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Apr112011

1994

Worshipful Company of Fletchers

By James Tate

Original and Current Publisher: Ecco Press

Evie Shockley writes:

One issue that regularly arises in connection with James Tate’s oeuvre is the question of how to categorize it.  Critics and readers have described it in so many different ways, some of which are commonly thought of as dichotomous, that the fallback position seems to be that his work is uncategorizable.  I have witnessed passionate debates unfold in the comments streams of poetry-oriented websites about whether or not his poems can or should be designated surrealist or (merely) humorous.  In an interview, Mike Magee asks Tate whether his work is more appropriately considered modernist or postmodernist (which begs the question of what distinguishes these two categories in the first place—a source of ongoing scholarly inquiry among literary critics).  When folks are not balancing Tate’s poetry on the fence between two opposing aesthetics, they instead tend to describe it as an eclectic mix of competing emotional and poetic gestures, one shifting erratically and dramatically into another.  The uninitiated reader is led to expect the unexpected—or, ultimately, to develop a set of expectations based on the common eccentricities of his own poems, rather than on the kinds of poetry people of his generation or stature or background typically write.

As someone who first became more than superficially acquainted with Tate’s work as a listener, rather than a reader, I would draw my own dividing line (if one must be drawn) between the experience of hearing him read his poems and that of encountering them on the page.  He is a remarkably effective reader of his own poetry, which cannot be said of every poet, and his oft-noted “deadpan delivery” and sense of comedic timing tend to focus listeners on the humor in the seemingly wild juxtapositions that appear within his lines.  A recording of his live reading of “How the Pope Is Chosen,” for example, allows us to hear the audience move from giggles to guffaws as he pauses to emphasize each of the last three line breaks in this passage:

                       After a poodle dies
all the cardinals flock to the nearest 7-Eleven.           
They drink Slurpies until one of them throws up
and then he’s the new Pope.

But the laugh-out-loud ridiculousness of this revision of the somber rituals of the papal conclave, while making for very satisfying listening, is not what commands my attention as a reader.  Reading the poem, one discovers a humor that seems meant to make you think, more than to make you laugh.

This same poem, for example, begins: “Any poodle under ten inches high is a toy.” After an observation about the significance of the word “toy” as a classification, he switches abruptly to a sentence that appears to be about classifying popes: “Popes with unclipped hair are called corded popes.”  Within a few more lines, however, one begins to see that Tate has simply replaced “poodle” with “pope” in a series of sentences from a text on dog breeds, which the speaker shortly acknowledges in a moment of self-reflexivity:

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.”

Funny, yes—but the joke is on the careful reader, who must suddenly grapple with the question of whether and why this clearly patronizing language is really more appropriate for describing poodles than popes. 

Tate has remarked that, while he recognizes that his poems are funny, that recognition comes after the fact—that when he’s writing, he isn’t thinking about humor.  This comment doesn’t surprise me.  “How the Pope Is Chosen” moves away from the extended riff identifying poodles and popes to a consideration of ways in which popes are not human: sometimes super-human (legendary, able to fly), sometimes outright monstrous (“They are continually grinding up pieces of the cross / and spitting them out. Black flies cling to their lips.”).  We mere mortals know “we are not like them,” because “we can’t even dress like them”—an actual fact that underscores the pointed accuracy of the poem’s critique of social hierarchies and our need to box and label the contents of our world.

“Pointed accuracy,” indeed.  The title of the book in which this poem appears, the collection that won the 1994 National Book Award, is Worshipful Company of Fletchers.  The phrase seems calculated to elicit a snort, as the name “Fletcher” rings to our ears of nerdiness and the mundane contemporary world, quite in contrast with the solemnity evoked by the idea of a “worshipful company.”  But a little research reveals that trade associations organized in London beginning as early as the 14th century typically called themselves The Worshipful Company of . . . Grocers, or Fishmongers, or Haberdashers, and so forth.  This discovery adds another layer of irony to the contrast in the title—until further research reveals that the Fletchers, the makers of arrows, constituted one of these venerable organizations.  Their motto was “True and Sure”—a phrase which says something both funny and pointed about Tate’s accomplishment in this collection.

Evie Shockley’s collections of poetry include the new black (Wesleyan University Press, forthcoming 2011), a half-red sea (Carolina Wren Press, 2006), and two chapbooks. She is also author of the forthcoming critical study, Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry (Iowa, 2011). Poems have recently appeared or will soon appear in such journals and anthologies as Callaloo, A Broken Thing: Contemporary Poets on the Line, Iron Horse Literary Review, esque, Talisman, Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook, and Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. Shockley co-edits jubilat and is an Assistant Professor of English at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. (Photo credit: Stéphane Robolin)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Richard Howard for Like Most Revelations
  • Heather McHugh for Hinge and Sign: Poems, 1968-1993
  • Anne Porter for An Altogether Different Language
  • David St. John for A Study for the World's Body

Poetry Judges that Year: Dana Gioia, Garrett Hongo, David Lehman, Carol Muske,
Kathleen Norris

The Year in Literature: Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems by Yusef Komunyakaa won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Other Information:

  • James Tate (1943- ) was born in Kansas City, MO.
  • In addition to his poetry, Tate also wrote two books of prose: The Route as Briefed (1999) and Dreams of a Robot Dancing Bee (2001).

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Reader Comments (6)

I shoot my arrow of truth true and sure
stumbling in a pungent pile of cow manure
while hunting devils in forest of Tanapure.

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