Sunday, April 6, 2014

Maudlin or infinite?

Like some paintings and some music, some poems are things of wonder -- dark-dazzling moments of written art. A strange thing can happen to time and space during a poem: regular time gets detoured into sideways dimensions; regular space becomes distended into eccentric volumes of mood that would startle even angels.

Though known for his plays, Tennessee Williams also wrote poems. One of his poems, about his mentally ill sister Rose, can detour and startle a reader of a certain disposition. Other readers will find it hackneyed, clanky, and maudlin. I'll admit that it required a second reading before the scales began to fall away from my eyes and I could see this poem, before I could begin to trace its unusual direction, take the measure of its volume.

The context is crucial. Williams's beloved sister Rose suffered from ever-increasing schizophrenia. Most of her life was spent institutionalized. At one point, she underwent a lobotomy in Knoxville, Tennessee. 

She went with morning on her lips
down an inscrutable dark way
and we who witnessed her eclipse
have found no word to say. 

This poem is either maudlin or infinite, depending on how you read it, depending on whether or not you, as reader, are conventional or strange.  Think how the regular world flows, with its norms and pale distractions. Then consider those rare octaves of being that echo from a different, more eccentric key.

The South (Williams's was born in Mississippi) retains an afterglow of the gothic. I will assume that penumbra was more pronounced in the first half of the last century than it is today.  Mental illness back then and there probably resonated with a more spiritual vibration than it would, say, in New York or even St. Louis.  If one wrote such a poem as "Valediction" in the context of New York or even St. Louis, such a poem would be aesthetic blasphemy, an irresponsible indulgent expression. But vibrating as it does with a Southern gothic, something else happens within aesthetic and expressive space -- the infinite stirs.

She went with morning on her lips

Not only with youth's bloom but with an unspoken redolence of quiet magnolias and a silent verse of early sunlight slanting its eternity.

down an inscrutable dark way

The loss of self as poignant as the amnesia of a lasting grave.

and we who witnessed her eclipse

The gothic observer of a spirit's collapse will never henceforth be normal.

have found no word to say

Sheer infinite significance trumps even gods and metaphors.

This little poem by Tennessee Williams opens up a spatial, existential abyss that swallows normality, convention, and our brusque, philistine hours. In their place is the possibility of art as our noblest shiver of wonder.

1911 - 1983

1 comment:

  1. O most deliciously lyrical! Your musings on the poem " unspoken redolence of quiet magnolias and a silent verse of early sunlight slanting its eternity"--are as poetry themselves. As intoxicating as the best pages of Benjamin. :)