Moby Drink

poem is on shelf with coffee


A New Lifestyle

by James Tate



People in this town drink too much

coffee. They’re jumpy all the time. You

see them drinking out of their big plastic

mugs while they’re driving. They cut in

front of you, they steal your parking places.

Teenagers in the cemeteries knocking over

tombstones are slurping café au lait.

Recycling men hanging onto their trucks are

sipping espresso. Dogcatchers running down

the street with their nets are savoring

their cups of mocha java. The holdup man

entering a convenience store first pours

himself a nice warm cup of coffee. Down

the funeral parlor driveway a boy on a

skateboard is spilling his. They’re so

serious about their coffee, it’s all they

can think about, nothing else matters.

Everyone’s wide awake but looks incredibly




It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World 4 by Priority PR, Los AngelesThis catalog of frenzied coffee-drinkers, comical in their obsession, brings to mind an old movie favorite, It’s a Mad Mad Mad World.  If you haven’t seen this 1963 classic, find a way, post-Blockbuster, to watch it.  Jonathan Winters riding a little girl’s bicycle is not to be missed.  Winters and an all-star cast including Spencer Tracy, Ethel Merman, Terry Thomas, Peter Falk and Sid Caesar race down the California coast to find $350,000 buried under a mysterious “Big W.”  The characters become increasingly nuts as the chase ensues.  Their money monomania leads them to the top of an out-of-control fire truck ladder and eventually to the hospital.


Recapping the movie, I’m struck by how modest the buried treasure is by today’s standards.  $350,000, really?  At first “A New Lifestyle” seemed similarly dated.  Is obsessive coffee-drinking new?  I assumed that the poem was written pre-Starbucks.  When I discovered it was actually published in a 2002 collection, I read the poem a little differently.  It’s not a straight-up tub-thumping.  It’s also gleeful exercise in the pleasures of tub-thumping.  Tate invents a character, a Rip Van Winkle sort of man, who observes modern habits with a crabby and comic eye.


Clearly Tate has a lot of fun creating characters and listing silly coffee-drinking situations.  His list begins credibly, with pushy drivers stealing parking spaces. But as the speaker gets wound up, the list gets increasingly crazy.  Vandalizing teenagers in a cemetery drink coffee, not beer.  Burly trashmen sip from dainty expresso cups.  By the time we arrive at the dogcatcher racing down the street with his coffee, we know Tate is as intent on amusing as he is on complaining.  When was the last time you saw a dogcatcher anyway?


The speaker’s tirade operates on a logical fallacy, Post Hoc, as I remember from a rhetoric class, or maybe it’s Hasty Generalization:  drivers are drinking coffee; these drivers are rude: therefore coffee-drinking causes rude behavior.  Whatever the name, this kind of false reasoning is common to anyone ranting and raving on the ills of society.


“A New Lifestyle” would be a fun poem for an imitation exercise.  Substitute “coffee” with television, plastic water bottles, Facebook, ADHD medication, the internet, smart phones, or whatever a bile-eyed observer might deem harmful.  Invent characters.  Create absurd incidents.  Make a hasty generalization.  End with a killer statement that shakes up the whole poem and makes the reader shudder with recognition:


Everyone’s wide awake but looks incredibly



I couldn’t resist re-writing those lines for a poem about cell phone usage, a vice of mine (cell phones, that is, not re-writing):


Everyone’s connected but feels incredibly



Today being the first day of Lent, a season of giving up certain habits to make room for more important behaviors, it’s a good time to consider obsessions.  “A New Lifestyle” makes me think how sad and empty obsessions can be.  How we move from one obsession to the next.  How we define ourselves by our obsessions.  How what we seek so desperately can end up thwarting what we desire most.  But mostly how darn hard it is for me to give up sweets and Facebook and what I would give for a chocolate chip cookie right now.


gregory peck as captain ahab moby dick by Positively PuzzledOf course I left the poem at Starbucks, that mecca for all obsessive coffee drinkers.   Interesting that the name “Starbucks” comes from Moby Dick.   After rejecting “Pequod,” Starbucks’ founders chose the name of the Pequod’s chief mate, Starbuck.  They wanted to suggest international commerce and coffee trading.  The speaker in “A New Lifestyle” would say they chose well.  Nothing says “obsession” like an allusion to world of Captain Ahab.


James Tate - Youngest Winner of "Yale Younger Poets Award" visits CC by Columbia College Alumni AssociationPoet James Tate was born in Missouri in 1943.  His father, a pilot in WWII, died in a plane crash when Tate was five months old, and never met his son.  Tate has won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and teaches at the University of Massachusettes, Amherst.  In a wonderful interview with Tate in the Paris Review (which you can read here) poet Charles Simic calls Tate “one of our great comic masters.”


  1. Kelly

    Great poem and as always I enjoyed your analysis. I just finished the book The Paris Wife a novel about Ernest Hemingway and his first of 4 wives. Talk about obsessions! Yikes. Love all of your musings – good luck with your lenten sacrifices! Ernest Hemingway’s wife tried to get him to give up his lover for 100 days – mmmm that was doomed from the start.

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