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Poetry Friday: “Life Story” by Tennessee Williams

By (March 23, 2013) No Comment


Yesterday the New York Times reminded us:

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments next week in a pair of cases challenging laws relating to same-sex marriage. On Tuesday, lawyers will argue a challenge to California’s gay marriage ban, Proposition 8, and the next day, the justices will hear a challenge to the federal law known as the Defense of Marriage Act.

Tuesday (March 26) also marks the 102nd anniversary of the birth of iconic playwright Tennessee Williams. He has a poem — Life Story — that I think has something to contribute to our country’s ongoing conversation about same-sex marriage.

As if the excitement of a fabulously physical embedded encounter wasn’t enough, the poem suggests, consider the thrill of finding (however improbably) an even more intense intimacy:

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,
what’s your story? …

What’s your story? Tell me a story. The very essence of being human, this narrative intercourse. Take yet another risk (as if not enough already) “and so you light up / a cigarette and begin to tell it …”

I think we’re required to use the word languid when describing any literary work by Tennessee Williams — and, though the poem doesn’t describe the scene’s more minute details, we can certainly fill them in from memory (or imagination, or hope): damp and crumpled sheets, warm and sleek limbs, mussed blond hair (flaxen), and on and on.

Definitely horizontal postures along with, perhaps, some additional posturing: does he really want to listen? Do I really want to tell? Merely small talk while climbing down the mountain?

And, what with one thing and another (the relief of room service and ice cubes and hotel bathrooms), the roles shift and the story-teller becomes, perhaps a trifle unwillingly, the hearer of the other’s story. Each seeks a connection that has so far eluded their most vigorous efforts.

The poem winds down with the partners drifting off — connections renewed, limbs entwined, cigarettes and stories each unfinished:

… 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.

Factual reporting? Literal description? Metaphoric message? There could be several workshops’ worth of discussion about how precisely to label this ending.

Here’s what I think: We do not wish to be alone (“And you think maybe they really and truly do / sincerely want to know your life story”). We pale at the amount of effort we summon up, to reach from our unknowable core, across an abyss as simple as a bed. Like fire, we never stop trying to kindle a connection.

“The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments.” Is that the same as “Tell me about yourself, I want to know all about you”?

Let’s hope.


Literary artist Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) was an American original — by turns, across decades: playwright, poet, author, essayist, memoirist. For his plays, among other accolades, he received two Pulitzer Prizes and a Tony Award. In a marvelously garrulous interview with The Paris Review in 1981, he offered some writing advice that serves as an apt comment on his works and life, both:

What shouldn’t you do if you’re a young playwright? Don’t bore the audience! I mean, even if you have to resort to totally arbitrary killing on stage, or pointless gunfire, at least it’ll catch their attention and keep them awake. Just keep the thing going any way you can.

(“cigarette” from SuperFantasic / Bruce / cc by)