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 a dozen 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 and the Wallace Stevens Award (then the 1995 Tanning Prize), as well as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. From 2001 to 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.