Biographical Poetry posted October 15, 2023

This work has reached the exceptional level
Playwright of distinction

Tennessee Williams

by Debbie D'Arcy

His carefree child would start to pale
when illness gravely stilled.
His father then would rant and rail
in mocking words that chilled.
Those feuds would play upon his mind
and scar his boyhood days.
With mismatched parents he would find
much scope for later plays.
So, as time passed, he'd disengage,
retreat from father's ire.
Those barbs so sharp from drunken rage
would fuel artistic fire.
While woes of love he sadly bore
and labour failed to thrill,
'twould take another decade more
for time to gift his skill.
His thirties, thus, would see his rise
to reach that starry crest.
With plays acclaimed, he won his prize
to be among the best.
In Glass Menagerie* he found
a subject for his part:
his sister who, with mind unsound,
would stir the playwright's art.
In other works there would appear
more scenes of woe and strife:
in Cat* and Streetcar* ever clear
that art would echo life.
For in this author's youth had hung
those taunts that triggered pain;
his father fired gay shots that stung,
infused those jibes with shame.
And, though his fruits were reaped at last,
his private sphere grew dark.
With drink and drugs to veil his past,
he lost his muse's spark.
His artistry would start to wane
from vibrancy he'd known
and, though he battled to abstain,
his demons still had grown.
As curtain fell, his spirit cleft,
he lost his final fight
but, mid his foes of life, he left
a dazzling light so bright.

Poem of the Month contest entry



Born in 1911 in Mississippi Thomas Lanier Williams 111, later adopted his pen name of Tennessee Williams. Subsequently, he moved with his family to the urban setting of St Louis (which contrasted unfavourably for him).

Stanza 1- As a young child, he nearly died from a case of diphtheria that left him frail and virtually confined to his house during a year of recuperation. At least partly due to his illness, he was considered a weak child by his father who had a violent temper, was alcoholic, prone to violence and favoured work before parenting.

Stanza 2 & 3 - His mother was trapped in an unhappy marriage ("It was just a wrong marriage" he later wrote). Subsequently, she focused much of her attention on her frail son. There is a general consensus that he drew from his own dysfunctional background in much of his writing and that his desire to break free from his puritanical upbringing propelled him towards his art.

Stanza 4 - After leaving school he enrolled on a journalism course but wasn't fully committed, continuing his prolific writing whenever he had the opportunity. His father took control of him and sent him to a shoe factory to work which he hated and later classified this time as the most miserable two years of his life. An unrequited love affair and excessive writing triggered a nervous breakdown. He later returned to university, graduating in 1938.

Stanza 5 - He was in his thirties before all his hard work started to pay off. He had acquired an agent/friend and was becoming recognised, with the film industry showing interest. But his mind was never far from the stage.

Stanza 6 - In 1945 a play he'd been working on for years, *The Glass Menagerie, opened on Broadway. He draws on memories of his own family members as well as himself in the play with the central character, Laura Wingfield, based on his older sister who was schizophrenic and committed to a mental institution where she underwent a lobotomy. She spent her days fixated by glass ornaments, hence the title of the drama. A moving portrayal of vulnerability and mental illness. Williams feared for his own inherited insanity.

Stanza 7 - In *A Streetcar named Desire" (1947 - his most popular play ) his father is represented by the brutish brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski; his mother by the Southern Belle, Blanche. Themes here of homosexuality, alcohol abuse and conflict.
*Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), his father becomes the aggressive, macho Big Daddy; his mother Big Mama. Themes here of family dysfunction and alcoholism.

Stanza 8 & 9 - His father had always regarded what he thought was his son's effeminacy with disdain and used to call him 'Miss Nancy,' encouraging him to join a fraternity to promote his masculinity.
In fact, after some early attempts at relationships with women, Williams went on to explore his homosexuality in often unstable and tempestuous liaisons. When he was 37 years old, he met and fell in love with Frank Merlo. The relationship lasted some 14 years and was the most enduring and happiest he'd known until infidelities and drug abuse on both sides ended it. Shortly after their breakup, Merlo was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. Williams returned to nurse him until his death in 1963. This event, exacerbated by his own severe drug-abuse and mental ill-health, plunged him into a period of near catatonic depression.

Stanza 10 & 11 - Though he later continued writing, his popularity had started to wane, not least as a result of his unstable lifestyle. Struggling to recover from his slump by taking excessive amounts of medication, he choked and died alone in an hotel room after, apparently, inhaling the cap of a nasal spray bottle he was using to administer doses of barbiturates. The date:1983.

A prolific writer of plays, novels, poetry, film scripts etc., he is famous for his objectification of his own subjective experiences in his literary works.

"There are many critics who call his works sensational and shocking but his plays have attracted the widest audience of any living American dramatist and he is established as America's most important dramatist."
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