Saturday, October 11, 2008

“The Blue Booby”

This week’s poem is by a well-known contemporary U.S. poet—which means he’s someone known by other poets, poetry students, wannabe poets, & a handful of critics. Sic transit gloria mundi, or words to that effect. But in the hermetic world of contemporary U.S. poetry, James Tate has certainly made his mark. He won the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets award in 1967 for his book The Lost Pilot, & has since published a dozen poetry collections. He won both the Pulitzer Prize & the William Carlos Williams Award for his 1991 Selected Poems, & won the National Book Award for his 1994 collection Worshipful Company of Fletchers. He currently teaches at U Mass.

Tate is known as a U.S. surrealist—a poetic vision that’s held great sway in France & Spanish-speaking countries, but has been marginalized here (though looking at U.S. poetry as a whole over the past 75 plus years, perhaps not as unknown as some commentators on Tate might suggest). As is the case with most surrealist writers, objects are central to Tate’s poetry, but objects that typically are displaced or incongruous—as objects can be in dreams—or even the streaming images that are with us when we’re wakeful, but which move just below the apparent solidity of consciousness. Humor is also an integral part of Tate’s style, & in fact much contemporary poetry has been infiltrated by the voice of the stand-up comic; though Tate is pretty far from this genre, a lot of the “spoken word” performers are constantly balancing between stand-up on the one side, & poetry or storytelling on the other. In Tate’s case, there’s a certain tongue-in-cheek irony riding on top of the desperation.

Actually, “The Blue Booby” (from 1970’s The Oblivion Ha-Ha) is a bit quieter than the average Tate poem. It does show his fascination with objects (& the fascination his poetic characters can have with objects too—objects that in a sense bring them together, & in another sense keep them isolated), & it also displays his characteristically “flat” voice—i.e., his poems aren’t sonorous; the language is plain, & the lineation often does little to increase the verbal “music”—it mostly delineates the piece as a poem in a visual manner. Tate, however, does use internal rhyme & off-rhyme, as well as alliteration throughout the poem in subtle ways.

Still, “The Blue Booby” is, I think, a lovely poem in its own right, & also a poem about the most poetic of subjects, love. Hope you enjoy….

The Blue Booby

The blue booby lives
on the bare rocks
of Galápagos
and fears nothing.
It is a simple life:
they live on fish,
and there are few predators.
Also, the males do not
make fools of themselves
chasing after the young
ladies. Rather,
they gather the blue
objects of the world
and construct from them

a nest—an occasional
Gaulois package,
a string of beads,
a piece of cloth from
a sailor’s suit. This
replaces the need for
dazzling plumage;
in fact, in the past
fifty million years
the male has grown
considerably duller,
nor can he sing well.
The female, though,

asks little of him—
the blue satisfies her
completely, has
a magic effect
on her. When she returns
from her day of
gossip and shopping,
she sees he has found her
a new shred of blue foil;
for this she rewards him
with her dark body,
the stars turn slowly
in the blue foil beside them
like the eyes of a mild savior.

James Tate © James Tate, 1970

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