Collected Poems, 1919-1976 by Allen Tate (1977)

 

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What happens when a writer retains his literary fame, no longer for his work, but for his connections to more known writers and the associated literary movements?  Often, the writer’s name is mentioned in passing discussion or he is just listed in textbooks, but the reader is not encouraged to study his works. This is the fate of the poet-critic Allen Tate.
    Why should readers be interested in a near-forgotten modernist poet? Well, how interested is the public in contemporary poetry?  Not very interested.  This is because much of contemporary poetry seems less like verse and more like journal entries randomly cut into lines.  Many ask: where is the rhythm?  Where is the music?  As a result, the public largely decides to pass on poetry as recreational reading.  Allen Tate however can get those normally uninterested in poetry "jumping" into the genre.
    Allen Tate, born in Kentucky, was a writer associated with the Agrarian and Modernist literary movements. He went to Vanderbilt University, where he befriended the more-known poet and novelist, Robert Penn Warren, who wrote the acclaimed novel All the King’s Men.  Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Tate skirted controversy, criticizing Roosevelt’s New Deal from an agrarian standpoint and defending the south’s segregation policies.  By the 1950s Tate changed his views on race, and furthermore, supported black writers like Ralph Ellison and Melvin B. Tolson.  He also wrote and published less poetry from this time period onward, although he continued to regularly write literary and social criticism that appeared in journals such as National Review.  He then passed away in 1979 at the age of 79.
    But what about the poetry?  Is it good?  Yes.  However, many readers today are more familiar with the free verse poetry that has dominated the literary scene for the past half-decade.  They may be taken aback by the rigid formalism of the poetry.  Until the 1950s, Tate mainly utilized a few basic forms: blank verse, quatrains, or the sonnet.  His mastery of these forms cannot be doubted.  Look at these two final quatrains from “The Mediterranean”, a poem that compares the journey of the mythic Aeneas to the European conquest of the New World:
    
What country shall we conquer, what fair land 
Unman our conquest and locate our blood? 
We've cracked the hemispheres with careless hand! 
Now, from the Gates of Hercules we flood 

Westward, westward till the barbarous brine 
Whelms us to the tired land where tasseling corn,
Fat beans, grapes sweeter than muscadine 
Rot on the vine: in that land were we born.

Tate is able to bring mix the mythic and historic past in order to comment on the then-present.  The contemporary reader is able to get poetry of depth that comments on the human condition and how culture and history affects that universal condition.  As an added benefit, the reader has lines of verse that he or she can quote decades down the line whenever a specific mood befalls them.  I say that one should read the entire collection from front to back, but if there are limits to one's time, here are his defining poems to read: "Ode to the Confederate Dead," "The Mediterranean," "Sonnets of the Blood," "Aeneas at Washington," and "The Swimmers." 

-December 19, 2013