Thursday, November 18, 2004

Oh, last night at the bookstore I read a review by Mark Ford in TNYRoB of James Tate's latest, Return to the City of White Donkeys, and also read in the book a little. Reading Tate creates a curious inversion of an experience I've sometimes had reading Language poetry: there, I'm often fascinated and entertained by the theory but bored and irritated by the practice, while with Tate the opposite is true. Or not even a theory, really (because what is his theory?>, just the aura around him and the labored surrealism of his recent book titles. Ford wrote something about how Tate hasn't attracted much academic attention because he's like Ashbery in his verbal slipperiness without the epistemological investigations we scholars like to unravel. There's probably some truth to that but I think it may have more to do with the curious slightness Tate's poetry has in the memory: there's kind of a generic James Tate poem in my mind that I think of as certainly amusing but basically just a reiteration or imitation of itself. Every James Tate poem is a copy of a copy of a copy of the ur-Tate poem that doesn't actually exist. I feel the same way about poets like Billy Collins, Sharon Olds, and Philip Levine: they're repeating a trick that ceased to be amusing or moving a long time ago. But then I actually read one of Tate's poems and I am really, really entertained by it. And I read another, and another—they're like candy. This is not a Bad Thing; I find myself thinking that this is the ideal book to give someone who doesn't think they like poetry. Which is another category in itself, isn't it, one that Collins and to a lesser extent Olds and Levine fall into: poetry for people who don't like poetry. A very peculiar demographic; I suspect a degree of self-loathing in those poets who write for it exclusively. But although Tate can be slight, sometimes he really nails the acute pleasure of poetry that Ford describes: the pleasure of something slipping through your fingers, of negative capability, of pure surprise. He's not very formally interesting, and that again makes me think of this as a genre of not prose poetry but poetry-pose, prose assuming the swiftness of poetry but otherwise basically prose. Not that there's anything wrong with that—it just doesn't give me the sublime thrill that I get from a poem whose energy derives from the resistance of its materials. Tate's mastery is a little too obvious; he makes it look easy, even though it probably isn't. He's also a little too fond of punchline endings. But here I am talking abstractly about him when the whole point is that reading his poetry provides much greater pleasure than I think it does, if that makes any sense. I no longer have the new book in front of me, but here's a little one from Shroud of the Gnome:

He was never mean to me.
I never once heard him speak ill of another.
And he was always good by his word.
If he said he was bringing over a brace of quail
you set the table then and there.
Best of all, he was punctual,
a virtue I dearly love in a dog.
And he never crept, never crept, never crept.
Rather beautiful, isn't it? And haunting, in a bite-sized way. There's something there. Anyway, I know what book I'm giving my father for Haunukkah.

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