Richard Tillinghast Alan Williamson - Essay

Alan Williamson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗