Literary Treasures: Remembering James Tate

The following post is part of our monthly series, “Literary Treasures,” which highlights audio and video recordings drawn from the Library’s extensive online collections, including the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. By showcasing the works and thoughts of some of the greatest poets and writers from the past 75 years, the series advances the Library’s mission to “further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.”

James Tate, 1942-2015

We all have our own iconic poets—who loom large in our introductions to poetry, whose words have changed us, and who we still carry with us. Their voices provide us sanctuary and, if we’re lucky, we can in turn help keep their voices alive.

In my work as digital content manager here at the Poetry and Literature Center, I have the great fortune of overseeing digitization efforts for the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. I spend hours inside these recordings—many produced over 60 years ago—marking sound issues, noting long silences, cranking up the volume to hear an off-microphone mumble. While my ear is always tuned to the mechanical goings-on within the audio, I can’t help sometimes closing my eyes and transporting myself to that auditorium, or that recording studio, and seeing myself in the audience. After all, the archive preserves and bolsters so many of our iconic poets; for a few minutes, or a few hours, we can share the same space and time.

A recording I often travel back to in the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature is from 1976—our then-Laureate, Stanley Kunitz, invites poets Denise Levertov and James Tate to read and discuss their work in the Coolidge Auditorium here at the Library of Congress. I’m sitting in the audience as Tate reads the title poem (at 32:47) from his first collection, The Lost Pilot, which had won the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition just 10 years before when Tate was 24 and in graduate school.

I met James Tate when I was 24 and in graduate school. As a young poet, there are few things dreamier or more intimidating than sitting across a table from a literary luminary who is holding your poem in hand. That semester, the most consistent feedback I received in workshop from him was along the lines of, “Hmm, I’m not sure about the ending to this poem.” I always struggled with writing last lines.

James Tate died in July 2015. His poetry and presence was, and is, extraordinary and unparalleled; he brought people and worlds together. Being able to hear him read with Denise Levertov in this recording is a gift, and one that continues to open and open with repeated listening.

When I turned in my final poem that semester in workshop, Tate said, “This is a great ending,” and that, too, felt like a gift. I know there’s an overly sentimental analogy in here, but this is what I remember. His endings were always, always perfect.

In addition to the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature, you can hear James Tate read and discuss Charles Wright’s “The Other Side of the River” as part of our Poetry of America feature. You can also view his reading with Jorie Graham at the Library in 2007 via webcast here.

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The Library of Congress holds the largest archival collection of Walt Whitman materials in the world. These materials are primarily housed in the Library’s Manuscript Division and its Rare Book & Special Collections Division. In May, two of the Manuscript Division’s Whitman collections were made available on the Library’s website. First, the Thomas Biggs Harned […]