Friday, July 10, 2015

Poetry Friday: James Tate 1943-2015

James Tate in 1968

The wonderful poet James Tate, who taught for so many years at U Mass/Amherst, died on July 8th - this is my favorite of his poems. I feel just as he felt about clotheslines. And about love. 

At the Clothesline

Millie was in the backyard hanging the
laundry. I was watching her from the kitchen
window. Why does this give me so much pleasure?
Because I love her in a million ways, and because
I love the idea of clean laundry flapping in
the wind. It’s timeless, a new beginning, a
promise of tomorrow. Clothespins! God, I love
clothespins. We should stock up on them. Some
day they may stop making them, and then what?
If I were a painter, I would paint Millie hanging
the laundry. That would be a painting that
would make you happy, and break your heart.
You would never know what was in her mind, big
thoughts, little thoughts, no thoughts. Did she
see the hawk circling overhead? Did she
hate hanging laundry? Was she going to run away
with a sailor? The sheets billowing like sails
on an ancient skiff, the socks waving goodbye.
Millie, O Millie, do you remember me? The man
who travelled with cloth napkins and loved you
in the great storm.

Poetry Friday is being hosted by Katie over at The Logonauts this week - head over there to see what other people have posted.


  1. What a fascinating poem! There is such a magic in hung laundry and clothespins for sure. My comment-deleting mouse can certain spare a comment that includes a poem within it!

  2. I love the "cleanness" (no pun intended) and the simplicity of this poem. And then I get to the end and I'm not exactly sure all of a sudden who Millie isæ

    1. That's true, Carol. I also wonder who the speaker is - he loved Millie, and he knew her during "the storm." But he never really knew her, knew what she was thinking...he never knew if she loved him or even if she remembered him. And the poem ends up being about the nature of love, in general - as so many poems are. I love how Tate plays with tenses here - time is a little malleable, both present and past tense are used. Is MIllie alive? He doesn't even know that. But he loves her in a million ways (not loved, but loves!) I have the feeling they barely met - he was just traveling through. Or maybe they never met, maybe he never even knew her name. What's clear is that things and people disappear (Millie, clothespins, the art of hanging laundry on the line) and we're left with a longing to be remembered. Gad, I love this poem.

  3. Did she/ see the hawk circling overhead?
    What a fantastic poem! So much narrative going on here. I'm saving this. Thanks, Julie. (That's an intense look he's giving the camera in '68)

  4. OMG! This line, "The man
    who travelled with cloth napkins"

    So there is always laundry to be done!

    When I was a child, before the time of clothes dryers, my mother always hung out the laundry, and talked over the fence, and we had those stiff, wind and sun-scented towels for drying ourselves.

    Here's a link to a painting by Berthe Morisot, that gives me the same sort of nostalgic look at laundry as a break in the day. Quite a contrast to the poor overworked laundresses of Degas.

  5. Diane, there was a wonderful photographer, not too well known, named John Albok, who took wonderful photographs of laundry on clotheslines in NYC. Here's a link: