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Inimitable precision: the collected poems of Allen Tate

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Allen Tate Collected Poems 1919-1976


Every creative movement that has an impact within the insulating world of letters is marred or augmented by the genealogy of its participants: Ezra Pound, as noted for his influence on the works of Eliot as for his Cantos, lost his mind after embracing Fascism; Eliot was shadowed by anti-Semitism. Virginia Woolf did some extraordinary things in imitating consciousness in her novels, but she was a suicidal fruitcake. The list goes on, rolling along like an archaic line of anapestic heptameter: it includes the Fugitive Agrarian poet Allen Tate, due to Tate's southern prejudices born and bred.

David Yezzi references Tate's reactionary outlook in a well written apologia in The New Criterion, an article perused often since its publication. David Havird simply offers up the events in Tate's life, without opining on the titillating aspects of a fractious personality. This reviewer offers up an unabashed delight in the sheer craft on what might have been Tate's nihilistic intimacy with the haunting, perishable quality of life.

We're here today. Tomorrow we might be dead in a dust storm, or murdered as an inconvenience to an overworked sheriff, and whatever else sullied his mindset, Tate put his readers on notice with his mastery of imitation, be it Alexander Pope's heroic satire, the ethereal disembodied sensibilities of Edgar Allen Poe, even Dante's terza rima.

Tate's classicism doesn't always generate a strong output, as in his early "Lycambes Talks to John". In the second stanza, lines like "My love the Lesbian puritans despised," is a light jab at the Freudian revolution, but with maturation, as exemplified in one of my favorites, "Mother and Son," the opening lines, slamming with a trochee, "Now all day long the man who is not dead/Hastens the dark with inattentive eyes," sets up a spiritual recoil from powerful familial bonds tenaciously clinging to life even in their mortal coils zapped with sin.

If Tate's work is ignored by a progressive academic establishment due to our 21st century currency in hypersensitivity, it is representative of an educational stagnation, an unfortunate facet of the times, especially when the expendability of the flesh offers poetry enthusiasts such a wickedly jarring pleasure.