Storied Places

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



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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. 

 

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