James Tate, Bourgeois Surrealist (A Decent Thing to Be)

Poetry based on neo-surrealist free association, homespun absurdities, televisual appetites, and a twitchy sense of humor (much of it written in a voice that, on a rhetorical level, describes impossible scenes with great clarity) isn’t for every reader—just the ones with good taste.

Hey everyone, allow me to introduce James Tate, if you haven’t already made his acquaintance. Tate published his first book of poems in 1967, when the slightly older John Ashbery was developing his own eccentric vocabulary, and with plausible reason the two poets are often compared. Tate’s poems are leaner than Ashbery’s, however. This is a compliment. Whereas even in his best years (before the late 80s) Ashbery dabbled in torturous syntax and ironic maunderings with no payoff (not even nihilistic humor), Tate is handy with short lines, stand-up-comic weirdness, and a narrative (kinda) sensibility based on image-to-image jumps. Sometimes the stanzas can be downright spindly, in a Kay Ryan or Donald Justice sort of way.

An aesthetic like this can easily degenerate into rote, tedious auto-Dada. (You put a thing beside another thing it doesn’t usually go beside, then brandished an unexpected cognitive reaction. Human minds are weird, modernity is cheap, got it. And no need to conclude!) Tate has written some bad poems; but as Auden pointed out when the Paris Review interviewed him, so has every poet.

Tate isn’t a collage artist, but he does love junk and abundance. You might call it Bricolage Wave. His strongest work exploits the material vocabulary of the mid-century United States, dicing up its cynical romanticism and physical paraphernalia (motorcycles, eyeliner, confetti, cigarettes, motels, telephones, advertising puns, litter, bureaucracies). The poems are salads. Many are comic with an edge of menace. For texts that generally disdain rhythmic regularity, their forms often exhibit a fine grasp of written music. They challenge one’s attempts at interpretation while still drawing upon a reservoir of culture literacy and demanding that the reader be familiar with this.

This is all to say, Tate is worth reading. If you like Seinfeld and Tom Waits (or Action Bronson), you will enjoy him. Here is “On the Subject of Doctors,” part of the collection Viper Jazz (1976), which sounds like a Steely Dan album. The final seven lines in particular show Tate’s talent for low-key rhythms and half-humor. Keep it uneasy, yeah?

I like to see doctors cough.
What kind of human being
would grab all your money
just when you’re down?
I’m not saying they enjoy this:
“Sorry, Mr. Rodriguez, that’s it,
no hope! You might as well
hand over your wallet.” Hell no,
they’d rather be playing golf
and swapping jokes about our feet.

Some of them smoke marijuana
and are alcoholics, and their moral
turpitude is famous: who gets to see
most sex organs in the world? Not
poets. With the hours they keep
they need drugs more than anyone.
Germ city, there’s no hope
looking down those fire-engine throats.
They’re bound to get sick themselves
sometime; and I happen to be there
myself in a high fever
taking my plastic medicine seriously
with the doctors, who are dying.


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