Living Work: JAMES TATE
In this section it has been our custom to celebrate the passing of whom we believe to be important cultural figures; but please note the title of this section—¡Viva!—which for Spanish and related romance language speakers applauds living création rather than expíration.
We had not begun The Wall when my teacher, poet James Tate, died at the age of 71; and thus we could hardly eulogize him or his work at that time.
My memory of Tate in those bygone days of living in socially constrained New England, is of a very slender man, quirky, reputed to have a caustic tongue and not suffer fools gladly, with a perhaps unfortunate love of—what was his fave? scotch? bourbon?—and a remarkable collection of handmade quilts. That last, I supposed, had something to do with his origin in the fly-over zone, in the state of Kansas. His poetry was a source of astonishment and great pleasure, for his work could be unabashedly fanciful yet without an ounce of pretense or pompous language. He could make plain Jane English trot out her Sunday best and sing; Dorothy could click her heels and fly home—or back up and return to Oz.
The consequence of his virtuosity was that there was always a gaggle of students following him around— "Jim! Oh, Jim!" In workshop after workshop too many students all tried to write poems exactly like his. And if you were a single mother with a child on one high or low of the adolescent roller coaster, trying to make ends meet somehow, there was less time to join the crowd—"Jim! Oh, Jim!" Yet he was my advisor; and he patiently read all my poems, paused to consider them, then quietly directed me to think about this or that. He was a good, trustworthy reader and never demanded that I imitate him.
My final, oddly most enduring, memory of Tate was at my defense. Opening that session, he leaned over me, "Tell me, Bronwyn, what is it with you and formal poetry?"
That semester's finale brought an audience out to a local bookstore where Tate gave a reading of his latest work, as always leaving us happily aghast at his mastery. Then we each slipped off into the next chapter of our lives.
What does not die, when the poet has passed, is the work. Most recently, The Paris Review weekly (March 8, 2019) just published a brief article about Tate's last poems. Readers had all presumed The Dome of the Hidden Pavillion to be his last book. But more were found. His even later poems have been collected and will be published by Ecco in July of 2019 under the title, The Government Lake.