Poet and prof. Richard Tillinghast teaches class like he is performing. He walks on top of the tables, silhouetted against pictures of Allen Ginsberg or Jack Kerouac, and spouts poetry against jazz rhythms.
This Thursday he will give a true performance, reading poetry from his earliest writings in 1969 through to his most recent collection, “Six Mile Mountain.” The anthology approach will introduce guests to his life’s work, a diverse body of poetry that rues and remembers with unforgettable images.
He is a poet who loves life but challenges how we live it. He was one of many poets who presented works for a White House reading with Laura Bush in January. Tillinghast guesses that the first lady expected “pleasant, harmless, decorative” poems, but renowned poet Sam Hamill challenged writers to “speak up for the conscience of our country” instead and collected over 13,000 poems of dissent at www.poetsagainstthewar.org. When First Lady Bush caught wind of this, she shut down the event.
Tillinghast is among a growing number of writers today who dare to be part of a serious debate. Since Sept. 11, poetry has become prominent as a form of consolation and comfort. Traditionally, however, poets have been free to criticize the government, and poems like Ginsberg’s “America” showed the power of dissent in the Vietnam era. The recent political climate has provoked many to take up the laurel tree cudgel once again, and Tillinghast is encouraged to see that something similar to the previous movement is “just starting to happen.”
Politics aside, Tillinghast will be a forceful presence on Thursday the strength of his writing alone. Critics praise it as being very “perceptual” – he plants readers firmly in the moments that he records, so that, in his own words, they “feel as if they are right there on the spot.” He takes us from a pastoral youth in Tennessee through a life that has seen many worlds and more than one time. Sense and perception drive the poems forward, not logic or intellection. The result is a powerful experience that carries the weight of history and the immediacy of the present.
At times, the subtle images can even feel transcendental, as in the ending of his poem “The Knife”: “Now I call to him / and now I see / David burst into the upper air / gasping as he brings to the surface our grandfather’s knife / shaped now, for as long as these words last, / like all things saved from time. / I see in its steel / the worn gold on my father’s hand / the light in those trees / the look on my son’s face/a moment old / like the river old like rain/older than anything that dies can be.”
Tillinghast is a poet eager to share his love with the world. He teaches two multimedia classes, one on the Beat Generation and one on Irish literature and culture. A faculty member of Michigan’s MFA program since its start in 1983, he now heads the Bear River Writer’s Conference which draws the best talent from around the Great Lakes (www.lsa.umich. edu/bearriver). Perhaps he is like the singer in his poem “Savanna, Sleepless,” who “doesn’t want/to set the world on fire, / she just wants to start a flame in the heart / of some unspecified ‘you.'” He gives his time unselfishly to working with young writers and inspiring them to create.
Those who know Richard Tillinghast from his classes know to expect something extraordinary on Thursday. When asked if his classroom performances might be a predictor of things to come, he said he could not guarantee any table-dancing, but he promises to not hold anything back.