It will surprise no one that the American playwright Tennessee Williams (1911–83) always considered himself primarily a poet—everywhere in his dramatic work there is an intense lyricism and a language straining toward poetic effects. It should surprise more than a few, though, that Williams adored Hart Crane above all other poets, and wrote free verse in his early years that imitated his hero’s Modernist orotundities:

But a listener hears,
If he is expectant and still,
The infinitesimal tick of filaments in light bulbs
springing out of position,
fifty-watt Mazdas giving up steady white ghosts.

Industrial objects materialize in these early poems for no other reason than to supply the first term of a surprising metaphor. The adoration that Williams felt for Crane found its expression in his poem used as an epigraph to the current collection, which calls Crane “the greatest poet of all time,” and in his desire to be buried at sea in exactly the same place where Crane committed suicide (the wish was ignored). Their lives had many parallels: both men were homosexual alcoholics with violently intense natures that made them essentially Romantic figures. While Williams could not imitate Crane’s verse with any fluency, he certainly imitated Crane’s more destructive habits.

Stylistically, however, the pair could not have been more different.

Stylistically, however, the pair could not have been more different. As a poetic influence, Crane was disastrous, since Williams wrote best when using the most traditional forms (like the couplet) on the most traditional subjects (such as thwarted love). While Crane’s meters were traditional, his associative leaps and opaque imagery were concertedly experimental. Williams’s real poetic kinsman was Robert Frost—both of these old-fashioned craftsmen were largely ignored during the age of High Modernism.

The characters in Williams’s plays and poems often display a self-conscious naiveté, a kind of will to innocence, and yet they are caught in an endless cycle of guilt and regret. That Williams felt his sexual instincts were a moral hazard is apparent in the poetry. Some of it is almost too bitter to read, and too hopeless. Williams felt that his queerness destined him to be an object of pity or reproach:

I think the strange, the crazed, the queer
will have their holiday this year,
I think for just a little while
there will be pity for the wild.

I think in places known as gay,
in secret clubs and private bars,
the damned will serenade the damned
with frantic drums and wild guitars.

I think for some uncertain reason,
mercy will be shown this season
to the lovely and misfit,
to the brilliant and deformed—

I think they will be housed and warmed
And fed and comforted awhile
before, with such a tender smile,
the earth destroys her crooked child.

As a statement of personal philosophy, this poem is as deadly as nightshade. Williams cultivated a real and charming childishness in his manner, probably his only defense against an appetite for self-destruction (that with drugs, fame, and casual sex was substantial). Williams did not particularly care to be childish, though he often was—he really wanted to be a child.

“As you have observed by now,” he once wrote to a friend, “I have only one major theme for all my work which is the destructive impact of society on the sensitive, nonconformist individual.” Williams’s theme also carries its own invariable judgment: societies “impact” such individuals by destroying them. Certainly, that allegiance and concern for the outcast was permanently branded on Williams. The stigma and the individuality that it conferred upon him was real, and it is the main theme of almost all of his poetry, particularly when the subject is the melancholy of disappointed love. He can effortlessly conjure the atmosphere of such a romance in its tender moments, as in this passage from “Across the Space”:

Across the space between
a bed and chair
I watch you fade into
the fading air
Intimate these moments,
dim and warm.
My finger tips could touch
your unsleeved arm

and so release the fire
and brutal shock
suspended in quiet air
and tender watch.

Or its darker moods:

Winter smoke is blue and bitter:
Women comfort you in winter.
Scent of thyme is cool and tender:
Girls are music to remember.

Men are made of rock and thunder:
Threat of storm to labor under.

Cypress woods are demon-dark:
Boys are fox-teeth in your heart.

When he wrote on such subjects in either of his two mastered forms (the couplet and the quatrain), Williams usually produced something memorable. His best poetry—concentrated in a very few short poems—displays a musical delicacy that reminds one of a much greater poète maudit, Paul Verlaine. That French poet would also have understood the central burden and the moral tension of these poems. Though they represent the least of the literary achievements of Tennessee Williams, behind the plays and the letters, there are verses here that should be anthologized and preserved, including “Lyric,” “Clover,” “This Cryptic Bone,” “Across the Space,” “Three,” “Girls That Have Loved Me,” and, of course, the old poet’s final recitation from Night of the Iguana (“How Calmly Does the Orange Branch”).

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 26 Number 6, on page 77
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