Authors: James Tate

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet

Author Works


The Lost Pilot, 1967

The Oblivion Ha-Ha, 1970

Hints to Pilgrims, 1971, 1982

Absences: New Poems, 1972

Viper Jazz, 1976

Riven Doggeries, 1979

Constant Defender, 1983

Reckoner, 1986

Distance from Loved Ones, 1990

Selected Poems, 1991

Worshipful Company of Fletchers, 1994

Shroud of the Gnome, 1997

Police Story, 1999

Memoir of the Hawk, 2001

Long Fiction:

Lucky Darryl, 1977 (with Bill Knott)

Short Fiction:

Hottentot’s Ossuary, 1974

Dreams of a Robot Dancing Bee: Forty-four Stories, 2002


The Route as Briefed, 1999

Edited Text:

The Best American Poetry, 1997, 1997


James Vincent Tate grew up in the Midwest and was educated at the University of Missouri at Columbia and at Kansas State College, where he received his B.A. He began writing poems seriously during these years and, on the basis of their quality, he was admitted to the University of Iowa’s Creative Writing program, one of the best of its kind. By the time he received his M.F.A. degree in 1967, he had begun a teaching career of his own and achieved some small acclaim as a poet. From 1966 to 1967, he subsidized his studies as a graduate instructor and saw a few of his poems collected in a small monograph printed in limited edition, Cages, as well as anthologized in Poets of the Heartland. Shortly thereafter he won the Yale Younger Poets Series competition, which led to the publication of his first full-fledged book of poems, The Lost Pilot. It was an auspicious debut. Tate, the series’ youngest winner, was hailed as one of the most promising voices of his generation.{$I[AN]9810001582}{$I[A]Tate, James}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Tate, James}{$I[tim]1943;Tate, James}

James Tate

(© Jill Krementz)

He spent the 1967 to 1968 academic year at the University of California at Berkeley as a visiting lecturer, after which he returned to the East Coast and for two years taught at Columbia University. After spending 1970 to 1971 in Boston as poet-in-residence at Emerson College, he began teaching at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. By this time Tate had to his credit nearly a dozen monograph-length works published in limited editions by fine arts presses; a second book, The Oblivion Ha-Ha, issued by a major publisher (Little, Brown); a third book, Absences, nearing publication; and a lengthy list of publications in an array of magazines and literary journals, including The New Yorker, The Nation, and the Paris Review.

Tate went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for his Selected Poems, a volume providing striking evidence of his productivity. His other work notwithstanding, The Lost Pilot may be his most beloved work, and the one where his most immediate roots as poet are to be found. In this work can be heard echoes of such Midwestern poets as John Knoepfle, Father Raymond Roseliep, or David Madden.

If his roots are in evidence, however, so are concerns that proved to be central to Tate’s later works. At the time of Tate’s birth, his father was a pilot serving overseas in the Army Air Corps; he was killed in 1944 before seeing his child. In “The Lost Pilot,” which is dedicated to his father, Tate ponders with childlike wonder the ties he feels toward a man he never knew; in his imagination and soul his father is alive to a degree he probably never would have been had he survived. “The Book of Lies” begins with the lines “I’d like to have a word/ with you. Could we be alone/ for a minute? I have been lying/ until now . . . .” In these poems and elsewhere in the volume can be seen the need to bridge the gulf between the speaker of the poem and a world beyond, a search for a language and a voice that can somehow make sense of personal experience and articulate it in ways that make sense publicly.

Though the style of Tate’s next books is different, the same kind of concern can be seen in such poems as “Shadowboxing,” in which through a metaphor supplied by the title Tate examines the tension that binds lovers together at the same time it keeps them apart: “Come here, let me touch you, you say./ He comes closer. Come close, you say. Then. Whack! And/ you start again, moving around and around . . .”

In his work, Tate addresses how and why people are better defined by the absences in their lives than by that which they can inventory; throughout there is a search for a language with which to codify and organize the experiences that make human beings most human. The best of Tate’s later work builds upon what was accomplished earlier. Here, too, the loneliness of the human condition remains his central concern. The title poem of The Lost Pilot, for example, is recalled in the title poem of Distance from Loved Ones, which ponders the intimacies shared by parent and child at the same time that it explores how those roles keep the two apart.

In Worshipful Company of Fletchers, which won the National Book Award, Tate’s mood and style become a little darker. Here, Tate has moved his strategies from previous books into a single thrust of reasoning aimed at the disenchanted world of adulthood and its mundane circumstances. He is the confirmed orphan living without benefit of a father’s counsel or affection. In this and succeeding books, the poems report events from a slightly skewed perspective.

Stylistically, an increasing concern with the form of the poems can be discerned. Most notable is Tate’s attempt to distill a poetic conceit into the simplest of forms while at the same time the line-by-line appearance of the poem is prosaic. It is as if Tate has become mistrustful of poetic form over the years, or perhaps more aware of the limitations of poetry as a means of connecting human beings.

BibliographyLevis, Larry. “Eden and My Generation.” In Conversant Essays: Contemporary Poets on Poetry, edited by James McCorkle. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990. A broad-ranging survey of the lines and forces of contemporary poetry, in which James Tate is located, and of its major theme in the loss of Eden.McDaniel, Craig. “James Tate’s Secret Co-Pilot.” New England Review 23, no. 2 (Spring, 2002): 55-74. Examines Tate’s development as a poet in relationship to Fyodor Dostoevski’s prose and how it influenced “The Lost Pilot.”Rosen, R. D. “James Tate and Sidney Goldfarb and the Inexhaustible Nature of the Murmur.” In American Poetry Since 1960: Some Critical Perspectives, edited by Robert B. Shaw. Cheshire, England: Carcanet Press, 1973. Argues that both Tate and Goldfarb belong to a generation that uses poetry to escape from the postwar age; their writing, notes Rosen, is that of moral outlaws.Tate, James. The Route as Briefed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999. Collects Tate’s interviews, essays, and occasional writings together, where he comments on his composing method, or fields questions from various interviewers about the peculiar nature of his lyric arguments, his influences, and the like.Upton, Lee. The Muse of Abandonment: Origin, Identity, Mastery in Five American Poets. London: Associated University Presses, 1998. A critical study of the works of five twentieth century American poets, including Tate, and their points of view on alienation, power, and identity. Includes bibliographical references and index.
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