Richard Tillinghast Robert Watson - Essay

Robert Watson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗