James Tate 1943–
Tate's literary career began with a flourish; his first volume of poems, The Lost Pilot, earned him the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 1966, as well as an enthusiastic critical interest. His poems were hailed for their striking surreal images, their unpretentious natural grace, and the balance between a comic lightness of surface tone and an underlying depth of somber suggestion.
In the decade following The Lost Pilot, Tate published several volumes of poetry. Critics noted throughout this period Tate's creative invention of metaphor, his frequent use of dream images, and his dramatic vocabulary. Noted too, were his self-assured manner and his cynical tone aimed at a wide range of contemporary ills. In his recent collections, Viper Jazz and Riven Doggeries, Tate continues to move toward the notion that communication and connection with the world outside the individual's mind are impossible.
(See also CLC, Vols. 2, 6; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5.)
Missing, from ["Notes of Woe"], is the kind of emotional directness found in the title poem of Tate's first collection, "The Lost Pilot." More in evidence is this young poet's great virtuosity. In consequence, the book is flawed. The desperation here (as reflected in the title, from Blake) is not always convincing: it has too much style. The reader is fascinated by what Tate can do with language, but the poems too often just remain on that level. Nevertheless, there is no lack of wit and brilliance, and some poems do everything; for example, "Camping in the Valley."… (pp. xciv, xcvi)
"Notes on Current Books: 'Notes of Woe'," in The Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1969, by The Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 45, No. 2 (Spring, 1969), pp. xciv, xcvi.
James Tate's Torches was a complete disappointment, which at first just irritated and then angered me. It seemed as if Tate had gathered up unused images, put them into a machine, and ground out poems like inferior sausages. Any poet has a fondness for his weak poems, but this is no excuse for finding them comfortable homes. They should be strangled, and the poet should move on.
I'm sure I wouldn't have been so disappointed if I hadn't read Tate before. The book has a few good poems, but none of them are up to other things he has done….
The ending of [The Sleepers], and of most of the poems in this book, seems gratuitous. It's quite easy to compile any number of images, tack on a line like James Wright's "I have wasted my life," and call it a poem. At best the endings in this book don't add to the poems. At worst they don't have anything to do with them.
The images themselves are neither very original nor very striking…. It is quite an accomplishment to bore a reader in an eight line poem. (p. 396)
Stephen Dobyns, "Five Poets," in Poetry (© 1971 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXVII, No. 6, March, 1971, pp. 392-98.∗
The poems [in Viper Jazz by] … James Tate occupy the tenuous borderland between nonsense and disaster. Whether he is spoofing a cosmic ultimatum … or blowing up a microcosmic annoyance …, his poems, like Halloween masks, elicit a double response. Do we laugh or cry?
Tate is concerned with everything from alienation to ecological mismanagement, from exploitation to automation. His keen awareness of the unfitness of things shows up in his absurd handling of language….
Traditionally, absurdist art is accused of lacking seriousness. Like his contemporaries in the world of wackiness, Vonnegut and Barthelme, Tate often allows his fascination with ideas to carry him further than anyone wants to go….
Still, there is a fine blend of lightness and sadness that plays across the face of these poems, a comic sense of the "tears of things" that prompts us to say, as Kent said of the songs and riddles of King Lear's court jester, "This is not altogether fool, My Lord."
Victor Howes, "Tate: Wacky Seriousness," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1976 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), October 28. 1976, p. 27.
James Tate is a poet of fine intuitive intelligence. His quick-hit/near-miss use of the poetic punch line has led him into wider imaginative territory and more cul-de-sacs than any other poet of his generation. His risks are a vital part of the take. That is why, for a lot of readers, Tate presents problems. He is a genius of the double take, double-think, whether it is humor needling despair or platitude succumbing to perception. He can edit an experience down to its most evocative chord…. But Tate can also be an adolescent, unable or unwilling to resist the easy turn, the silly contrivance, Rimbaud at thirteen…. Both categories are from the poet's latest collection, Viper Jazz. And although this new book, on the whole, represents Tate's most mature work, it still suggests that certain destructive impulses in much of the earlier poetry have yet to be resolved. Perhaps the "fault" is not entirely Tate's. He is one of the few younger poets with a following. One sometimes senses that at strategic points in many of his poems—for whatever complex of reasons—he chooses entertainment over engagement. Consciously or not, he acknowledges his audience, or plays to that part of his nature that would put his readers on. At any rate, he indulges himself at the poetry's expense. Tate's poems begin in pain, not emotional fudge. At some of these moments when the absurdities become all too clear, and in frustration with the facts, he tends to opt for...
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[The] poet, and this I think applies to James Tate, can slip into a private world where his unique juxtapositions and fresh imagery are often meaningless to the reader…. There is no way the poet can judge the potential of his imagery except in relation to other elements of the poem. And here is the main problem I find with Tate's poetry [in Viper Jazz]; for he works with startling phrases and uncommon imagery almost exclusively. If they don't work there's little else in the poem to save it; more importantly, with little else working—rhythm, sound—readers are denied access points to what otherwise might be effective imagery for them. The sense element of poetic composition, however, is working in Tate's poetry. The active and intelligent voice, with a self-assured casualness, is the contrary of his surreal metaphorical devices, and the dynamic of the two generates great power in the imagery when it does work….
Stephen Kirkpatrick, "Trade Reviews: 'Viper Jazz'," in AB Bookman's Weekly (© 1977 by A B Bookman Publications, Inc.), Vol. 60, Nos. 2 & 3, July 11-18, 1977, p. 142.
Tate's [Riven Doggeries] is disturbingly defensive. The central characteristic of these poems is their impenetrability, at best ordering experience through savage parodies, wordplay, and grotesque wit; at worst assaulting the reader and denying any kind of meaning, linguistic or existential. In this extreme form of expressionism, neither narrative nor visual logic is possible; incoherence and solipsism are the rule. Futility of action, failure of love, and lack of spiritual comfort form depressing themes, yet Tate never loses his self-effacing humor and even, in his more successful poems, an elegiac tone.
"Poetry: 'Riven Doggeries'," in The Virginia Quarterly Review...
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Nothing at all controls James Tate's choice of metaphors, similes, images, or statements in his new book of poetry. The title poem, "Riven Doggeries," reads like a page from the comics…. Like verbal doodling, whatever pops into the poet's mind crops up in the poem. Tate has a fine ear for inane colloquialisms and absurd figures of speech, but this volume is a far cry from the austere beauty of Absences and its probing of the Self. Perhaps success, which gives even the most sensitive poet second thoughts about his own seriousness, has caused Tate to become too cunning and whimsical…. Sometimes a ray of satire peeps through, as in "The Life of Poetry" …, but even here the humor becomes sophomoric. (p. 140)...
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Tate has been visible as a poet so long … that one is dismayed to find him still stuck in adolescence [with the poems in Riven Doggeries]. The silliness, defiance of "authority," high spirits, blurted obscenities, and puerile cleverness of his poetry are perhaps confused, by some, with spunky American originality….
What might save Tate for poetry? Perhaps doses of Indian poems …, for at moments Tate already writes in their happy animistic spirit…. But unlike, say, the Swampy Cree with their ancient imaginative culture, Tate has only his manically riven wits to sustain him, and the path he has chosen—his will-never-say-Uncle manner—cannot be easy to go down alone, especially if one...
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James Tate's … [Riven Doggeries] contains few surprises, is thoroughly in the mode of his increasingly extravagant previous work …, and [from the start of the title poem] we are off and running into an art which not only resists paraphrase but actively cultivates the resistance. Tate's practice is nowhere less than professional, his manner always self-assured even when (as is usually the case) not much of a future for the self is seen…. (p. 295)
Tate is not one to stay around for a long conversation with the reader. If his brisk insouciance is appealing …, it can also feel a bit relentless. One wonders if perhaps he's all "outer," and whether since the "inner" has been thoroughly...
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Riven Doggeries is James Tate's most accessible book since his first, The Lost Pilot, but not necessarily his best. Absences still moves me more than anything else he's written. In it he retains elements of despair, anger, rage: it is surrealism with a razor-edge and transcends the boundaries of any ism. By comparison Riven Doggeries is surrealism with a dacquiri….
Tate's way to the sublime is through the ridiculous because, for him, the sublime is ridiculous. His struggle has been to make language counteract the banality of everyday life and the threat of "oblivion." Tate's aesthetic position is such that even if we could make sense out of our experience...
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