This Old Poem #113:

James Tate’s My Felisberto

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/10/06


  James Tate is the great nihil of American Poetry. For 40+ years his dull, poorly constructed, & witless poems have fascinated stolid critics and poets eager to see how he’s pulled the wool over their peepers. The headgear that has enabled him to do so has resulted in a National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize, the 1967 Yale Younger Poets award, resulting in his 1st book, The Lost Pilot, & a truckload of awards and grants that have made JT a very rich man- in the world of poetry or elsewhere, even in Academia, where he’s fully ensconsed and tenured. Yet, a clear eye reveals a ‘poet’ without even a dram of talent, whose ‘poems’ are about as unpoetical as one can get- lacking music, style, grace, and humor- which has oft been imputed upon him.

  In fact, JT’s major innovation in the art form seems to have been that he is the 1st ‘name poet’ to dispense with even the pretense that what he is writing is poetry, rather than prose chopped up into lines. That he was also one of the earliest ‘names’ to emerge from the infamous Iowa University Creative Writers Program, one of the 1st MFA workshop poetry mills, is just another in a long line of his discredits.

  That he grafted his name to an American variant of an already suspect poetic movement- Surrealism- speaks volumes of his real intent in the art. That is, to be a name. To be known, to be a celebrity, detached from the hard work of actually having to work for recognition. In that vein, JT successfully made Surrealism- often abstruse and dull in its European variant- into merely dull, by putting it into an All-American stupor, stripping it of the occasional good metaphor that could come by negatively capable free associations.

  Here’s a sample from the end of the title poem of his 1st book, an ode to his dead father:


….All I know
is this: when I see you,
as I have seen you at least
once every year of my life,
spin across the wilds of the sky
like a tiny, African god,
I feel dead. I feel as if I were
the residue of a stranger’s life,
that I should pursue you.
My head cocked toward the sky,
I cannot get off the ground,
and, you, passing over again,
fast, perfect, and unwilling
to tell me that you are doing
well, or that it was mistake
that placed you in that world,
and me in this; or that misfortune
placed these worlds in us.


  Ok, this is actually 1 of the few passable poems JT ever published, but what’s surreal? Critics confuse metaphor with surrealism. The African god? That’s metaphor. If metaphor is Surrealism than almost all of poetry and art is Surreal, meaning almost none of it is. This is merely a quite conventional ode in a Confessional mode, if anything. Instead of picking up on the banality of much of the poem critics went for intent- reading into it JT’s much publicized backgrounding of the poem, that his father’s death in World War 2, causing him to never meet the man, gave a depth to the poem that the words alone never had. the ever-stolid Dana Gioia, for example, argues on his website that, ‘Knowing this one biographical fact gave the title poem enormous resonance, and it provided a personal context in which to read the rest of the book as the poems of a restless young man in desperate search of his own identity.’ This is typical of the bad criticism that abounds not just for JT’s wildly overpraised crap, but for American Poetry. in general.

  By that logic, not knowing that fact utterly denudes the poem & book of exactly what DG claims it has. Yet, this ability to simply counter real criticism by claiming that there was a ‘Magic Key’ to understanding a poem, made it easy for wannabe poetasters to confidently write and publish banal verse, with a metaphor or 2, & claim they were Surrealists whose work would unfold magically if only the key was known. This bait & switch approach to poetry has continued to this day, at least amongst Academic poseurs. Even DG, later in his essay, admits ‘one also notices the limitations of Tate’s achievement. While the poems are consistently lively and ingenious, they are also mostly very similar’, ‘when read in large portions, the work seems strangely homogeneous’, & ‘There is also little sense of artistic development evident in the Selected Poems.’ even though he states that he has helped foster JT along the grant-giving gravy train. That DG should admit such is remarkable because, stripping away the PC lingo what those 3 snippets are really saying is he is dull, repetitive, & has wasted years. This only makes DG’s support for this fraud all the more suspect- 1 suspects a possible tie, financially or personally.

  As for JT? The ubiquitous online bio:


  James Tate was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1943. He is the author of numerous books of poetry, including Return to the City of White Donkeys (Harper Collins, 2004); Memoir of the Hawk (Ecco Press, 2001); Shroud of the Gnome (1997); 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); Reckoner (1986); Constant Defender (1983); Riven Doggeries (1979); Viper Jazz (1976); Absences (1972); Hints to Pilgrims (1971); The Oblivion Ha-Ha (1970); and The Lost Pilot (1967), which was selected by Dudley Fitts for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. He has also published a novel, Lucky Darryl (1977), and a collection of short stories, Hottentot Ossuary (1974), and edited The Best American Poetry 1997. His honors include 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 and is currently a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets.


   While he’s not as bad as the Languagists in terms of fraud, his poetry is bad. & it is void of humor. Is this funny? From It Happens Like This:


I explained. “It’s the town’s goat. I’m just taking

my turn caring for it.” “I didn’t know we had a goat,”

one of them said. “I wonder when my turn is.” “Soon,”

I said. “Be patient. Your time is coming.” The goat

stayed by my side. It stopped when I stopped. It looked

up at me and I stared into its eyes. I felt he knew

everything essential about me. We walked on. A police-

man on his beat looked us over. “That’s a mighty

fine goat you got there,” he said, stopping to admire.

“It’s the town’s goat,” I said.


  Trust me, it gets no better, & there’s no smile waiting on the next line. On to the titular poem:


My Felisberto


My felisberto is handsomer than your mergotroid,
although, admittedly, your mergotroid may be the wiser of the two.
Whereas your mergotroid never winces or quails,
my felisberto is a titan of inconsistencies.
For a night of wit and danger and temptation
my felisberto would be the obvious choice.
However, at dawn or dusk when serenity is desired
your mergotroid cannot be ignored.
Merely to sit near it in the garden
and watch the fabrications of the world swirl by,
the deep-sea’s bathymetry wash your eyes,
not to mention the little fawns of the forest
and their flip-floppy gymnastics, ah, for this
and so much more your mergotroid is infinitely preferable.
But there is a place for darkness and obscurity
without which life can sometimes seem too much,
too frivolous and too profound simultaneously,
and that is when my felisberto is needed,
is longed for and loved, and then the sun can rise again.
The bee and the hummingbird drink of the world,
and your mergotroid elaborates the silent concert
that is always and always about to begin.


  This attempt at coyness gets old by the 3rd mergatroid (misspelled- it’s correctly murgatroyd), because all it is is coyness without substance. Let’s try to rescue it:


My Felisberto

The bee and the bird
elaborate the silent
that is about to….


  Now, it’s a haiku, whose title is enigmatic- well, at least it attempts to be. The unsaid says more than what is said, almost like what the critics tried to wrangle from JT’s very first poem. Them’s that gives gets, it’s said. Poor JT!


Final Score: (1-100):


James Tate’s My Felisberto: 40

TOP’s My Felisberto: 65

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