James Tate was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1943. He studied at the University of Missouri and at Kansas State College and, finally, at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Just before graduation his first volume of poems appeared which would initiate a whole era. »The Lost Pilot« (1967) was given the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, the most prestigious American distinction for a poetic debut.
The twenty-three year old’s work was to leave its mark on a whole generation of poets and influence the predominant lyrical sound of the seventies. Since then Tate – whose style has developed through an impressive number of books and booklets of poems – has been considered the poet who made Surrealism native to the American vernacular. The title poem of his debut book is exceptional within his work on account of its autobiographical subject matter since his writing otherwise tends to avoid the confessional tone so favoured in America. In it he imagines the father he never met – who disappeared as a pilot during the Second World War – in a touching but entirely unsentimental address as floating around the world in eternal orbit, »like a small African god«. Surprising metaphors, unusual turns of phrase, associative leaps and semantic inconsistencies are Surrealist stylistic devices which characterise the often evoked »dream logic« in his poems. With an uncontrived casual air, Tate weaves these strands together in a contradiction of pathos and everyday life, melancholia and humour. This characteristically serious strain of humour was to become a trademark of his work, which never retreated into hermetic distance, overladen with meanings, but always remained easily accessible to the reader due to its masterly use of everyday speech. Yet the poems deny the representational function of language: »We enjoy colloquial speech because it brings things vividly to life instead of being homogenised by our culture. Setting that language in motion unsettles the reader in a deep way. The reader thinks that the poem is making a statement and then all of a sudden the poem insists that the reader think about words, not about content.«
After publishing only two books of poems in the eighties, Tate earned the attention of a much larger readership when his »Selected Poems« was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the William Carlos Williams Award in 1991. In Germany, meanwhile, Joachim Sartorius mentioned him in his »Atlas der neuen Poesie« (1995). In 2004 Tate’s first book appeared in German translation, a selection entitled »Der falsche Weg nach Hause«, followed by his most recent book of poetry, »Return to the City of White Donkeys« (2004).
Alongside his poetry Tate has also published a novel and two volumes of short stories. The poet has received numerous awards and is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. He has been teaching at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst since 1971.
© internationales literaturfestival berlin
The Lost Pilot
Yale University Press
New Haven, 1967
Temple Bar Bookshop
Cambridge, Mass., 1974
Release Press, Brooklyn, NY
Berkeley, Calif., 1977
New York, 1983
Worshipful Company of Fletchers
Hopewell, NJ, 1994
Memoir of the Hawk
New York, 2001
Der falsche Weg nach Hause
[T: Jan Wagner]
Return to the City of White Donkeys
New York, 2004