At times during readings, the poet James Tate once said, the audience found humor in lines he “nearly wept while writing.”
Mr. Tate, who died Wednesday at 71, didn’t mind when listeners laughed, and sometimes their response sent him back to those passages to discover some new promontory in the landscape of language he created over the course of a half-century.
A distinguished professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he had taught since 1971, Mr. Tate was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the William Carlos Williams Award in 1992 for his “Selected Poems.” Two years later, he won a National Book Award for “Worshipful Company of Fletchers.” In that volume, the poem “A Missed Opportunity” begins:
A word sits on the kitchen counter
next to the pitcher of cream
with its blue cornflowers bent.
perhaps a guest left it in a hurry
or as a tip for good service,
or as a fist against some imagined
The unexpected was always to be expected in the poetry of Mr. Tate, who saw potential in what no one else noticed. “I love to take a poem, for instance, that starts with something seemingly frivolous or inconsequential and then grows in gravity until by the end it’s something very serious,” he said in a Paris Review interview published in 2006.
“Jim Tate was undoubtedly a genius, and certainly the surrealist branch of American poetry would not exist in its current form without him,” said Jorie Graham, herself a Pulitzer winner and the Boylston professor at Harvard University. “He mixed Beckett-like black humor with his own flat Midwestern brand of the Kafkaesque absurd.”
She praised his “profoundly original vision,” and said that “quite a few generations of poets in the United States simply could not have found their voices without his guiding, mischievous, brilliant, darkly-lit spirit.”
Mr. Tate, Graham added, “had a front-row seat at the apocalypse before anyone else even knew that circus was coming to town.”
He discovered his own voice almost immediately. While attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, his first collection, “The Lost Pilot,” was selected for the Yale Younger Poets prize in 1967. The title poem alluded to his father, who flew missions during World War II until his plane crashed in 1944, when Mr. Tate was 4 months old.
When the Yale award notification arrived, Mr. Tate stood in the post office reading it over and over, and he recalled to the Globe that he was just as flummoxed to hear by phone he had won a Pulitzer in 1992: “I said, ‘Will you please double-check that?’ ”
He published more than two dozen collections and chapbooks of poetry, along with a handful of books of prose and collaborations. Mr. Tate also had taught at the University of California Berkeley and Columbia University before joining the UMass Amherst faculty.
“The great gift that he gave to students is that he was always writing. He had a daily practice that was just always there,” said Gillian Conoley, a poet and former student of Mr. Tate’s at UMass Amherst.
As he did with his own work, Mr. Tate taught his students “that a poem is an act of discovery, that it opens a path into something exciting and not anticipated,” said James Haug, a poet who studied with Mr. Tate and teaches occasionally in the UMass poetry program. “You’re there to discover something grand or devastating or funny.”
Mr. Tate taught in the UMass MFA Program for Poets and Writers, and his own writing was often the finest lesson. “He had both a comic and tragic sense in his work, and they were beautifully balanced,” Conoley said. “While strange things happened, there was always a sense of a cloak of love and tenderness for the misbegotten who peopled his poems.”
Born in Kanas City, Mo., Mr. Tate had by his own description a childhood filled with the mix of happiness and sadness that someday would sit side-by-side in lines of his poetry. After his father died, he spent part of his childhood living with his mother, maternal grandparents, aunts, an uncle, and cousins. His mother remarried a couple of times unhappily before finding someone with whom to spend her last decades.
In the Paris Review interview, his memories of the short-term abusive stepfathers are chilling, while recollections of other relatives seemed fodder for future poems. His paternal grandfather “was a one-legged zookeeper in Kansas City.” Tracking down ancestors was impossible because “most people in my family don’t even have gravestones. They were too cheap. I’m serious.”
Mr. Tate found friends in high school and a calling in college that drew from his early years. “I don’t think you can define how you acquire your imagination any more than you can define why one person has a sense of humor and another doesn’t,” he told the Paris Review. “But I certainly would lean to the side that says all those solitary hours of daydreaming were a kind of training for poetry.”
He wrote his first poem within two months of arriving at what was then Kansas State College of Pittsburg. “I was just sitting on my bed in a dormitory room and I started writing,” he told the Paris Review. “The thing that was magic about it was that once you put down one word, you could cross it out. I figured that out right away. I put down mountain, and then I’d go, no – valley. That’s better.”
Mr. Tate was married to the poet Dara Wier, an English professor at UMass Amherst. He also leaves two stepchildren, Emily Pettit and Guy Pettit. The university said in a statement that a memorial gathering will be announced.
Much honored during his career, Mr. Tate received a National Institute of Arts and Letters award for poetry, a Wallace Stevens Award, and the Tanning Prize for Poetry. He was chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2001 to 2007.
“And his sweetness was the stuff of legend – his generosity as a teacher, his kindness to other poets,” Graham said. “Mostly, though, he was our guide. He did not flinch from his dark visions – and he understood that the power of laughter involved much more than the drive to entertain.”
His death leaves “a huge hole in American poetry,” she said, adding: “So many of us loved him so very much.”
At the MFA program, Mr. Tate “was a brilliant teacher,” said Matthew Zapruder, associate professor and director of the creative writing program at St. Mary’s College of California in Moraga. “He was there for poetry and he wasn’t messing around. I learned so much from just from watching him read poems and talk about them, getting little glimpses of how he lived and worked.”
For Mr. Tate, the hard work was “creating the situation, this new reality,” he told the Paris Review. “Once that’s done I can work within it, follow the implications. I take a step, I see what the new implications are, I take another step, I see what the next implications are – and I just proceed like that.”
His last reading was two weeks ago at the UMass Amherst Juniper Summer Writing Institute. “It’s always a delight to see his readings unfold,” said Jennifer Jacobson, associate director of the MFA program. “At the beginning, the audience doesn’t know if it’s OK to laugh, and by the end they can’t stop. He was able to reach so many people with his poetry.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.