‘The Lost Pilot,’ the title poem of James Tate’s first major collection of poetry, is about Tate’s father, who died in combat on April 11, 1944. Tate was barely five months old. Through this poem, he shares his matured thoughts encircling around his dead father, co-pilot of a fighter B-17. The collection was published in 1967 when Tate was just 23. Dudley Fitts, an American critic, selected the collection for the Yale Series of Younger Poets.
Explore The Lost Pilot
‘The Lost Pilot’ by James Tate is about a grief-stricken son’s imaginary conversation with his father, who died in World War II.
This piece is dedicated to Tate’s father, who was a co-pilot of a fighting jet. He died in combat in 1944 when Tate was barely a few months old. He did not see his father and grew up only with the memories implanted by others. Through this piece, he tries to show the love he has for his father. He delves through his deep emotions in order to unravel how he actually feels for him. His father did not think of his family nor of his infant child. He selfishly went to the battlefield and died. This poem is all about the loneliness, sadness, and angst of Tate.
You can read the full poem here.
Your face did not rot
like the others—the co-pilot,
and hard like ebony;
the features progressed in their
Tate wrote the poem ‘The Lost Pilot’ for his father, who died in combat in World War II. He lived for only 22 years (1922-1944) and died when his son was five months old. His family was falling apart, so did his son’s heart when he realized the gap between him and his father.
Through this piece, the persona of Tate tries to imagine the face of his father and few others related to him. His face is still clear in his mind, and it did not rot like the others who died on the battlefield. He refers to a co-pilot whom he had seen the other day. The pilot returned with a badly damaged face. His wife and daughter looked at his lifeless, deformed face as if it would be normal again.
However, they did not know what once was gone; it was gone forever. Their man was never turning back. Tate’s speaker holds his “Job” responsible for his fate. Whatsoever, his own father’s face had not deformed in his memory yet. It was partly because of his grudges and attachment to his memories implanted by others.
Each day the features of his face grew darker and finer as if it was made out of hard ebony. Those features progressed in their slow and steady fashion in his memory. Tate had not seen his father when he could really remember his face. So what he recapitulates is the mental image of him painted on his mind’s canvass with the description collected from his family members.
distinction. If I could cajole
you to come back for an evening,
However frightening, I would
discover you, and I would not
In these lines, Tate’s voice grows sympathetic towards him. His old anger and grudges seem to fade away momentarily. He somehow pardons him mentally and wishes if he could lure him to normal life. There is a gap in between them that he wants to fill in with some warm father-son memories.
Tate badly wants a normal childhood with his father. He can see his father orbiting above his head in compulsion. If there is a possibility of touching him, he could understand what made him leave his infant son back at home for carrying out his responsibilities.
Besides, he can see the face of the hoodlum gunner whose eyes happened to be injured on the battlefield. He now reads from braille texts. Like the blind gunner touches the texts, he would touch his father’s face. In this way, he would be able to imagine how he actually looked.
Then suddenly, he realizes that his face would be deformed like others as he also died during the war. Somehow, he would manage to read his face like an objective scholar, no matter how frightening the process could be. In this way, he can discover his father’s face.
turn you in; I would not make
you face your wife, or Dallas,
spin across the wilds of the sky
like a tiny, African god,
Up to this point, Tate tries to show some concern for his father. From this section, everything starts to take a more disinterested turn. His hatred and bitter feelings about his father get reflected in these lines of ‘The Lost Pilot’.
When the speaker can see his father finally, he would not turn him in to face his mother, their old home in Dallas, or his co-pilot, Jim. They would not like to discover him in that shape. So, the speaker tells his imaginary father to return to what he was destined for. He could crazily orbit in the sky in his fighter jet as he did before.
There will be no need to hear any sort of consolations or explanations from him. On top of that, the speaker did not even try to understand what it meant to his father. All he knows is that his heart grows weak, sad, and heavy whenever he sees him.
Besides, when he imagines his father that he does once every year, he finds him spinning across the sky, forming the figure of a tiny African god.
I feel dead. I feel as if I were
the residue of a stranger’s life,
and me in this; or that misfortune
placed these worlds in us.
In the last few lines of ‘The Lost Pilot,’ the speaker confesses his real feelings for his father. He says that when he tries to think about him, he feels dead inside. It seems as if he is the “residue of a stranger’s life”. The stranger is none other than his dead father.
He feels like pursuing him in the sky. His feet grow heavy when he looks upward, and he cannot lift them up to reach there. In contrast, his father keeps revolving over in his usual fashion. He was fast and perfect, needed to be a good co-pilot of a fighter jet. But he was not caring and lovable because he was unwilling to tell his only child about how he really felt for him.
The speaker does not even know whether his father was happy or not. Nowadays, it feels as if they are placed on two distant worlds, perplexed and disconnected. He thinks of the misfortune (a reference to the World War) that placed this impassable distance between them.
Tate’s ‘The Lost Pilot’ is a free-verse lyric poem that is written from the perspective of a first-person speaker. He is none other than the poet himself. This poem records how Tate felt about his father when he was in his twenties. The text of this poem consists of sixteen tercets or stanzas, having three lines each. There is no set rhyme scheme or meter. Besides, there is a dedication for the poet’s father at the beginning of the text.
Tate makes use of the following literary devices in ‘The Lost Pilot’.
- Enjambment: It occurs throughout the text that holds the lines together like beads in a thread. For instance, it occurs in the first stanza and continues to the first line of the second stanza.
- Simile: This device is used in “Your face did not rot/ like the others” and “it grew dark,/ and hard like ebony”.
- Metaphor: Tate uses the term “corn-mush” in order to compare it to the face of a co-pilot.
- Repetition: There is a repetition of the pronoun “I” a fair number of times. It is used for the sake of emphasis.
James Tate’s poem ‘The Lost Pilot’ is about a son’s grievous recapitulation of his dead father, who died in World War II. He was a copilot and died in combat. This piece explores how the son thinks about his father.
The poem was published in James Tate’s poetry collection by the same title, The Lost Pilot. It was published in 1967 and Selected for the Yale Series of Younger Poets.
In this poem, the speaker thinks bitterly of his dead father. The first few lines capture his sympathies toward him. As the poem reaches the end, his tone changes into a bitter and distanced one. He thinks the gap between him and his father can never be filled.
It is a free-verse lyric poem that consists of 16 tercets. There is no regular rhyme scheme or metrical pattern in the text. Besides, it is written from the perspective of a first-person speaker (Jame Tate) who dedicates this piece to his father, who died in World War II.
Here is a list of a few poems that similarly explore the themes present in James Tate’s ‘The Lost Pilot’.
- ‘Kamikaze’ by Beatrice Garland — This narrative poem explores the journey of a Kamikaze pilot toward a battle.
- ‘I Am Much Too Alone in this World, Yet Not Alone Enough’ by Rainer Maria Rilke — In this poem, a speaker attempts to come to terms with his love of another.
- ‘To Any Dead Officer’ by Siegfried Sassoon — This poem is about the gratuitous waste of life during the war.
You can also read about these tragic war poems.