From Berkeley to Istanbul
A Poet's Path to Harvard
A cartoonist sketching the standard route to the Harvard English Department would probably draw a map something like this; beginning within the venerable wills of Harvard Yard, the road would stretch through Yale or Oxford before making a U and returning to its place of origin. On the way, the ambitious traveller would acquire an appropriate understanding of Shakespeare, Milton and Joyce and a slightly varied collection of tweed or grey flannel suits.
For Richard W. Tillinghast, who teaches English Cbr's two poetry sections, the road began and ended according to the blueprint. But somewhere in the middle his path took an unusual turn: the road from Cambridge to Cambridge led, not through Oxford, but through radical Berkeley, Istanbul, and Tennessee.
In a way, Tillinghast's first experience at Harvard precipitated all that followed. Graduating from the University of the South in 1962, the young student came north to Cambridge where he studied under the renowned poet Robert Lowell. Although Tillinghast found his mentor exhilarating, four years with the poet proved almost too powerful. As the erstwhile student now recalls, "You have to get out from under the influence eventually--his view of life was so overwhelming and a bit gloomy, that just for psychological reasons I thought it was important for me to leave"
And leave he did. In 1968, after earning his Ph.D Tillinghast accepted a teaching position at the University of California at Berkeley and landed in the middle of a left leaning college community in turbulent times.
"Whenever you began a quarter, you could be sure that it wasn't going to end I mean, it wasn't going to end in a normal way," the poet recalls Riots and protesting interrupted the academic routine and once--when the university's faculty went on strike--Tillinghast held classes in his apartment.
One of the incidents which Tillinghast remembers most vividly occurred in the vacant lot since celebrated as "People's Park." When Berkeley announced plans to turn the land into a parking lot, local inhabitants mobilized in protest. Bearing flowers, trees and grass to plant, they converged, on the plot and many refused to leave on the day bulldozing and demolition began.
"The police reacted to it with something like overkill," Tillinghast says. After dispersing the crowd, the police began tearing up the park.
It was a time when it was "ordinary to get tear-gassed," the poet recalls. "Great crowds of people would just gather and have these big confrontstations with police in the street." Although Tillinghast was wrapped up in the cultural revolution that he and others envisioned, his love of travel interceded in 1971.
Winning a travel grant from Harvard, he took a 10-month leave of absence from Berkeley and travelled overland from Istanbul to India, crossing the border on the final leg of his trip one day before the Indo-Pakistani war began. "You could still go to Iran then, and you could still go to Afghanistan." Tillinghast recalls wistfully. When New Delhi had a blackout, he rode around in a taxi, looking into the darkened streets.
Back at Berdeley. Tillinghast focused his attentions on drumming and writing songs, even though he had already published Steep Watch, his first collection of poems. "I didn't find California a good place to be a poet." her muses. "The literary scene was very eliquish."
Although he concentrated on his music, Tillinghast attended many of the open poetry readings, prevalent in California during the early 60s and 70s. Poets got up on the platform and competed for audience attention. Tillinghast explains, adding that literary figures were recognized more for their readings than their books.
In 1972, when then President Richard M. Nixon withdrew American troops from Vietnam, the sixties ended for Tillinghast. At about the same time, he switched from drumming to Poetry, because, he grins, "I realized that I had a chance of being a good poet, but I would always be a mediocre drummer."
Using themes borrowed from country or folk songs and experimenting at times with reggae ideas--Tillinghast wrote many of the poems which later went intoThe Knife and Other Poems,his most recent volume. The "powerful emotional impact" of good song lyrics, he believes, should be the poet's goal as well.
Tillinghast left Berkeley in 1973 and after a year in Tennessee accepted his current teaching post at Harvard. He's back where he began and were it not for his collections of Ginsburg and McClure, you'd never know the route he followed.