November 6, 2009 § 3 Comments
Last night I went to a reading at The Cathedral of St John the Divine celebrating Tennessee Williams’ induction into The Cathedral’s Poets Corner. I had a sick headache and my companion was in a foul mood. No matter. Tennessee’s words made our hearts shine.
In the 40’s, Gore Vidal dubbed Williams “The Glorious Bird.” Last night John Patrick Shanley, in a passionate homage, referred to him as a “A gorgeous beast.” He’s always seemed to me the most human of writers, drunk on words, sex, gossip, praise. There’s nothing unknowable about Tennessee except his genius, and the genius of genius is to make us think we know.
Vanessa Redgrave read from Not About Nightingales. Eli Wallach did a scene from Mister Paradise with his daughter, Katherine Wallach. Sherry Boone did a brilliant rendition of a poem called Gold Tooth Blues, a very funny work that I’d include except that you kind of had to be there. Williams’ comic poems, especially, beg to be read or sung by someone who knows how.
The performers were mostly wonderful (and there were lots of them, and none went on too long, which greatly impressed me), but being steered to read the poems was the greatest gift. I’ve read a few over the years but the plays were the thing. And they still are; they contain his most brilliant lines. But if the poems seem thin, it’s only by comparison to something as great as The Glass Menagerie. Put side by side with the work of other 20th century poets, Williams’ verse holds its own. Not the best, but not far off.
The poet William Jay Smith recalled his early friendship with Tennessee, back when he was still Tom and lived at home. One night when his parents were out, Tom had a few guys over, and one started cutting up, making obscene phone calls to strangers. (In the early 1930’s this must felt more transgressive than it did when I was growing up, when it had become the province of 9-year-olds.) In the midst of their shenanigans, Rose appeared on the stairs, in a frothy white dress, furious, threatening to tell the parents. And she did tell.
I like that: not-always-fragile Rose.
The person I missed last night was Gore Vidal, who has the best first-person accounts of Williams. This is from an essay of his in The New York Review of Books in 1985.
...The Bird had never heard of Kennedy that day in 1958 when we drove from Miami to Palm Beach for lunch with the golden couple, who had told me that they lusted to meet the Bird. He, in turn, was charmed by them. “Now tell me again,” he would ask Jack, repeatedly, “what you are. A governor or a senator?” Each time, Jack, dutifully, gave name, rank, and party. Then the Bird would sternly quiz him on America’s China policy; and Jack would look a bit glum. Finally, he proposed that we shoot at a target in the patio.
While Jackie flitted about, taking Polaroid shots of us, the Bird banged away at the target; and proved to be a better shot than our host. At one point, while Jack was shooting, the Bird muttered in my ear, “Get that ass!” I said, “Bird, you can’t cruise our next president.” The Bird chuckled ominously: “They’ll never elect those two. They are much too attractive for the American people.” Later, I told Jack that the Bird had commented favourably on his ass. He beamed. “Now, that’s very exciting,” he said.
The line The Cathedral has inscribed on Tennessee’s stone is, “Time is the longest distance between two places.” Time is also the most ravishing intoxicant in any literary cocktail. Last night, it was there in spades: the dead poet, the frail and white-haired actors, the memories—including mine of reading Tennessee when he was still alive, but, as John Patrick Shanley noted, impossible for a young admirer to imagine approaching. “Tennessee was like the ocean,” Shanley said.
I think of him more as a river. The ocean spends too much time in its own company.
The eyes are last to go out.
They remain long after the face has disappeared
into the tissue it is made of.
The tongue says good-by when the eyes have lingering
For they are the searchers last to abandon the search,
the ones that remain where the drowned have been washed
after the lanterns staying, not saying good-by…
The eyes have no faith in that too accessible language.
For them no occasion is simple enough for a word to justify it.
Existence in time, not only their own but ancestral,
encloses all moments in four walls of mirrors.
Closed they are waiting. Open, they are also waiting.
They are acquainted, but they have forgotten the name
of their acquaintance.
Youth is their uneasy bird, and shadows clearer than light
pass through them at times,
for waters are not more changeable under skies
nor stones under rapids.
The eyes may be steady with that Athenian look
that answers terror with stillness, or they may be quick
with a pure infatuate being. Almost always
the eyes hold onto an image
of someone recently departed or gone a long time ago
or only expected…
The eyes are not lucky.
They seem hopelessly inclined to linger.
They make additions that come to no final sum.
It is really hard to say if their dark is worse than their light,
Their discoveries better or worse than not knowing,
but they are the last to go out
and their going out is always when they are lifted.