Friday, January 12, 2007

Conrad Aiken, Critical Poet

I periodically delve into reading poets writing criticism and reviews and essays about poetry, and other poets. I find this develops one's own critical faculties, but it's also interesting on a purely social level: what did these poets think of each other?

I'm currently reading, with much pleasure, Hayden Carruth's Selected Essays & Reviews (Copper Canyon Press, 1997), literally several decades of critical writing. I find Carruth to be a congenial read, and while of his opinions parallel my own, I find it instructive when he writes appreciatively of poets I had not paid much attention to before, or, in the case of Paul Goodman, a poet I hadn't thought about in awhile, although I like Goodman's poetry, especially his homoerotic poems scattered through his various collections.

I periodically delve deeper into such collections of reviews, so I have been re-reading Conrad Aiken's Collected Criticism (1968, originally published as A Reviewer's ABC, 1958), which I recommend to everyone who ever reviews or critiques poetry. It is a model of wit, decorum, and civilized discourse: Even his blunt condemnations and strongly-expressed reservations—he is very hard on Amy Lowell and D.H. Lawrence, and rather unconvinced by T.S. Eliot—are done with overall tact and good manners. One might wish more critiques were of this caliber: insightful, honest, blunt, but never rude or capricious.

Aiken never compiled an actual book of systemic literary criticism, other than (possibly) this one. Rather, he discussed his critical ideas in these reviews, in his poems, in occasional essays, and in his letters. So, he has no obvious overarching ideological theory. I find this advantageous. He promotes poetry's musicality and psychological effectiveness, even as he misses the boat on mysticism, but he does it in such a way that even when one disagrees with him, he has made one think carefully about one's own position. THInking about one's own position is the best reason to read other poets' criticism: the mirror of awareness helps one find clarity.

Many of Aiken's quick summations are resonant and long-lasting; they get to the marrow of the matter. hor example, here's a quote on Surrealism that Aiken just throws out in a review of Lorca's Poet in New York, which I find felicitous. Referring to Lorca, Aiken writes:

To call him a surrealist is a mistake, for to be a surrealist is to be something else than a poet, something less than a poet: surrealism is perhaps one of many names, merely, for the substratum out of which poetry is made.

This comment crystallizes for me a feeling I have always had about Surrealism, but had not been able to articulate; (I am still occasionally working on an essay about surrealism, and this will have to go into it.) Surrealism was, in effect an ideology, which as critical stance was used to dictate who was a genuine Surrealist, and who was not. André Breton, in his various manifestoes, was the gatekeepr and strongman of the Surrealist enterprise; so, it was largely Breton, in tandem with the other core members of the original group, who promoted Surrealism as an ideology. The difficulty with ideology in poetry is that when any critical theory becomes dictatorial, the art itself suffers.

I far prefer Aiken's placement of surrealism as "the substratum out of which poetry is made." That is a rich and resonant re-evaluation of an entire artistic movement, putting it into its place as a foundational element of poetic technique, and removing it from its inflated place as a rhetorical ideology.

In this way, we are prepared to look at the genuine full flowering of Surrealism, which, I have been arguing for some years now, attained its full bloom in the Latin American poets, and not in the Francophone poets who began the movement. That's the kernel idea of an essay on Surrealism I've been trying to compile for a few years now; so, more on that later.

Aiken, if one is to infer a critical stance from his reviews, was suspicious of systemic ideology. He was more interested in psychological truth, and musicality, arising from the poem in a genuine manner, and his criticism often displayed a mistrust of art created to adhere to a prescriptive ideology. In this, I very much appreciate Aiken's clarity of critical expression, because my own suspicions of critical ideology mirror many of his.

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Blogger Just Another Flaneur said...

You should read Conrad Aiken's novels. His poetry and poetic criticism are pretty good, but his novels "GReat Circle," "King Coffin" and "Ushant" are some of the best works of modern literature (and unfortunately, often overlooked).

2:22 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I have read "Ushant," actually. I agree they're underrated, but then, I think that Aiken is just generally underrated these days, across the board.

His Collected Short Stories is exemplary: one of the best collections of short stories by a major 20th century writer, ever. There's a few stories in there that everyone knows, but they may not know that they were Aiken's. "Silent Snow, Secret Snow" is just hte most famous of those.

11:27 PM  

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