James Tate and American Surrealism

James Tate Selected Poems
James Tate Selected Poems

James Tate is the perpetual enfant terrible of American poetry. For the past thirty years his strange, provocative, and often disturbing poems have fascinated critics and fellow-poets. Even now, in his mid-fifties, after having won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and most of the establishment’s other awards, even now after having been appointed full professor at a major state university, Tate still seems like an outsider–a brilliant, troubled youth who has never settled down.

But James Tate was perhaps the youngest writer ever to win the Yale competition in the 8 decades of its existence. Tate came to prominence very early. In 1967 his first collection, The Lost Pilot, won the prestigious Yale Younger Poets competition. Now, in America, the term younger poet is applied with chivalric liberality. It can be used to describe anyone not yet collecting a Social Security pension. (I recently read one avant-garde anthology of “younger” poets in which the average age of the contributor was 61 & 1/2.) But James Tate was perhaps the youngest writer ever to win the Yale competition in the 8 decades of its existence. When the book appeared, he was only 23 and still a student in the University of Iowa’s graduate writing program.

Tate’s debut made an enormous impression–at least on other writers. The Yale Younger Poets series had not yet lost its editorial cachet. The Ivy League series was then still the most influential–and mainstream–introduction a new American poet could have. In the late Sixties American poetry was ostentatiously reinventing itself. Experimentalism was the sign of artistic authenticity, and ambitious writers were eagerly exploring new avenues of expression.

With The Lost Pilot Tate struck an unmistakably new and original note. He had, in fact, successfully accomplished something that many other poets had been trying–mostly without conspicuous success. Tate had domesticated surrealism. He had taken this foreign style, which had almost always seemed slightly alien in English–even among its most talented practitioners like Charles Simic and Donald Justice–and had made it sound not just native but utterly down-home.

One of the provocative ironies of twentieth century literature is that during the Thirties and Forties when surrealism was transforming the landscape of European and Latin American poetry, it never took root in the United States. Surrealism changed poetry from Sweden to Bolivia, from Greece to Costa Rica. It even found a foothold in England. But in America it initially created no significant body of work. Why did the self-proclaimed style of the future make such a minimal impression in the land of the modern?

There were, of course, many reasons why surrealism was so slow in coming to America–not the least of which was that the U.S. already had a thriving Modernist movement. With Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Robinson Jeffers, and William Carlos Williams all active, who needed Andrè Breton to be modern? But there was, I suggest, another, more curious reason that no one ever mentions. My own guess for the main reason that American poetry–and painting and sculpture–did not initially pounce on surrealism was that Hollywood got there first. And not just Hollywood–it’s worse than that–it was the animated cartoon.

America’s first great surrealist artists were named Walt Disney, Max Fleischer, and Tex Avery. Their artistic medium was cartoon animation, though we must remember that cartoons of this era were seen not only by children but by a mixed audience, consisting mainly of adults. These men took–quite literally–the principles of surrealism and turned them into mass entertainment. As Fleischer’s scantily clad Betty Boop ran through a phantasmagoric underground landscape to the driving beat of Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher,” moviegoers of the Thirties saw surrealist dream-logic unfold more powerfully than in any experimental poem created in Greenwich Village. To this day the greatest moment of North American surrealism is probably Dumbo’s drunken nightmare choreographed to the demonic oom-pah-pah of “Pink Elephants on Parade” from Walt Disney’s 1941 movie. When the surrealist style was so quickly assimilated into mass-media comedy, what avant-garde poet could consider it sufficiently chic? No, American surrealism had to wait until the Fleischer studio had gone bankrupt, Tex Avery had died, and an older, safer Walt Disney began hosting a Sunday evening family TV hour.

American surrealism also had to wait for another generation–a generation that had grown up on cartoons and movies. It required writers who did not necessarily see high culture and popular culture in opposition. This shift in sensibility finally arrived in the Sixties. The new surrealism also reflected a growing internationalism in American poetry, an interest in modern poetry outside the English-speaking world. Sophisticated poets like James Wright, Robert Bly, and Donald Justice studied and translated foreign modernists. They explored surrealistic techniques as a way of broadening their own imaginative range. A generation younger, Tate (who was a student of Donald justice at Iowa) approached the new style in a less intellectual and scholarly way. Neither a translator nor a critic, he worked by instinct and obsession.

In The Lost Pilot Tate usually created a clear narrative line in his poems. Only as the details of the story and situation unfolded in an increasingly bizarre fashion, did one realize that the speaker inhabited some private landscape of dream or hallucination. Although Tate claimed he often wrote in a trance, his poems gave no hint of automatic writing. The poems were tightly constructed. The language clean and sharply chiseled. The style was not from the cafes of Paris or Barcelona but from the workshops of Iowa City. What Tate borrowed from surrealism was the use of dream logic and free association. Often he would incorporate these principles into something very similar to the standard confessional poem as in the title poem of his first collection, “The Lost Pilot.” This poem was dedicated to Tate’s father, an American pilot who was killed in the Second World War at the age of 22–the same age, significantly, that the poet was when the book had been accepted for publication.

The Lost Pilot

for my father, 1922-1944

Your face did not rot
like the others–the co-pilot,
for example, I saw him
yesterday. His face is corn-
mush: his wife and daughter,
the poor ignorant people, stare
as if he will compose soon.
He was more wronged than Job.
But your face did not rot
like the others–it grew dark,
and hard like ebony;
the features progressed in their
distinction. If I could cajole
you to come back for an evening,
down from your compulsive
orbiting, I would touch you,
read your face as Dallas,
your hoodlum gunner, now,
with the blistered eyes, reads
his braille editions. I would
touch your face as a disinterested

scholar touches an original page.
However frightening, I would
discover you, and I would not
turn you in; I would not make
you face your wife, or Dallas,
or the co-pilot, Jim. You
could return to your crazy
orbiting, and I would not try
to fully understand what
it means to you. All I know
is this: when I see you,
as I have seen you at least
once every year of my life,
spin across the wilds of the sky
like a tiny, African god,
I feel dead. I feel as if I were
the residue of a stranger’s life,
that I should pursue you.
My head cocked toward the sky,
I cannot get off the ground,
and, you, passing over again,
fast, perfect, and unwilling
to tell me that you are doing
well, or that it was mistake
that placed you in that world,
and me in this; or that misfortune
placed these worlds in us.

Although critics immediately noted the surreal elements in The Lost Pilot, surely one reason why the book proved so accessible was its autobiographical qualities. The late Sixties marked the height of Confessional poetry, the unabashed style of autobiographical verse that is still the mainstream of American poetry. In reading The Lost Pilot, it was not hard to discern the psychological forces driving the author’s imagination.

James Tate was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1943. His father, the lost pilot of the book’s title, had been killed on a combat mission over Germany when the poet was only five months old. Tate had never known his father–except in dreams, borrowed memories, and the imagination. Knowing this one biographical fact gave the title poem enormous resonance, and it provided a personal context in which to read the rest of the book as the poems of a restless young man in desperate search of his own identity.

If that initial autobiographical disclosure helped critics emotionally identify with Tate’s work, it was the last bit of self-revelation they would receive. As Tate’s subsequent work appeared year after year in prolific profusion, it proved completely impersonal. Perhaps in rejection of the excesses of the fashionable Confessional mode, perhaps from a strong native sense of reticence, Tate revealed his dreams and nightmares, his fears and desires–but he never shared further details of his waking life. Although his career had been launched with the personal myth of the lost pilot, no further public persona was created behind the poems. While Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Robert Bly, Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, and Brother Antoninus all became recognizable public personalities, James Tate became invisible behind his poems.

Thanks to books like The Lost Pilot, surrealism became one of the mainstream styles of American poetry in the 1970s. Indeed, it became the most influential style among male poets. (The women had more public issues of feminism to address.) Older writers like Robert Bly, James Wright, and Donald Hall switched styles to create the “deep image” poem. Although most of them had once composed in rhyme and meter, they now wrote minimalist free verse full of mysterious images drawn from the natural world–a style that was soon wickedly nicknamed “the stones and bones” school of poetry. Yugoslavian-born Charles Simic and Canadian-born Mark Strand recreated an Eastern-European style poem convincingly in American English–spare, quiet but luminous. But there was also a younger, more swaggering school led by Tate that practiced a jazzy and absurdist brand of surrealism. The point of this new style sometimes seemed to be creating a situation or sequence of images as evocatively bizarre and disturbingly creepy as possible. The tone was at once understated and aggressive. Everything, especially violent or depressing subjects, was presented with dark and detached humor. You can get a sense of the style just from the titles of a few early Tate poems:

Rape in the Engineering Building

The Wheelchair Butterfly

The Eagle Exterminating Company

Frivolous Blind Death Child

The Hostile Philharmonic Orchestra

The Indian Undertaker

One critic dubbed this irreverent new approach “conversational surrealism.” Whatever it was called, however, the style soon became the rage in writing programs. Still in his mid-twenties, Tate became a cult hero for many young American poets.

Being influential, however, often means being resented. And–at least in regards to schools of poetry–the sins of the sons usually fall on the father. Few literary movements produced so many dreadful poems so quickly as Seventies surrealism. The critics quickly turned hostile. Editors got bored. And young poets soon followed other fashions. By 1980, most of the elder ringleaders had moved on to something new. Robert Bly was fostering the Men’s movement. Donald Justice returned to rhyme and meter. Donald Hall began writing nature poems. But Tate stayed faithful to his original style, and he soon became a convenient whipping boy for the failings of the entire movement.

While Tate never lacked defenders, the critical tide had turned. The late Seventies and early Eighties were hard years for him. Each book occasioned some new outburst of critical bile. “The poems [in Viper Jazz],” wrote one reviewer, “occupy the tenuous borderland between nonsense and disaster.” “Verbal doodling,” declared another critic about the bizarrely titled 1979 volume, Riven Doggeries. “Simply monotonous” intoned a third review about Constant Defender, in 1981, adding that “Tate’s development since The Lost Pilot has been predominantly negative.”

Tate, alas, was not blameless in creating the impression of artistic decline. Young, self-confident and successful, he had been immensely prolific without being even modestly self-critical. In 1979 by the age of 35, Tate had published twenty-four books and pamphlets–a rate of production that makes Anthony Trollope look lazy. The original French surrealists had espoused “automatic writing” to unlock the depths of the subconscious. To Tate’s detractors, his voluminous output seemed like automatic writing of an altogether shoddier kind.

After a decade of critical chastisement, it is probably not coincidental that the Eighties found a more prudent and self-critical poet. During this decade Tate published only two full-length books and a pair of pamphlets. (He has kept a similarly deliberate pace thus far into the Nineties.) And slowly but inexorably, his critical reputation has risen. No longer part of a fashionable movement, Tate has emerged more clearly as a truly individual poet. His quirky brilliant style now appears not a timely pose but the authentic expression of an original, if also idiosyncratic imagination.

Tate now also seems like a survivor–one of the few genuine talents among the many young stars of Po-Biz who enjoyed their fifteen minutes of literary fame in the publicity-mad Seventies. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” but to be a young poet then was heaven. Teaching jobs and publishers were plentiful. Small magazines started up from coast to coast. Poetry readings became big events, and young poets could aspire to modest celebrity. Each season some melancholy young face would stare soulfully from the cover of the latest issue of American Poetry Review, a journal dedicated to the principle that a new author need not be talented, only photogenic.

Where today are those bards of yesteryear? Teaching somewhere, presumably–and at a good salary–but for the most part no longer much read or remembered. But Tate is still thriving. While he has never been a popular poet among general readers, his small audience of admirers has been growing steadily. And his critical rehabilitation is now complete. In 1991 he won both the Pulitzer Prize and the William Carlos Williams Award, and in 1995 he received the National Book Award (for which, I must now confess in the interest of full disclosure, I was a judge). And more prizes followed. Although each award helped rebuild his critical reputation, the turning point for Tate was winning the Pulitzer for his 1991 Selected Poems. This compact but comprehensive volume has just been issued in the U.K. by Carcanet–the first time the poet has been published by a British press. If ever a poet needed a selected volume, it is the prolific, problematic Tate. Reprinting 160 poems from the author’s huge body of work, the Carcanet volume provides a manageable overview to the elusive innovator.

Reading Tate’s Selected Poems, one finds a consistently witty, inventive, and weird imagination at work. It may sound odd to call a surrealist charming, but there is a strangely seductive quality to Tate’s poetry, a suavely manic energy directed toward inscrutable ends. Tate also has the gift for enigmatic parables. Here, for example, is a very short poem from his 1976 collection Viper Jazz that satirizes the narcissism of writers. The poem is called “Teaching the Ape to Write Poems.”

Teaching the Ape to Write Poems

They didn’t have much trouble
teaching the ape to write poems:
first they strapped him into 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?”

Tate is often funny and always fun to read, even in the nihilistic poems that make up a good portion of the volume. A reader may find Tate’s poetry difficult, opaque, or pointless, but no one who loves language will find him boring. Line by line, sentence by sentence, he strives to keep the reader interested and amused.

Rereading the Selected Poems, however, one also notices the limitations of Tate’s achievement. While the poems are consistently lively and ingenious, they are also mostly very similar. The weird juxtaposition of disparate images, the brilliant non-sequiturs, the dead-pan narration of apocalyptic events, and the inconclusive endings recur in poem after poem. No matter how well performed, the same tricks of unpredictability become predictable. While Tate’s poetry is never quite monotonous, when read in large portions, the work seems strangely homogeneous.

There is also little sense of artistic development evident in the Selected Poems. Tate discovered his individual style early, and except for some minor variations, he has persisted with it over the last thirty years. A few poems in The Lost Pilot strike an autobiographical note and have a more or less expository organization, but virtually all of the others have a nearly identical feel and texture. There is also little change in focus from book to book. The same dark themes of dislocation and alienation, of external violence and internal entropy cry out in the early poems and echo throughout the subsequent volumes. For better and for worse, Tate is a poet of obsessive concerns.

Finally, I have one more serious reservation. Despite its surface brilliance, stylistic originality, and consistent invention, Tate’s poetry often fails to make a deep emotional and intellectual connection with the reader. It isn’t just matter of accessibility (though Tate’s habitual avoidance of logical structure, his aversion to psychological realism, and his instinctive denial of conventional meaning surely contribute to the problem). Difficult poetry can be deeply communicative. The great Modernists like Pound, Eliot, Cummings, and Stevens demonstrated how powerfully complex poetry can speak to the common reader. They understood, however, that if a poem renounces the obvious pleasures of clarity and overt coherence, it must then provide the compensation of strong subliminal communication. In the best poetry, even if the reader doesn’t always understand the surface meaning of a text, he or she intuitively feels the emotional power of the subtext.

In Tate’s work, however, there hardly seems to be a subtext–only marvelously crafted but enigmatic surfaces. Whatever deeper meaning the poems have–if, indeed, they do cohere at a deeper level–remains largely inaccessible to the reader. Tate provides vivid and abundant images but no intuitive sense of their relation to one another. A reader can witness Tate’s dreamscapes but rarely enter them fully. Rereading Tate’s Selected Poems to prepare for this broadcast, I was reminded of the Austrian Expressionist, Georg Trakl, who died during the first World War. Trakl is an opaque and hermetic poet of extraordinary originality–a far more challenging poet in many ways than Tate. Yet, as one studies Trakl’s richly lyric work, the poems acquire powerful resonance and meaning. Text and subtext cohere for the reader–intuitively, emotionally, intellectually. Even if the reader is at a loss to paraphrase the literal meaning of a poem, he or she feels it holistically. In comparison, Tate remains deliberately elusive. Not only the author disappears behind these poems but also ultimately the poems themselves–vanishing like the Cheshire Cat behind its own sly smile.

And yet, what would Wonderland be without a Cheshire Cat? Although James Tate’s work can be frustratingly evanescent, it provides abundant pleasures all its own. And if contemporary poetry needs to get more serious about anything, it is pleasure.

A radio review of Jame Tate’s Selected Poems originally broadcast on BBC Radio 3, text first printed in Denver Quarterly, Fall 1998.