Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Conrad Aiken: An Appreciation

Conrad Aiken (1889–1973), who I have written about before as a poet-critic, was born today, August 5th. (Hat tip to Frank WIlson for the timely reminder.)

Aiken remains underrated and lesser-known as a poet. He is probably best known these days for some of his short stories, a few of which were made into films, including Silent Snow, Secret Snow, which was nationally televised on Rod Serling's Night Gallery in 1971.

A lot of his poetry is philosophical meditation, sometimes enacted through characters, sometimes more purely ruminative, all the while tracking psychological experience in ways few poets ever have. What distinguishes Aiken from his contemporaries, the early Moderns and the Lost Generation, is his innate and cultivated sense of the musical line, and his virtuosity in his technical achievements attaining to musicality in poetry. Compared to the Imagists and other poets of the Pound/Eliot lineage, Aiken can seem almost overwhelmingly sensuous, lyrical (in the ancient sense of the word), and hallucinatory. Aiken's imagery is often so rich and dense, full of fragrance and sensual turn of phrase, that the reader is caught up with the sheer beauty and only later realizes that the poem is vatic and archetypal as well as sensual. This is the opposite of Eliot's cerebral astringency; it is more naturally allied to Lorca and Lorca's poetic descendants in Latin America; indeed, as a poet-reviewer Aiken understood Lorca more deeply than most. Aiken knew, for example, that Lorca was never actually a Surrealist, but, more accurately stated, was rooted in that chthonic level of consciousness out of which Surrealism also arose.

Some of Aiken's stories and longer poems delve into states of mind that verge on the shamanic, illuminating extreme experiences and altered states of consciousness, just as his poetic style verged on magic realism long before that term was ever applied to literature. Aiken was never quite sold on Pound's program; in this way I suppose he was an old-fashioned gentlemanly poet, as he has been accused of being; yet after reading his Collected Criticism or his Collected Short Stories, you realize that in fact Aiken was that more important rare bird: the truly independent mind. In some ways he remains ahead of our times. Superficially his poetry can seem merely lyrical and conventional, but the states of mind the poems explore can be disturbing, illuminating, ecstatic, terrifying, sometimes all at once. One section of The Jig of Forslin takes the dissolute protagonist through an experience of psychic vampirism, akin to and possibly inspired by Keats' Lamia. It's a disturbing read; it is also a sideways homage to, and critique of, Keats and his circle.

With Aiken it is sometimes as if the radical and experimental vision is cloaked within the apparently ordinary turn of phrase; the monsters of the id lurking behind the mask of comforting normality; there is often a violence just beneath the surface; sometimes it is the violence of emotional experience, sometimes it is more properly an existential crisis of meaning—which links Aiken as a writer to his peers amongst the early Moderns in terms of topic and question. Some of Aiken's best writing is about the gradual revelation of—or descent into—madness, disassocation, complex psychological catharsis, and man's search for meaning in a universe that has been discovered to be indifferent. But the poetry is also about overcoming crisis: in this mode it is akin to Camus' lyrical awareness of absurdity, and to Beckett's famous line that sums up so much of the worldview of this generation of artists and writers: I can't go on, I must go on, I'll go on. Aiken also notes the coexistence, amidst all these despairing Moderns, of those who calmly walk through chaos without it affecting their inner compass. In this worldview, simply coping with the world is redemptive. Simply being able to go on is an act of heroism:

It is as if his soul had become a city,
With noisily peopled streets, and through these streets
Senlin himself comes driving a small white hearse . . .
'Senlin!' we cry. He does not turn his head.
But is that Senlin?—Or is this city Senlin,—
Quietly watching the burial of the dead?
Dumbly observing the cortège of its dead?
Yet we would say that all this is but madness:
Around a distant corner trots the hearse.
And Senlin walks before us in the sunlight
Happily conscious of his universe.

—from Senlin: A Biography

Senlin as a poetic character has been compared to Eliot's Prufrock, but I think this is another among many lazy critical attempts to compare all ruminative poetic protagonists to Eliot's. The comparison is facile, as Senlin is both more aware of his world than is Prufrock, and more aware of his own self. Prufrock is a character in search of meaning, a numbed-out checked-out angst-ridden leaf caught in a whirlwind; Senlin, by contrast, is a character rooted in the solidity of the world, and in its eternity. He is both more empathic and more emphatic than Prufrock can conceive of being. In Senlin: A Biography, it is we, the readers who follow the voice-over of the narrator, who are lost at sea, while Senlin himself is mysteriously rooted and at home in the world:

In the hot noon, in an old and savage garden,
The peach-tree grows. Its cruel and ugly roots
Rend and rifle the silent earth for moisture.
Above, in the blue, hang warm and golden fruits.
Look, how the cancerous roots crack mould and stone!
Earth, if she had a voice, would wail her pain.
Is she the victim, or is the tree the victim?
Delicate blossoms opened in the rain,
Black bees flew among them in the sunlight,
And sacked them ruthlessly; and no a bird
Hangs, sharp-eyed, in the leaves, and pecks the fruit;
And the peach-tree dreams, and does not say a word.
. . . Senlin, tapping his trowel against a stone,
Observes this tree he planted: it is his own.

'You will think it strange,' says Senlin, 'but this tree
Utters profound things in this garden;
And in its silence speaks to me.
I have sensations, when I stand beneath it,
As if its leaves looked at me, and could see;
And those thin leaves, even in windless air,
Seem to be whispering me a choral music,
Insubstantial but debonair. . . .'

—from Senlin: A Biography

In writing about his own poetry and aims as a poet, Aiken often referred to musicality. His poetic line, which was usually but not always a rhymed metric line, was intended to be heard as music as much as words. He overtly subtitled some of his long poems and collections as Symphonies. He believed, as did Sidney Lanier, an earlier poet—like Aiken, from Georgia—whose musicality is his most notable feature, that music and poetry were very closely related; Aiken's program was less literal than Lanier's, however. His program was never hidden, although it could at times be a subtle sense of tone rather than an explicit lyric.

His musical line Aiken makes a wonderful poet to read aloud, as well as on the page; the word-choices are sensual on the tongue even as the imagery is liminal and often complex and cloaked to the rational mind.

Music I Heard

Music I heard with you was more than music,
And bread I broke with you was more than bread;
Now that I am without you, all is desolate;
All that was once so beautiful is dead.

Your hands once touched this table and this silver,
And I have seen your fingers hold this glass.
These things do not remember you, beloved,
And yet your touch upon them will not pass.

For it was in my heart that you moved among them,
And blessed them with your hands and with your eyes;
And in my heart they will remember always,
—They knew you once, O beautiful and wise.

I discovered Aiken when I was 14, they year he died actually, when I found some of his published works in a university bookstore in my hometown of Ann Arbor, MI. I was browsing the used table, and picking up books that looked interesting. I picked up Aiken's long symphony-poem The Jig of Forslin and stood there reading about half of the poem before I came back to my senses, and realized I should buy the book and take it home. I re-read the poem several times that summer and over the next few years—often sitting shirtless in the sunlight in the backyard, my back leaned against my favorite rock, a giant granite boulder, a glacial erratic, that we had dug out of the back yard when my father was planning his vegetable garden; the boulder eventually became a dominant feature of the stone deck outside our family room, and a favorite place to sit and read—and the poem left a mark on me, some connection about music and poetry that I didn't yet understand but that led me deeper into exploring the interface between words and music, poetry and silence. I could hear within the poem, and its form, an innate music, a melody and orchestration that lay just behind the words; I was able to hear it with my inner ear, and although I never set the words to music myself, the poem awoke in me a growing sense of possibility. I can therefore give Aiken partial credit, along with Lanier, John Cage, Camus, Jean Valentine, and others, for directing me towards some of the work I did as a composition student in college, that used the spoken word as a compositional element in musical forms. The interface between music and poetry has continued to fascinate me—although as a more mature artist, now, I admit I'm less than charmed by many contemporary poets' claims for their own musicality, when all they focus on is superficial rhyme and easy rhythm, their poems containing less than a tenth of Aiken's inner music.

Instinctive scholar and compleatist that I am, in that I often pursue what I discover I like until the wells run dry, after discovering Forslin I searched out as many of Aiken's writings as I could find, eventually discovering his novels, collected short stories and criticism, and his many volumes of poetry. I still re-read Aiken's Collected Criticism for inspiration and illumination, and I have not changed my opinion that it should be required reading for all poets who dare to call themselves reviewers. There is a good Selected Poetry of Aiken's best poems in print, but as far as I know no readily available Collected Poems. Any publisher who gave us a good, well-documented, annotated and historically-footnoted Collected would be doing us all a great service, and would help to re-introduce to the world an often-great, often-neglected poet.

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Anonymous Cogito Ergo Doleo said...

Utterly gorgeous appreciation with flair to spare, Art. Your passion righteously roars and your delight simply soars with the kind of rapture readers rarely experience anymore. What a gift you possess; and, I am sure Mr. Aiken's angel blesses you as much as I do.

Thank you and Salut!

12:05 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, Judith, and wow! thanks very much for your kind words. It means a great deal to me. :)

11:03 PM  
Blogger Rus Bowden said...

Hi Art,

A pleasure to read this.

I was just surfing around for his work, and found that many of his books are available with full view and for download at Google Books:

inauthor:"conrad aiken"



1:13 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, Rus, and thanks. A pleasure indeed.

1:25 PM  

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