(Poets and Poetry in America)

There are two kinds of poets in the world: those who grow with age and alter style, outlook, and argument over the years, and those who burst onto the scene fully fledged and polish what is in essence an unchanging perception of life throughout their careers. James Tate is of the second sort; his stunning appearance in his first major book, The Lost Pilot, set the pattern for all he would write over the succeeding decades. The poetry of Distance from Loved Ones is a richer, denser, more masterful execution of the style and themes he set for himself as a young man.

Variation for Tate is a subtle thing; beneath the variances of style and diction lies a core of subjects and emotions that are constant in his poetry: loss of relations, the quixotic world of appearances, and a violent underworld of emotion waiting to erupt through the crevices of the mundane. The central theme running throughout Tate’s canon is the desire to shatter superficial experience, to break through the sterility of suburban life and drown it in erotic passion. His characters languish from unfulfilled longings; the objects he contemplates are all prisoners of definition and stereotype; life is a desert of routine expectation waiting to blow up from the forces of liberated imagination, whimsy, outrage, and humor.

Tate joins a long line of midwestern writers who fought in their writing against the domestic tedium of their region. Theodore Dreiser set the pattern of the rebellious midwestern writer in his novels about youths trapped in the social coils of work, poverty, and loveless marriages; Sherwood Anderson paved the way of modernist writers through his depictions of the sterile sanity of small-town life in his novel Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Ohio Small Town Life (1919). F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway explored the unrealizable dreams of their characters, who had escaped only partway from their families and bleak pasts. Poets of the Midwest, including T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Carl Sandburg, emphasized realistic detail in their unflinching reports of what had gone wrong in American society in their time.

The Lost Pilot

The Lost Pilot joins this tradition of harsh assessments of midwestern life; the argument itself is a rather somber account of a young man’s loneliness, despair, and feelings of isolation. “The End of the Line,” from the middle section of the book, is emblematic of the themes treated in the poems. “We plan our love’s rejuvenation/ one last time,” the speaker comments, but the jaunty tone of the piece breaks down as he admits that the relationship has gone sour for good. The poems acutely examine the meaning of relationships, the risk of loving someone, and the desolation at losing a father or lover through unexplained accident or fatal whim. This instability lying at the heart of emotion makes everything else around him equally shimmering and unreal.

Tate’s use of surrealist language, the dreamy, irrational figures and images that define his view of things, is derived from European and South American writing of the twentieth century. The original motives of Surrealism sprang from the devastations of war and the corruption of the state. For Tate, though, the corruption lies somewhere else: in the incapacity of human beings to face their dilemmas honestly, to admit that the heart is wild, immoral, anarchic, or that life is essentially a reality beyond the grasp of moral principles. For Tate, the American situation is the opposite of war-torn Europe or politically corrupt South America. The American scene is too stable, too ordered and domesticated; underneath the neat appearances of reality lies a universe of chaotic energies waiting to spring back. To that degree, one may casually link Tate’s vision to the horrific suspense of Stephen King’s novels or to the wounded idealism of Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson. In each of these writers lives a certain purity of taste for the natural world and for the lost values of a pastoral and Edenic past that modernity has outraged and insulted.

To love in Tate’s poetry is to tap into this hidden volcano of irrationality, to tease its powers awake. Most often, his lovers quake at the first sign of wilderness in their emotions and drift back to the safety of their homely, selfish worlds. To fall in love is to touch nature directly and to break through to the other side of reality. This sentiment is expressed at the close of The Lost Pilot when Tate writes, “I am falling, falling/ falling in love, and desire to leave this place.” The place he desires to leave is that parched desert of convention where all of his characters languish.

The poetry of this first collection generates a kind of philosophical earthquake in its brief descriptions, debunking the moral fictions of an ordered life through the riotous outpouring of illogical imagery. This is a poetry of emotional purgings, of discreet, Janovian primal screams into the bedroom mirror.

The Lost Pilot is grounded by its title poem, an elegy combining a son’s wit, fantasy, and tears over the death of his father in World War II. The phrase itself is instructive; a pilot is one who finds his way through dark skies. The father as lost pilot compounds the son’s forlornness; here is a father who has disappeared, a guide without compass who leaves his son behind in a dull, seemingly trackless void. The reader learns in the poem that the son keeps an annual vigil and looks up to see his father orbiting overhead—a curious, droll, and yet appropriate image for the son’s grief. Another poem, written to the boy’s mother, commemorates Father’s Day in an ironic reference to the missing father. A careful look at all the poems reveals the image of the missing father in each of them: He haunts the world as a peculiar absence of love, as when lovers leave the poet, or emotion goes rank and sour.

In the closing poem, “Today I Am Falling,” even the title suggests something of Tate’s humor in poetry: The falling has no object, but in the text, the reader finds that the falling is toward love, which in turn leads only to the desire to escape. The place the speaker is trying to reach is a “sodium pentothal landscape,” a place of lost memories aroused by the intravenous intake of a “truth serum” once used in psychotherapy. That landscape lies behind repression and emotional stagnation, its “bud about to break open.” The trembling surface of Tate’s language here and elsewhere is that effort to break through the false appearance of things, the dull veneer of human convention concealing passion and the energy of nature.

However, for a poet trying to break through, the early poems are terse, carefully worked miniatures that technically belie their purpose. Tate prefers a short, three-line stanza as his measure, with a varying line of between five and six syllables, usually end-stopped—that is, punctuated with a comma-length pause or ended with a period. The flow of speech often requires enjambment, the running through of one line to the next, but not in the free-verse fashion of breaking lines arbitrarily at prepositions, adjectives, and nouns after the manner of prose. Instead, Tate makes sure his phrases are well-defined rhythmically before cutting to the next line. If he carries the rhythm through to the next line, or allows it to leap over a stanza break, usually he has found some emphatic word to terminate the line before he does so.

The poems on the page look slightly cramped and compressed, as if the thinking were squeezed down to an essence of protest. The poetry written by Tate’s contemporaries is expansive, even sprawling by comparison. Few poets took the medium to these limits of compression, and when they did, they were freer with the pattern of line and accent. One may speculate that Tate’s statements are intended as whispers in tight places—quick, emergency pleas to the reader or to himself. However they are intended, the language is uniformly limpid, purified, the hesitation revised out of each smoothly cresting phrase. There is high finish in the wording and phrasing, which may at times work against the sense of emotional torment Tate wants to convey.

Thumbing through the pages of The Lost Pilot, one is struck by the contradiction between polished execution and troubled content. The move in poetry after 1945 was to incorporate into the linguistic and prosodic structure of the poem the movement of emotion tracked by the meaning of words. The poem should come apart in sympathy with, or in representation of, the emotional disarray of the speaker, and the language of the poem should involve the detritus of spent or erupting emotion in its configuration. Distillation of language down to an essence was in some ways a Christian aesthetic carried over into “closed” or traditional poetics—a sense of language as having a spiritual inner text that the poet pared down to achieve communication with the soul. The throwing up of verbal dross and trivia into the language stream of lyric after 1945 was an effort to join “soul music” with the blunt, earthy matter of nature; hence the languorous and wayward course of much lyric energy in the postmodern era. In Tate, however, and in a contingent of southern male poets who came of age with him, one finds uniformly tidy and balanced typographical structures that avoid technical deformation.

Tate’s aesthetic tradition, which includes Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, the European Symbolists, and the Deep Image movement of Robert Bly and James Wright, rejected a projective aesthetic that would incorporate the turmoil of mind into the finished artwork. That distinction between content and execution may have proved over the years to be confining to the range of Tate’s subject matter and stylistic virtuosity. There is the hint of a technical repression of feeling in this mode of terse lyric, of funneling into sparse and smoothly patterned verses the chaos of longing and rage intended by the poems. The risk one takes in keeping to this method of writing is that emotional diversity may be diluted by the repetition of lyric forms.

Through the succession of Tate’s later books, the poem does not change its technical strategy except to grow in size: Stanza and line are fleshed out, articulation is fuller and more sonorous, and rhythm has greater sweep, but the poet set his stylistic signature in The Lost Pilot, and the rules he gave himself were essentially unalterable thereafter. The burden on readers is to pay keen attention to content against a background of similar, even uniform measures, to make out with sympathetic attention the varying inner world that has been systematized in repetitive lyrical patterns. The burden on Tate is to risk everything on the line itself, to dazzle, compel, and sweep away the reader on the force of an image, a powerful phrase, the stunning resolution of a whole poem on a single word.

The Oblivion Ha-Ha

In The Oblivion Ha-Ha, a three-stanza poem, “The Pet Deer,” works on the principle of the single line holding the poem aloft. Stanza 1 is purely functional exposition, given in limpid phrases; stanza 2 sets up the conflict implied in the deer’s realizing that it is a kind of centaur in love with a human girl; and stanza 3 builds slowly toward the closing line, revealing that the girl is unaware of “what/ the deer dreams or desires.” Here repression is located in an animal, a deft reversal of Tate’s usual argument. The girl is placid, lovely, unaffected in her sexual allure; the deer is the captive soul unable to break out and satisfy desire.

The poem hangs by the thread of its final line along with the touches in several other phrases, but in sum, it works on the plainness of its exposition, its setup of an incident, which it transforms by a single lyric thrust of insight. This is Symbolist methodology given an American stamp by Tate’s withholding the intellectual and ideological motives of the lyric act. In Symbolist poetry, almost any incident will reveal the poet’s own psyche, which he will have expressed referentially through an object, animal, or character.

The deer is, by the twists of psychic projection in this poem, the poet himself, the girl a combination of lovers longed for and lost. The art of the poem is to raise the ordinary theme of repression and longing to a degree of generality that turns experience into fable, myth, or even allegory. Too broad a stroke, and the delicate suggestibility of language collapses; too little said, and the poem remains a mere fragment of thought without affect.

“Here is my heart,/ I don’t know what to do with it,” Tate writes in “Plea Based on a Sentence from a Letter Received by the Indiana State Welfare Department.” The line expresses succinctly the theme of The Oblivion Ha-Ha. The title has confused critics; it is usually taken to mean a kind of maniacal laughter in the face of a bitter world. However, a secondary definition of“ha-ha” is a garden enclosure, usually of hedge or earthwork, separating one small planting bed from surrounding ground. In early Roman gardens, a raised inner court often supported a small statue of Adonis, a chthonic god of fertility; in modern times, gazebos and small terraces take the same role as the Adonis mound. Curiously, the garden meaning of the word, derived from French, bears the same hyphen as the first meaning. Tate’s conceit may be that one laughs helplessly at sight of the enclosed Eden, thus doubling the meanings into one trope.

That inner garden reserve, perhaps, is the point of the title, an inner garden that is shut in or inaccessibly remote and psychological, but rooted in the familiar world of human senses. The oblivion ha-ha is the soul, the secret inner self in its own mound of earth, which the poems try to capture.

In “The Salute,” a man dreams about a black widow spider whom he loves; yet he “completely misunderstood” her “little language.” The secret soul is located on one side or another of broken relationships; lovers who try to reach across the distance confront either the sorrows of the deer or the suicidal love of this dreamer, willing to mate with a spider who kills her lovers. “Nobody gets what he wants,” Tate writes in “Consumed,” which closes on this characteristic remark about a lover: “You are the stranger/ who gets stranger by the hour.” Another poem on parents, “Leaving Mother Waiting for Father,” returns to the theme of loss, with the speaker leaving his doll-like, decrepit mother leaning against a hotel, as he goes off into the world an adult orphan.


In every case, Tate creates a portrait of an isolated heart longing for relation and failing to achieve it. The world that denies love to his characters is superficially intact, but beneath appearance it festers with neurotic passion and chaos. It is no wonder, therefore, that he would write a book called Absences. In it, Tate experiments with a looser style; prose poems appear in section 3, while long poems occupy section 2. The title poem and “Cycle of Dust” are sequential works that have more diffuse imagery and lack the point of surprise perfected in the short lyric.

The interesting turn in Absences is in the image-making itself; it focuses on characters who dismantle themselves, or try to disappear, in their blind effort to cross over to the “other” side of reality. These figures do not quite make it; they practice escaping from the blind literalism of things but end up dismantling only their defined selves. They do not reach Paradise. The shift to decomposing this part of reality marks Tate’s decision to alter the lyric path he was on. From here onward, Tate drops the Edenic or pastoral ideal altogether and concentrates instead on exploding the empirical world of sense and definition. Experience itself will be his target.

Put another way, in Absences and beyond, one-half of the metaphoric principle of his poetry drops away, the ideal and hidden dimension of vision. What remains is the imploding and decaying half of reality, the objects metaphor dwells on to hint at possibilities in the dream world. There are only the objects themselves now, deformed, fragmentary, increasingly meaningless as the stuff of lyric. More and more, Tate will imply the end of such language: There is still the need to escape, to break out of reality into the other world, but references to the other world by image or suggestion are rare. His poems dwell on the disappearance of reality itself, its decomposition into fantasy and paradox. In “Harm Alarm,” the second poem of Absences, a man fearfully examines his street, decides that all harm lies “in a cradle/ across the ocean,” and resumes his walk after observing that his “other” self should “just about awake now” as the source of that harm. The divided self splits evenly between dream and waking, serene emptiness and conflicted, wounded life. Pain abounds as the defining attribute of consciousness; the pin functions as a motif in a number of these poems.

There is little or no plot, and no organization to narrate the flow of language. The poems accumulate around the thematic abstraction of reality’s own breakup. That means that individual lines and sentences have the burden of forming the book. Reading Tate, one looks for lines, images, and stunning metaphors as the point of poetry. There is no structural principle embodying language or visionary argument. Tate’s assumption is that reality is dead, and the surreal lyric depicts that through its own formlessness and its occasional glimpses into magic through a phrase or word. Another position would hold that the poem itself is an object of nature, an expression of creative principles. Tate’s metaphysic, however, is still linked with the Christian view that meaning derives from a spiritual source outside nature. These poems, strange and irrational as they are, are secularized forms...

(The entire section is 7414 words.)