Sunday, March 16, 2008

Worshipful Company of Fletchers by James Tate

Worshipful Company of Fletchers is the first James Tate book I have ever read, though I've had some passing familiarity with him via anthologies and such. I came across a copy of this book while Laurie Capps and I were perusing the poetry section at a used book store in Charlotte. She recommended it highly and since I think highly of her I didn't hesitate to buy it.

Judging from this one book alone, when Tate is on he's really on. Poems like "Happy As the Day is Long" and "50 Views of Tokyo" are wonderful conglomerations of seemingly random associations that fit together beautifully as a whole. He also has an amazing poem that compares the pope to a poodle ("How the Pope Is Chosen") that manages to be both hilarious and yet still maintain an astute critique of religion.

In the majority of the poems in this book, however, I felt as if Tate was trying too hard to be clever or, at the very least, letting the cleverness that comes so easily carry his work. Things happen in his poems that couldn't happen in real life. This is not, by itself, a problem, but instead of establishing a world in which such things are believable, it feels more like he said to himself, "Hey, wouldn't it be weird if..." a woman walked a bumble bee the size of a Saint Bernard on a leash? An island turned out to be the Dowager Empress of China? A glowworm drove a car? And yeah, it would be weird. It could also be really cool. But something about these situations rings false. Lines like "A cockroach was talking to a hula-goddess / and nibbling on her lace bodice" and "A spy joins / a circus--a clown leaps from / a bridge" feel like shenanigans. There's a reason why a movie worth seeing is never promoted as "a wild romp" or "zany."

But hey, it won the National Book Award in 1994, so clearly plenty of people disagree with me. I'm certainly not sorry I read it and have marked poems worth revisiting with blue Post-It tabs. Eight, to be exact, which is more good poems than many poets ever write.

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