William & Mary

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet had audience laughing out loud

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Brian Henry reading "Jasmine Tea"
Brian Henry reading "My Pine Cone Ways"

As James Tate wove together the poetic narratives that would become the text of his latest book, Return to the City of White Donkeys, he never cracked a smile. On a recent Monday evening in Ewell Hall, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, reading from that collection, had 75 people laughing out loud.

The poems, grounded in straightforward accounts of telephone conversations, shopping at markets or opening Christmas presents, suddenly would swerve and deposit the listener down one of the surrealistic alleys that have become the author’s trademark. From that new vantage, the listener could reconnect, at times reveling in the mundane, at times lamenting what seems real.

Typical of Tate’s new material is “Long-Term Memory,” with which he opened the reading.

“I was sitting in the park feeding pigeons
when a man came over to me and scrutinized my
face right up close. ‘There’s a statue of you
over there,’ he said. ‘You should be dead. What
did you do to deserve a statue?’”

In subsequent lines, Tate announces that he is not dead, agrees to get up and go look at the statue, encounters a woman who chides him for looking at himself and then returns to the bench, where the man is waiting.

“‘Maybe you founded this town three hundred years
ago,’ he said. ‘Well, if I did, I don’t remember
it now,’ I said. ‘That’s a long time ago,’ he
said, ‘you coulda forgot.’ I went back to feeding
the pigeons. Oh yes, founding the town. It was
coming back to me now. It was on a Wednesday.
A light rain, my horse slowed … .”

Tate read other poems that dealt with trying to pretend everything is normal at the request of the president, with enduring banal dinner conversation only to discover that he had been invited to a banquet in order to be sacrificed and with driving through the country in a quest to buy a pterodactyl wing. In one of the sadder poems, Tate described being promoted from a dog to a man: “Sometimes I miss [being a dog] so I sit by the window and cry,” he said. “At my job I work in a cubicle and barely speak to anyone all day. This is my reward for being a good dog. The human wolves don’t even see me. They fear me not.”

Joining Tate during the reading was Brian Henry (’94), a former graduate student of Tate’s, who shared compositions from several of his books of poetry, including Astronaut, American Incident and Graft.

In contrast to Tate’s work, Henry’s poems seemed to shun the traditional narrative focus on beginning, middle and end. Topics that he addressed included the foreboding isolation of one placed inside a submarine and a light-hearted look at a pickle on a plate in an airport lounge. One poem, “My Pine Cone Ways,” written with images in mind of sweltering summer days while he was living on Griffin Street and attending William and Mary, proved an audience favorite. It began:

The cicada hum, the crack and splinter
of words from well-wishers, condolence-
givers. The high-five on a Friday afternoon.
“These are the rooms we inhabit,
the corners we have kissed ourselves into.”

Henry later explained an element that influences his style. “I’m focused on the possibilities of language and what it can do through lyric,” he said. “I’m not focused on the overarching ideas.”

Shortly after the reading, Henry Hart, Mildred and J.B. Hickman Professor of English and Humanities at the College, realized the extent to which his students had been captivated by Tate. In a creative writing class, a young woman wrote about the poet. “Her whole poem was about an argument with her father, who apparently is very religious. She was saying that the old gods don’t exist, and that James Tate is ‘my new god, a kind of artist god, and that he will be my muse.’”

Hart appreciated the humor in Tate’s new works, even as he noted differences between White Donkeys and previous works by the author. “His early poems are quite condensed,” Hart said. “Critics have said that he introduced surrealism to American poetry. Now the poems are like short stories—funny stories with some surrealistic touches, like going off to hunt for pterodactyl wings. They are prose-poems. I think he is combining the two genres.”

After the reading, Tate acknowledged that he is “funnier” than most poets, a byproduct that he attributed to a quirk of his “character.”
“I don’t try to think of being humorous when I’m writing,” he explained. “I never laughed out loud when I was writing a poem. I’m just thinking of the poem, trying to make it true and good, and if it turns out later that it is funny, that’s a bonus.”

Hart was pleased with the response of the William and Mary audience, and he offered a bit of what he called “simple” and “not very original” advice to those who would pursue a career as a poet. “I would just tell them to write a lot and to read a lot,” he said. “You learn by writing and you learn by reading, and the more you write, the more you can get your mistakes out of the way and, hopefully, settle down and write some good poems.”

He added, “Be patient, because it can take a while.”