Archive for the ‘James Tate’ Category

I’m trying to get this post up quickly—too many things to get done and my daughter gets home from Cameroon today—so I’ll skip the fanfare and get right to it.


I put an assortment of poems for Father’s Day around town.  Three of the poems are fathers addressing daughters. Another poem is a father’s lament for a failed relationship, and another is a daughter’s. One has no mention of a father at all, but it speaks to what I love about fathers.


That poem, the one with no particular mention of fathers, is Marge Piercy’s “To be of use.”  I put the poem in the mouse trap section of a popular dad hangout, the hardware store.

poem is hanging above yellow boxes in the middle of the picture

poem is hanging above yellow boxes in the middle of the picture


Up close:


Of course any number of people in the world are useful people, people who do what has to be done, again and again, but I send this poem out to the fathers I’ve known and admired.  Especially the ones who empty the mouse traps.


Poem is hanging on a branch

Poem is hanging on a branch

Marie Ponsot’s poem “Hard-Shell Clams” I left in a cemetery.  All those buried wounds seemed to belong there.  The poem is so beautiful it gives me the shivers.



I can’t stop reading it.  That image of the sand just kills me: a glitter like chain mail guarding who I am/from his used blue gaze that stared to understand.


One poem is on the window, the other on the post

One poem is on the window, the other on the post

I posted two poems of fatherly advice together on a local high school.  School is out but maybe someone will come to the gym and find the wise words of Ralph Waldo Emerson in “From a Letter to His Daughter.”



Emerson’s advice is classic dad: get over it and move on.  If Mad Men’s Don Draper were a good man, a good father, this is what he might tell his children: Finish every day and be done with it.


Miller Williams offers different advice in “For a Girl I Know About to Be a Woman.”


Some of the advice seems a little dated, but if you substitute other offensive words for “dago” and “wop,” his counsel is sound.  He lists tell-tale signs of a loser and abuser: if a boy tries to change you, doesn’t respect you, himself or even a snake, beware.


Poem is on the front bumper

Poem is on the front bumper

I put James Tates’ “Father’s Day” on a golf cart.  No, I’m not accusing all fathers who golf of avoiding their families, but some do.  I remember driving by a golf course one Thanksgiving Day with my mother-in-law.  It was snowing but sure enough two men were golfing.  “Who are they hiding from?” she said wryly.



The father’s invention of a fairy tale to explain his daughter’s refusal of contact is funny and heartbreaking and a much much better version of “Cat’s in the Cradle.”


poem is on front of truck, under red sign

poem is on front of truck, under red sign

I had to do some talking to get the next poem on an ice cream truck.  Poem and camera in hand, I surveyed the situation and realized it would be impossible to tape the poem on the truck without being noticed, so I asked the ice cream man for permission.  I explained my blog, I showed him the poem, I pointed out where I wanted to tape it.  “I don’t get it,” he said. So I read the poem to him and tried to make a connection between a father leaving a treat for his daughter by her bedside and a father who might buy an ice cream treat  (that might also stain a mouth blue) for his child.  “I still don’t get it,” he said.  I changed the subject—we talked about his home country of Tanzania and my daughter’s experiences in Cameroon—and soon he put aside his suspicions of my intent and agreed, as long as he wasn’t in the photograph, to take on the poem.  Thank you, ice cream man.



This poem is pure and sweet.  The father thinks of his daughter as he hikes, plans his little present, gazes at her as she sleeps and imagines her delight as she wakes. She’s on his mind, past, present and future, the lucky child.  “For Sarah, Asleep” is by my Scottish friend Angus Martin.  I hope he gets a kick out of the trek this poem has taken and will take, should the Tanzanian ice cream man decide to leave the poem on his truck.


Happy Father’s Day!


Read Full Post »

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.”

Read Full Post »