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Tennessee Williams: April 3, 1971
A reading for the Key West Library

06/10/2013  by Arlo Haskell  3 Comments
 
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Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams speaking at the dedication of the auditorium in the Key West Library named for him in March 1975. From the Ida Woodward Barron Collection, Monroe County Public Library.

Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) was perhaps the most influential playwright of the twentieth century. During the 1940s and 1950s, his work took the American theater by storm, achieving enormous popular success and the sort of feverish criticism only accorded writers of groundbreaking genius. His best-known works include A Streetcar Named Desire, whose 1947 Broadway production launched the careers of Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy, and the 1955 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Both plays were awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Although his later career was marked by declining success, poor health, and a dependence upon drugs and alcohol, when Williams died at 71 he was regarded among the most important artists of his era. His plays continue to be produced around the world to this day.

Williams had a long love affair with Key West, where he owned a home on Duncan Street and lived off and on for more than forty years. He had a strong relationship with the Key West Library, and produced the recording featured here for the Monroe County Public Library at the Key West studios of WKWF on April 3, 1971. Though he was known as a playwright, Williams thought of himself as a poet1, and here he presents a selection of 15 poems, “most of it early, and young” as he says in the brief introduction.

The nearly thirty-minute recording offers a rare opportunity to hear the voice of an American master reading his poems as he felt they ought to be read. To the scholar of Williams’s work, it offers two distinct surprises: a largely unknown variant of “The Harp of Wales”2, the early poem that begins this recording; and a haunting poem of love lost and scorned, never before published, beginning “The wayward flesh has made me wise / in many things I should not know.”3 The remainder of the reading draws from work that was gathered in the 1964 New Directions collection, In the Winter of Cities. In the order read here, the poems are “The Siege,” “Faint as Leaf Shadow,” “The Eyes” (for Oliver Evans), “Lament for the Moths,” “The Beanstalk Country,” “Testa Dell’ Effebo,” “Tuesday’s Child,” “Death is High,” “Little Horse” (for Frank Merlo), “Life Story,” “Orpheus Descending,” “The Christus of Gudalejara,” and “Carrousel Tune.”

1. As Williams put it to an interviewer for the Paris Review in 1981: “I’m a poet. And then I put the poetry in the drama. I put it in short stories, and I put it in the plays. Poetry’s poetry. It doesn’t have to be called a poem, you know.”

2. First published in Prairie Schooner in 1949, “The Harp of Wales” is preserved in different form in the most recent edition of The Collected Poems of Tennessee Williams (2007, New Directions). The version recorded here differs from both variants, introducing an alternate line 2, omitting the third stanza common to the 1949 and 2007 printings, and including the fourth stanza from the 1949 variant, which is absent from that found in the Collected.

3. The poem, five-stanzas with alternate rhyming quatrains, apparently exists in manuscript form in the collections of Harvard University and the University of Texas.

This recording is available for noncommercial and educational use only. Used with permission of Tennessee Williams by arrangement with the Monroe County Public Library. Copyright in the works of Tennessee Williams is held by the University of the South.

3 Responses

  1. Miriam Polli says:

    Thanks so much for publishing this. Tennessee Is my favorite writer of all time.

    I once saw him on the beach at the Pier House but hesitated to talk to him, and have regretted it since.

  2. I am so glad to be listening to Tennessee’s lovely voice reading these gentle and world-weary poems. How fine that they were found and published like this for those who know who Key West’s finest writer really was.

  3. Jennifer Caccamo says:

    A priceless gift that soothes the soul. Thank you for making these poems by Tennessee Williams available for listening.

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