Reading Matters

Pulitzer-winning poet James Tate: Rarely boring, never pretentious

James Tate, who died July 8 at age 71 in Amherst, Mass., believed that comedy and tragedy occupy the same stage.

I always enjoyed Tate’s poetry because you knew anything might happen by the end of the poem. It isn’t “pretty poetry,” it isn’t decorative or pretentious. It’s surprising and sometimes ridiculous and rarely boring.

Some sources say that Tate, who won both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, planned to become a gas station attendant. He was a mediocre student and fell into poetry after experimenting with the form one day in his dorm room at Kansas State. He went on to earn an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and, while there, his first collection, “The Lost Pilot,” was selected to be in the Yale Younger Poets Series.

Tate’s father was inducted into the military in 1942, when he’d been married less than a year. He never met his son, who was four months old when his father crashed while flying a bombing mission over Germany.

In his poem, “Where Babies Come From,” Tate concludes with these lines:

“In their dreams Mama and Papa

are standing on the shore

for what seems like an eternity,

and it is almost always the wrong shore.”

Tate’s second marriage was to the poet Dara Wier. His last collection, “Dome of the Hidden Pavilion,” will be pubished in August by Ecco Press.

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