James Tate’s poems have been described as tragic, comic, absurdist, nihilistic, hopeful, haunting, lonely, and surreal. His many poetry collections include The Ghost Soldiers (2008); Worshipful Company of Fletchers (1994), which won the National Book Award; Selected Poems (1991), which won the Pulitzer Prize and the William Carlos Williams Award; Distance from Loved Ones (1990); Constant Defender (1983); Viper Jazz (1976); and The Oblivion Ha-Ha (1970).
His first major collection, The Lost Pilot (1967), was selected by Dudley Fitts for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. The title poem is dedicated to Tate’s father, a B-17 copilot killed on a bombing mission during World War II. However, as poet and critic Dana Gioia noted in a 1998 essay, Tate’s subsequent work “revealed his dreams and nightmares, his fears and desires—but he never shared further details of his waking life.” Over the decades, Tate has honed his distinctive writing style, in which, as poet Donald Revell describes it, “The tender phrase is subordinated by an absurdity. A crazily surreal passage is broken off and followed by a painfully simple realization of ordinary, unqualified grief.”
Increasingly, Tate’s poems are character driven, featuring a narrator’s various encounters with a gnome, a goat, an insurance agent. In a 1998 interview, he points to one unifying element in his work: “My characters usually are—or, I’d say most often, I don’t want to generalize too much—but most often they’re in trouble, and they’re trying to find some kind of life.” Of Tate’s characters in The Ghost Soldiers, critic Richard Wirick writes, “They are stick people but their language—fleetingly glimpsed—gives them the fullness of crushed spirits, Nietschean sheep, Republican wives.”
Tate’s honors include an Academy of American Poets chancellorship, a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Poetry, the Wallace Stevens Award, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.