Emojis or emoji (both are acceptable plural forms of the word) are, according to the distinguished language arbiter, “no longer the preserve of texting teens — instead, they have been embraced as a nuanced form of expression, and one which can cross language barriers.” As a poet, this interests me, and I’ve been talking about the phenomenon with my students. One young woman, whose boyfriend is in boot camp and forbidden to send or receive text messages, found it difficult to communicate with him without being able to resort to emoji. “I’m afraid,” she said, “that he won’t know how I’m feeling if I just use words. If I say that I’m happy but can’t follow it with a sad or winking emoji, he might not know that I’m just putting on a good face, and that in fact I really miss him.”
When I ask my students what the new Word of the Year is called, everyone has a different answer. There is a consensus, though: no joy without tears, no melancholy without laughter. In honor, then, of the pathos, of the iconoclastic mix of sadness and humor, of high and low culture, evinced over decades in the poetry of James Tate, who passed away in the summer of 2015, I’ve taken to calling the ideogram the “oblivion ha-ha” emoji — a shout-out to the title of Tate’s second book of poems.
When I first met James Tate in the spring of 1982, I was a second-year MFA student at the University of Virginia. He was a young but already well-known poet’s poet, author of some 12 books and chapbooks of poetry. Perhaps the most famous and arguably autobiographical among them was his Yale Younger Poets Award–winning first volume, The Lost Pilot, published in 1967, when Tate was only 23 and still a student at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His second book, The Oblivion Ha-Ha, appeared just three years later.
Tate was in Charlottesville, Virginia, in April 1982 to take part in a four-day festival, “The Inward Society: Surrealism & Recent American Poetry,” co-sponsored by the University of Virginia Creative Writing Program, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, and the intrepid journal Poetry East, then housed at UVA under the innovative editorship of Kate Daniels and Richard Jones. Tate joined the likes of Gregory Orr, Charles Simic, David Ignatow, and other notable poets to take part in — among other things like panels and readings — a performance produced by the late Roger Shattuck, in which Surrealism itself was put on trial, a pageant evoking the 1921 trial in which Dada artists accused author Maurice Barrès of selling out to the establishment.
Was Surrealism vindicated in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1982? I couldn’t stay for the outcome of the deliberations as I had to hurry off to my job as a waitress at a local Tex-Mex restaurant before the trial concluded. But I do remember taking with me the contagious enthusiasm of the audience for the impassioned pleas of those advocating on behalf of surrealism’s rebellious truths. The late 1960s and 1970s, after all, saw the ascendancy of a particular American brand of Surrealism.
In a fascinating essay, “James Tate and American Surrealism,” Dana Gioia posits that the first wave of Surrealism in the United States came through Hollywood, specifically through the dream logic of cartoon animators like Walt Disney, Max Fleischer, and Tex Avery. “American surrealism,” Gioia writes,
had to wait for another generation — a generation that had grown up on cartoons and movies. It required writers who did not necessarily see high culture and popular culture in opposition. This shift in sensibility finally arrived in the Sixties. The new surrealism also reflected a growing internationalism in American poetry, an interest in modern poetry outside the English-speaking world. Sophisticated poets like James Wright, Robert Bly, and Donald Justice studied and translated foreign modernists. They explored surrealistic techniques as a way of broadening their own imaginative range. A generation younger, Tate (who was a student of Donald Justice at Iowa) approached the new style in a less intellectual and scholarly way. Neither a translator nor a critic, he worked by instinct and obsession.
In a 2006 Art of Poetry interview with Charles Simic, Tate downplayed an interest in surrealism, even throughout his early books like The Lost Pilot and The Oblivion Ha-Ha. Listing instead poets like Bishop and Ashbery as strong influences (to this list, I would add Bill Knott, Wallace Stevens, and Theodore Roethke), Tate says:
Admittedly there came a point, I’m not absolutely sure when it was, when I started to steep myself in surrealist literature. I didn’t want to be one of them, but I was fascinated by them as a bunch of characters and by how passionate and strong their movement was. I still love Benjamin Péret, and I was also reading Max Jacob, and much of Robert Desnos. I thought André Breton wrote some wonderful poems, but I hated all of that manifesto stuff of his. What a tyrant he was, what a crazy boring guy. He irritated me.
Of course Tate’s work is often full of the oneiric disruptions, absurdities, anachronisms, swervings, and weirdly charged objects that we associate with American surrealism and its related “stones and bones” school of poetry (a telephone in a field, toads in a man’s ears, birds larger than humans, horses in the kitchen making soup). But what strikes me about The Oblivion Ha-Ha is less its sur-reality than its blend of desire and indifference, the terrible and the humorous, the cliché and the revelatory, the comedic and the tragic.
In that Paris Review interview, Tate says:
[Philosophical implications] become apparent in the writing of the poem. I can’t know entirely what’s at stake beforehand; you find out as you go. 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. My poem ‘How the Pope Is Chosen’ is, I think, a good example of this. It starts off really silly and it grows and grows and it ends up on, I hope, a moving, serious ending. I love to do that. You see the possibilities as you’re writing and you say, I’m going to take this deeper.
A second look at The Oblivion Ha-Ha shows that one way Tate accomplishes this depth from the start of his career, despite making poems of deceptively surreal surfaces, is not as much through overtly “serious” meditations as it is through a particular brand of humor. Here, for example, is “Dear Reader” from The Oblivion Ha-Ha, which begins with something highly unusual presented in the most matter-of-fact way:
I am trying to pry open your casket
with this burning snowflake.
I’ll give up my sleep for you.
This freezing sleet keeps coming down
and I can barely see.
If this trick works we can rub our hands
start a little fire
with our identification papers.
I don’t know but I keep working, working
half hating you,
half eaten by the moon.
However plain-spoken, at first the poem seems to be, well, dreamlike and preposterous. Why open the casket of a dead “reader,” who is apostrophized by the title? How do so with a snowflake, let alone one that is burning? How can snowflakes burn? What is the connection between the speaker’s insomnia and the reader’s oblivion? (Ha ha! — could this be a trick? What kind of trick?) Are these identification papers genuine? Who is fooling whom, and why?
Can there be deep emotional sustenance in work like this? Perhaps not for everybody, certainly not for readers looking for painful personal confessions or mere textual glimmers, games, or manipulation. But Tate’s work — strikingly prolific over the years — offers the consolation of absurdity, of the ludic, of the collision of worlds, of the intrusion of one world into another. In “Dear Reader,” the impossibility of the imagery in any sort of plausible realm allows the poem to deepen its ineffable (and dare I say “romantic”?) registers. By the poem’s conclusion Tate says something metaphysical and veracious about the inextricable relationship between poet and reader, about the self (“our identification papers”) and art — as well as between that art’s maker (“I can barely see”), its essential artifice (the “burning snowflake”), and its audience (“half hating you, / half eaten by the [patently romantic] moon”). Tate’s work is a mash-up of the strange delight of chance, play, and of the refusal to take either the tragic or the comic mask too pompously, too earnestly. As the poet Lew Klatt puts it, what might seem to make no sense can, in poems like Tate’s, morph into playful nonsense and then transform into a new sense of the deepest human order.
In the various opening “lenses” of his second collection Nude Descending an Empire — the allusion to Duchamp’s well-known paintings and two epigraphs, one from Octavio Paz and the other from Allen Ginsberg — Sam Taylor suggests that he, like Tate, both pays homage to and resists neat categorization by a panoply of modes: surreal, bardic, erotic, eco-poetic, dystopian, sensual, political, masked, first-person, ambitious.
His poems may be more in the key of earnest than Tate’s. “Wherever life began,” Taylor writes in “The Book of Endings,” “a word, a wish / breathed into water, a seed falling / through space — it was all of us / there — as it is now / in this unknown last one.” And the engine of his poems seems to be less a Tate-like, line-by-line dealing out of authorial surprises and more a Whitmanian rush of lyric emotion. But Taylor is no less imaginative in his use of juxtapositions, anachronism, and the chance vicissitudes of language and translation, as in this stanza from “The Book of Poetry”:
Everyone in China wants to know what you do.
It’s not easy, even in English, for a poet to say that.
When they asked, I said first, “I write,” wo xie,
or sometimes, after I had learned the word, “I am a poet.”
Wo shi shi ren. Often I was met by puzzlement,
strained foreheads, awkward laughter, Chinese people
glancing at each other for cues, uncertain how to react.
Not so different really from the response in America.
“A poet,” I’d repeat. Wo shi shiren. Then,
“I write poetry,” trying to make the most
of my minuscule vocabulary. “I write books of poetry.”
Wo shi shi ren: literally, I am a poetry person.
Wo means I; ren means person, or man.
Near the end of my travels, someone told me
shi—which is pronounced “sure” and means poetry
in the high flat tone, as well as the verb “to be”
in the falling tone—also means shit,
in yet another tone. So, all along I must have been saying
I am a shit man. I write shit. And repeating it.
A shit person. I write books of shit. Understand?
Like Whitman, his obvious poetic ancestor, Taylor presents speakers, “afoot with their vision” on the “blab of pave,” who are often caught between their intense, pantheistic identification with the multitudes and an equally intense awareness of ultimate human solitariness. In “Figure, with Multitude,” he writes:
The stone in my hand is a small weapon indeed
against the constellation of my stillborn dreams.
I am calling the tendrils and the curling wisp.
I am calling the dark vapors, the molecules
of car commercials against my lids,
my closed buds any night now could explode.
We are alone, but we are not alone,
But it would be better if we were alone.
Or if we were together. A pile of lemons.
Men in white bibs. I am giving out
cheese samples. I am slicing the tears
into small bite-sized bits, but it would be better
if we were not alone like this.
In “Walt,” for instance, Taylor’s speaker trails the Great Gray poet through a “modern shopping mall” — Hot Topic, Penney’s, the Gap — until Whitman “collapses / to the floor, before a bank of TVs. // […] a broken man now / like the rest of us, crying, ashamed.” In “Song: Infernal,” the speaker assumes the rhetorical strategies of Dante: “I was lost in the middle of my life / when the planes hit the towers, / lost in the middle of my life / […] . // […] far from a dark wood — // when the night clerk at Circle K / handed me back too much change” — in order to arrive, to come “upon my life” at last.
As readers know from Whitman’s example, it is an almost impossible task to be the singer of the “sky-scrawled, secular religion / of America,” and yet Taylor believes “in the intersection of actual streets / called Hopeless and Redemption.” In “The Book of Echoes,” he writes, “In the streets the song of desire and the song / of distance sing to each other, back and forth.” Perhaps exile, he suggests, is our “native land.”
Throughout Taylor’s poems, with their quotidian catalogs of Frito chips, hashtags, Greyhound buses, Diamond matches, motel rooms, soccer moms, and melting polar caps runs a timeless, lyric thread of “beseeching and singing and weeping // entering one life after another / and leaping from each one.” In “Elegy and Eros: Configuring Grief,” an essay in Radiant Lyre: Essays on Lyric Poetry, David Baker writes,
The issue is not just that we grieve, nor when we grieve. The issue is not just why we grieve in poetry, nor how the beautiful song of poetry capitulates to or conspires with the task of weeping. […] I like to think of the sound of weeping, along with the sound of laughing, as among the first thoughtful articulations a human being ever made. […] These two primary forms of vocalization evolve further into song: ecstatic language, as it were, standing beside itself, speaking out of its head. It is no accident that the two fundamental modes of lyric poetry are precisely these, crying and laughing, the intonations of grief and pleasure.
Both Tate and Taylor work this lyric territory with capacious, intuitive stores of both modes.
Insert affirming “oblivion ha-ha” emoji here.
This is part of a regular series on poets’ second books Lisa Russ Spaar has been writing for LARB.