More James Tate

There are so many characters in James Tate’s Memoir of the Hawk that it’s easy to lose track of them. I suspect it would be hard to find much consensus by various readers on favorite poems, because how you feel about a poem is so dependent on your own life experiences.

For instance, the two poems I’m discussing here probably appeal to me because I spent so much of my life teaching. The first one could almost serve as a personal biography:


A hermit is said to be living on the far
side of the lake, but no one has ever seen him.
They say he lives in a cave a little ways up
the mountain. They say he used to be a school-
teacher of some kind, and then one day he had
had enough. He’s not a holy man or anything
like that, he just got tired of people’s ways.
They call him Invisible Tom, though in truth
no one knows his name. He’s just their last,
best hope, but I don’t think he exists. These
same people, one minute they’re digging furiously
in a corner of their backyard, the next minute
they’re flat on their backs watching a television
program on marital impotence. I tell you, you
can’t believe a word they say. And yet I’ve
seen the sunlight glint on a bronze flagon from
over there and I’ve wondered what that life would

Invisible Loren. I kind of like the sound of that. While it’s not exactly true that I’m living a hermetic life, I’m sure it might appear that way to many people as I spend much more time walking with Skye in the woods than I do with other people. We won’t even mention how much time I spend alone in my study reading and plunking away on my computer keyboard.

The following poem probably suggests why Invisible Tom finally got “tired of people’s ways and fled to his cave in the mountain:”


“Would you like to have your head examined?”
I said to Kinky, who was holding his head. “Oh yes,”
he said, “I would like to know what’s wrong with
me.” Gloom was his life, despair was his only food.
I opened up his head. My God, it was dark in there,
and full of cobwebs with dead flies in them. “There
are no lights in here,” I said. “It looks like you
have had no visitors in years. And there’s not a
trace of an idea, just a rat gnawing on its tail
hoping to become a saint in some counterfeit hell.”
“I love that rat,” Kinky said. “He’s the last of
my monsters, old skin and bones.”

There’s nothing more frightening to a teacher than sitting down with a student trying to discover a good writing topic only to realize that there’s probably not an idea in his head worth writing about, just some old, irrational fears he’s inherited from his parents. Too often when I read “letters to the editor” in the local newspaper, I’m forced to wonder if there aren’t a lot more people like this than I ever imagined while I was teaching.

Tate is a sharp observer of human behavior, and at the very least it’s difficult not to be amused by many of the poems in his book. I must admit, though, that I often found myself put off by the way Tate has chosen to present his prose poems. It seems to me to be somewhat disingenuous to break lines at a particular length to give the impression of poetic lines, when the breaks turn out to be nearly arbitrary. I prefer my prose poems justified, not broken to give the appearance of poetic lines.

7 thoughts on “More James Tate”

  1. I meant to leave this comment under your earlier Tate post, but here will have to do.

    I love how strangely childlike his poems are. They deal with adult themes, to be sure, but there’s something about their matter-of-fact articulation that’s reminscent of the stories of children.

  2. Thanks for the heads-up on my comments, Siona. Apparently I’m still having problems since I turned comments off while on vacation.

    You’re right. There is something immediate, an almost childlike honesty in his poems. Perhaps that overrode my usual distaste for prose poems.

  3. I’m so glad you made that comment on Tate’s lines. I wanted to, but thought, oh that’s just being ornery. But I then thought, no there has to be rhyme (well not literally) or reason for these peculair breaks. But then his “there/are” and “a/trace” takes the cake. Nope. No reason.

  4. Ornery’s good. I’ve been known to be ornery.

    I’ve put myself in the position of generally ignoring style here, and it’s true that content is the most important factor for me. But that doesn’t mean I’m indifferent to style and don’t recognize it when I see (or hear) it.

    Truly great poetry has to have both content and style.

    My friend Mike and I can argue an awful lot over minor poets, but we always seem to agree on “great” poets and great poems.

  5. I have to confess that “prose poetry” – which seems like a dichotomous misnomer to me – leaves me cold. There’s none of the flow that, for me, gives poetry it’s entry into my soul. To misquote “The Karate Kid”, either “poetry do, yes, or poetry do, no”.

    As bursts of prose, however, they’re interesting.

  6. Loren: just spotted your Tate samples and comments. I found them while looking for an early Tate poem (Lost Pilot) that you might enjoy, from his first published book. But I also agree about his casual attitude about where the lines break. I know he is purposely doing that, not to be impudent or merely artsy-cutesy, but anti-formal so that the
    poem is not obliged to behave like a creature grown in a box. I think he’s trying to tap into what you call the childlike. See my separate comments about Kunitz’ notion that all good poets
    hearken to a set of primordial (personal) images that shape their work. In Tate’s case, the poems appear to be almost an exercise in trusting the impulsive rather than the logical, ordered world. They ramble in a playful way, always paying at least a semblance of homage to their theme, but not mired in it.

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