The Story Behind My Tennessee Williams Poem

This year’s Tennessee Williams Tribute in Columbus, Mississippi, will be held virtually and streamed on Facebook. When I was asked to take part in the poetry panel, I gladly accepted. I’ve done it several times before, and it’s always fun. When it came time to record my segment, I pulled out my copy of his collected poems to search for one that I wanted to read. It didn’t take me too long to find it.

I chose “Orpheus Descending” because I thought it would be appropriate for this year of COVID-19. Orpheus goes to Hades to bring back his wife Eurydice. If you don’t know the story, he’s not successful because he looks back too soon to see if she’s coming. She hasn’t crossed over into this life yet, so she has to return to the land of the dead because he looked, though he had been warned. Williams doesn’t write his poem with this familiar ending, though. He writes the poem of Orpheus’s journey to the underworld, and many of the images he uses are reminiscent of other fertility myths from Mesopotamia that I have taught in World Lit, so this poem spoke to me.

All the poets were also asked to share one of their own poems, so I chose “Ishtar,” a poem about moving to Mississippi set in the realm of the Babylonian poem “The Descent of Ishtar.” They seemed like a good pair, and I was pleased with the reading. It will be broadcast on Facebook tomorrow, Sept. 12, which also happens to be my birthday. The poetry part of the Tribute is supposed to start around 11:30.

Interestingly, after reading the Williams poem, I began to think more about Orpheus, and ended up writing a couple of poems about his myth and about Eurydice. These went with a poem about Gilgamesh and another about Osiris. Though all are dealing with these myths of the underworld, they are also trying to get at the experience of 2020. If I hadn’t chosen this poem to read for the Tribute, though, I don’t know if my mind would have gone to these stories. It’s always interesting how what we read informs what we write, even though my poems are completely different than his. “Orpheus Descending” brought me back to my poem “Ishtar,” which led me on to my own take on the Orpheus story.

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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