“And who // really cares about such special days, they / are not what we live for.” James Tate was an American poet and winner of the Pulitzer Prize who passed away on July 8th. He wasn’t interested in the once-in-a-lifetime “special” days, like the wedding referenced in this poem. Like many poets, he was after the mystery in the ordinary. “The challenge is always to find the ultimate in the ordinary horseshit,” he said in his poem called “South End,” and in his interview with poet Charles Simic for The Paris Review. In his poems, the ultimate is often found by a transformation of the ordinary into the bizarre.
His poem, A Glowworm, a Lemur, and Some Women, begins,
A Glowworm drove by
on its way to a Philosophy Department meeting.
It was in a very large car,
and the radio was playing loudly.
Two nude women were praying at the stoplight.
A lemur hopped onto the hood
and asked directions to the nearest gorse bush.
Oddity and surprise marks this strange world. Tate creates a situation, or a set of characters, and then follows them to their conclusion. In The Paris Review, Tate says,
“The hardest work for me is creating the situation, this new reality. Once that’s done I can work within it, follow the implications. I take a step, I see what the new implications are, I take another step, I see what the next implications are—and I just proceed like that.
Humor lurks in these strange worlds. As the story of the glowworm, the lemur, and the women progresses, the familiar becomes odd, comical. In his poem, How the Pope is Chosen, Tate imagines the pope as a dog and describes him as a judge might describe a show dog.
But these humorous situations often become tragic or serious. Tate tells Simic that the comedic and tragic can’t be separated, and the one leads into the other in much of his work. After saying that the popes chew up crosses and have mouths covered in black flies, he ends the poem, “Eyebrows are a protection / when the pope must plunge through dense underbrush // in search of a sheep.” This image can go two different ways, either suggesting how the pope, is like Jesus the Good Shepherd, the good sheepdog, hoping to protect his flock, or it can suggest a more predatory one. Peering from the underbrush, the pope is a wild dog in search of prey.
Tate follows implications through to surprising conclusions, turning humor into critique and tragedy, mystery into revelation.