Tate, James 1943–
American poet, author of The Lost Pilot. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)
The hermeticism of poets like James Tate, Mark Strand, and Donald Justice derives from a refusal to struggle against the actuality of their condition. The poems they write are, at best, emblematic of this actuality; and, usually, a form of madness is involved.
The Oblivion Ha-Ha, a collection of sixty recent poems by James Tate, exemplifies this chosen style, and all its liabilities. Laconic, subtle, anesthetized, Tate's work depends on the distorted image, on words that enact disturbing leaps…. The metaphor becomes a clever joke, where things appear as other things; what I find unnerving about all this is that the precision of symbolism has broken down, the clarity that graced its former usage tempered by ennui. Tate's pose is largely cynical, the voice in his poems casual, bored. Passion seems to lessen and lull….
Of course, Tate is occasionally brilliant, and writes as well as anyone under thirty. He has borrowed with a studied ease the style of poets like James Wright and Robert Bly, and echoes their politics; because the war in Vietnam is like a terrible vision, the war at home a fantasy, and history a nightmare from which we, like Joyce's Stephen Dedalus, are trying to awake, allusions to the terror that besieges us are expressed as dreams.
James Atlas, in Poetry (© 1971 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), October, 1971, pp. 45-6.
In Absences, his third book, James Tate proves again that he is a poet of verbal excitement, sometimes opaque, sometimes of dazzling clarity. His is a unique vision of a man tuned in to a private cosmos with its little mysteries….
Tate is the chronicler of those civilized ills that may yet destroy us all in body or spirit or both. And he can create a dramatic vocabulary to illustrate them….
James Tate is a risk-taker, likely to get out on that real or metaphysical limb and keep cutting, not caring much whether the saw is between him and the tree or not. This is the heady spirit that encourages the adventure of poetry.
Norman Rosten, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, August 12, 1972; used with permission), August 12, 1972, p. 59.
"Absences" opens with a miscellany of brief, first-person poems that are quiet, disarmingly casual in tone and quite devastating for the way they draw you into the trap of the poet's subjectivity….
The next section, of 20 numbered poems given the title "Absences," works as a series of post-Freudian dream recordings, or as a serial definition of peculiar states of psychic and spiritual emptiness in which chaotic, painful aspects of the poet's world are let loose, then made manageable and endurable by becoming coherent parts of discrete, cool, end-stopped poems. This sequence is perhaps the most distinguished part of the book, where one finds the growing edge of Tate's art….
"Absences" is Tate's third major collection. He is an impressive writer whose process of imaginative growth is through that deliberate extinction of personality which T. S. Eliot once called for as the indispensable means of turning a man or woman of powerful personality into a writer of powerful poems. He makes the current school of confessional poets look a little sick. They could do worse than read Tate and shape up.
Julian Moynahan, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 12, 1972, p. 63.
James Tate is that rare American phenomenon, the prodigy fulfilled. At 23, he became the 73rd and youngest winner of the Yale Younger Poet Prize for The Lost Pilot, a collection of poems written mostly when he was a teenager. Now just 30, with three major collections and five limited editions to his credit, Tate has firmed up his dazzling precocity and matured, and his voice has grown with his vision. He must be included in any discussion of major American poets.
Throughout Tate's poetry, humor, used to fend off despair, is an essential ingredient. On the simplest level, he zips in witty, often chilling, surrealistic lines … like a pitching machine gone slightly berserk….
At its deepest and best, Tate's poetry reaches the level of humor reflected in the title of one of his books: The Oblivion Ha-Ha. It is a hedge against despair, laughing to keep from dying. Tate accepts what Camus called the dare of the absurd and finds it, and himself, so cosmically silly that all he can do is laugh, desperately.
Harper Barnes, "'Toto, I Don't Think We're in Kansas'," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), December 31, 1972, p. 8.
Tate is not primarily occupied with seeing things; he invents correspondences for inner stress. I find his inventions, in the title section of his book [Absences], uninteresting, and his state of mind unattractively negative. He is most comfortable, but certainly not arresting, in the tart and contemptuous "Best," of "The Immortals," or "Teaching the Ape to Write Poems." "Entries," an exercise of disingenuous tone, is my nomination for his best poem in this volume.
Vernon Young, "Nature and Vision: or Dubious Antithesis," in Hudson Review, Winter, 1972–73, pp. 659-74.