Unpublished Tennessee Williams poem found
April 13 2005 11:00 PM ET
A previously unpublished poem by Tennessee Williams, described as having been "written out of absolute, complete despair," has been discovered in his blue test booklet from a college course in 1937. The 17-line poem, titled "Blue Song," has been acquired by Washington University in St. Louis, where Williams, as a student in his mid 20s, plummeted into depression before fleeing the city he said he despised.
The poem, penciled in an exam booklet for his failing Greek class at the university, speaks to "a loss of identity and absolute, complete despair," said Henry Schvey, the Washington University professor and Williams scholar who found the poem and test booklet last March at Faulkner House Books in New Orleans. "It's clearly someone who feels he's lost his moorings or who he is, or, if he has his identity, it belongs to a different place," Schvey said Tuesday. "Here he was, 25 years old, still an undergraduate, and wearing a jacket and tie every day to school. He had had this disgraceful situation with a play [that lost an English class competition], and he knew he was going to fail the [Greek] course."
In the poem, originally titled "Sad Song" and still bearing Williams's eraser marks, the writer divulged feelings that Schvey said he found "very moving." Williams wrote: "If you should meet me upon a street do not question me for I can tell you only my name and the name of the town I was born in."
"Williams was very dedicated as a poet," said Allean Hale, a University of Illinois theater professor who has written extensively about Williams's early years. As a young man, "he actually thought of himself primarily as a poet, rather than as a playwright."
Biographer Lyle Leverich reported in Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams (1995), that Williams was concerned about his upcoming Greek final. In a May 30, 1937, journal entry Williams complains of "Blue devils all this morning" and concludes, "Tomorrow Greek final which I will undoubtedly flunk."
Weeks before he found "Blue Song," Schvey, chair of Washington University's performing arts department, had directed the world premiere of Me, Vashya--a one-act play Williams had written in 1937 for an English class competition--for an international symposium on Williams's early career.
Williams's earlier play sketches, read aloud by his English professor, were snippets of what would become The Glass Menagerie and were "by far the best in the class," author A.E. Hotchner (Papa Hemingway, King of the Hill) recalled in an interview last year. He studied with Williams at Washington in 1936-1937. But his classmates snickered and giggled at Me, Vashya. And when Williams learned he'd lost the contest, he stormed out of class and left the college for good, said Hotchner, whose play won first prize.
Schvey visited New Orleans last year to deliver a paper at the annual Tennessee Williams Scholars' Conference. He stopped by Faulkner House Books and asked the owner if he had any Williams literary ephemera--paper remnants, postcards, scraps of paper--that weren't on display. Schvey was handed a stack of photographs of Williams and his various lovers and what turned out to be his Greek test booklet. It was signed Th. Williams for the young Thomas Lanier Williams. In 1939 he changed his name to Tennessee.
The blue book had Williams's translations from Greek to English and vice versa, with test grades and "at the very back, written in pencil, just as the exam had been, was 'Blue Song,'" Schvey said. He immediately arranged for the school to acquire the find--which he said is significant--for several thousand dollars. He's in the process of having the poem published.
Williams left Washington University--and St. Louis--over his humiliation with the reception of Me, Vashya and because he was failing Greek. Williams also spent unhappy times there because of familial infighting and dysfunction that Schvey said formed the crucible for his best work. Williams later acknowledged that his formative years in St. Louis profoundly shaped his writing. (AP)