Richard Tillinghast James Atlas - Essay

James Atlas

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 562 words.)