Poet-traveller Richard Tillinghast revisits Istanbul — and his own hometown.
photo of Richard Tillinghast
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.
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.
In a piece written for the University of Michigan’s Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Tillinghast’s outside interests while attending Central High included classes at the Memphis Academy of Art and music-making, and in Memphis in the late 1950s, music meant jazz, rock-and-roll, country and western. Tillinghast, as the drummer for a number of bands, played it all, and in the process, he got a good look at local nightlife, including the city’s better dives.
What led Tillinghast to turn to poetry once and for all? Two words: The Mountain. That’s how graduates of the University of the South in Sewanee refer to the school’s setting. That’s where Tillinghast studied literature with the school’s superb faculty. And that’s where he was taught modern poetry by Monroe Spears, who had Tillinghast’s poems first published. But Tillinghast didn’t stop his studies there. He went to Harvard for his M.A. and Ph.D., and he found in one of his teachers there, Robert Lowell, not only a model and champion of his work but also a friend — and subject too in Tillinghast’s critical memoir Robert Lowell’s Life and Work: Damaged Grandeur (1995).
Travel, during these years of grad-school study, was never far from Tillinghast’s mind, however, and how could it have been otherwise? From 1964 to 1966, he was editor-in-chief of Let’s Go: The Student Guide to Europe. That year 1964 holds even added importance. It is the year Tillinghast first set foot in Istanbul. And it is hardly the last time he set off for new parts: among them, teaching posts at the University of California at Berkeley, San Quentin Prison, and the University of Michigan, where Tillinghast taught until retiring in 2005.
It hasn’t been academics full time, all the time, though. Tillinghast has studied under a Sufi master. He’s led the transcendental hippie life in California. He’s trekked to Nepal, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. He’s moved wife and children to Ireland and written of that country in Finding Ireland: A Poet’s Explorations of Irish Literature and Culture (2008). He’s even taken time off from his teaching career to act as an expert Volkswagen mechanic. What Tillinghast has not stopped is writing, be it poetry or be the subject his travels.
Which brings us to Breakfast at the Airport: A Book of Places, which isn’t yet a finished book. It is the title of the manuscript Tillinghast is at work on now, and in among chapters devoted to India and Nepal, Ireland and England, the American West and Hawaii, there is this: “… a joy, and a sadness in coming back. There is a joy in the sense of belonging, of possessing and being possessed by the land where you were born.”
The quote isn’t from Richard Tillinghast, however. It’s from Memphis artist Carroll Cloar. But Tillinghast uses that quote to open his essay “Memphis: History and Memory” — an essay that more than sketches for general readers the story of the poet’s hometown. It is an essay that recalls scenes from the author’s own upbringing — his grandmother on the phone giving “Boss” Crump “a piece of her mind” over some local issue, visits with his uncle to the Tennessee Club off Court Square, dances during Cotton Carnival, lunch at the Little Tea Shop, his father’s office in the Sterick Building — in a city meant not for forgetting but remembering.
It is a city that is, in Richard Tillinghast’s words, “anything but ordinary.” It is, also according to Richard Tillinghast, not the “stifling and benighted place” he mistook it to be when he set off for Sewanee and beyond. It is, in fact, “a singular place,” and he counts himself “lucky” to have grown up in it.
Memphis: He calls it “conflicted” and “untidy.’ The city’s history: “altogether unlikely,” even “strange” — “a storied place.”
As with that city on the Bosphorus, so too the Bluff City on the Mississippi.