As a poet, Tennessee Williams was a victim of his success as a playwright. "Tennessee Williams' poetry was so eclipsed by his plays," says Michael Clark Haney, director and co-creator of the Laurelgrove Theatre Company's , which performs its dramatization of Williams' poems at this year's Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival.
Yet, says Haney, the poems shouldn't be ignored. "In the poetry he was more true to who he was and what he was going through," he says. "In his plays, he reflected his messed-up world in the mirror of his characters. In the poetry he doesn't have that distance."
Williams wrote poetry all his life. He was first recognized in 1944, when his work was anthologized in Five Young American Poets. He published two collections of poetry, In the Winter of Cities in 1956 (with an expanded paperback in 1964), and Androgyne, Mon Amour in 1977, but the books met with general condescension from reviewers. One scathing reviewer of Williams' early work rues the fact that Williams "met provincial poets who inspired him to go on writing despite his obvious lack of talent."
After Williams' death in 1983, his volumes of poetry became hard to come by, and the work was nearly forgotten. "That has to do with Williams' general reputation as a writer, which was at a low point in the last decade of his life," says Nicholas Moschovakis, who collaborated with David Roessel to edit The Collected Poems of Tennessee Williams (New Directions) in 2002. "Only lately have people started to re-evaluate his legacy as a writer." The Collected Poems brings together the poems from Williams' two collections, as well as previously uncollected and posthumously published poems. "This is the first book that puts it all together and makes it available to the public," says Moschovakis.
However, The Collected Poems only skims the surface of Williams' poetic works. In library archives and private collections remain hundreds of manuscripts with unfinished or unpublished drafts of poems -- potential gold mines for Williams scholars. One such collection recently landed in New Orleans.
an illness of mortal nature falls upon one or the other, and something painfully tender returns to the heart.
Surely all of us know
that to live is to draw continually closer to the mineral kingdom,
even when the air is cleanly white as the plume of a heron
in a green, in a fair-weather marsh-land ...
This fragment comes from a never-published poem titled "Of Lovers and Clouds and Birds." It's part of an astounding collection of Tennessee Williams' manuscripts, correspondence and ephemera recently donated to the Historic New Orleans Collection by Fred W. Todd of San Antonio, Texas. Among the 5,000 items is a collection of 90 typescript and handwritten drafts of poems. Many are mere wisps of poetry, the literary equivalent of doodling, but even these are intriguing for insight they give into Williams' mind.
For example, in one untitled draft, Williams reflects on his beloved sister, Rose, who was lobotomized in 1943 and confined to mental hospitals and rest homes for the rest of her life:
It gently comes and gently goes,
the whisper of my sister Rose.
Any my voice with her voice drops low.
Our eyes remember, each to each,
A time of purity I've lost
but that she's kept at dreadful cost ...
Other times, the critical disdain that Williams' encountered was well earned. "Some of his poetry is drivel," admits Haney, "very maudlin, very self-serving. It's gotten a lot of bad press, I guess because his plays are so revered, and people are looking for a chink in the armor."
And then, says Haney, there are those poems where the language is so powerful, the writing is so splendid that it takes your breath away. In the first act of , a selection of Williams' poems are arranged to tell the story of his life, from awkward adolescence to death. "We found the characters, found Tennessee Williams in the poetry," Haney says. "They're very autobiographical. He wrote about himself and the people he knew. Some are done as monologues, some are done as dialogues, some have a narrator and a whole cast. It's fascinating how the drama comes out of the poetry. Because he was always a dramatist."
"I think Michael Haney does a really necessary service," says Moschovakis, "by bringing to life in a way only a production can the point we're making about the value of the poetry. Admirers of Williams' poetry recognize in it a psychological and sentimental quality that gives them the character of dramatic monologues."
Theater critics have long praised the poetry in Williams' plays -- as in Amanda Wingfield's speech about the jonquils and the beaus of her youth in The Glass Menagerie. As Moschovakis sees it, Haney's production completes the circle. "What Haney has done is show you on the stage how the forms of Williams' poetry were intimately connected with his vision of the theater," Moschovakis says. "The performance shows the connection of the two genres in his work."
One poem in the Fred W. Todd collection, titled "The Counselor Said and I Said (for D.R.)," demonstrates the poetry's dramatic inclinations. The work was published only once, in a different format and with a different title, in the Evergreen Review. The D.R. in the dedication is Dotson Rader, one of Williams' confidants and companions in the last decade of his life. In the poem, an unnamed counselor is advising Rader against further involvement with an old man's bitter, hardened heart:
... Look, the counselor said, sitting forward so that his knee-caps
were inside the stubborn parentheses of mine, it's simply a matter of accretion,
it's the density of the accumulation of moments it has experienced,
it has endured and survived,
which has finally made it impenetrable to --
The counselor was irritated by this direct, short question: he shook his head,
and I thought irresistibly of verbal intercourse between the screen-star Monroe
and her playwright-husband Miller, say, at breakfast, assuming she ever had breakfast,
on their Connecticut farm,
and him, playwright Miller, explaining to screen-star wife that the word dialectics
did not refer to languages with accents and slang-words in it while she sneakily dropped
her second or third morning pinkie with orange juice.
What I'm saying, love,
(The counselor said)
is don't break your f--king rice-bowl on that old mother's heart ...
Later in the poem, Williams writes with humor about his dependence on Rader. Throughout his life, Williams employed a series of young men as secretaries and traveling companions. They were responsible for making travel arrangements, finding him drugs, and simply keeping him company at night. (Sometimes they were also his lovers, but this was not the case with Rader.) When a friend could not be found on a night when Williams was pursued by the "blue devils" of his melancholy and fear, he would hire a hustler to sit in the next room while he slept.
... And isn't it odd that at just this particular moment the telephone rang
and someone said, "Dotson, it's for you and he sounds stoned."
And I took it, and it was him,
the one called the old mother, saying, Dotson, I can't sleep and it's daybreak,
the boy was great, he actually could have passed for that adolescent Swede in
Death in Venice, but all I gave him was a listerine kiss and I couldn't sleep and
it's daybreak. Could you come over and just kind of sit beside me while I
conjure the Sand-man with a dangerous pill? ...
Most of the poems and fragments in the Fred W. Todd collection are neither polished nor very profound. But even these give insight into Williams' working process, as he typed draft after draft of a single poem and covered the pages in scrawling corrections. They also open a window into Williams' personal life, revealing his fears, loves and deepest sorrows. In "The Terms," dated "1/?/64," Williams meditates on a life that seemed like a forced march to nowhere with a crippling sense of writer's block. The poem is not as noteworthy for its style as for the clear image it conjures of Williams, alone with his typewriter at dawn:
... Well, it's daybreak. I know how to go back to bed.
The way is blocked out for me.
A dull and sick-making shock, a sort of dirty wet towel
slapped in my face. Getting up? Better than not.
Staying in bed, not asleep,
is death with the grace of oblivion taken away.
Light now, through the dusty sky-light, over the useless work table ...
Another draft of "The Terms" ends on a poignant note and reminds the reader that the poem was written four months after the death of Frank Merlo, Williams' companion and lover of 14 years. Williams was devastated by Merlo's death from lung cancer, and he felt a corrosive guilt for having ended the romantic relationship three years before Merlo's death.
... Of life, the incognito,
what is more valuable than the wanted end,
and knowing when it's wanted and how to take it?
At the end, memory of someone,
and all of our failures to love.
Several of the poems in the Fred W. Todd collection show Williams trying to come to grips with Merlo's death. One, titled "Last Words," is an early draft of a letter Williams wrote to Merlo in death:
... You never lied to me about anything but your life in those areas
where I had no right to intrude but furiously intruded,
as furiously as the cat on the blazing tin roof
slanting beneath it with nothing for its jungle claws to hold onto!
You were especially proud of the fact that I never lied to you
but not ashamed of the fact that you lied to me when I needed
to be lied to, as a person too sick to know the truth.
A room has no roof without you, almost no walls at all,
places have lost names without you, and sleep without you
has dreams of suffocation.
Where can I go where we were never together?
The poems found in the Fred W. Todd collection are often more vivid and immediate than the versions that eventually found their way to publication. One untitled poem is handwritten -- highly unusual for Williams, who typed almost everything. It's a discrepancy that leads one to suspect that Williams was jotting down thoughts as they first came to him. The poem was quite changed when it appeared in the magazine Christopher Street under the title "Rented Room"; by then the poem had gained a certain distance from the moment of inspiration.
The manuscript version of the poem is written on Hotel Elysée stationary and was likely written in Williams' usual suite in that New York City hotel, the suite where he died three years later. The language of the poem makes this an eerie coincidence:
Parts of him caught light through the transom
fragments of gold. I did not stir, I
hardly dared breathe on my bed.
He did not look my way but fell
at last, naked, I think falling asleep as he fell
across the opposite bed
A distant midnight bell, possibly
not in the bell-tower of a cathedral
summoned me to worship.
I knelt. He slept.
It was the next morning, I think,
that I moved out of my warm
habitation of flesh,
for this is a posthumous poem ...
I saw no more after those
his young flesh unclothed
through the transom of the hall outside
the rented bedroom of life.
So little is so much and is finally all.
Not all of Williams' poetry is so serious; he sometimes indulged in light rhymes with engaging rhythms and simple themes. Williams called some of these his "Blue Mountain Ballads," and Haney uses five samples to end the second act of . With titles like "Gold Tooth Blues" and "Kitchen Door Blues," the poems suggested the treatment Haney's company gives them. "We set them to original music," says Haney. "Sometimes the music is merely an accent, sometimes we turn them into songs. It creates a great mood, and it's a great way to end an evening."
Williams kept his sense of humor to the end. In a draft from the Fred W. Todd collection dated November 1976, he lightly revisits one of the characters who cemented his reputation as one of America's greatest playwrights: Blanche DuBois from A Streetcar Named Desire. It is often said that Williams' alienation and sublimated desires found expression in characters such as Blanche. In this poem, titled "Kicks" in an alternate draft, Williams could easily be thinking of his own lost "purity."
... For instance, suppose a plaintiff known as Dubois
somehow engages the services of an attorney
to prosecute a defendant known as Kowalski
(On credit? Well! Can her credit be better established
than was her virginity despoiled? No, but then --)
Ruin! Collapse of the white columns
of voluntary submission, a penitent desiring
As the plaintiff Dubois still faces her prosecutor
with unviolated eyes ...
An alternate draft of the same poem ends by giving Blanche the absolution she hopes for. By extension, Williams forgives himself for his self-perceived sins. The reader, the audience in the gallery of the courtroom, can only smile, feeling the same compassion for Williams as the playwright did for his troubled characters:
... Probably the divinely appointed attorney of defense,
the late great Clarence Darrow,
would have won her the rape case and even established
a certain kind of virginity despoiled,
allegiant to his instinct of an old God's stone-cut laws
worn away by the slow rain
of His Son's tempering Christian ethic of mercy ...