Monday, February 7, 2011

Richard Tillinghast

Richard Tillinghast is a poet, translator and essayist. Originally from Memphis, Tennessee, he now lives in rural County Tipperary, Ireland. He is the author of ten books of poetry including Selected Poems and Sewanee Poems (2009) as well as The New Life (2008). A recent book of essays, Finding Ireland: a Poet’s Explorations of Irish Literature and Culture, was also published in 2008 by the University of Notre Dame Press and received ForeWord magazine’s Book of the Year Gold Award for travel essays. His poetry has appeared in Irish, British, and American periodicals including the American Poetry Review, Atlantic Monthly, Harvard Review, Hudson Review, Irish Pages, The New Republic, The New Yorker, Paris Review, Poetry Ireland Review, Poetry London, Poetry Wales, and PN Review. Poems of his have been selected for both The Best American Poetry and The Best of Irish Poetry. In 1995 the University of Michigan Press brought out Robert Lowell’s Life and Work: Damaged Grandeur, a critical memoir; Lowell was Tillinghast’s teacher at Harvard, where he received his PhD in 1970. With his daughter, Julia Clare Tillinghast he has translated from Turkish the poems of Edip Cansever, which were published in 2009 by Talisman House under the title Dirty August. He is a 2010-11 Guggenheim Fellow.


Wake me in South Galway, or better yet
In Clare. You’ll know the pub I have in mind.
Improvise a hearse: one of those decrepit
Postal vans would suit me down to the ground—
A rust-addled Renault, Kelly green with a splash
Of Oscar Wilde yellow stirred in to clash
With the dazzling perfect meadows and limestone
On the coast road from Kinvara down to Ballyvaughan.

Once you’ve got in off the road at Newquay
Push aside some barstools and situate me
Up in front by the door where the musicians sit,
Their table crowded with pints and a blue teapot,
A pouch of Drum, some rolling papers and tin
Whistles. Ask Charlie Piggott to play a tune
That sounds like loss and Guinness, turf smoke and rain,
While Brenda dips in among the punters like a hedge-wren.

Will I hear it? Maybe not. But I hear it now.
The smoke of the music fills my nostrils, I feel the attuned
Box and fiddle in harness, pulling the plough
Of the melody, turning the bog-dark, root-tangled ground.
Even the ceramic collie on the windowsill
Cocks an ear as the tune lifts and the taut sail
Of the Galway hooker trills wildly in its frame on the wall,
Rippling to the salt pulse and seabreeze of a West Clare reel.

Many a night, two octaves of one tune,
We sat here side by side, your body awake
To a jig or slide, me mending the drift of a line
As the music found a path to my notebook.
Lost in its lilt and plunge I would disappear
Into the heathery freedom of a slow air
Or walk out under the powerful stars to clear
My head of thought and breathe their cooled-down fire.

When my own session ends, let me leave like that,
Porous to the wind that blows off the ocean.
Goodbye to the company and step into the night
Completed and one-off, like a well-played tune—
Beyond the purified essence of hearth fires
Rising from the life of the parish, past smoke and stars,
Released from everything I’ve done and known.
I won’t go willingly, but I’ll be gone.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

Sometime in the late 90s. I was thinking that one of the few privileges a writer has is to write his own life story, and in this case, to say how he would like his funeral or wake to be conducted. Not that I expect for even one minute that all this will happen after I’m gone. I wrote it in the pub described in the poem while listening to Irish music, then revised it.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

I revised and revised, but I don’t remember how long it took, how many drafts, etc. You just keep working away till you’ve got it right.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

If I may rephrase your question, I don’t exactly “believe” in inspiration, because it is a reality for me. I live by it. I experience it. The poem was received and then it had to be written.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

At some point early on it was clear that the poem needed to be in rhyme and meter and organized into eight-line stanzas. So I employed all the technique involved in composing lines in a rough iambic pentameter, with what are called partial rhymes. You can see how stringent the rhymes are. But the musicality of the poem wanted a lot of music in the words.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

Don’t remember. It probably took about a year, which is par for the course.

How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?

Once it feels finished I start sending it out.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

Every thing in this poem is real.

Is this a narrative poem?

I’m not sure that term would apply. It is more a wish, a set of wishes, a set of fanciful requests to my survivors.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

I don’t remember what I was reading. But anyone for whom Yeats is a living presence would be thinking of him and his big block-like eight-line stanzas.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

Normally I don’t. But people who were in the pub that night asked to see the poem when it was finished, and so I showed it to a few friends in the west of Ireland.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

In those days I didn’t share my work with other writers, I just tried to get it the way I wanted it by myself. Now, however, Alan Williamson and I have started critiquing each other’s work. We have known each other since we met in graduate school in 1963.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

It may be more heartfelt. In form there are others it resembles. Sometimes I write in rhyme and meter, sometimes I write in free verse.

What is American about this poem?

Nothing. Except perhaps that it was written by an American. I think nationality is not as important as some people do.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?



  1. well done; the pub with all its scents and vibrations of music come through right along with the whisps of smoky turf when the door opens to let in another mourner. the pub is packed.

    we should all go home to Ireland when we go

  2. Would that we all had as clear a picture of what our doorstep to Paradise might be!

  3. I was looking for blogs where writers wrote poems. When I came across "how a poem happens" I think that's a really good idea. I enjoyed Richard Tillinghast poem and your interview with him.

  4. Thanks for sharing this poem and interview. As an undergrad, I took a workshop taught by Richard Tillinghast. I'd heard he moved to Ireland and it's wonderful to read a poem like this from him. He even looks a bit like Yeats these days!

  5. As as person born and bred in Galwaay, and of many generations of Galway stock, I have to say "Wake me up in South Galway" comes across as a tad trite, stage Irish and phoney. I prefer the honesty and of such poets as: Günter Eich and Carl Sanberg.

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