As a poor-quality young poet, my verses were overwrought, melodramatic, and a bit odd. Then I discovered James Tate, and I decided that if I was to be a poet, then an odd humor would be my game. Years of teenaged notebooks were filled with poems cribbed from Tate–aping his tone, style, and playful surrealism. Then I discovered that I didn’t want to be a poet. I’d leave that to my older brother.
After a few short films that might have been influenced by Tate, I ended up in grad school studying humor. No poetry, per se, in my research, but I like to go back to Tate once in awhile to rediscover some of that absurd magic that shaped–and might continue to shape–my experience of language.
With our poetry editor away for a few months, I decided to step in with a couple of my favorite poems by Tate. I also found this article–James Tate: “The Cowboy” How to be funny and sad. BY STUART KRIMKO–which discusses one of Tate’s poems in terms of humor. Here is Tate reading some of his poems, with a biography. And two of Tate’s poems.
Teaching the Ape to Write Poems
They didn’t have much trouble
teaching the ape to write poems:
first they strapped him into the chair,
then tied the pencil around his hand
(the paper had already been nailed down).
Then Dr. Bluespire leaned over his shoulder
and whispered into his ear:
“You look like a god sitting there.
Why don’t you try writing something?”
James Tate, 1943
from Absences. Copyright © 1970 by James Tate.
The List of Famous Hats
Napoleon’s hat is an obvious choice I guess to list as a famous hat, but that’s not the hat I have in mind. That was his hat for show. I am thinking of his private bathing cap, which in all honesty wasn’t much different than the one any jerk might buy at a corner drugstore now, except for two minor eccentricities. The first one isn’t even funny: Simply it was a white rubber bathing cap, but too small. Napoleon led such a hectic life ever since his childhood, even farther back than that, that he never had a chance to buy a new bathing cap and still as a grown-up–well, he didn’t really grow that much, but his head did: He was a pinhead at birth, and he used, until his death really, the same little tiny bathing cap that he was born in, and this meant that later it was very painful to him and gave him many headaches, as if he needed more. So, he had to vaseline his skull like crazy to even get the thing on. The second eccentricity was that it was a tricorn bathing cap. Scholars like to make a lot out of this, and it would be easy to do. My theory is simple-minded to be sure: that beneath his public head there was another head and it was a pyramid or something.
From Reckoner, published by Wesleyan University Press, 1986. Copyright © 1986 by James Tate