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'The Dark Hibernal Shore'

THE COLLECTED POEMS OF TENNESSEE WILLIAMS ; Edited by David Roessel and Nicholas Moschovakis; New Directions: 304 pp., $29.95

July 14, 2002|ADAM KIRSCH | Adam Kirsch is the author of the forthcoming book of poems "The Thousand Wells."

In 1939, Thomas Lanier Williams III published his first story under the pseudonym that was to become famous. Why he picked the state of Tennessee is not entirely clear--he was born in Mississippi in 1911, and grew up in St. Louis, Mo.--but the name change corresponded to, and memorialized, a change in the nature of his literary ambitions. For the rest of his life, according to Donald Spoto's biography, "The Kindness of Strangers," he told interviewers that he discarded "Thomas Lanier" because it "sounds like it might belong to the sort of writer who turns out sonnet sequences to spring." This was literally the case; readers of the St. Louis Star Times on March 25, 1936, would have found the three insipid poems of Williams' "Sonnets for the Spring (A Sequence)," winner of a $25 prize from the Wednesday Club:

*

I feel the onward rush of spring once more

Breaking upon the unresistant land

And foaming up the dark hibernal shore

As turbulent waves unfurled on turbid sand!

*

Thomas Lanier Williams sounded like a tame antebellum poetaster; Tennessee Williams would be a revolutionary dramatist.

This division was real, but it was not quite total. Williams continued to write poems until the end of his life, though his style evolved from decorous Victorianism to a loose, anecdotal free verse, and he published two books of poetry, "In the Winter of Cities" (1956) and "Androgyne, Mon Amour" (1977). As late as 1944, he enjoyed more success as a poet than as a playwright: "Battle of Angels" had bombed in Boston, but James Laughlin, the legendary editor of New Directions, included Williams in the prestigious anthology "Five Young American Poets." Not until the tumultuous success of "The Glass Menagerie," at the beginning of 1945, did Williams' stage work decisively edge out his poetry.

This new volume of Williams' "Collected Poems," then, complete with extensive notes, is a perfectly valid addition to his canon. Still, there is something shy-making about Williams' poetry, which even this book can't entirely ignore. The disparity in achievement between "A Streetcar Named Desire," on the one hand, and "Androgyne, Mon Amour" on the other, is so enormous as to be embarrassing. In a 1995 interview, Laughlin tried to put the best possible spin on Williams' poetry: "the New Critics came along, and everything had to be all these formalist structures--and Tennessee would just write down what came into his heart." In their introduction, editors David Roessel and Nicholas Moschovakis take a similar tack, chivalrously defending Williams against the " 'snippy' verdicts of an increasingly insular and academic poetry scene."

Neither envy nor prejudice, however, is needed to account for a negative judgment on Williams' poetry. At its worst, it is very bad. Sometimes it is silly doggerel:

*

Androgyne, mon amour,

Brochette de coeur was plat du jour,

(heart lifted on a metal skewer,

encore saignante et palpitante)

*

At other moments it is adolescent and precious:

*

Lament for the velvety moths, for the moths were lovely.

Often their tender thoughts, for they thought of me,

Eased the neurotic ills that haunt the day.

Now an invisible evil takes them away.

And much of the time it is formlessly portentous:

All roses, the immense impartiality of all God and all roses,

Announcing, Yes, now as before, yes, now is the moment,

A power that draws the light back into its source....

*

To set against these depths, Williams offers only a few moderate heights. Devotees of the plays can turn to the poems for interesting parallels and biographical insights; "The Beanstalk Country," for instance, expands on a phrase that Williams would use in "Sweet Bird of Youth," and "Cortege" vividly evokes his miserable childhood. But none of these poems would be read today if it were by an unknown writer.

Williams' best poems have the same subjects as his worst--usually adolescent misery and sexual promiscuity--but treat them with a becoming irony, a shade of black humor. In "Life Story," he sounds like Frank O'Hara:

*

After you've been to bed together for the first time,

without the advantage or disadvantage of any prior acquaintance,

the other party very often says to you,

Tell me about yourself, I want to know all about you...

You tell them your story, or as much of your story

as time or a fair degree of prudence allows, and they say,

Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh,

each time a little more faintly, until the oh

is just an audible breath....

Well, one of you falls asleep

and the other one does likewise with a lighted cigarette in his mouth,

and that's how people burn to death in hotel rooms.

*

And in "Intimations" he starts out, at least, with an interestingly self-mocking tone--"I have received no serious wound as yet/but I am expecting several"--before working his way up to full-throated hysteria:

*

I reach for the white scratch-pad:

They'll come again!

They'll come again and I'll be unprepared!

*

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