During my poetry MFA thesis defense some years ago, I sat in a professor’s living room, relieved to hear praise from the committee. Then poet James Tate, who’d been peering over with a semi-grin, weighed in. “Mr. Heflin,” he said, “We’ve praised you enough.”

He pointed shortcomings out to me that should have been obvious, things like poems bumping up against each other that should have been separated, a poem that pounded its metaphor home with ineffective blatancy. This was why I’d hoped to study with Tate in the first place; by the time he got around to the praise portion of his weigh-in, I felt newly armed to carve away at my work with the illumination he’d offered. And I felt all the more grateful that he mostly approved of my lines.

Tate, who died in early July, always struck me as someone who held his praise and his criticism in reserve until the moment was right. There was a lot of measuring up going on before spoken words arrived. When they did, it paid off to listen.

I came to UMass Amherst in the mid-’90s to get my MFA, largely because I wanted to learn from Tate. Although I was fortunate enough to work with him, I never felt like I knew him well, at least beyond pagebound interactions over manuscripts and poems. He could be enigmatic, even taciturn, but I remember too his generous laughter.

What I did know well was his poetry. To read it is to be invited into a funhouse universe that evokes floods of eye-watering laughter and can, when you least expect it, break your heart. And that’s a cliché I don’t use lightly. Tate’s poetry is the stuff of constant surprise, surprise that feels like mad discovery.

Here, for instance, is how he deals with a cliché – “Behind every great man/ there sits a rat./ And behind every great rat, there’s a flea./ Besides the flea there is an encyclopedia./ Every now and then the flea sneezes, looks up, / and flies into action, reorganizing history.”

As I’ve read reactions to Tate’s death from those who knew him a lot better than I did — including grad school colleagues who communed with him on their de rigueur smoke breaks from class — I’ve felt as if I shouldn’t weigh in. But how well I or anyone knew him personally is no indication of how acutely his loss might be felt. Tate’s words on the page, words for which he’s been known for decades, are surely as vital a key to understanding who he was as anything else.

There’s always a distance between poetic persona and quotidian reality, but in those times when Tate sat back and bemusedly listened to conversation, machinery was churning away in his head, cranking out those unlikely, dewy-eared word constructions that revealed the unique contours of his thinking.

His was a strange gift, one that illustrates well — as more poetry ought to — that writing poems need not be some mystifying occult practice. His poems are almost always a kind of funny that’s not common in the rarefied world of poetry. In “Young Man with a Ham,” Tate draws a scene of a man hoofing it down the street with a ham under his arm. At the last instant, an older man tackles him, leading to the last line, “Clearly, it’s his ham now.”

It sounds throwaway. But Tate was never that simplistic. His absurdities and surreal scenes often end up in a maneuver that’s like a poetry version of the aerobatic move called the Immelmann, in which a plane flips over at the top of a loop to continue flying level in the opposite direction. In “Where Babies Come From,” Tate sets the scene: “Many are from the Maldives,/ southwest of India, and must begin/ collecting shells almost immediately.” These feral infants must build boats to find their parents. It’s all high absurdity and strangeness, and then with perfect dream logic, he delivers an emotional blow: “In their dreams Mama and Papa/ are standing on the shore/ for what seems like an eternity,/ and it is almost always the wrong shore.”

For all his singularity, Tate was enormously important to contemporary poetry. It’s one of his earliest works, the title poem of The Lost Pilot (1967), for which he won the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets at 23 years old, that to me reveals the profundity of his talent and infuses the rest of his work, no matter its surreality, with a fragile humanity. The poem addresses his father, lost co-piloting a bomber during World War II:

…All I know

is this: when I see you,

as I have seen you at least

once every year of my life,

spin across the wilds of the sky

like a tiny, African god,

I feel dead. I feel as if I were

the residue of a stranger’s life,

that I should pursue you.

My head cocked toward the sky,

I cannot get off the ground,

and, you, passing over again,

fast, perfect, and unwilling

to tell me that you are doing

well, or that it was mistake

that placed you in that world,

and me in this; or that misfortune

placed these worlds in us.•

Contact James Heflin at jheflin@valleyadvocate.com