- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 29, 2007

THE COLLECTED POEMS OF TENNESSEE WILLIAMS

Edited by David Roessel and Nicholas Moschovakis

With a cd of the author reading

New Directions, $23.50, 304 pages

In the late 1970s, at the invitation of a friend, I went to a party at Tennessee Williams’ apartment in the French Quarter. Though the legendary playwright did not make an appearance (it was said he might be out of town), other luminaries did. Allen Ginsberg was there, seated on a well-worn yellow velvet divan, legs crossed in lotus position, feet curled in gray socks. W.S. Merwin was there, too, wearing knee-high brown suede boots trimmed in suede fringe, smiling and mingling easily in the small crowd. It was a dynamic but quiet event, one marked by the hushed expectation that maybe, just maybe, Williams would appear.

This memory of a gathering of poets in the home of the playwright came back to me when I sat down with the recently released New Directions publication of “The Collected Poems of Tennessee Williams,” edited by David Roessel and Nicholas Moschovakis. Originally published in 2002, this new edition has been upgraded to include a CD of Williams reading his work. The poetry as assembled is remarkable, the poet’s voice unforgettable.

Most people do not think of Tennessee Williams as a poet. Though he published two volumes of poetry in his lifetime, “In the Winter of Cities” (1956) and “Androgyne, Mon Amour” (1977), it is the plays for which he is most remembered: “The Glass Menagerie,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “The Rose Tattoo,” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

There is no indication in this well researched, smartly annotated and arranged volume that Mr. Roessel and Mr. Moschovakis anticipate that the collected poetry will recast Williams’ place in the canon. To the contrary and throughout, their greater aim seems to be to remind readers of the lyric roots of all that Williams wrote, while honoring the fact that Williams thought of himself as a poet.

As the editors write, “Though his stage success brought him a difficult and sometimes desperate life, it was a life more fortunate than that of his poetic hero, Hart Crane, who had killed himself at age thirty-two shortly after beginning to gain public notice. Williams, a household name at forty-four [he died in 1983], needed to be cajoled into exposing his lyric efforts to the ‘snippy’ verdicts of an increasingly insular and academic poetry scene. Few reviewers would understand that this jet-setting icon had always identified himself, privately, as a lone and tortured poet like Crane. Fewer still would share his sense of poetic values, or fathom the importance of his verse to his writing in other genres.”

In addition to the two volumes of poetry Williams wrote, the editors also include many poems that “appeared only in journals and magazines. Much in this latter category is early work, written in a relatively conventional and sentimental style; but there is also a great deal here that could be called experimental, for Williams always took risks as a writer. If his drama is lyrical, as is often said, then his poetry is also dramatic. In it he risks the same intensity of self-expression, the speech full of passion and honesty, which defines life in his plays.”

The poetry cuts across a wide range of experience — courtship, love, loss, death — and it is populated with a wide array of many men and women, some of whom are outsiders or loners deprived of love and the company of others. Certainly, poetry offered Williams a chance to explore and express his sexuality, something the editors write, “Williams could not do openly on the stage.”

The poems in some ways are mini-dramas incorporating the kind of tension and conflict played out on the stage. They are gentle, insightful, humorous by turns:

You know how the mad

come into a room

too boldly

their eyes exploding on the

air like roses

their entrances from space

we never entered.

They’re always attended by

someone small

and friendly

who goes between their

awful world and ours

as though explaining but

really only smiling

a snowy gull that dips above

a wreck

— from “The Beanstalk Country”

The lines of this poem, the editors note, one could easily imagine being spoken by a character in a Williams play. This sentiment is perhaps best expressed by Williams himself, who said in an interview in The Paris Review, “I’m a poet. And then I put poetry in that drama. I put it in the short stories, and I put it in the plays. Poetry’s poetry. It doesn’t have to be called poetry you know.”

What makes this collection stand out is the addition of the CD. The CD contains a mere 10 or so poems from the dozens included in the collection. Nevertheless, little matches the thrill of hearing Williams read his work in a voice that sounds younger than one expects, with a mesmerizing drawl that is less pronounced than one expects.

His is a soothing voice, though the Cajun French he speaks in “Which is My Little Boy?” (a poem dedicated to Carson McCullers) is, to be kind, a little unusual.

To drive around the Beltway listening to Williams reading is to have the pleasure of his company. No road is too daunting, no setback too formidable. Reading — and listening — to Tennessee Williams’ poems is to enjoy the drama of his words anew. Yes, it is hard to find the power of Blanche DuBois’ “kindness of strangers” here, but without a doubt and in large measure, the same earthy wisdom is available.

Now there’s many fool

things a woman will do

To catch a man’s eye, she’ll

wear a tight shoe,

She’ll wear a light dress and

catch a bad cold

And have a tooth pulled for

a tooth of gold.

— from “Gold Tooth Blues”

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