Poet Richard Tillinghast was born in Memphis to Raymond Charles Tillinghast, a mechanical engineer from Massachusetts, and Martha Williford, daughter of a West Tennessee farmer and lawyer turned politician. This dual background of New England and agrarian South has given Tillinghast’s poetry a strong sense of political history. He attended the University of the South, serving as an editorial assistant to Andrew Nelson Lytle at the Sewanee Review. He then took advanced degrees at Harvard, studying writing with Robert Lowell, the Boston poet and early disciple of the Nashville Fugitives. Lowell would become the greatest influence in his poetry, not only for his plainspoken style but also for his preoccupation with history and its subtle and often dangerous effects on the self. Tillinghast’s critical memoir Damaged Grandeur: Robert Lowell’s Life and Work (1995) is his homage. Tillinghast spent the early 1970s teaching English at the University of California at Berkeley and San Quentin Prison and since 1983 has been on the faculty of the University of Michigan’s Master of Fine Arts program.
A sense of restlessness and dissatisfaction pervades much of his work, especially his third collection, Our Flag Was Still There (1984). In the long poem “Sewanee in Ruins,” he reacts against southern history and its “fatal romanticism / . . . / when everything burned / but the brick chimneys / and a way of talking.” The myth of southern gentility provides the backdrop for the book’s meditation on the Vietnam War and the nation’s divided loyalties.
Like Lowell, Tillinghast sees the personal as the best access to history. His most recent book, The Stonecutter’s Hand (1995), chronicles his travels in Ireland and Eastern Europe and includes views not merely his own. In “Pasha’s Daughter, 1914” a woman in Istanbul discovers that “Paradise is a bedraggled trapezoid / Of outback, its fountain a brew of leaves.” When her servant enters with “six centuries / Of marches and conquests reduced to the dirt / On his cuff,” she orders opium and stands at the window “to watch our empire melt in the rain.” In “A Quiet Pint in Kinarva,” the speaker sees Irish history contained in a “wide-eyed angel,” “baptised by rain, / Outlasting Viking longboat, Norman strongbow, / Face battered by a rifle butt.” Nearly all of the poems in this book are journeys of history and consciousness; travel itself, he has written, is a kind of poem.
Richard Tillinghast’s poems, book reviews, and essays on a range of subjects appear regularly in the nation’s leading magazines and newspapers. The recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, he is the author of four other collections of poems, Sleep Watch (1969), The Knife and Other Poems (1980), Today in the Café Trieste (1997), and Six Mile Mountain: Poems (2000). He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with his wife and four children.