I looked today to see if I could find the poems I submitted to Tate in 1989 for a private workshop when he was a visiting poet at the University of Memphis. To my surprise, I still have them. When I walked in the room, he said, I can’t find anything in your poems. He sat holding them not knowing what to say:
The day mother sold her house,
I stood looking at the tamarack trees curved along the back fence.
Clustered together, the limbs looked delicate.
As a child, I climbed the fence and clutched the trees for balance,
and the tough edges of the needles
cut sharply into my hands.
Often I let go,
wavering, seeing how long before
I had to jump.
And standing perfectly still
I smelled the trees in my hands,
and the cleft of the imprint remaining.
He wrote on that poem, If this is supposed to convey the anxiety of moving, I don’t think it yet succeeds —. And on another, The only thing this poem conveys is that your mother is old, but I like the form a lot. I’m going to use it in my next book. On a sestina about my father’s woodworking shop, he didn’t write anything. The text is so dense I can see why. And on the final poem are the words, The ideas and images in the poem are crammed together so tightly.
I can see now in the scribbled writing and lines drawn around the words what he was trying to tell me that day. I wasn’t building tension in the poems. The narratives are descriptive but flat.
But I was too young and impressionable to hear that then. This was the first time I’d been allowed a one-on-one workshop with a visiting poet. When he said, I don’t see anything in your poems I could only hear, You’ll never be a poet. Now looking at the poems 20 years later, I see what he was trying to tell me that day. There is even a note on one letting me know I could see him any time I liked while he was there.
In Reading on the Right Side of the Brain in James Tate’s Poetry, I discuss his poems The Wheelchair Butterfly and The Lost Pilot. Today, I’m posting a poem from his book Absences, published in 1972:
Deaf Girl Playing
This is where I once saw a deaf girl playing in a field.
Because I did not know how to approach her without startling
her, or how I would explain my presence, I hid. I felt
so disgusting, I might as well have raped the child, a grown
man on his belly in a field watching a deaf girl play.
My suit was stained by the grass and I was an hour late
for dinner. I was forced to discard my suit for lack of
a reasonable explanation to my wife, a hundred dollar suit!
We’re not rich people, not at all. So there I was, left
to my wool suit in the heat of summer, soaked through by
noon each day. I was an embarrassment to the entire firm:
it is not good for the morale of the fellow worker to flaunt
one’s poverty. After several weeks of crippling tension,
my superior finally called me into his office. Rather than
humiliate myself by telling him the truth, I told him I
would wear whatever damned suit pleased, a suit of armor
if I fancied. It was the first time I had challenged his
authority. And it was the last. I was dismissed. Given
my pay. On the way home I thought, I’ll tell her the truth,
yes, why not! Tell her the simple truth, she’ll love me
for it. What a touching story. Well, I didn’t. I don’t
know what happened, a loss of courage, I suppose, I told
her a mistake I had made had cost the company several
thousand dollars, and that, not only was I dismissed, I
would also somehow have to find the money to repay them
the sum of my error. She wept, she beat me, she accused
me of everything from malice to impotency. I helped her
pack and drove her to the bus station. It was too late to
explain. She would never believe me now. How cold the
house was without her. How silent. Each plate I dropped
was like tearing the very flesh from a living animal. When
all were shattered, I knelt in a corner and tried to imagine
what I would say to her, the girl in the field. What could
I say! No utterance could ever reach her. Like a thief
I move through the velvet darkness, nailing my sign
on tree and fence and billboard, DEAF GIRL PLAYING. It is
having its effect. Listen. In slippers and housecoats
more and more men will leave their sleeping wives’ sides:
tac tac tac: DEAF GIRL PLAYING: tac tac tac: another
DEAF GIRL PLAYING. No one speaks to anything but nails
and her amazing linen.
Other Pulitzer finalists in 1992 were Robert Creeley for his book of Selected Poems and Adrienne Rich for her book An Atlas of the Difficult World.