The Genius of James Tate

In response to:

Inexhaustible & Brilliant from the February 23, 2017 issue

To the Editors:

Charles Simic points out in his recent article on the poet James Tate [“Inexhaustible and Brilliant,” NYR, February 23] that it was rare for Tate to use autobiographical material in his work, as he did in his widely anthologized poem “The Lost Pilot.” Tate and I were contemporaries at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and I can shed some light on how that poem came about. During our first semester in the workshop, we took a class called “Craft of Poetry” where we were given weekly writing assignments in various forms. For one assignment we read a selection of poems in the confessional mode and were told to write on a significant personal topic in loosely rhyming free verse stanzas. “The Lost Pilot,” which deals with Tate’s father’s death during World War II and the long-term effects that tragedy had on him, was written for this assignment. It may seem strange that such a powerful poem was composed for a class, but of course any poem written in a preexisting form will involve an element of craft exercise for the poet.

Several years ago at a writers’ conference, Tate revealed another unusual feature of the poem. He was asked about his approach to revision and said flatly that he never revised. Instead, he would write a promising line and sit and wait for the next good line to come to him. He sometimes waited for a long time, he said, but when it came he would write it down and wait for the next line, proceeding in this manner until he came to the end of the poem. At that point, without any rewriting, the poem was done. The one exception, he said, was “The Lost Pilot.” He had stayed up late one night and written the poem, but when he woke up in the morning and read it over he thought it stank and tore it up. Then he wrote the poem again in the form we now have it.

John Morgan
Fairbanks, Alaska