The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Lost Pilot” is a poem in free verse, its forty-eight lines divided into sixteen stanzas, each of which is three lines in length. The title, along with the dedication to the poet’s father (emphasizing the fact that the father died at the extremely young age of twenty-two), establishes a mood of loss both violent and tragic. The loss of a pilot suggests the loss of direction and control. The loss of a pilot/father foreshadows the great personal grief and bewilderment with which the poet will struggle throughout the length of the poem.

Appropriately, the poem is written in the first person, which allows great immediacy of emotion and brings the reader close to the intense and complex relationship of the poet to his lost father. The complexity of grief is at the very heart of the elegiac tradition in poetry, a tradition which seeks to reconcile the living to the reality of death. It is fitting, then, that this poem is addressed directly to the lost father, as only he can know the answers to those questions generated by his son’s feelings and bewilderment.

The poem begins with a startling declaration: “Your face did not rot/ like the others.” The sudden and shocking physical nature of this statement re-creates for the reader the emotional tenor of the pilot’s death and the son’s bereavement. It also characterizes the desperate tone of the elegy as the son seeks some consolation, however unlikely or grotesque. As the pilot died...

(The entire section is 489 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The major encompassing form of “The Lost Pilot” is James Tate’s unique version of the traditional elegy. It is this form which the poem fulfills through its general tones (anger and grief), its rhetorical methods (sorrowful exclamation and the interrogation of the lost pilot and of the facts of death itself), and final resignation. Ironically, it is the relationship of this poem to its elegiac forebears—works such as John Milton’s “Lycidas” and Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”—that must substitute for the more intimate yet now impossible relationship between the poet and his father.

Presiding over the entire elegy is the metaphor of the lost pilot himself; it is into this metaphor that the poet’s father has disappeared, never having had the time or life to be anything but a metaphor to his son. His lostness has many significant qualities which contribute to his mysteriousness: Being lost, he can only be presumed dead, thus leaving his son in a state of perpetual uncertainty; being lost, he represents a continual challenge to his son to find him, as Telemachus was challenged to find his father Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.); being a lost pilot, he represents an eternal contradiction as someone who is responsible for leading others and yet is lost himself. Toward the end of the poem, this metaphor finds its final shape in that of “a tiny, African...

(The entire section is 492 words.)