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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

 

It Happens Like This

James Tate, 1943
     I was outside St. Cecelia's Rectory
smoking a cigarette when a goat appeared beside me.
It was mostly black and white, with a little reddish
brown here and there. When I started to walk away,
it followed. I was amused and delighted, but wondered
what the laws were on this kind of thing. There's
a leash law for dogs, but what about goats? People
smiled at me and admired the goat. "It's not my goat,"
I explained. "It's the town's goat. I'm just taking
my turn caring for it." "I didn't know we had a goat,"
one of them said. "I wonder when my turn is." "Soon,"
I said. "Be patient. Your time is coming." The goat
stayed by my side. It stopped when I stopped. It looked
up at me and I stared into its eyes. I felt he knew
everything essential about me. We walked on. A police-
man on his beat looked us over. "That's a mighty
fine goat you got there," he said, stopping to admire.
"It's the town's goat," I said. "His family goes back
three-hundred years with us," I said, "from the beginning."
The officer leaned forward to touch him, then stopped
and looked up at me. "Mind if I pat him?" he asked.
"Touching this goat will change your life," I said.
"It's your decision." He thought real hard for a minute,
and then stood up and said, "What's his name?" "He's
called the Prince of Peace," I said. "God! This town
is like a fairy tale. Everywhere you turn there's mystery 
and wonder. And I'm just a child playing cops and robbers
forever. Please forgive me if I cry." "We forgive you,
Officer," I said. "And we understand why you, more than
anybody, should never touch the Prince." The goat and
I walked on. It was getting dark and we were beginning
to wonder where we would spend the night.

From Lost River by James Tate, published by Sarabande Books, Inc. Copyright © 2003 by James Tate. Reprinted by permission of Sarabande Books and the author. All rights reserved.

From Lost River by James Tate, published by Sarabande Books, Inc. Copyright © 2003 by James Tate. Reprinted by permission of Sarabande Books and the author. 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
     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
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.
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