Storied Places

Poet-traveller Richard Tillinghast revisits Istanbul — and his own hometown.



photo of Richard Tillinghast

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Who among us regularly reads poetry? Who among us regularly reads contemporary poetry? And who among us recognizes the name Richard Tillinghast? If local readers do not, they need to, because Tillinghast is a Memphian born and bred, and for the past four decades he’s been an internationally recognized, award-winning writer with more than a dozen books of poetry to his name. He’s a reviewer, essayist, translator, and food writer too. And he’s a travel writer, which is why Tillinghast returned to his hometown this past July to read from his latest book, An Armchair Traveller’s History of Istanbul: City of Forgetting and Remembering, published by Haus Publishing out of England.

Tillinghast, who today divides his time between Sewanee, Tennessee, and Hawaii, knows Istanbul more than most and more than well. He first visited the city in the mid-1960s, and he’s been returning ever since to walk its streets, admire its art and architecture, absorb its atmosphere, and observe its people firsthand. Make that peoples, because Istanbul was and still is a world crossroads: geographically at the intersection of Europe and Asia; ethnically at the receiving end for migrating Armenians, Greeks, Jews, and fellow Turks, in addition to Albanians, Arabs, Bulgarians, Croats, Italians, Kurds, Persians, Serbs, black Africans, and White Russians. No wonder, then, that Tillinghast early on writes, “A city is a living being,” and in these pages, Istanbul is indeed very much alive. That even goes for its long and glorious but often savage history — a history Tillinghast vividly recalls, starting with the Roman reign of Constantine and advancing to Ottoman rule until we arrive at the twentieth-century, westernizing changes introduced by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Tillinghast is a Memphian born and bred, and for the past four decades he’s been an internationally recognized, award-winning writer with more than a dozen books of poetry to his name. And he’s a travel writer, which is why he returned to his hometown this past July to read from his latest book.

Despite the title, though, there’s nothing “armchair” about Tillinghast’s immersion in Instanbul life and culture: its crowded neighborhoods, the enormous interior of Haghia Sophia, and the maze of rooms making up the Topkapi Palace. We learn too what it’s like to be treated to an evening inside a tekke, a combination men’s club and dervish meeting house. And we’re reminded of Istanbul’s hold on the imagination of writers such as C.P. Cavafy and Orhan Pamuk. How, though, to characterize the city’s pervasive mood?

That’s a harder assignment, and Tillinghast doesn’t pretend to capture that mood in definitive terms. Leave it to Istanbullus to embody it: hüzün — a melancholy mixed with dignity, resignation ennobled by the burden of history. Tillinghast is especially attuned to it — this notion of history and its consequences for contemporary society in general and for the individual in particular. Just look to two of his titles — Sewanee in Ruins (1981) and Our Flag Was Still There (1984) — for poetic proof. Those volumes may be the work of a mature writer, but the South as a land of mythic dimensions is for Tillinghast nothing new. The importance of place has been central to him since his high-school readings of William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, and John Crowe Ransom. It’s been with him perhaps his whole life.

Tillinghast, born in 1940, grew up on South Cox in midtown Memphis, but in 1890, when his grandparents bought the house, it was located outside the city limits in a community called Lenox. His grandfather was a farmer, then a lawyer (and later judge) named A.J. Williford, and the farmland of his grandmother Minnie’s family, outside Brownsville, Tennessee, introduced the boy to the sight of picked cotton fields and the smell of spent shotgun shells at Thanksgiving time.

A thoroughly Southern, if largely urban, upbringing? Yes, but Tillinghast’s horizons widened soon enough beyond cotton fields, shotgun shells, and a mid-size, mid-century American city. His mother Martha taught French and Latin at Miss Hutchison’s School, and his father Raymond Charles Tillinghast, an industrial engineer and inventor of cotton-processing equipment, was simply beyond the pale: a Yankee from Massachusetts. But despite the broad horizons, for this poet-in-the-making, literature, growing up, wasn’t exactly in Tillinghast’s blood — yet.

 

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