Acclaimed poet, UMass professor James Tate dies at 71

Last modified: Thursday, July 09, 2015

AMHERST — Acclaimed poet James Tate, a distinguished professor in the English department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, died Wednesday evening after a long illness, according to a university spokesman. He was 71.

Tate is the author of more than 20 books of poetry, including “Worshipful Company of Fletchers,” which won the 1994 National Book Award. His 1991 collection “Selected Poems” won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and the William Carlos Williams award.

Tate was born in Kansas City and attended Kansas State College, and later earned a master’s degree at the University of Iowa. His first book of poetry, “The Lost Pilot, was published in 1967, when Tate was only 22. It was selected for the Yale Series of Younger Poets.

He served as a chancellor for the Academy of American Poets from 2001 to 2007.

His wife, the poet Dara Wier, is also a professor in the UMass English department. Efforts to reach her for this story were unsuccessful.

In a statement Thursday, Jennifer Jacobson, associate director of the master of fine arts for poets and writers program at UMass, said she was deeply saddened by Tate’s passing.

“Jim’s brilliance was an inspiration to all of us and to generations of students in the MFA program,” Jacobson wrote, adding that he had taught for 44 years at UMass, coming to the university in 1971.

She said family and friends will plan a fall celebration of Tate’s life and poetry in New York City.

In a statement Thursday, UMass Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy described Tate as one of the most distinguished members of the UMass faculty.

“For over four decades, Professor Tate generously shared his extraordinary talents with students and colleagues,” he wrote. “Although he will be greatly missed, his poetry will live on and continue to inspire.”

The statement concluded with a quote from poet John Ashbery: “Tate is the poet of possibilities, of morph, of surprising consequences, lovely or disastrous, and these phenomena exist everywhere.... I return to Tate’s books more often perhaps than to any others when I want to be reminded afresh of the possibilities of poetry.”

In a 2006 interview the The Paris Review, Tate described the role Amherst plays in his poetry.

“I’ve spent the last thirty-four years in a small town,” he told interviewer Charles Simic. “In fact, I will admit that with my last two books I’ve imagined that every character and every single event takes place in this town, Amherst. When I am sitting at my desk, I may picture the Connecticut River, or I may picture a certain lake nearby, or I may picture certain mountains that I’ve hiked along the ridge here, and I certainly picture downtown Amherst constantly, store by store. But I never mention Amherst by name. I wouldn’t want to, because I don’t want the poems to be particularly meaningful to anybody in that way. I want it to be any small town.”

‘A secret weapon in the syllabus’

Many of Tate’s students said they specifically enrolled at UMass for the opportunity to work with him.

One such student is Daniel Hales, who is the most recent winner of the Poet’s Seat Poetry Contest in Greenfield. Hales, 45, of Greenfield, said he had read all of Tate’s early poetry books and was thrilled to be able to take his classes at UMass during his time as a student from 1994 to 1998.

He was not disappointed.

“He was just a really, really great reader, somebody who really helped poets figure out what their poems wanted to do and get rid of the extraneous stuff in the way,” he said.

Tate urged students away from sounding like other poets and worked with them to create their own voice, Hales said. “He was great at finding what was strong and what was working and helping you build on that.”

He was also very funny.

Hales recalled attending a reading Tate gave in Amherst in 1994. It was “the best poetry reading I’ve ever been to in my life,” he said.

Tate read a poem called “How the Pope is Chosen,” likening Popes to poodles.

“I remember laughing to the point I was worried I might hurt myself,” he said.

Corwin Ericson, 48, of Wendell, said he kept in touch with Tate after graduating from UMass. He attended in the 1980s for his undergraduate degree and returned in the 1990s for his master’s degree in poetry.

“When I came back for graduate school, it was to be a poet in his department,” Ericson said.

Tate took poetry — and being a poet — seriously, but maintained a sense of humor and continually seemed to take pleasure in the craft, he said. Tate would write every day, which inspired Ericson to try to do the same.

Facing a blank page, Ericson said he often thinks of Tate. “Jim is writing now; why can’t I just write?”

Ericson said many people on his Facebook feed posted poems or thoughts about Tate on Thursday. He paraphrased one from someone who taught poetry.

“James Tate was always a secret weapon in the syllabus if you were teaching poetry,” he said. “He could always knock new readers sideways with surprise humor and incisiveness born out of things like puns and coincidences and sudden reversals in his poems.”

Montague Center resident Kristin Bock, 46, another of Tate’s students, is now a senior lecturer in the business communication program at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass. She got the chance to work with her former professor while sitting on a dissertation committee with him.

It was about a year ago, and he was suffering from illness, she said. Though he had to be helped into the room, Bock said there was still an exuberance and passion about him apparent in his clear, sparkling eyes.

Bock is working on a poetry manuscript of her own — her second — and she finds herself reading his poetry for inspiration and thinking about his lessons.

“He really had a wonderful knack for dark humor,” she said. “He continues to be an inspiration more than ever with my work right now.”

His poetry and his teaching styles were unique, she said, and she when she read his poetry, she found herself moved in multiple ways.

“He had a way of breaking your heart and making you laugh in the same poem,” she said. “That is a true accomplishment.”

Hales said Tate inspired many students during his long teaching career, but that his influence on others through his writing is far from over.

“His work is going to live on for a long time,” he said. “His contribution to 20th- and 21st-century American poetry is huge. People will be reading his poems for decades and decades to come.”

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at


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