Richard Tillinghast's poetry is infused with a strong regard for history and autobiography. In many of his poems, Tillinghast discovers personal history through his extensive travels. And a major theme found in his poetry is the pervasive awareness of life's impermanence: "He writes out of a sense of loss in part, but reclamation also," Wyatt Prunty has commented (968).
Primarily using free verse (see prosody and free verse), Tillinghast explores his personal history—childhood, relationships, and influences—but also more universally historical themes, such as the impact of the Civil War and World War ii, through which he ultimately questions society's advances during postwar reconstruction. His teacher and mentor at Harvard, Robert lowell, was a major influence on his work. Lowells confessional poetics and free verse poems are especially prevalent in Tillinghast's early work.
Tillinghast was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. Sleep Watch, his first book of poetry, was published in 1969. He was the recipient of an Amy lowell Traveling Fellowship in 1990-91. Tillinghast has been the director of the Poets' House in Ireland.
The Knife and Other Poems (1980) contains works reflecting a yearning for the past with a rather cynical view of the future. "The Knife," the title poem of this collection, is significant, because Tillinghast demonstrates a strong and positive connection with past, present, and future: His newborn son's "look" is "like the river old like rain / older than anything that dies can be." The knife, a gift from a grandfather, symbolizes a cyclical relationship between Tillinghast, his brother, and his son. With the symbol of the knife, Tillinghast embraces the past while noting the positive effect it holds for the future. Other poems in this collection express less-than-optimistic ideas about the future.
In Our Flag Was Still There (1984), Tillinghast continues his quest for the past through introspection. In his long poem "Sewanee in Ruins," he establishes the history of Sewanee (the University of the South) to a group of students through historical journals, letters, and local history accounts of life following the Civil War: "But why do I let these ghosts talk / and tire you with their names and histories." The purpose in this poem is to connect students with their geographical roots. "Sewanee in Ruins" displays Tillinghast's keen ability to reconstruct the past with acute detail, hoping it will remain a fixture in the present for his students. Tillinghast contrasts past and present in his poetry, often with reference to geographic location. His keen, detailed use of language and free verse convey a sense of longing for a past that can never be revisited.
Prunty, Wyatt. "Myth, History, and Myth Again." Southern
Review 20.4 (October 1984): 958-968. Shoaf, Diann. "Review of Stonecutter's Hand," by Richard
Tillinghast. Ploughshares 21.1 (spring 1995): 200-202.
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