Richard Tillinghast Essay - Critical Essays

Tillinghast, Richard


Richard Tillinghast 1940–

American poet and critic.

Tillinghast's first collection of poetry, Sleep Watch (1969), marked the emergence of a poet whose sensibility often focuses, as he describes it, on "the hidden and mysterious significance" of everyday objects and events. Some critics note as well a recurrent interest in the state of consciousness between sleep and wakefulness. Sleep Watch, which is divided into three sections, evidences Tillinghast's ability to work in both experimental free-verse and more traditional forms.

Tillinghast's second collection, The Knife and Other Poems (1981), continues the experimental style introduced in the first section of Sleep Watch. His writing is frequently marked by careful attention to the nuances of rhythm, juxtaposition of images resulting in a collage effect, and sensitive manipulation of line breaks, spacing, and punctuation. The effect of the past on the present is often examined in this volume. For instance, the title poem revolves around the protagonist's search for an ancestor's knife. In addition, many of the poems pay homage to such poets as Stéphane Mallarmé, Charles Baudelaire, and Rainer Maria Rilke.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed.)

Alan Williamson

I was first drawn to Richard Tillinghast as a confessional poet, in the poems about marriage and separation that actually make up less than one-fifth of his first volume, Sleep Watch. They were painful poems, yet held so much more self-forgiveness, more room for the lyrical, than most such poems do—the speaker's erotic utopianism neither psychoanalyzed down to mere compulsion, nor used as a Byronic excuse for his sometimes egocentric conduct….

On reading the entire book, I find these poems and their images extraordinarily deepened by their connections with poems which, though introspective and Freudian enough, are far from confessional; poems that deal with nostalgia and fright, not in terms of the situations that release them, but as permanent and independent categories of inner experience. To accomplish this, Tillinghast often uses "sleep watch" states (dozing, insomnia, near-hallucination), in which the external world remains present, yet is wholly interpenetrated by the world of the imagination or the unconscious. Many of these poems involve spiritual journeys and renewals, which happen to the poet through concrete memories and fantasies, and are seldom given any overt philosophical interpretation. (p. 91)

Richard Tillinghast has created a powerful world of imagery quite his own, repossessing areas of feeling, the exotic and the nostalgic, of which most younger poets are unduly shy. His drifting, detached phrases (though formally influenced by Dickey and Merwin), are highly appropriate to the sensuous quality of his thought, and allow him intensity without rhetoric. One has the rare opportunity to witness the entire evolution of this style, because Tillinghast has included a special section of early poems. Unfortunately, he has distinguished "early" from "mature" purely on a metrical/non-metrical basis; I personally think the book would have been stronger if the "early" section were shorter, and if one or two poems like "Reading Late in Winter" and "Enter Your Garden" stood in Part I, perhaps replacing such listless and prosy free verse works as "Mirror, Mirror" and "A Warm Room." (p. 92)

Alan Williamson, "The Future of Confession," in Shenandoah (copyright 1970 by Washington and Lee University; reprinted from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Vol. XXI, No. 4, Summer, 1970, pp. 89-93.∗

James Atlas

[In Sleep Watch, Richard Tillinghast's first book,] the words lie so close to the skin that the speaking voice and the poetic voice are one. These poems are so delicate, so Proustian! What Beckett says about Proust is true of Tillinghast: "The creation of the world did not take place once and for all time, but takes place every day." There is an incessant coming alive of images, a stirring of the heart, the langourous speech of evocation. So much is here! I suppose the poems are like our lives: they create spaces, drifting absently from one moment to the next, remembering to themselves epiphanies which have no explanation. It is as if one were to awaken having forgotten all that was before; then every instant becomes a history, a past, forging from the eye's experience an impression of what it means to be alive.

No one else is writing poems like those in Sleep Watch; Tillinghast has studied with Robert Lowell, and some of the early poems, collected in Part Three 1959–1963, reflect that influence, the diction and high rhetoric of Lord Weary's Castle, intense, disturbed, allusive. "A Poem on the Nuclear War, From Pompeii" imitates the didactic metaphysical style Lowell assumed in Near the Ocean…. Others resemble more Merwin or Donald Justice in their surrealism, in their silence, and "The Creation of the Animals" could have been written by James Dickey. But the rest (and it is a long first book) have about...

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Henry Taylor

[Sleep Watch] is Tillinghast's first book, and a few of the usual first-book problems show up in it, but on the whole, it has a quiet, insistent strength which makes it memorable. The book is divided into three sections; the first consists of poems in which a high tension is drawn between a quiet tone and a wildly inventive imagination, helped along by devices (broken lines, departures from normal punctuation, transitionless leaps from image to image) which Tillinghast admits having borrowed from Dickey and Merwin. The second section, "The Old Mill," is a long poem relying on these same devices; but the third, "1959–1963," contains surprisingly traditional poems, most of which describe a love affair and its conclusion. The title of this section leads me to believe, I hope mistakenly, that Tillinghast has developed a rigid loyalty to the style of the first two sections. Tillinghast is equally good in both modes, and I hope he continues to be. As it stands, this book is an arrival, not merely a beginning; I hope it does not also signal a too-vehement departure. (p. 350)

Henry Taylor, "Boom, Recent Poetry from University Presses," in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1970, by the University of Georgia), Vol. XXIV, No. 3, Fall, 1970, pp. 349-55.∗

Robert Watson

In [Sleep Watch] Richard Tillinghast pulls the reader rapidly into the strange world of his poems. His speech is quiet, modern, witty, while he talks about the oddness of the ordinary experiences of life. Many of his poems are reflections on simple everyday events or memories: raking leaves under the watchful eyes of his father, riding a ferry boat at night, recovering from an illness or love affair, waking up in the middle of the night. Until is a warm and charming portrait of an aging couple…. (p. 204)

Most of Tillinghast's poems are not so simple as Until, nor so conventional in form. The title of this collection, Sleep Watch, is very accurate, for a large number of his poems are about sleeping and waking, about the operation of the mind. The experiences he presents have the quality of a collage or surrealistic film: waking states of mind shift to dream states, to memories, memories seem to merge with fantasy or vision. I get lost in many of these "sleep watch" poems, which would not bother me if only I felt something. I begin to think I am working out jigsaw puzzles, some with too many pieces and others with not enough. Obviously Tillinghast favors his "sleep watch" poems because he places them in large numbers at the beginning of his work and devotes an entire section to one long surrealistic poem called The Old Mill—a poem with many brilliant passages. A Warm Room is one of these poems I find irritating, yet charming…. (p. 205)

The last section of Sleep Watch, a book of fifty poems, is called 1959–1963 and is really a little book in itself. Readers interested in his development can see Tillinghast move from formal verse forms, such as the villanelle If You Love the Body, to the looser, more relaxed verse of the later poems. "I am in love with my own thinking," says Tillinghast in one of his poems: even if there is a self-indulgent arbitrariness in many of his poems, Tillinghast's mastery of language and rhythm, his flashes of imagination and modest stance make him a poet of unusual interest. (p. 206)

Robert Watson, "Five Sleepers," (© 1970 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry and the author), in Poetry, Vol. CXVII, No. 3, December, 1970, pp. 204-10.∗

William Doreski

The title poem [of Richard Tillinghast's The Knife and Other Poems] evokes the knife as a passive symbol, like Whitman's broad-axe or Dickey's helmet: a hard, masculine image of potential violence, and yet, in this poem as in Whitman's and more obliquely in Dickey's, an image quite literally of brotherhood…. The knife itself is rich in ambiguity: it is a weapon as well as tool, it cuts open a fish and yet becomes the object by which brotherly love is demonstrated.

"The Knife" suggests that the tie between men is also a tie between men and the real world of objects; suggests that the proper use of these objects is to enrichen their lives, not to kill or destroy or misuse the earth. "The unstoppable live water" in which the brother dives is the stark cold reality of aging and the passage of time, as in "time is the stream I go afishing in." The knife is "saved from time" when the brother brings it to the surface, since symbols, understood, do not age. People do, but the lesson of the poem is that "the look on my son's face," at the moment of birth, is "older than anything that dies can be."

This then is a poem about the knowledge gained in the imaginative reading of a symbolic world—as to some extent, perhaps all poems are. In tone and choice of subject matter, its evocation of the essential love of brother, father, and son, it is decidedly Whitmanesque. The sensitive free verse also reminds the reader of Whitman, particularly in that Tillinghast makes no attempt, unlike so many postmodern poets, to disguise natural speech rhythms with abrupt or apparently random end-stops or deliberately rough cadences…. Tillinghast invokes the symbolic possibilities of the "real" world of Emerson. Like [Louise] Glück, though, Tillinghast infuses the lyric poem with a narrative that is an allegory of the mind realizing knowledge. This is the poem of self-recognition, the genre of Coleridge's Kubla Khan, and it seems to be the definitive post-modern genre. (pp. 161-63)

William Doreski, "The Mind Afoot" (© 1981 by Ploughshares, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the publisher and the author), in Ploughshares, Vol. 7, No. 1, 1981, pp. 157-63.∗

Bruce Bennett

Richard Tillinghast's "The Knife and Other Poems" is a haunted book. Ghosts of all sorts abound in its pages: visions of lost love, images of the poet's former self, the presence—and sometimes the words—of earlier poets, as in the poems "after" Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Rilke. Faces stare out of old photographs; snatches of song—Janis Joplin, Dylan—drift in from what is already a vanished era. The theme of return, introduced in the first poem, recurs throughout the volume; but its burden is that the longing is futile: You can't go home again. And, not surprisingly, counterpoint appears in the theme of leave-taking. There is even a literal act of conjuring in "Lost Cove & The Rose of San Antone," where the...

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James Finn Cotter

Richard Tillinghast's title poem, "The Knife," from his second collection [The Knife and Other Poems,] uses a dramatic, archetypal image: his brother diving into a river to recover a knife, a leap into perhistory and return…. The knife is symbolic of the poem which exists outside because it has been snatched from oblivion. In his personal voice, Tillinghast makes drinking a cold bottle of home-made beer, seeing one's family after a power failure, a cattle charge, and a protest march, fixed moments of epiphany. His free verse is rhythmic, sensuous, and subtle when he wishes to convey an insight trapped in some object and set free. His use of the alter-ego, however, appears contrived when he switches from...

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Alan Williamson

If, as is often said, the experience of outliving the 1960s was one from which my generation never fully recovered, it is surprising how little it has shown up in our poetry…. One critic, Paul Breslin, has seen in our recent low-profile surrealism, with its insistent imagery of dulling, of withdrawal—"stones and bones poetry," as it is pejoratively known—the reflection of a discouragement that is partly political; but the surrealist poets themselves would be the last to dwell on such a connection. Richard Tillinghast is a poet who became intensely involved in the California Counterculture at the end of the decade, and left his academic career for several years. His book The Knife seems to me an important...

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Stephen Behrendt

In the cover notes to Richard Tillinghast's second book of poems, The Knife and Other Poems …, James Dickey dubs the author "the best poet of the younger generation." Now James Dickey is no easy critic to satisfy, and indeed one cannot read Tillinghast's poems without being impressed by the considerable skill they display. One listens in admiration, for example, to frequent virtuoso verbal performances:

The cold moon led us coldly
—three men in a motorboat—
down foggy canals before dawn
past cut sugarcane in December….

Such passages [as this one from...

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