to paint him with any kind of broad stroke brush. His poems were wide ranging in tone, often absurdly cynical and hopeful at once.

There was so much humour, and wit, and heart to the poems that made me suddenly more interested in poetry than I had ever been before. And to know this inspiring mind was so near, so in theory accessible as a student (not that I remotely wanted to continue on with an MFA by the time I graduated!), just made me feel more at home in the world of big frats and national basketball champions that was UMASS. I could go see this wry, quiet man read his poems every so often and feel like I belonged, like there was a place for me.

The first time I saw him read was my freshman year. It was in a small-ish room overstuffed with people - I was late, as is my wont, and tried to be stealthy while grabbing the only available seat, the warm radiator that lined the windows. Of course I sat gingerly on it and it gave out the most god-awful squawking squeal just as Mr. Tate was about to begin his reading. He looked at me and smiled, and all was right with the world.

The only good news is that his brilliant mind was still churning out poems, he was one of the few poets to if anything become more prolific and arguably more masterful with age, and there is a new volume to look forward to even now. But I am so deeply sorry to hear of his passing, he helped inspire me and many others in ways he probably never knew.

This is one of his first poems that really grabbed me. I always found it haunting and a little bit weird, as so many of his poems were.

(Poem) I Can't Speak for the Wind

I don't know about the cold. I am sad without hands.
I can't speak for the wind which chips away at me.
When pulling a potato, I see only the blue haze.
When riding an escalator, I expect something orthopedic to happen.
Sinking in quicksand, I'm a wild appaloosa.
I fly into a rage at the sight of a double decker bus,
I want to eat my way through the Congo,
I'm a double agent who tortures himself and still will not speak.
I don't know about the cold,
But I know what I like I like a tropical madness,
I like to shake the coconuts, and fingerprint the pythons,-
fevers which make the children dance.
I am sad without hands,
I'm very sad without sleeves or pockets,
Winter is coming to this city,
I can't speak for the wind which chips away at me.

 -(from Selected Poems by James Tate)

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