‘I have a lot of feelings about Jim Tate, first and foremost having to do with my gratitude for him as a teacher, and poet. Like so many others, I revered and loved him for being a sweet and gentle and stern and brilliant and complicated poetry father. I also have many private feelings, ones intimately bound up with the experiences I had when I was first starting to really write poetry, during those pre-internet years in the mid-1990s when I was studying with him and Dara Wier and Agha Shahid Ali in Amherst, Massachusetts. I’m not sure I can put these feelings into words: they seem to be located in Jim’s poems. I find them there and the poems seem not to express those feelings, but to conjure and enact them, inside and outside of time, in me.
‘No one had a greater influence on me poetically than Tate, though that influence has as much to do with how he worked and thought about poetry as the style itself, which was inimitable. I learned how to be a poet from Jim: how to sit down and work every day and be serious and patient and follow the totally free movement of the imagination as manifest in the material of language. Not because he taught me, but because he showed me. All of us who were near Jim and Dara in those years knew how they were working, and we saw the brilliant results.*
‘I would like to say this: don’t let anyone tell you Jim Tate was a certain “kind” of poet. Especially not a surrealist, which is how he is often described. To call the poems “surrealist” is incorrect, because the surrealists were really interested in something else, language as a kind of mind and soul changing substance. Jim wasn’t doing automatic writing or creating collages or merely juxtaposing images. In Jim’s poems, there is almost always some kind of situation, or organizing principle, along with a total freedom of language and the imagination. In other words, they are poems. If he is a surrealist, then we all are, or should be.
‘Jim could do anything in his poems, and did. Throughout his whole life as a poet, he was just as comfortable with narrative as with a lyric that is more experiential, present in and exploring a particular state of mind or orientation toward the word that is full of contradiction and humor and darkness. You will see what I mean if you read his first Selected Poems, as well as the newer one, The Eternal Ones of the Dream, which together will give you a sense of his entire body of work. Jim Tate was a great American poet, maybe even the greatest of the past 50 years. His influence is everywhere in American poetry, on those who don’t realize it as much as those who do.’ — Matthew Zapruder
Teaching the Ape to Write Poems
They didn’t have much trouble
teaching the ape to write poems:
first they strapped him to the chair,
then tied the pencil around his hand
(the paper had already been nailed down).
Then Dr. Bluespire leaned over his shoulder
and whispered into his ear:
“You look like a god sitting there.
Why don’t you try writing something?”
I Am a Finn
I am standing in the post office, about
to mail a package back to Minnesota, to my family.
I am a Finn. My name is Kasteheimi (Dewdrop).
Mikael Agricola (1510-1557) created the Finnish language.
He knew Luther and translated the New Testament.
When I stop by the Classé Café for a cheeseburger
no one suspects that I am a Finn.
I gaze at the dimestore reproductions of Lautrec
on the greasy walls, at the punk lovers afraid
to show their quivery emotions, secure
in the knowledge that my grandparents really did
emigrate from Finland in 1910 – why
is everybody leaving Finland, hundreds of
thousands to Michigan and Minnesota, and now Australia?
Eighty-six percent of Finnish men have blue
or grey eyes. Today is Charlie Chaplin’s
one hundredth birthday, though he is not
Finnish or alive: ‘Thy blossom, in the bud
laid low.’ The commonest fur-bearing animals
are the red squirrel, musk-rat, pine-marten
and fox. There are about 35,000 elk.
But I should be studying for my exam.
I wonder if Dean will celebrate with me tonight,
assuming I pass. Finnish Literature
really came alive in the 1860s.
Here, in Cambridge, Massachusetts,
no one cares that I am a Finn.
They’ve never even heard of Frans Eemil Sillanpää,
winner of the 1939 Nobel Prize in Literature.
As a Finn, this infuriates me.
Jesus got up one day a little later than usual. He had been dreaming so deep there was nothing left in his head. What was it? A nightmare, dead bodies walking all around him, eyes rolled back, skin falling off. But he wasn’t afraid of that. It was a beautiful day. How ’bout some coffee? Don’t mind if I do. Take a little ride on my donkey, I love that donkey. Hell, I love everybody.
I long for some, even
one would be a beginning,
not this long flat stretch
of just me and my improvising
of waste, of a kind of heroic
negligence that life does not
appreciate. My loved one
is wobbling—O creme de menthe!
See, I am making my own
interference, jerked stratagem—
her overcoat, my cottage.
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?
Forgotten? This is the constellation
of my own bewilderment. Please,
someone interrupt me.
Hence, whatever, reverts.
The List Of Famous Hats
Napoleon’s hat is an obvious choice I guess to list as a famous
hat, but that’s not the hat I have in mind. That was his hat for
show. I am thinking of his private bathing cap, which in all hon-
esty wasn’t much different than the one any jerk might buy at a
corner drugstore now, except for two minor eccentricities. The
first one isn’t even funny: Simply it was a white rubber bathing
cap, but too small. Napoleon led such a hectic life ever since his
childhood, even farther back than that, that he never had a
chance to buy a new bathing cap and still as a grown-up–well,
he didn’t really grow that much, but his head did: He was a pin-
head at birth, and he used, until his death really, the same little
tiny bathing cap that he was born in, and this meant that later it
was very painful to him and gave him many headaches, as if he
needed more. So, he had to vaseline his skull like crazy to even
get the thing on. The second eccentricity was that it was a tricorn
bathing cap. Scholars like to make a lot out of this, and it would
be easy to do. My theory is simple-minded to be sure: that be-
neath his public head there was another head and it was a pyra-
mid or something.
Man with Wooden Leg Escapes Prison
Man with wooden leg escapes prison. He’s caught.
They take his wooden leg away from him. Each day
he must cross a large hill and swim a wide river
to get to the field where he must work all day on
one leg. This goes on for a year. At the Christmas
Party they give him back his leg. Now he doesn’t
want it. His escape is all planned. It requires
only one leg.
Do you have adequate oxen for the job?
No, my oxen are inadequate.
Well, how many oxen would it take to do an adequate job?
I would need ten more oxen to do the job adequately.
I’ll see if I can get them for you.
I’d be obliged if you could do that for me.
Certainly. And do you have sufficient fishcakes for the men?
We have fifty fishcakes, which is less than sufficient.
I’ll have them delivered on the morrow.
Do you need maps of the mountains and the underworld?
We have maps of the mountains but we lack maps of the underworld.
Of course you lack maps of the underworld,
there are no maps of the underworld.
And, besides, you don’t want to go there, it’s stuffy.
I had no intention of going there, or anywhere for that matter.
It’s just that you asked me if I needed maps. . . .
Yes, yes, it’s my fault, I got carried away.
What do you need, then, you tell me?
We need seeds, we need plows, we need scythes, chickens,
pigs, cows, buckets and women.
We have no women.
You’re a sorry lot, then.
We are a sorry lot, sir.
Well, I can’t get you women.
I assumed as much, sir.
What are you going to do without women, then?
We will suffer, sir. And then we’ll die out one by one.
Can any of you sing?
Yes, sir, we have many fine singers among us.
Order them to begin singing immediately.
Either women will find you this way or you will die
comforted. Meanwhile busy yourselves
with the meaningful tasks you have set for yourselves.
Sir, we will not rest until the babes arrive.
Someone had spread an elaborate rumor about me, that I was
in possession of an extraterrestrial being, and I thought I knew who
it was. It was Roger Lawson. Roger was a practical joker of the
worst sort, and up till now I had not been one of his victims, so
I kind of knew my time had come. People parked in front of my
house for hours and took pictures. I had to draw all my blinds
and only went out when I had to. Then there was a barrage of
questions. “What does he look like?” “What do you feed him?” “How
did you capture him?” And I simply denied the presence of an
extraterrestrial in my house. And, of course, this excited them
all the more. The press showed up and started creeping around
my yard. It got to be very irritating. More and more came and
parked up and down the street. Roger was really working overtime
on this one. I had to do something. Finally, I made an announcement.
I said, “The little fellow died peacefully in his sleep at 11:02
last night.” “Let us see the body,” they clamored. “He went up
in smoke instantly,” I said. “I don’t believe you,” one of them
said. “There is no body in the house or I would have buried it
myself,” I said. About half of them got in their cars and drove
off. The rest of them kept their vigil, but more solemnly now.
I went out and bought some groceries. When I came back about an
hour later another half of them had gone. When I went into the kitchen
I nearly dropped the groceries. There was a nearly transparent
fellow with large pink eyes standing about three feet tall. “Why
did you tell them I was dead? That was a lie,” he said. “You
speak English,” I said. “I listen to the radio. It wasn’t very
hard to learn. Also we have television. We get all your channels.
I like cowboys, especially John Ford movies. They’re the best,”
he said. “What am I going to do with you?” I said. “Take me
to meet a real cowboy. That would make me happy,” he said. “I
don’t know any real cowboys, but maybe we could find one. But
people will go crazy if they see you. We’d have press following
us everywhere. It would be the story of the century,” I said.
“I can be invisible. It’s not hard for me to do,” he said.
“I’ll think about it. Wyoming or Montana would be our best bet, but
they’re a long way from here,” I said. “Please, I won’t cause
you any trouble,” he said. “It would take some planning,” I said.
I put the groceries down and started putting them away. I tried
not to think of the cosmic meaning of all this. Instead, I
treated him like a smart little kid. “Do you have any sarsaparilla?”
he said. “No, but I have some orange juice. It’s good for you,”
I said. He drank it and made a face. “I’m going to get the maps
out,” I said. “We’ll see how we could get there.” When I came
back he was dancing on the kitchen table, a sort of ballet, but
very sad. “I have the maps,” I said. “We won’t need them. I just
received word. I’m going to die tonight. It’s really a joyous
occasion, and I hope you’ll help me celebrate by watching The
Magnificent Seven,” he said. I stood there with the maps in my
hand. I felt an unbearable sadness come over me. “Why must
you die?” I said. “Father decides these things. It is probably
my reward for coming here safely and meeting you,” he said. “But
I was going to take you to meet a real cowboy,” I said. “Let’s
pretend you are my cowboy,” he said.
Where Babies Come From
Many are from the Maldives,
southwest of India, and must begin
collecting shells almost immediately.
The larger ones may prefer coconuts.
Survivors move from island to island
hopping over one another and never
looking back. After the typhoons
have had their pick, and the birds of prey
have finished with theirs, the remaining few
must build boats, and in this, of course,
they can have no experience, they build
their boats of palm leaves and vines.
Once the work is completed, they lie down,
thoroughly exhausted and confused,
and a huge wave washes them out to sea.
And that is the last they see of one another.
In their dreams Mama and Papa
are standing on the shore
for what seems like an eternity,
and it is almost always the wrong shore.
A loon woke me this morning. It was like waking up
in another world. I had no idea what was expected of me.
I waited for instructions. Someone called and asked me
if I wanted a free trip to Florida. I said, “Sure. Can
I go today?” A man in a uniform picked me up in a limousine,
and the next thing I know I’m being chased by an alligator
across a parking lot. A crowd gathers and cheers me on.
Of course, none of this really happened. I’m still sleeping.
I don’t want to go to work. I want to know what the loon is
saying. It sounds like ecstasy tinged with unfathomable
terror. One thing is certain: at least they are not speaking
of tax shelters. The phone rings. It’s my boss. She says,
“Where are you?” I say, “I don’t know. I don’t recognize
my surroundings. I think I’ve been kidnapped. If they make
demands of you, don’t give in. That’s my professional advice.”
Just then, the loon let out a tremendous looping, soaring,
swirling, quadruple whoop. “My god, are you alright?” my
boss said. “In case we do not meet again, I want you to know
that I’ve always loved you, Agnes,” I said. “What?” she said.
“What are you saying?” “Good-bye, my darling. Try to remember me
as your ever loyal servant,” I said. “Did you say you loved
me?” she said. I said, “Yes,” and hung up. I tried
to go back to sleep, but the idea of being kidnapped had me
quite worked up. I looked in the mirror for signs of torture.
Every time the loon cried, I screamed and contorted my face
in agony. They were going to cut off my head and place it on
a stake. I overheard them talking. They seemed like very
reasonable men, even, one might say, likeable.
The New Ergonomics
The new ergonomics were delivered
just before lunchtime
so we ignored them.
Without revealing the particulars
let me just say that
lunch was most satisfying.
Jack and Roberta went with
the corned beef for a change.
Jack believes in alien abduction
and Roberta does not,
although she has had
several lost weekends lately
and one or two unexplained scars
on her buttocks. I thought
I recognized someone
from my childhood
at a table across the room,
the same teeth, the same hair,
but when he stood-up,
I wasn’t sure, Squid with a red tie?
Impossible. I finished
my quiche lorraine
and returned my thoughts
to Jack’s new jag:
“Well, I guess anything’s
possible. People disappear
all the time, and most of them
have no explanation
when and if they return.
Look at Tony’s daughter
and she’s never been the same.”
Jack was looking as if
he’d bet on the right horse now.
“And these new ergonomics,
who really designed them?
Does anybody know?
Do they tell us anything?
A name, an address? Hell no.”
Squid was paying his bill
in a standard-issue blue blazer.
He looked across the room at me
several times. He looked tired,
like he wanted to sleep for a long time
in a barn somewhere, in Kansas.
I wanted to sleep there, too.
This is the hardest part:
When I came back to life
I was a good family dog
and not too friendly to strangers.
I got a thirty-five dollar raise
in salary, and through the pea-soup fogs
I drove the General, and introduced him
at rallies. I had a totalitarian approach
and was a massive boost to his popularity.
I did my best to reduce the number of people.
The local bourgeoisie did not exist.
One of them was a mystic
and walked right over me
as if I were a bed of hot coals.
This is par for the course-
I will be employing sundry golf metaphors
henceforth, because a dog, best friend
and chief advisor to the General, should.
While dining with the General I said,
“Let’s play the back nine in a sacred rage.
Let’s tee-off over the foredoomed community
and putt ourselves thunderously, touching bottom.”
He drank it all in, rugged and dusky.
I think I know what he was thinking.
He held his automatic to my little head
and recited a poem about my many weaknesses,
for which I loved him so.
James Tate’s last poem
‘Late last year, I saw John Ashbery give a reading at Pioneer House, in Brooklyn. At one point, he read a prose poem by James Tate, who died last summer. It was, Ashbery said, Tate’s final poem—so incontrovertibly final, in fact, that it had been discovered in the poet’s typewriter soon after his death. What Ashbery went on to read was terrific: as I recalled, it opened in a comic mode, riffing on all these bogus feats Tate claimed to have accomplished that year (hot-dog-eating contest winner, arm-wrestling contest winner, et cetera) and building to a quiet, rueful meditation on aging.
‘It seemed almost too perfect to have been plucked unedited from a typewriter, so much so that I wondered, in passing, if maybe it were a sly, prankish tribute. I knew, or I thought I remembered, that Ashbery and Tate had been close. “He has developed a homegrown variety of surrealism almost in his own backyard,” Ashbery had written of his friend in 1995—a variety in which we find “something very like the air we breathe, the unconscious mind erupting in one-on-one engagements with the life we all live, every day.” The poem Ashbery had read was so rich with those “eruptions” that I knew it had to be Tate’s.’ — Dan Piepenbring
James Tate @ The Academy of American Poets
James Tate @ Wikipedia
After Death, James Tate’s Poetry Continues To Delight
One of the True Geniuses of American Poetry, James Tate, Died Yesterday
Remembering James Tate
Remembering James Tate (1943-2015)
An Interview With Poet James Tate
James Tate: Finding the Ultimate in the Ordinary
A Hypertext Tribute to James Tate (1943–2015)
p.s. Hey. When I was a young aspiring poet in the early 70s, James Tate was the first contemporary, living poet whose work I fell in love with and whom I was very influenced by. He died not so long ago, and I was rereading him recently, and I thought, hey, I should share some of his poems here, and, thus … ** Oscar B, Bene! Back in the fold! Thank you ever so much for waking me up to Mr. Rafman’s work. It has been a nonstop pleasure. Ha ha: Russia. I did like the sunny day, did you? Not so sunny today, at least not yet, but let’s milk it for all its worth anyway, what do you say? Crosstown love, Dennis. ** Liquoredgoat, Hi, Douglas! As long as you’re better for it, that’s all that matters? I have that Delany book back in LA, but I … don’t think I’ve read it. Looked through it more like, I think. During my brief year at university, one of my professors was this guy who was considered one of the big experts on bathroom/gloryhole sex, Laud Humphries. He wrote this book that I think was very respected at the time called ‘Tearoom Trade’. Do you know it? I’m not sure how it holds up. Me, I’m good, torn kind of asunder between heavy film prep and new apartment hunting, but, yeah, I’m doing pretty good. And you? ** K, Hi, K! Welcome to here! I’m very happy you came inside. I think I saw an image of that vore work when I was gathering the post materials, and I remember thinking, whoa, I need to go back to that. Now, with your alert/reminder, I will. I don’t think I know those couches, but you can be sure I’ll hunt them down pronto. Thanks a lot! Obviously, now that you’ve broken the barrier, please do come back whenever you feel like it. It would be a pleasure! ** H, Hi. I particularly like the Robert Breer sculptures that move around on the floor very, very slowly. I would imagine there’ll be some of those in that show? Thanks for the hope. If I’m insanely lucky, I might get an answer on one apartment I’ve applied for this very morning. ** David Saä Estornell, Hi, David. An interview with you, awesome! Thank you for that wonderful myth. I’ll wear its inaccuracy proudly. Everyone, I recommend that you click these words which will take you to an interview with the d.l., artist, and many, many other fine things, Mr. David Estornell. Simple as pie. ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. That’s a very high compliment to him. Maybe he’ll come across this post/comment and blush accordingly. I’ll check out the Didion piece, thanks! ** Dóra Grőber, Hi, Dóra! Yeah, it’s going to be brutal, that’s for sure. Eek. What kind of topics are you coming up with for the group? Is your writing still going gangbusters? The technical and camera testing yesterday went very well. We were testing the camera, lens, lighting, etc. One of our actors came along to be the guinea pig. We’re going to use this really great, kind of quite large camera that basically most even big directors use these days, so the film is going to look pretty amazing, I think. For ‘Cattle’, we just used a little handheld Canon thing. So that was cool. The art opening was nice. My friend the artist seemed happy, and the turn-out was very good. Well, at 11 am this morning I’m taking the final documents to the real estate agent. Everything seems very positive, but I’m wary after our so-far unlucky search. It’s possible I will know if I will get the apartment today. What a relief that would be even though I’m not so happy about where the apartment is located. But still. If it’s a no, I’ll continue hunting ever more rapidly. And how was your day, my pal? ** Damien Ark, Hi, Damien Oh, cool that you’re really into Rafman’s work. I’m kind of brand new to it, like I said. Thanks! You good, even really good? Hope so. ** Steevee, Hi. Well, that quote is from some years ago, if that de-cliches it at all. A friend just highly recommended ‘Get Out’ to me the other day, and I’m very curious to see it, and I am watching for it to dawn in my local listing. Interesting. ** Misanthrope, Indeed. Molds, me too. I’m in the mood for jello. With whipped cream. Hm. I saw that pic you sent on Facebook. Wowzer. Your neighborhood looks nice, though. The winter bare trees and space and all of that. Still, I hope you’ve seen the last of those severe storms. I don’t think Paris gets severe storms. I wonder why. Nature’s taste in victims is so perplexing. ** Jeff J, Hi, Jeff. Thanks, man. What was up with your parents? That’s cruel. Those things smelled really nice. Well, to a kid. And they came out warm like bread loaves. I’ve never read Edward Bond, but I have seen productions of a couple of his plays. One called ‘Have I None’ and another one whose title I don’t remember. The productions weren’t amazing, but I remember thinking the texts were very interesting. Apparently the TV series decision delay is not just about our project. A bunch of other projects’ decisions are on hold too, I don’t know why, and I don’t know what that means. Frustrating is the word. Thanks about the apartment. I might get really lucky today, but we’ll see. ** MANCY, Hi, S. Thanks, bud. Rafman’s work is worth a real look, I think. That is super exciting about the nearness to completion of your sound project with Mark! Cannot wait for that sucker. ** Bill, Hi, Bill. The weird thing about not having a regular job is that the weekends are just like the weekdays, and the collapsing happens randomly and is more like taking cat naps or something. Good luck with everything today, and I hope the gig goes fantastically, Pray tell, please? ** Okay. James Tate. See you tomorrow.