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a few words about The Lost Pilot by James Tate
About 6 months ago, on Facebook, I was looking for ways to engage my nearly 1000 friends (many of whom I had never met). One day I posted a provocative question as my status update to see what kind of response I would get: “Jeffrey McDaniel wonders if you consider the poem The Lost Pilot by James Tate to be confessional or not.”
I received over 20 comments, most of them quite thoughtful. The overall social-networking verdict leaned towards the poem not being classified as confessional (an ambiguous term I realize). I was and am aware of how absurd it is to call anything written by James Tate confessional. So I was surprised a few months later to stumble upon Gregory Orr’s essay, The Post-Confessional Lyric, where he lists several dozen poems from the 60’s and 70’s as being “post-confessional” (another ambiguous term), including The Lost Pilot. This emboldened me to take another look at the poem through a confessional lens. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=177311
Certainly the space between speaker and author is collapsed, and the reader is privy to an extremely intimate address from a young man to his dead father. In reality, the father was shot down during World War II and literally gave his life to protect his country. Many people would consider it a very noble death. But the speaker projects a confessional narrative onto his father’s absence. In reality, his father can’t be with the family, but in the speaker’s heart/mind, the father doesn’t want to be with family. In the speaker’s transformative imagination, the father has run away, is playing hooky. His orbiting is “compulsive” and “crazy”. He’s having a grand old time up there, in the sky. The father could return, but he doesn’t want to. What makes the poem even sadder is how numb the speaker is, how he feels almost nothing, and how longing to make a connection with his orbiting father, he cannot get off the ground.
Perhaps I should add that this is a poem I fell in love with when I first read it as a freshman in college, that I loved the combination of imagination and feeling.
Whether or not we think of the poem as confessional (for the record, I would not categorize it as such), maybe we can agree that the poem functions like an emotional pin in Tate’s oeuvre, A single autobiographical poem, played expertly at the very beginning of his career that alleviated the need for him to ever be so direct again. Some of us may feel the poem’s presence when we read the rest of Tate’s work, like the poem is an emotional anchor, looking in the background, keeping his wild, non-referential, intuitive poems from floating up, up, and away.