From the James Tate Tribute


If recent tributes prove anything, it’s that James Tate is still known almost exclusively for the single, widely anthologized poem “The Lost Pilot” (1967), and his masterful and hugely influential later books, like the sharply comic A Worshipful Company of Fletchers (1994) and Shroud of the Gnome (1997). 

To pick up any of the eight-or-so intervening books—the aphoristic Absences (1972) or even his marvelous Selected Poems (1991)—is to discover just how wide his career arc traveled. Tate’s constant and successful reinventions are underappreciated. Some of his most spectacular work is hidden in plain sight, the pieces from the Ransom Center archive being yet another portal.

I only met James Tate once. Like an apparition, he appeared in the back row of a reading I gave at UMass-Amherst many years ago. It was a presence no doubt born of institutional obligation, though that didn’t make it any less significant for me.

So high were my hopes of meeting Tate on that trip that I had packed Viper Jazz into my bag as a totem. I approached him after the reading to express my gratitude and have him inscribe his book, which he did with grace. He was frail, his pen trembling slowly to the page.

I thought back to this moment when I learned of Tate’s passing. I tried to recall what Tate had inscribed. I couldn’t remember the words, only the pride they filled me with at the time. So I fetched my copy of Viper Jazz to see what he had said.

Inside the book, its title page read: “For Dobby. Great poems. James Tate.” This now strikes me as hilarious. Whose poetry was he deeming “great”? Mine? I’d be an arrogant fool to think so! His poems—the poems of the book Viper Jazz? Infinitely more true! But how to know for sure?

How appropriate it feels to read that inscription as another of Tate’s pitch-perfect punk gestures, one riddled with exquisite indeterminacy, one created just for me! Yet another opportunity to wonder at a world designed to astonish and conspire against us. And still to be entirely grateful for it. To adore the unknowable. Aren’t these the very sensations of experiencing the art of James Tate?

Tate invented a mirror world. It’s similar to our own, but even more intensely strange, beautiful, and full of uncanny juxtapositions. By passing through it, we get to absorb a little more of the unlikelihood of our very existence, a measure of the degree to which so-called reality is a total mirage, and perhaps most of all, an intense wonder that makes us feel more fully alive. James Tate’s work is a manual for enlargement we can carry anywhere.

Dobby Gibson is the author of three books of poetry, most recently It Becomes You (Graywolf), which was shortlisted for the Believer Poetry Award. He's received fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, the Jerome Foundation, and the Minnesota State Arts Board. He has been a visiting associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin and currently lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.