James Tate (writer)

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James Tate
Tate (left) at the Grolier Poetry Book Shop in 1965 with the owner, Gordon Cairnie
Born James Vincent Tate
(1943-12-08)December 8, 1943
Kansas City, Missouri, USA
Died July 8, 2015(2015-07-08) (aged 71)
Amherst, Massachusetts, USA
Occupation Poet, professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst
Notable works Worshipful Company of Fletchers
Notable awards

Pulitzer Prize

National Book Award

James Vincent Tate (December 8, 1943 – July 8, 2015) was an American poet whose work earned him the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. He was a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst[1][2][3] and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.


Tate was born in Kansas City, Missouri, where he lived with his mother and his grandparents in his grandparents' house. His father, a pilot in World War II, had died in combat on April 11, 1944, before Tate was a year old. Tate and his mother moved out after seven years when she remarried. The eventual poet said he belonged to a gang in high school and had little interest in literature. He planned on being a gas station attendant as his uncle had been, but finding that his friends to his surprise were going to college, he applied to Kansas State College of Pittsburg (now Pittsburg State University) in 1961. Tate wrote his first poem a few months into college with no external motivation; he observed that poetry "became a private place that I was hugely drawn to, where I could let my daydreams—and my pain—come in completely disguised. I knew from the moment I started writing that I never wanted to be writing about my life."[4] In college he read Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams and was "in heaven". He received his B.A. in 1965, going on to earn his M.F.A. from the University of Iowa's famed Writer's Workshop. During this period he was finally exposed to fellow poets and he became interested in surrealism, reading Max Jacob, Robert Desnos, and André Breton; for Benjamin Péret he expressed particular affection. Of poets writing in Spanish, César Vallejo "destroyed" him but he was not so taken by the lyricism or romanticism of Pablo Neruda or Federico García Lorca.

He was married to Dara Wier. Tate died on July 8, 2015 at the age of 71.[5]


Tate taught creative writing at the University of California, Berkeley, Columbia University,[1] and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he worked from 1971 until his death in 2015.[1] He was a member of the poetry faculty at the MFA Program for Poets & Writers, along with Dara Wier and Peter Gizzi.

Dudley Fitts selected Tate's first book of poems, The Lost Pilot (1967), for the Yale Series of Younger Poets while Tate was still a student at the Writers' Workshop; Fitts praised Tate's writing for its "natural grace." Tate's first volume of poetry, Cages, was published by Shepherd's Press, Iowa City, 1966.

Tate won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize[6] and the Poetry Society of America's William Carlos Williams Award in 1991 for his Selected Poems. In 1994, he won the National Book Award for his poetry collection Worshipful Company of Fletchers.[7]

Tate's writing style is often described as surrealistic, comic and absurdist.[8][9] His work has captivated other poets as diverse as John Ashbery and Dana Gioia.[8][10] Regarding his own work, Tate said, "My characters usually are—or, I’d say most often, I don’t want to generalize too much—but most often they’re in trouble, and they’re trying to find some kind of life." [8] This view is supported by the poet Tony Hoagland's observation that "his work of late has been in prose poems, in which his picaresque speaker or characters are spinning through life, inquisitive and clueless as Candide, trying to identify and get with the fiction of whatever world they are in."[11]

In addition to many books of poetry, he published two books of prose, Dreams of a Robot Dancing Bee (2001) and The Route as Briefed (1999).

Some of Tate's additional awards included a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award, the Wallace Stevens Award, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He was also a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.[12]

Published works[edit]

Full-length poetry collections
  • The Eternal Ones of the Dream: Selected Poems 1990-2010 (Ecco Press, 2012)
  • The Ghost Soldiers (Ecco Press, 2008)
  • Return to the City of White Donkeys (Ecco Press, 2004)
  • Memoir of the Hawk (Ecco Press, 2002)
  • Shroud of the Gnome (Ecco Press, 1997)
  • Worshipful Company of Fletchers: Poems (Ecco Press, 1994) — winner of the National Book Award[7]
  • Selected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 1991) — winner of the Pulitzer Prize[6] and the William Carlos Williams Award
  • Distance from Loved Ones (Wesleyan University Press, 1990)
  • Reckoner (Wesleyan University Press, 1986)
  • Constant Defender (Ecco Press, 1983)
  • Riven Doggeries (Ecco Press, 1979)
  • Viper Jazz (Wesleyan University Press, 1976)
  • Absences: New Poems (Little, Brown & Co., 1972)
  • Hints to Pilgrims (Halty Ferguson, 1971)
  • The Oblivion Ha-Ha (Little, Brown & Co., 1970)
  • The Lost Pilot (Yale University Press, 1967)
  • The Zoo Club (Rain Taxi, 2011)
  • Lost River (Sarabande Books, 2003)
  • Police Story (Rain Taxi, 1999)
  • Just Shades (Parallel Editions, 1985, illustrated by John Alcorn)
  • Land of Little Sticks (Metacom Press, 1981)
  • Apology for Eating Geoffrey Movius’ Hyacinth (Unicorn Press, 1972)
  • Amnesia People (Little Balkans Press, 1970)
  • Wrong Songs (H. Ferguson, 1970)
  • Shepherds of the Mist (Black Sparrow Press, 1969)
  • The Torches (Unicorn Press, 1968)
  • Dreams of a Robot Dancing Bee: 44 Stories (Verse Press, 2002)
  • The Route as Briefed (University of Michigan Press, 1999)
  • Hottentot Ossuary (Temple Bar Bookshop, 1974)
  • Lucky Darryl (Release Press, 1977, a novel co-written with Bill Knott)
  • Are You Ready, Mary Baker Eddy??? (Cloud Marauder Press, 1970, poems co-written with Bill Knott)
In anthologies

Tate's work has been included in The Best American Poetry series numerous times, including in 2010, 2008, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2001, 1998, 1997, 1994, 1993, 1991, 1990, and 1988; his work was also in the The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry.

Honors and awards[edit]

Tate was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2004;[1] other recognition includes:


  1. ^ a b c d James Tate elected to American Academy of Arts and Letters, a April 29, 2004 article from University of Massachusetts Amherst
  2. ^ "James Tate- Poets.org - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More". Poets.org. 1943-12-08. Retrieved 2013-10-23. 
  3. ^ "James Tate, poet | Wave Books". Wavepoetry.com. 2002-04-04. Retrieved 2013-10-23. 
  4. ^ Simic, Charles. "Interview with James Tate". The Paris Review. Retrieved 24 June 2014. 
  5. ^ http://www.recorder.com/home/17684626-95/acclaimed-poet-umass-professor-james-tate-dies-at-71
  6. ^ a b c "Poetry". Past winners & finalists by category. The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved 2012-04-08.
  7. ^ a b c "National Book Awards – 1994". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-04-08. (With essay by Evie Shockley from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.)
  8. ^ a b c Hoagland, Tony. "James Tate". The Poetry Foundation. Retrieved 2013-10-23. 
  9. ^ Ellman, Richard and Robert O'Clair.The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, Second edition. New York: W.W. Norton, 1988.
  10. ^ Tate, James. Selected Poems. Blurb.
  11. ^ Campion, Peter (2010-09-01). "Recognition, Vertigo, and Passionate Worldliness by Tony Hoagland". Poetryfoundation.org. Retrieved 2013-10-23. 
  12. ^ [1][dead link]
  13. ^ a b "John Ashbery on James Tate- Poets.org - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More". Poets.org. 1927-07-28. Retrieved 2013-10-23. 

External links[edit]