James Tate, a poet whose offhand style, ingenious wordplay and wild flights of surrealism won him a devoted following, a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, died on Wednesday in Springfield, Mass. He was 71.
His wife, Dara Wier, said he died after a long illness.
Mr. Tate burst on the poetry scene in 1967 with the collection “The Lost Pilot,” selected for publication in the Yale Series of Younger Poets while he was still a graduate student at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Julian Symons, in The New Statesman, greeted Mr. Tate as “an ironical, original, self-absorbed poet who glances with amusement at love, humanity, himself.”
A prolific writer, he turned out one collection after another, none of them slim. “The Ghost Soldiers,” published in 2008, contains nearly 100 poems. He won a wide following, especially among younger readers attracted by his colloquial style, his gift for making unexpected connections, and his ability to extract humor from dark places. John Ashbery, one of his most ardent admirers, called him “the poet of possibilities, of morph, of surprising consequences, lovely or disastrous.”
James Vincent Tate was born on Dec. 8, 1943, in Kansas City, Mo. His father, Samuel Vincent Appleby, was killed while flying a bombing mission over Germany in 1944. His death inspired his son’s poem “The Lost Pilot.”
Mr. Tate took the surname Tate after the remarriage of his mother, the former Betty Jean Whitsitt, a secretary.
An indifferent student, he enrolled in Kansas State College in Pittsburg (now Pittsburg University), where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1965 and, in an idle moment in his dormitory, wrote his first poem.
“The thing that was magic about it was that once you put down one word, you could cross it out,” he told the poet Charles Simic in an interview for The Paris Review in 2006. “I figured that out right away. I put down ’mountain,’ and then I’d go, no — ‘valley.’ That’s better.”
After graduation, he drove to Iowa City with several poems in hand and presented them to Donald Justice, one of the university’s most famous poetry teachers. He was accepted into the writing program on the spot.
Over the years, Mr. Tate perfected a style of poetic narrative that, with disarming simplicity, led readers down strange byways and mined the comedy in bleak situations. In “Like a Scarf,” the speaker enjoys a picnic lunch on the grounds of a lunatic asylum when the inmates begin wandering through the woods around him:
“Who could eat liverwurst at a time like this?/But, then again, what’s a picnic without pathos?”
Fear and dread stalk poems like “50 Views of Tokyo,” a spiraling vision of displacement and disorientation, whose narrator intones:
I was a wild animal
without a soul or a home or a name.
And now I see it wasn’t a stage I was
That stage, that stageless stage, was
and my name and my soul.
In other poems, Mr. Tate pursued random comparisons, or swapped vocabularies, with hilarious results, as in “How the Pope Is Chosen,” where the language of the dog show intrudes:
Popes are very intelligent.
There are three different sizes.
The largest are called standard Popes.
The medium-sized ones are called miniature Popes.
I could go on like this, I could say:
“He is a squarely built Pope, neat,
well-proportioned, with an alert stance
and an expression of bright curiosity,”
but I won’t.
Describing “The Ghost Soldiers,” Mr. Simic wrote, “Just about anything can happen next in this kind of poetry, and that is its attraction.”
In his Paris Review interview, Mr. Tate said, “I like to start with the ordinary, and then nudge it, and then think, ‘What happens next, what happens next?’ ”
Mr. Tate was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for “Selected Poems,” culled from nine volumes of his poetry, from “The Lost Pilot” through “Reckoner” (1986). The collection “Worshipful Company of Fletchers” won the National Book Award in 1994, the judging panel praising it as “often hilarious without losing the nervous edginess that makes it such a profoundly unsettling experience.” The next year he was given the Wallace Stevens Award by the Academy of American Poets.
His many other poetry collections include “Hints to Pilgrims” (1971), “Absences” (1972), “Viper Jazz” (1976), “Riven Doggeries” (1979), “Constant Defender” (1983) and “Return to the City of White Donkeys” (2004). With the poet Bill Knott he wrote a novel, “Lucky Darryl” (1977), and his short stories were collected in “Dreams of a Robot Dancing Bee” (2001). In “The Route as Briefed” (1999), he offered up a smorgasbord: essays, interviews, memoirs, super-short stories and a recipe for squirrel brains in black butter.
Mr. Tate taught poetry at several universities, including the University of California, Berkeley and at Columbia. Since 1971 he had taught at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where his wife also taught poetry and where they lived. In addition to his wife, he is survived by a half sister, Terri Sowers, and two stepchildren, Emily Pettit and Guy Pettit.
Shortly before his death, Daniel Halpern, Mr. Tate’s editor at Ecco Press, gave him a finished copy of “Dome of the Hidden Pavilion,” his new collection of poems. It is scheduled to be published in early August.
Correction: July 12, 2015
Someone had spread an elaborate rumor about me, that I was
in possession of an extraterrestrial being, and I thought I knew who
it was. It was Roger Lawson. Roger was a practical joker of the
worst sort, and up till now I had not been one of his victims, so
I kind of knew my time had come. People parked in front of my
house for hours and took pictures. I had to draw all my blinds
and only went out when I had to. Then there was a barrage of
questions. "What does he look like?' "What do you feed him?" "How
did you capture him?" And I simply denied the presence of an
extraterrestrial in my house. And, of course, this excited them
all the more. The press showed up and started creeping around
my yard. It got to be very irritating. More and more came and
parked up and down the street. Roger was really working overtime
on this one. I had to do something. Finally, I made an announcement.
I said, "The little fellow died peacefully in his sleep at 11:02
last night." "Let us see the body," they clamored. "He went up
in smoke instantly," I said. "I don't believe you," one of them
said. "There is no body in the house or I would have buried it
myself," I said. About half of them got in their cars and drove
off. The rest of them kept their vigil, but more solemnly now.
I went out and bought some groceries. When I came back about an
hour later another half of them had gone. When I went into the kitchen
I nearly dropped the groceries. There was a nearly transparent
fellow with large pink eyes standing about three feet tall. "Why
did you tell them I was dead? That was a lie," he said. "You
speak English," I said. "I listen to the radio. It wasn't very
hard to learn. Also we have television. We get all your channels.
I like cowboys, especially John Ford movies. They're the best,"
he said. "What am I going to do with you?" I said. "Take me
to meet a real cowboy. That would make me happy," he said. "I
don't know any real cowboys, but maybe we could find one. But
people will go crazy if they see you. We'd have press following
us everywhere. It would be the story of the century," I said.
"I can be invisible. It's not hard for me to do," he said.
"I'll think about it. Wyoming or Montana would be our best bet, but
they're a long way from here," I said. "Please, I won't cause
you any trouble," he said. "It would take some planning," I said.
I put the groceries down and started putting them away. I tried
not to think of the cosmic meaning of all this. Instead, I
treated him like a smart little kid. "Do you have any sarsaparilla?"
he said. "No, but I have some orange juice. It's good for you,"
I said. He drank it and made a face. "I'm going to get the maps
out," I said. "We'll see how we could get there." When I came
back he was dancing on the kitchen table, a sort of ballet, but
very sad. "I have the maps," I said. "We won't need them. I just
received word. I'm going to die tonight. It's really a joyous
occasion, and I hope you'll help me celebrate by watching The
Magnificent Seven," he said. I stood there with the maps in my
hand. I felt an unbearable sadness come over me. "Why must
you die?" I said. "Father decides these things. It is probably
my reward for coming here safely and meeting you," he said. "But
I was going to take you to meet a real cowboy," I said. "Let's
pretend you are my cowboy," he said.
The Wrong Way Home
from its former life, like the time the lovers
leaned against it kissing for hours
and whispering those famous words.
Later, there were harsh words and a shoe
was thrown and the door was slammed.
Comings and goings by the thousands,
the early mornings and late nights, years, years.
O they've got big plans, they'll make a bundle.
The door was an island that swayed in its sleep.
The moon turned the doorknob just slightly,
burned its fingers and ran,
and still the door said nothing and slept.
At least that's what they like to say,
the little fishes and so on.
Far away, a bell rang, and then a shot was fired.