James Tate died today. I didn’t know him well, personally, but so many people I love very much did. Right now, the loss feels like a big hole, like time passing in that terrible way it does. His poems meant a lot to so many people, and they meant a lot to me. I can take solace in knowing they will always be there. With his life, he has done a very good thing.
I taught myself how to read poems, write poems, and love poems, by reading James Tate’s poems. Nearly 20 years ago, he quickly became the poet who wrote the poems that vibrated at my frequency.
Even this past week, I had the luxury of hearing him speak about poetry at the Juniper Institute. I wrote down a lot of what he said that day. I forget the questions exactly, but his answers were, “I know for certain that I don’t know,” and “I knew nothing,” and “I was amazed by my own naiveté,” and “I’m not a genius or anything,” and “You know, you don’t have to be a scholar,” and “I only had three keys, but there were 50 locked doors.” And of where his ideas for poems come from, he also said, “I was just trying to solve something that had been haunting me my whole life.” He continually reminds me, as I read him, and as I listened to him speak just last week, that poetry, for me, is a fun and necessary adventure.
Here is James Tate reading a poem called The New Mayor. I recorded him reading it just two weeks ago.
I hope you’ll all re-read your favorite James Tate book this week. And if you’ve never read him, I hope you’ll read your first. You can start with this poem, from one of my favorite books, Memoir of the Hawk. It is the poem after which I named this blog, when I started it way back in 2003. Its last lines now shake me up even more today.
THE LOVELY ARC OF A METEOR IN THE NIGHT SKY
At the party there were those sage souls
who swam along the bottom like those huge white
fish who live for hundreds of years but have no
fun. They are nearly blind and need the cold.
William was a stingray guarding his cave. Only
those prepared for mortal battle came close to
him. Closer to the surface the smaller fish
played, swimming in mixed patterns only a god
could decipher. They gossiped and fed and sparred
and consumed, and some no doubt even spawned.
It’s a life filled with agitation, thrills,
melodrama and twittery, but too soon it’s over.
And nothing’s revealed because it was never known.