From the James Tate Tribute


So much mischief is at work in James Tate’s poems, and that mischief is evident in the archival materials reproduced here. The bonneted child in “Behave Thyself” looks willing to commit an infraction—so seemingly unstoppable is she, so resistant to standard pieties. Every time I look at her eyes and the incongruous heading above her, I find myself smiling. Tate worked in the rich field of incongruity—and the delight and mystery incongruities of all sorts create, and the resultant laughter.

The deep channels of feeling in Tate’s work allow for many kinds of laughter and many levels of laughter—especially the laughter that opposes fixed opinions. The laughter of recognition, of sorrow, of refusal, of rebellion, of anger, of absurdity, of joy. Nervous laughter. Inappropriate laughter. Quiet laughter. And the whole body convulsions of uncontrollable laughter. Intelligent laughter and laughter that mocks the pretensions of intelligence.  

Years ago I heard a friend say—with admiration—about James Tate, “That man could pick up a nickel off the street and laugh.” And there was James Tate, across from a Taco Bell, and he and his friends were bent over with laughter. The odd thing is that there was more than a little truth in what my friend said. It’s not only true that Tate could find a satisfactory weirdness worth observing in even the most common occurrences. But I’m just about positive that my friend didn’t know that Tate published “A Dime Found in the Snow” in Viper Jazz, and my friend couldn’t have known that years later Tate would publish “The Found Penny” in Return to the City of White Donkeys.   

A deep empathy runs through Tate’s work—a sense of how united we are in the way luck may abandon us, how even our good intentions may produce terrible, even cruel, results. I think of the strength and subtlety of Tate’s work and his radiant kindness. I also think of Mark Twain’s famous line, “Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.”   

A couple of years ago at a panel at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference, I discussed an aspect of Tate’s work that I find especially resonant and that I’m going to bring up again here. In Tate’s work it’s bragging—but bragging in reverse. And I love his speakers for it. It’s familiar. I’m from the Midwest. Sometimes it’s said that people from that part of the country are wholesome and humble. It’s not true. They brag as much as anyone but sometimes, admittedly, it’s bragging in reverse. That tendency is fully alive in a poem like “My Great Great Etc. Uncle Patrick Henry”:

My family's obviously done nothing since the beginning
of time.They invented poverty and bad taste
and getting by and taking it from the boss. 

Or in “The Great Root System”: “For a block of wood, I am so very busy.”Or in “Taxidermy”: “I’m all thumbs now. I get pregnant / squeezing my thumbs through buttonholes.” Or in “Autosuggestion: USS North Carolina”:

But what did we know?
We were rank amateurs. We were poseurs of the worst sort.
We were out of our league. We belonged in Little League
uniforms, but we couldn’t afford them, and our sponsors
were idiots and dunces and drifters and no-count
amalgamated mud merchants.

That stance—exuberant about foregoing the self-assured measures of competence and good behavior, refusing to cling to an authoritative position—it’s evident when we look once again at “Behave Thyself” in the reproduction from the archive published in this issue. That child appears to be more alive, more observant, more heady with potential, more aligned with anarchic mischief than anyone around her can guess. Her bonnet can’t disguise her expression, which indicates she’s more than a little allergic to the serious warnings of elders. The cut-out newsprint heading “Behave Thyself” is an instruction—to be obeyed in reverse.  
The note of laughter appears in another form among these archival materials. In the typescript of the poem “Brave Face” laughter—presumably whether searing, bitter, tender, provocative—is a means of self-defense. Originally the poem was titled “Adversity.” That title was scratched out and replaced with “Brave Face.” As with “Behave Thyself” a face is telling, even putting on a face. In “Brave Face” laughter is not the only means, but surely one of the key ways, to defend against the wolf that prowls at every door: “Laughter, of almost any kind, seems to frighten it. / That and the sound of its own name.”

Photo by Cece Ziolkowski

Photo by Cece Ziolkowski

Lee Upton’s most recent book is Bottle the Bottles the Bottles the Bottles, from the Cleveland State University Poetry Center. Her collection of short stories, The Tao of Humiliation, was named one of the “Best Books of 2014” by Kirkus Reviews.