James Tate’s Poem, ‘Goodtime Jesus’

American poet James Tate.

An unconventional poem, both in structure and in content, particularly religious content, always speaks to me. I think it speaks to me because of my inner anarchist and contrarian, albeit, that doesn’t mean chaos or contrarianism for its own sake, but purposeful deviation from the norm. In this way, I think American poet and professor, James Tate’s, 1979 poem, “Goodtime Jesus,” is an exemplary poem to demonstrate what I am talking about. I’m not sure I’ve come across it before. I’ve also not come across James Tate, despite him being a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. After reading this poem, I wouldn’t mind reading more of his work.

Interestingly, Tate, who grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, was intent on being a gas station attendant; he had little interest in literature, according to his biography. Eventually, though he did go to college, and flourished. His work has been described as “surrealistic, comic, and absurdist,” which I take, “Goodtime Jesus,” to be. Tate is also said to have described his work as his characters being “in trouble, and they’re trying to find some kind of life.” That is beautiful, and again, evokes Jesus’s station in life within, “Goodtime Jesus.”

Here is the poem in full:

And here is an excerpt:

Jesus got up one day a little later than usual. He had been dreaming so deep there was nothing left in his head. What was it? A nightmare, dead bodies walking all around him, eyes rolled back, skin falling off.

Right away, the first sentence of this prose poem — which I think a prose poem pushes the boundaries of traditional poetry in a good way, although there are people who wouldn’t consider this a poem at all, more of a story or even a joke — presents a loose, fun image of Jesus: he slept in! He’s relatable. A mortal man. And even Jesus has dreams, nightmares in fact. It seems he had a nightmare about the apocalypse? The End of Days, as it were? But no matter, he isn’t concerned. We learn that Jesus wasn’t afraid because it was a beautiful day. Where’s U2? Why let a nightmare infringe upon such beauty, after all? And you know what, he really wanted some coffee, which is even more relatable and whimsical a notion of Jesus, especially how he seems to talk to himself about it, “How ’bout some coffee? Don’t mind if I do.” That’s funny. But the absurdist hilarity continues, “Take a little ride on my donkey, I love that donkey. Hell, I love everybody.”

Maybe it’s just my head, but that first line feels like the start of a country song if you swapped out “donkey” for “tractor.” Jesus, the country singer! Put a cowboy hat and some boots on that godly boy. But I think the funniest part is the last line, “Hell, I love everybody.” The emphasis is mine because of Jesus using the casual refrain of hell. He’s happy! He loves everybody! What a guy! He’s not thinking about death or even his own death. He just wants to drink coffee and ride his lovely donkey.

From what I’ve seen in researching this poem and its insights I might have missed, particularly because I’m not religious, I learned that Palm Sunday is a significant event in Christianity because it is one of the last moments Jesus had before being arrested and crucified. Palm Sunday is when Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a … donkey! So, it isn’t just that Tate is being flippant here and trying to humanize Jesus, but the story of Jesus itself in the Bible is humanized, which was the point: Jesus humbled himself to ride a “lowly animal” like a donkey. It also fulfilled prophecy:

Zechariah wrote: “Behold, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious. He is humble and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass.” (Zechariah 9:9) KJV.

But only after he enjoyed his cup of coffee.

What do you make of this poem?

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