Hear Tennessee Williams Read Hart Crane’s “The Broken Tower” and “The Hurricane” (1960)

Note: Audio takes about 8 sec­onds to play…

Many Moons Ago, a poet­ry teacher of mine intro­duced me to the term “ter­mi­nal aes­thet­ic,” mean­ing a style that could go no fur­ther, hav­ing burned up all of its resources. It’s a great way to char­ac­ter­ize the poet Hart Crane’s ambiva­lent appraisal of his lit­er­ary fore­fa­ther, T.S. Eliot. Crane spent his poet­ry career try­ing to rem­e­dy what he saw as Eliot’s fail­ure to sal­vage any­thing from the mod­ern world but cramped despair in The Waste Land. As Crane put it, Eliot’s mas­ter­work was “so damned dead” and man­i­fest­ed “a refusal to see cer­tain spir­i­tu­al events and pos­si­bil­i­ties.” It’s prob­a­bly safe to say that near­ly every­one sub­ject­ed to Eliot’s por­ten­tous verse has felt this way at one time or anoth­er. But Crane felt it and per­se­vered; he tried to out-write The Waste Land with his own mod­ernist epic, The Bridge.

The poet’s opti­mism was total­ly at odds with his brief, painful life. As David Dud­ley summed it up recent­ly:

Crane’s short life was a train wreck—a teenage sui­cide attempt, fol­lowed by bit­ter estrange­ments from his moth­er, a Chris­t­ian Sci­en­tist, and his father, a well-to-do Cleve­land can­dy mak­er who dis­ap­proved of his son’s habits. Liv­ing as a semi-clos­et­ed gay man on the fringes of the cul­tur­al lime­light in New York and Europe, Crane had affairs with sailors, drank too much, got in fights, and couldn’t hold a job.

Crane’s depres­sion and feel­ings of fail­ure drove him to sui­cide in 1932, at age 32: he leapt into the Gulf of Mex­i­co from the steam ship Oriz­a­ba (most think; he left no note). His tomb­stone is inscribed with the words “lost at sea.”

That phrase also cap­tures how so many read­ers feel when faced with Crane’s roco­co verse. With its archa­ic (some would say pre­ten­tious) dic­tion, and obscure allu­sions nest­ed inside oblique ref­er­ences, the word “dif­fi­cult” may be an under­state­ment. But Crane’s work has had many cham­pi­ons, among them, Ten­nessee Williams. As an epi­graph to A Street­car Named Desire, Williams chose these lines from Crane’s “The Bro­ken Tow­er”:

And so it was I entered the bro­ken world
To trace the vision­ary com­pa­ny of love, its voice
An instant in the wind (I know not whith­er hurled)
But not for long to hold each des­per­ate choice.

The exquis­ite rhythms of Crane’s lines—Shakespearean by way of Eliot—lend them­selves so well to read­ing aloud. Above, then, we have the priv­i­lege of hear­ing Crane’s defend­er Williams read “The Bro­ken Tow­er” in his reedy, South­ern voice. Fol­low the text of the poem in the video as Williams reads. Both the audio above and that below—of Williams read­ing Crane’s hyp­not­ic “The Hurricane”—come from a near­ly-impos­si­ble-to-find 1960 LP from Caed­mon Records. Thanks again, Inter­net, and thanks to Don Yorty, who post­ed these videos.

Relat­ed Con­tent

The Bro­ken Tow­er, James Franco’s Docu­d­ra­ma On “Dif­fi­cult” Poet Hart Crane: A Pre­view

Mar­lon Bran­do Opens Up to Ten­nessee Williams

British Actors Read Poignant Poet­ry from World War I

Josh Jones is a writer, edi­tor, and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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Comments (2)
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  • Don Yorty says:

    Thank you Josh for using the vimeos for this won­der­ful piece. It cer­tain­ly increased my vimeo views this week. I am going to con­tin­ue adding the Williams/Crane vimeos until I run through them. I do oth­er poets too, and some of my own as well. Thank you very much for giv­ing me the cred­it; hope­ful­ly it might expand my view­er­ship as well because I want what I do to be enjoyed and read. Yours in the word. Best.

  • Zuldev says:

    Thank­ful for this. It is too won­der­ful! I hope to read more of this analysis/citing/masterpiece from these absolute­ly bril­liant authors.

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