Tillinghast, Richard (Williford)

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TILLINGHAST, Richard (Williford)

Nationality: American. Born: Memphis, Tennessee, 25 November 1940. Education: University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee (assistant editor, Sewanee Review), A.B. 1962; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts (Woodrow Wilson Fellow), A.M. 1963, Ph.D. 1970. Family: Married 1) Nancy Walton Pringle in 1965 (divorced 1970); 2) Mary Graves in 1973, three sons and one daughter. Career: Professor of English, University of California, Berkeley, 1968–73; instructor, San Quentin Prison College Program, 1975–78; visiting assistant professor, University of the South, 1979–80; Briggs-Copeland Lecturer, Harvard University, 1980–83. Since 1983 professor of English, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Faculty associate, Michigan Institute for the Humanities, 1988–89 and 1993–94. Awards: Sinclair-Kennedy travel grant, 1966–67; Creative Arts Institute grant, 1970; National Endowment for the Humanities grant, 1980; Breadloaf Conference fellowship, 1982; Michigan Arts Council grant, 1985; Millay Colony residency, 1985; Yaddo Writers' Retreat residency, 1986; Michigan Council for the Arts grant, 1986; American Research Institute fellowship, 1990; Amy Lowell travel grant, 1990–91; travel grants to Northern Ireland from the British Council, 1992–94; Ann Stanford prize for poetry, 1992. Address: University of Michigan, Department of English, Haven Hall, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109–1003, U.S.A.



The Keeper. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Pym Randall Press, 1968.

Sleep Watch. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1969.

The Knife and Other Poems. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1980.

Sewanee in Ruins. Sewanee, Tennessee, University Press, 1981.

Fossils, Metal, and the Blue Limit. Bennington, Vermont, White Creek Press, 1982.

Our Flag Was Still There. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1984.

The Stonecutter's Hand. Boston, David R. Godine, 1995.

Today in the Café Trieste. Galway, Ireland, Salmon Publishing, and Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, Dufour, 1997.


Robert Lowell: Damaged Grandeur. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1995.

Editor, A Visit to the Gallery: The University of Michigan Museum of Art. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1997.


Critical Studies: "Five Sleepers" by Robert Watson, in Poetry (Chicago), March 1970; "The Future of Confession" by Alan Williams, in Shenandoah (Lexington, Virginia), summer 1970; "At the First Doorway of the Lost Life" by James Atlas, in Chicago Review, autumn 1970; by Bruce Bennett, in New York Times Book Review, 10 May 1981; by Jay Parini, in Quest, September 1981; by Alan Williamson, in Parnassus (New York), winter 1981; "Reflections on The Knife" by Andrea Blaugrund, in Harvard Advocate (Cambridge, Massachusetts), December 1981; by Paul Breslin, in New York Times Book Review, 22 July 1982; by Wyatt Prunty, inSouthern Review (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), fall 1984; "No Vers Is Libre" by Scott Ward, in Shenandoah (Lexington, Virginia), 45(3), fall 1995.

Richard Tillinghast comments:

I see poetry as a kind of invocation of the spiritual realities inherent in things—the hidden and mysterious significance of colors, sounds, smells, textures. It is something like the speech of animals and plants, if they could speak. As an early, oral, nonrational art, unashamedly archaic in its origins, poetry still carries some of the magic of the early days of the human race. At its best it is consistent with the grace, naturalness, solidity, charm, thrill, and sense of necessity that are found in the earliest human accomplishments: hunting, fire building, cooking, cultivation of the soil, fishing, and weaving. To mention poetry in the same breath with these things must also remind one of the practice, skill, and expertise that are necessary for the accomplishment of good writing.

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Richard Tillinghast's Sleep Watch amazed its readers with a startling, ingenious way of seeing things. Here is an animal describing God's bungling of the Creation: "Later on when he saw that things had gone wrong /… it rested him to look at us /And I found I could love him in his weakness /as I never could before /the beauty left his face …" Here is "Waking on the Train": "after the commuters /cigars windows being jerked open /your body begins to know it hasn't slept /It thinks of all the parts of itself /that would touch a bed …"

Many of Tillinghast's poems touch on that dreamlike area of consciousness between waking and sleeping. Everything real is in doubt, and that may be desirable. "Is everything sliding?" he asks in a poem called "Everything Is Going to Be All Right," and he answers, "Nothing /to worry about— /Getting lost means sliding in all directions."

American fashions in poetry—Eastern mysticism, nature worship, confession—hover dangerously about Tillinghast's work, but they are kept at bay by his delicate obliqueness, plus a hawk's eye for metaphor: "I put the cap back onto the pen /the way a court reunites a /mother and child," and "I am alert at once /and think of the cat /coasting on its muscles …"

One of the best poems in Sleep Watch is about rising from a childhood illness to confront the world of health. The poet senses an undefined disappointment in his parents, for he has not given them cause to mourn: "For them I am closing the door to the place /where the dead children are stored /where the pets have gone to heaven."

A certain self-consciousness has led Tillinghast to develop his own style. He uses spaces where one would normally expect punctuation, allowing his poems to lie on the page between breathing intervals, like directions for speech. There is an abundance of self-consciousness and sensitivity, and Tillinghast has given us a brilliant tour of his complex psyche.

Tillinghast addresses the complexity of transformation with an abundance of self-consciousness and sensitivity. His book Our Flag Was Still There compiles long meditations on the relationship between the present and the past, in one poem with the difficult history southern college students address, in another with a broken-down van.

But The Stonecutter's Hand is perhaps Tillinghast's most substantial contribution to contemporary poetry to date. From Turkey to Belgrade to Dublin to Manhattan, the poems consider a wide scope with a historical consciousness that can feel both emotional and intellectual. Self-effacing, he begins the book's opener, "Anatolian Journey," with the lines "Impedimenta of the self /Left behind somewhere." Although he moves through many worlds in this collection, he works with both the language of country and the language of earth, an earth that does not subscribe to maps and boundaries: "in the morning wake to /Acres of sunflowers /warmer than any human welcome; /Haystacks domed like the domes of whitewashed mosques, /And the Black Sea rising out of itself /like the fragrance of remoteness." Tillinghast ultimately chooses various forms of remoteness because they sharpen his attention to the numinousness of the precise and immediate world in which each poem lives.

—Anne Stevenson and

Martha Sutro