The moon seemed to know we were going to visit a dead poet. High, full, bluish-gray, surrounded by scurrying clouds in a bruised patch of sky, it looked trotted out from some prop warehouse; all it lacked was an owl silhouetted against it. Under its gaze our procession filed through the cemetery, holding out cellphones as votives and flashlights. We were at least four dozen strong.
If you're familiar with Allen Tate, you probably know him as a critic, one of the central figures of the mid-twentieth century "New Criticism." If you know him as a poet, you almost certainly know him by “Ode to the Confederate Dead," an ornate Modernist anthology piece. Tate lived in Sewanee, Tennessee toward the end of his life and is buried there at The University of the South, home of the annual writers' conference in which our group of nighttime pilgrims was taking part. He is his cemetery’s most famous resident, and visiting him is something of a conference tradition.
Once we’d reached the gravesite, the poet Andrew Hudgins led the proceedings. He set an actual votive on the headstone, cracked open a book, and announced that he'd be reciting the "Ode." He acknowledged the potential for the title to raise eyebrows, noting that some readers have viewed the poem "as wishing that the Civil War could be fought again, with a different conclusion. But," he added, "I don’t think that’s what it’s about." And he's right: it's not a polemic, or even much of a war poem, but a grim meditation on mortality and modernity. In its depiction of a solitary figure ("you") brooding over a failed and tainted past, it's a subversive twist on the Pindaric ode (a public commemoration of heroism or victory). It’s also a wonderfully atmospheric graveyard poem:
Row after row with strict impunity
The headstones yield their names to the element,
The wind whirrs without recollection;
In the riven troughs the splayed leaves
Pile up, of nature the casual sacrament
To the seasonal eternity of death;
Then driven by the fierce scrutiny
Of heaven to their election in the vast breath,
They sough the rumour of mortality.
One of the poem’s best passages describes the “uncomfortable angels that rot” on tombstones, but I noticed that Tate’s own stone boasts no such ornamentation. It’s a modest slab in a small plot, a classic poet’s grave.
When the reading ended we left the man in peace and headed to a party. On the way over I got talking with my friend Matthew about Tate’s relationship to Robert Penn Warren and Robert Lowell. After a brief comparison of Lowell’s and Tate’s prominent foreheads (Lowell’s was “patrician,” whereas Tate’s was just “goddamn enormous”), Matthew wondered whether Tate would be remembered as a poet at all if not for his colleagues. He was, arguably, a marginal talent whose reputation hinges on the “Ode” alone. Would he ever have pursued a serious writing career if the infectiously enthusiastic, enviably talented Warren hadn’t been his college roommate? Would we still remember the “Ode” if Lowell, Tate’s onetime protege, hadn’t composed “For the Union Dead” as a response to it?
As we walked and talked, it dawned on me that Allen Tate was either one of the luckiest poets in history or one of the shrewdest. His career suggests a three-step path to literary immortality for those unwilling to trust talent alone.
1. Make the right friends. Form a “school” with other, more obviously talented writers. Make sure the school has a name. Hedge your bets by joining a critical school, too. As a Fugitive poet Tate was overshadowed by Warren and Ransom and as a New Critic by William Empson, but neither was he the weakest member of either school. His fate resembles that of Kenneth Koch (New York School) and Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Beats), both authors unlikely to have lit up the firmament on their own, but talented enough to shine as supporting players in their respective movements.
2. Write at least one anthology piece. For poets especially, this is a must. If you don’t survive in the anthologies, you don’t survive. On the other hand, if you manage to hang around the anthologies long enough, you can never be kicked out even if later generations aren't smitten with your work. This is the cheat clause known as “influence.” “Ode to the Confederate Dead” may smell a little like mothballs these days, but no one can deny that it’s been influential, if only on the evidence of Lowell’s poem.
3. Choose the right place to be buried. Location, location. Try to score a plot near a future gathering place for writers, but avoid cemeteries where you’ll be upstaged by more notable corpses. The second most famous grave in Sewanee belongs to Tate’s fellow Agrarian, Andrew Lytle, and we can all agree that Allen Tate was a better poet than Andrew Lytle. Come to think of it, if you’re a reasonably talented writer hoping to attract worshippers to your grave, you might look into getting buried near Allen Tate.
Of course, even if you follow these suggestions to the letter, you may not be able to match Tate for sheer luck. That’s why, even though his style isn’t generally to my taste, I can’t help but find him sort of loveable. Few figures in literary history have done so much with so little: he has parlayed, not even a whole poem, but a few lines of great poetry into a secure niche in the pantheon. Here for me is the core of his creative achievement:
Think of the autumns that have come and gone!—
Ambitious November with the humors of the year,
With a particular zeal for every slab,
Staining the uncomfortable angels that rot
On the slabs, a wing chipped here, an arm there:
The brute curiosity of an angel's stare
Turns you, like them, to stone…
What shall we who count our days and bow
Our heads with a commemorial woe
In the ribboned coats of grim felicity,
What shall we say of the bones, unclean,
Whose verdurous anonymity will grow?
The ragged arms, the ragged heads and eyes
Lost in these acres of the insane green?
Around that luminous center, Tate has been able to rally fellow writers, fellow critics, anthologists, and literary tourists for the better part of a century. Some nights even the moon falls under his sway.
Postscript: In a thoughtful response, a friend, scholar, and gentleman who prefers to remain nameless has reminded me that Warren owes as much to Tate as Tate does to Warren:
"Tate's fate is most reminiscent, I think, of excellent poets from the 17th century who are now known only for a single piece—say Thomas Carew and 'The Spring.' Carew has a dozen poems that should be known, but, in the midst of the Renaissance, he fades into the shadow of Milton, Marvell, etc, just as Tate fades into the shadow of Eliot, [Hart] Crane, and Lowell. It is significant, however, that all three of these latter were big admirers of the man (Tate, after all, wrote the introduction to White Buildings at Crane's request) not because of who his friends were but because of his abilities. And I'll add that it was Tate who went to Kentucky, after Warren attempted suicide at 19, and talked young Red into returning to Vandy and continuing his work, not the other way around."
Excellent points all, and while my enthusiasm for Tate's poetry remains lukewarm, I'd agree that he did more for his movement than piggyback on the success of its most famous members. Literary influence and reputation are messier phenomena than we sometimes make them out to be; behind the major figures of the tradition stand many other writers, talented in their own right, who inspired the giants, encouraged them, provoked them, promoted their aesthetic, and helped them (sometimes literally) survive.
[Image of a more dramatic grave than Allen Tate's courtesy of Shutterstock.]