James Tate Essay - Tate, James (Vol. 6)

Tate, James (Vol. 6)

Tate, James 1943–

Tate is an American poet. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)

Tate's new poems, especially in Row with Your Hair, rely on the shock effect of irrationality and the bizarre. They are often confused and disconnected, their images serving metaphoric ends that surely must be the sole property of their creator. Properly used, metaphor is one of the most valuable tools a poet has at his disposal. I must assume that Tate's tricks with metaphor are his brand of surrealism, or perhaps he believes that anything less than exoticism would be too easy a way. Or perhaps the fragmentation is Tate's mimetic approach to current America. Whatever the case, there are problems in his poetry of a significant coming to terms with subject matter. In some instances the failure is in developing situation; primarily it is with metaphor and control. (p. 250)

Ronald Moran, in The Southern Review (copyright 1972, by the Louisiana State University), Vol. 8, No. 1, Winter, 1972.

[James] Tate has a weakness for the dream-image which is not convincing, but "sounds right."… At times, he is silly, like Brautigan, unable to resist colloquialisms from commercial modes of speech, from soap operas, ads, or radio talk shows. (p. 188)

Fortunately, unlike Brautigan, Tate's little jokes are not usually the point of the poem. They are only the posture of a single image. Contextually, of course,… I should say that their use attests not to Tate's silliness as much as his willingness to incorporate as many speech idioms as he can into his voice, admirable enough when so many poets, perhaps in deference to the confessionalists, are addicted to the same emotional pitch in all their poems. Tate always seems to be shifting gears, often without knowing it, driving through a wide range of tones.

Under control, he is innovative as in the … images which suggest that for Tate metaphor is the search for the ambiguous equality of two seemingly diverse experiences…. [He operates] with the notion that a quality can be transferred from one experience to another, no matter how preposterous the transfer may appear. And, when done well, this is where his surrealism succeeds. He seems to be tracing the logic of associations and using the condensation and displacement of dreams. (pp. 188-89)

There are metaphors which totter on the edge of inanity, about to fall over; but they are usually saved by a sincerity reflected in the poem as a whole. Still, many of Tate's poems are marred by lines which don't belong, by an obscurity that is comic. To be sure, Tate is often aware of this predicament.

                     The insular firebird
                     (meaning the sun) …

He is embarrassed by his own abstruseness. It seems like an adolescent game. The poems that are farthest from confusion are conversational narratives like "Intimidations of an Autobiography" and "Uncle", both in The Lost Pilot. Tate is quiet and direct in these autobiographical poems as if real conscious remembrance moderates his surrealism, distils the profusion of metaphor. The simple nostalgia of the poems strengthens and justifies all the images. (p. 189)

Tate is the quiet promoter of his own moods, [and] his poems are often fragile because their sentiments are so delicate and uncertain…. In his more difficult poems,… Tate appears to begin with a prefabricated image and then allows his poem to develop its own proposition or statement. The immediate image precedes its intention. If one is going to be calculating, one should be calculating throughout. By putting down what image comes to mind, Tate is hoping that the inherent logic of his unconscious will necessarily be uncovered. But, in the absence of a poet continually willing to interview his own unconscious contents, the surrealist poem will just be a convoluted succession of inscrutable visions; not inscrutable in themselves, but inscrutable as a pattern of meanings which says something about the poet and his exposure to archetypes in himself. Tate only seems to be following André Breton's advice [in Breton's The First Surrealist Manifesto] to put his "trust in the inexhaustible nature of the murmur." Often, Tate just seems to be talking to himself. (pp. 189-90)

On one level, the poetry of Tate … is charming, skilful. On another, though, it is just one more sloppy example of the desire to be singled out. (p. 191)

R. D. Rosen, "James Tate and Sidney Goldfarb and the Inexhaustible Nature of the Murmur" (copyright © 1974 by R. D. Rosen), in American Poetry Since 1960: Some Critical Perspectives, edited by Robert B. Shaw, Dufour, 1974, pp. 182-91.