A Stranger to His Kind

"Poetry," declared T.S. Eliot, "is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not an expression of personality, but an escape from personality." More than one set of eyebrows has arched at that pronouncement. For surely we read in part to know the man behind the work. A blind bard, Demodocus, sings in Odyssey VIII, we conclude, because Homer was blind; Micawber lives in the shadow of the poorhouse in David Copperfield because Dickens' own father did. Poets are peculiar, and we always delight in hearing the details of their lives. But do we really read Homer or Dickens to discover the intimate struggles and deepest secrets of their past? Eliot was right: as much as we enjoy hearing of our favorite poets' eccentricities, their work must transcend the autobiographic and confessional. We want words and images that order our chaotic perceptions into a decorous, truthful whole. The poet, however fascinating, who fails in this task remains a mere character, a stranger speaking an arcane language that may amuse, captivate, or anger, but cannot teach.

In the last 20 years of his life, Tennessee Williams wrote play after play trying simultaneously to exorcise personal demons and to maintain his standing as the greatest living American playwright. How well he succeeded privately and professionally may be seen both in the continuing torment he suffered and in the bewildered,...

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