A Comedy Fan's Guide to Poetry: James Tate

A recommendation.

A Comedy Fan's Guide to Poetry: James Tate

I was going to write a long list of poets I think you might like if you enjoy certain schools of comedy, but then I realized it might be more fun to make it a recurring series. So, here's the first one of that. Hope you're well and stay safe out there.

In one of my favorite poems by the late James Tate, “Uneasy about the Sounds of Some Night Wandering Animal,” the speaker is driving to work when he hears a news report announcing that “a big part of reality has been removed.” He promptly loses his bearings: familiar city landmarks have vanished around him, apartment buildings replaced by empty fields, a shifting desert that stretches for miles. Eventually he pulls over and calls a coworker to come retrieve him, but the man arrives as a disembodied voice, separated from the speaker in some sort of parallel reality—perhaps the reality where everything has disappeared to. The speaker seems to find reassurance in this (Tate’s characters are always finding silver linings in terrifying circumstances) and settles in for the impending night. “It was a parallel night, much like the other,” he concludes, “and that was some comfort, cold comfort, as they like to say.”

As with much of Tate’s work, it’s less any particular line or phrase that sticks with me than the haunting central image—a man just trying to get to work in a suddenly unfamiliar world. I remember Tate’s poems the way I remember dreams, usually, as an inexplicable rush of emotion combined with an image or two, the sensation of something feeling real and the knowledge it’s not. This may be by design. Tate employed many poetic modes throughout his long career, settling in his later years into a rambling, prose-like style, his speakers telling long and absurd stories in lines that stretch across the page. But this is not the maximalist, voice-driven absurdism of someone like George Saunders; while the events are often surreal, the tone is always straightforward and factual. They have that dreamlike quality of gibberish that makes perfect sense when you hear it, and that other dreamlike quality where gibberish somehow taps into a deeper emotional language. Here’s his poem “Cherubic”:

I took my daughter Kelsey to the train
station. As the train was leaving, we waved
and waved to one another. I never saw her again.
She went on to become the first woman on the moon.
How she got there nobody knew. And she never
came back, as far as I know. And she never wrote
me a letter, she never called. I just hope she’s
happy, my moonbeam. Every night I’m at my telescope.
I’ve seen dinosaurs, snow leopards, flamingos.
I saw a one-eyed dog wagging its tail. I saw a
mail truck. I saw a sailboat, but, of course,
there is no water. I saw a sign for water pointing
to the earth. I saw a sign for hamburgers
pointing to the earth. And I saw a little girl
fall off her tricycle. A poof of atomic tangerine
dust, that’s all. I never saw the girl again.
The tumbled tricycle’s wheels kept spinning.
Sleep, I said, sleep, little baby.

Also his poems are funny. They’re dry, they’re witty, they treat serious matters with silliness and silly matters with seriousness. Despite their propensity for long-windedness, they’re secretly interested in economy of language. They love to take surprising turns and spring beautifully funny words on you; they’re full of straight-man characters, lists, and creative juxtapositions. I mean, come on, a little girl falling off her tricycle on the moon? That’s comedy.

If you think Tate might be up your alley—and if you like slow, shaggy-dog standup that knows you know it’s taking you for a ride and tries to bring you somewhere worthwhile anyway, then I think he’ll be up your alley—I’d recommend starting with his 2008 collection The Ghost Soldiers, which contains the two poems above, or maybe his more recent book Dome of the Hidden Pavilion. I hope you enjoy.