James Tate, who wrote that the main challenge of poetry “is always to find the ultimate in the ordinary horseshit,” died yesterday in Massachusetts at age seventy-one. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the William Carlos Williams Award, Tate’s poems were “always concerned to tell us that beneath the busyness and loneliness of our daily lives, there remains in us the possibility for peace, happiness and real human connection,” wrote Adam Kirsch in the New York Times.
Tate was born in Missouri but lived in Amherst, Massachusetts, since 1971. “I’ve imagined that every character and every single event takes place in this town, Amherst,” he once confessed. But John Ashbery once opined that Tate is a “poet of possibilities, of morph, of surprising consequences, lovely or disastrous, and these phenomena exist everywhere.”
His poetry is often described as absurdist, and indeed the speakers in his poems come across as bewildered narrators who are as inquisitive as they are clueless—which is all part of their charm. His poetry has also been described as comic, ironic, hopeful, lonely, and surreal; “I love my funny poems,” he said, “but I’d rather break your heart. And if I can do both in the same poem, that’s the best.