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October 18, 2007The Times CenterFrom the Academy Audio Archive

About this poet

On December 8, 1943, James Tate was born 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 (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."

Tate published prolifically over the next two decades, including The Oblivion Ha-Ha (1970); Hints to Pilgrims (1971); Absences (1972); Viper Jazz (1976); Constant Defender (1983); Distance from Loved Ones (1990); and Selected Poems (1991), which won the Pulitzer Prize and the William Carlos Williams Award.

Since then, he has published several collections of poems, most recently The Eternal Ones of the Dream: Selected Poems 1990 - 2010 (Ecco Press, 2012); The Ghost Soldiers (2008); Return to the City of White Donkeys (2004); Memoir of the Hawk (2001); Shroud of the Gnome (1997); and Worshipful Company of Fletchers (1994), which won the National Book Award.

Tate has 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. In 2001, he was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

He teaches at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

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

Prose

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


Multimedia

From the Image Archive

 

Father's Day

James Tate, 1943
     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 dogs won't let her out of their sight.
I hired a detective, but he was killed trying to
rescue her. I have written hundreds of letters
to the State Department. They have written back
saying that they are aware of the situation. I
never saw her dance. I was always at some
convention. I never saw her sing. I was always
working late. I called her My Princess, to make
up for my shortcomings, and she never forgave me.
Birdseed was her middle name.

From The Ghost Soldiers by James Tate. Copyright © 2008 by James Tate. Reprinted by permission of Ecco/HarperCollins. All rights reserved.

From The Ghost Soldiers by James Tate. Copyright © 2008 by James Tate. Reprinted by permission of Ecco/HarperCollins. All rights reserved.

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

for my father, 1922-1944

Your face did not rot 
like the others--the co-pilot, 
for example, I saw him

yesterday. His face is corn-
mush: his wife and daughter, 
the poor ignorant people, stare

as if he will compose soon. 
He was more wronged than Job. 
But your face did not rot

like the others
poem

      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

poem
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.