Why the New York Times Failed James Tate

One of my favorite quotes about obituary writers appears in Mark Helprin’s novel “Winter’s Tale” and it goes like this:

The obituary writers drew their incomplete sketches, touring through his life like travelers to England who do not ever see swans, sheep, bicycles, and blue eyes.

I was put in mind of Helprin’s squib when I fell onto William Grimes’ obit of the poet James Tate which was clearly ripped from the notebook of a lazy tourist. Given Mr. Tate’s prominence one can scarcely imagine a vaunted paper like the New York Times approving so many cliches in any paragraph let alone the opening one:

Mr. Tate burst on the poetry scene in 1967 with the collection “The Lost Pilot,” selected for publication in the Yale Series of Younger Poets while he was still a graduate student at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Julian Symons, in The New Statesman, greeted Mr. Tate as “an ironical, original, self-absorbed poet who glances with amusement at love, humanity, himself.”

And if that doesn’t satisfy your appetite for pap, hold on to your bowl for here’s the second crot:

A prolific writer, he turned out one collection after another, none of them slim. “The Ghost Soldiers,” published in 2008, contains nearly 100 poems. He won a wide following, especially among younger readers attracted by his colloquial style, his gift for making unexpected connections, and his ability to extract humor from dark places. John Ashbery, one of his most ardent admirers, called him “the poet of possibilities, of morph, of surprising consequences, lovely or disastrous.

Grimes’ meretricious blab (culled from second hand sources no less) laden with limp lingo and a patrician tone suggests the passing of a first rate American poet deserves nothing more than granulated rubber.

I had to rub my eyes. You’d imagine, reading this that James Tate turned out innumerable fat books of verse, all of them colloquial and vaguely adolescent. Moreover you’d assume the English countryside is home to tiny cows.

Later Grimes tries to right himself but fails to recognize the jokes buried in an interview with the poet Charles Simic and the parodic sensibility Tate brought to discussions about craft–an inheritance from Marcel DuChamp and Stephen Mallarme.

Indeed I thought of Mallarme while reading Grimes as he said famously a newspaper is fit only for wrapping fish.

No one outside of Norman Podhoretz would go to the obituaries for literary consciousness but let’s remember Walter Whitman’s optimistic suggestion that a nation of great poets should be a nation equally filled with great readers.

You will never know from Grimes that James Tate was a student of aleatoric findings in language; that he was deeply read in the contingencies of philosophy; and was a lyric poet of breathtaking originality.

I will let the poet have the last word:

Dear Reader

I am trying to pry open your casket

with this burning snowflake.

I’ll give up my sleep for you.

This freezing sleet keeps coming down

and I can barely see.

If this trick works we can rub our hands

together, maybe

start a little fire

with our identification papers.

I don’t know but I keep working, working

half hating you,

half eaten by the moon.

1 thought on “Why the New York Times Failed James Tate

  1. Good lord. I thought the same and was almost “weirded out” by how badly Tate was eulogized.

    Thank you for that last bit.


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