Back Remembering James Tate, 1943–2015: “I love my funny poems, but I’d rather break your heart”

James Tate, one of the most lauded American poets of his generation, died on July 8 at the age of 71 in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Tate was still a graduate student at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1967 when his collection The Lost Pilot was chosen for publication in the influential Yale Series of Younger Poets. During a career that spanned nearly 50 years and more than 20 books, he won a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, and the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets.

The Lost Pilot by James Tate (Yale University Press, 1967)

The title poem of Tate’s first book, “The Lost Pilot,” is included in the Library of America collection Poets of World War II. The work is an elegy for Tate’s father, a bomber pilot in the Army Air Forces who was killed on a mission over Germany in April 1944 when Tate was five months old. The Poetry Foundation website has audio of Tate reading the poem, along with an Essential American Poets podcast featuring additional readings and a helpful introduction to Tate’s work.

Friends and colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where Tate taught for more than 40 years, remember him here. A highly recommended 2006 Paris Review interview with Tate, conducted by Charles Simic, includes this memorable statement of his artistic creed:

I love my funny poems, but I’d rather break your heart. And if I can do both in the same poem, that’s the best. If you laughed earlier in the poem, and I bring you close to tears in the end, that’s the best. That’s most rewarding for you and for me too. I want ultimately to be serious, but I can’t help the comic part. It just comes automatically. And if I can do both, that’s what I’m after.

Tate’s seventeenth collection of poems, Dome of the Hidden Pavilion, will be published in August.

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