In James Tate’s new volume, Constant Defender, one finds poems that aspire unsuccessfully for the most part—and in a highly (even archly) literary way—to be explosively antiliterary. In most of these poems, one looks in vain for emotional or logical coherence, not to mention a sustained narrative line. Tate is bent on surprising his reader, repeatedly, not with the shock of recognition but with the recognition that meaning has once again been given the slip, absolutely and unequivocally. Unfortunately, this sort of surprise becomes simply monotonous when it crops up in line after line and poem after poem. The waters of Mr. Tate’s silliness must be sampled to be believed—for an example:
Why are we so bad? I hear them
faintly knocking, neutral ducks,
and I am reprimanded.
I am thinking “scalloped potatoes”
are of absolutely no use.
I’m thumping my canteen
and pointing at my nose.
Yes, I lied about “her,”
there wasn’t one, but for
that moment a gourd drifted
down the chimney on the pretext
of weeding a peninsula
and nourishing the articulation
of a single bud. Am I forgiven?
Perhaps Mr. Tate will forgive himself, but one may doubt that many readers will be so generous.
Tate’s poetry is surrealistic only in the loosest sense of the term. He distorts space and time and ordinary logic in ways superficially reminiscent of the original Surrealists of the post-World War I generation, but his fantastic and disjointed images, though they bespeak a boundless capacity for invention (“I am disabled/ by the slender blowing of that cucumber/ and am forced to hiccup at the reality of my flashlight”), militate against the Surrealist faith that apparently unnatural juxtapositions and combinations of images can unlock the riches of the unconscious. In that faith, the true Surrealist affirms a realm of feeling and meaning not available to ordinary modes of discourse and of perception. Tate’s poems bespeak a threat more than a faith, and that threat is meaninglessness—not the thematic, meaningful expression of nothingness of a William Shakespeare’s King Lear or a Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, but a programmatic denial that language is referential to anything outside of its own arbitrary order. Thus, if Tate’s poems are about anything except themselves, they are about their author’s intelligent, chilly despair of poetry in general, indeed of all discourse, and hence, of all humanity.
Poetry about poetry need not be sterile, of course: Witness, for example, among the great poems of our century, William Butler Yeats’s “Adam’s Curse,” Robert Frost’s “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” Wallace Stevens’ “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” W. H. Auden’s “On the Death of W. B. Yeats,” A. R. Ammons’ “Essay on Poetics,” and John Ashberry’s “Reflections in a Convex Mirror.” In some sense, perhaps, great art is always about great art. What the poems just mentioned all express, however—despite their wide and numerous differences from one another—is the poets’ belief in the importance of their art. By contrast, when the poems in Constant Defender are explicitly about themselves, they announce their own indecipherability and incoherence (in what are, paradoxically, among the few straightforwardly coherent utterances in the volume): “This is the constellation/ of my own bewilderment” (“Interruptions”); “All things seem to be charged/ with a menace or a riddle which must be solved/ at all costs” (“Jelka”); “I know there are/ contradictions in all that I say” (“To Fuzzy”); “Suspicions are almost confirmed./ Denials are swiftly circulating” (“It...
(The entire section is 1575 words.)