CONRAD AIKEN, MAGUS
Conrad Aiken died of a heart attack on Friday, August 17th, 1973. In his New York Times obituary notice of Sunday, the 19th following, Alden Whitman wrote, "As the years wore on Mr. Aiken came to have hardly a kind word for anybody or anything except comic strips, martinis, and John O'Hara's short stories. In an interview with this reporter in 1969, he wrote off contemporary American poetry as having come to 'a temporary pause' and dismissed Archibald MacLeish, Robert Lowell and Allen Ginsberg, among others, as over-estimated." I am sorry the Times obituary is the last impression the public had of the end of a great poet's life. On August 26th of the year of Aiken's death I wrote Mr. Whitman a letter — never acknowledged — in which I corrected his vision of the poet as a bitter old man who had lost his interest in poetry.
In the fall of 1970, nearly a year after the reporter interviewed Aiken, I found a first edition of the poet's The Coming Forth by Day of Osiris Jones (1931). Aiken is one of my favorite authors, and I had several other of his books, among them his 1961 Selected Poems which I had praised in a review I'd done for American Weave, the magazine of my friend Loring Williams when we had both been living in Cleveland in the early 1960s. In October of 1970 I wrote Conrad Aiken a letter to ask if he would be willing to inscribe a book or two for me if I sent them along with return postage. I hoped to get a favorable response by reminding him of my review.
On October 29th Aiken replied that he would be "glad to sign it. And thanks," he continued, "for reviewing me. Maybe now again?" For it appeared that Oxford University Press had on 27th August 1970 published his Collected Poems 1916-1970 and committed the error of printing on the title page, "Second Edition." Aiken was considerably upset that they had done so without consulting him and without mentioning that the new volume contained "FIVE more books than the 1953 edition," he wrote, adding, "They are going to correct it but too late. It will get NO reviews. Ars lunga etc."
As soon as I got his card on November 2nd I sent Aiken two of his books, Osiris Jones and the Selected Poems, and I included a letter. I said that I was enclosing two of my own books "as a gift — one just out today, The Inhabitant." The other was Awaken, Bells Falling (1968).
I also wrote Daryl Hine, editor of Poetry, to ask if he'd like me to review the new Collected Poems, as Aiken had requested. Hine responded quickly in the affirmative, even before I had gotten the review copy. I wrote to Aiken to tell him that I would do the review, but I was not prepared for the note I received from him — he didn't even mention the review. The postcard was datelined "Brewster, Mass., Nov. 20 70":
Dear Mr. Turco: The Inhabitant(2) is the best new poem I've read in something like thirty years — profoundly satisfying to me, speaks my language, such a relief to have WHOLE meaning again, instead of this pitiable dot-and-dash splinter-poetry, or sawdust cornflakes which we usually get. And you're all good. You give me courage to read again, and even to believe again in myself. So you see how handsomely I'm in debt. Thank you! You should be, and will be, better known. The Coll Poems are being sent, but don't feel you must like me because I like YOU — gawd ferbid.
Before the mail had arrived at my family's apartment in Oswego, New York, on November third, I had written a note to tell Aiken that I had received the signed books; after the mail came and I had gotten over the first effects of Aiken's letter, I sat down and wrote him again on the same day to tell him how much I appreciated his remarks about my books. I said that The Inhabitant "will have a very small circulation, but I'd rather have your single opinion than a thousand readers." I told him his comments would have no effect on my review, as I had long been his admirer anyway, and had said so in the earlier review.
I added, "I'd like very much to meet you some day. My home town is Meriden, Connecticut, and we spend our summers in Maine.... Perhaps, on a trip someday from here to there, I might visit with you for a few minutes?"
The review copy of Aiken's book finally came, and I sat down to write the review
for Poetry, which had set fairly
stringent space limitations for the piece.
When it was finished I sent it off to Hine, and by the end of January
1971 I had received a formal acceptance of it, together with a note of thanks
from Hine, one sentence of which read, "Belated thanks for this review, which
manages to say so much in such a short space." The review appeared in
Poetry, cxviii:5, August 1971:
Conrad Aiken’s Collected Poems 1916-1970 has erroneously been subtitled Second Edition by the publisher. It is not a second edition; rather, it is a new edition containing five collections of poems published by Mr. Aiken since 1953, the date of the first Collected Poems, namely: Skylight One, A Letter from Li Po, Sheep Fold Hill, The Morning Song of Lord Zero and The Tinsel Circuit. This new book also contains three previously uncollected poems: “Thee,” published in 1967; “The Voyagers,” published in a periodical in 1970, and “Obituary in Bitcherel,” previously unpublished. The new book adds a total of one-hundred-fifty-four pages of material to the old Collected Poems — clearly, a major enlargement.
This is a major book, then, by a major poet. It contains the lifework of a man who has listened with his inner ear to the nuances of the spirit and of the marrow. Mr. Aiken has not been satisfied merely with listening, however. He has worked to find the craft that would enable him to convey to others what he has heard, and he has succeeded in his intention in larger degree than nearly any other poet of the twentieth century except William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens.
The poetry of Conrad Aiken is a poetry of wholeness: a whole meaning, a whole experience, a whole saying. From first to last, Collected Poems 1916-1970 offers some of the most sustained and exquisite writing the modern English tongue can boast. Mr. Aiken is a musician of language, and he can hear things in humanity not many others have been able to sense, much less articulate.
It is not so much that these are poems as that the book is a single poem, ranging over personalities and ways of being which Mr. Aiken has obviously lived in his mind and committed to paper, so that we may experience these strangers and familiars as well. He has built, out of words, a universe in which an identifiable and evolving consciousness resides, and that cosmos is large enough to accommodate the reader along with hosts of other characters.
One of the reasons reviewers and critics find Mr. Aiken so hard to handle, I think, is that he must be perceived in toto, not in shards of slices. Though the tenor of his creation has been apparent for some time, the vehicle is not yet complete, as no creation is ever completed. But with this book I believe we can finally perceive that Conrad Aiken is a geometrician of words — he understands their depth, height, and breadth. He is a Magus who listens to a linguistic “music of the spheres,” but he lives in an existential age which seems to deny the Pythagorean mathematical harmony of all things. What Mr. Aiken has done, then, is to create a paradox, a symmetry that cannot exist, yet does. The tension of his work derives from the mind’s cosmos as opposed to the chaos of doubt; rationality struggling with fear. The poetry is an Ouroboros of consonance and dissonance: the literary worm devours its own tail in order to exist. In that metaphysical circle what contains all of a man — his mind and his heart — all things are encouraged to be until they are extinguished in the total Being.
The next communication I had from Aiken was datelined Savannah, Georgia, March 8, 1971, and it was also a surprise: "I'd like to nominate you for the Loines Award, of the National Institute of Arts and Letters," he wrote, "for an American or English poet whose work has not been too much recognized." He said he didn't have my books with him, though, and wondered if I wouldn't send the Institute copies and tell them he'd told me to do so. "Don't hope too much!" he wrote. "You must know as well as I do what happens on these damned committees. I served on one at the Institute which tried to give the Gold Medal for fiction to K A Porter instead of Faulkner! But I proceeded to nominate F and of course when it came to a full vote of the Institute he walked away with it, thank you. Disgraceful...[.]" He suggested further that I look up a critical piece on his new book that had appeared in the Saturday Review for January 30, 1971. He ended with, "We're here til May, then to the Cape end of that month. Communicate, and try to come by at Brewster. It would be nice to see you."
I knew that one couldn't apply for the Loines Award oneself, and I felt diffident about sending them my own books. I wanted to avoid any appearance that I was responsible for initiating this nomination; therefore, on March 10th I wrote Aiken to say I appreciated his efforts in my behalf, but I suggested that I send him the books to forward. I enclosed a copy of my review of his book, though I'd not yet received proofs from Poetry, I told him. I said I'd look up the Saturday Review piece, and I ended with, "I'm looking forward to the summer. I intend to take full advantage of your offer while we're on our way down to Maine."
On March 13th Aiken responded with "...thanks for books and the review." He agreed that he himself had simultaneously decided that his sending in the books to the Institute "might be more tactful! I'll send 'em on to Insti. Your review is very good, AND kind — I only regret that you can't have been a LITTLE more specific about early, middle and late, etc etc. But VERY useful. And I'm glad you slapped O U Pee on the wrist...and yes, a martini next summer!"
I replied on the 9th of April with thanks for his last card. I wrote that I would have liked to have more space in my review, "but the enclosed correspondence from Poetry will explain things, I said. "I'm working on a book of criticism," I continued, "and I'll get a chance to expand on your work, I'm sure.
"I don't know when the book will be finished, but I'll let you know when it is — and when and if it's published." Unfortunately, my Visions and Revisions of American Poetry [see the note below], with its comparison of Aiken and Wallace Stevens in a chapter titled "A Modernist Coin," wasn't published until 1986.(1)
On May 20th of 1971 I wrote Aiken again to give him the news and to say, "We'll be leaving for Maine in a few weeks." I gave him my summer address and phone number. I told Aiken I'd be on sabbatical in the fall, and might stay on in Maine for a while. I enclosed a copy of the first review of The Inhabitant to be published.
Aiken was back in Brewster by June 1st, which is when he next wrote me. He quibbled a bit with the review of The Inhabitant: "But does he quite see that it's ONE POEM**?? I wonder! Don't know about seeing you this month — the trip up took a lot of whey out of me, I'm still weak and shaky — could you perhaps call me to see what's what a few days before you start—?" He gave me his phone number and suggested that perhaps the fall would be better for my visit, "as June looks now as if it might be a little crowded. Sorry — let's wait and see. I'd very much like to meet you."
I replied over a month later, on the 8th of July. I thanked him for his card and said that of course I'd come down whatever month he wished. I also thanked him for having Oxford send me the new edition of his impressionist autobiography Ushant, which I was reading and enjoying. I told him I'd have Jerry Patz, publisher of The Inhabitant, send him a copy of my new book, Pocoangelini: A Fantography and Other Poems, when it appeared in September.(3) "I read proofs on your review in Poetry not long ago. It should be out this month or next.," I wrote. Aiken replied on July 30th that he looked forward to October and my visit.
I was apprehensive about Aiken's health, and I did not want to tax him during the month of August by writing him letters he might feel obliged to answer. During this period, though, the review in Poetry appeared and I sent him a copy. On August 13th Aiken dropped me a card from Brewster: "Thanks!" he said. "The review is damned good, and Allen Tate said so in a note this morning. He sent me a copy." Aiken said he would see me in October.
Not long after, I sent him a copy of Pocoangelini, just out: Jerry Patz had asked Aiken for permission to use his letter of praise for The Inhabitant as a blurb on the new book, and it appeared on the back cover of the paperback edition. Aiken replied with a card dated September 9th: "Many thanks for the little angels, which I haven't had time for yet. We're a hospital at the moment, and I have no mind or energy." He wasn't as intrigued with this book, though, and of course he was right, for all three of the series comprising the volume — "Pocoangelini, A Fantography," "Bordello,"(4) and "The Sketches"(5) — had been written earlier, some of them much earlier, than The Inhabitant: However, the latter had originally been published as a chapbook in 1962, and it had received good reviews. The middle series, a short one, had never appeared as a set before, and it was subsequently to be picked apart again as individual poems were picked up and anthologized frequently. "But don't believe anything I say! For I don't either," he wrote; "I'm a little out of my mind." I took it that he meant that he was feverish.
David M. Ungerer of Reston Publishing Company had a bit earlier flown to Maine to ask that I turn my S.U.N.Y. correspondence course study-guide into a college textbook, and I had just signed a contract to write Poetry: An Introduction through Writing.(5) I planned to go home to New York State, where my professional library was located, to work on it, so I wrote Aiken before I had received his card, on September 11th, "I'll be leaving here to return to Oswego about October 17th. Would it be possible for me to drop in on you in October before then?"
When I finally got his card, I dashed off a note on September 13th to hide under nonsense how upset I felt about his health problems. It was meanwhile becoming clear to Aiken that the National Institute of Arts and Letters wasn't nearly as enthusiastic about The Inhabitant as he was, for on September 22nd he wrote to say that he'd written a letter to the secretary of the Institute, Felicia Geffen, "for the committee, but don't know if it's now too late. [Malcolm] Cowley was here a week ago, but was offhandedly noncommittal about it all, so I haven't too much hope." He said further that "my wife is better, but as we're both shaky, I fear we must again postpone positive decision about seeing you next month — hope we'll be in the clear for lunch or a drink. So let's reappraise round Oct 9th or 10th."
Obviously, Aiken was still expending energy in behalf of my book, and I wanted to spare him and reassure him that I wasn't very much concerned about the Loines Award. Literary politics has never been of interest to me, any more than it was to Aiken who had always been something of a loner. On the 24th of September I wrote, "I'm tremendously pleased to hear your wife is better and that you're feeling better than you sounded in your last card." I told him not to worry about the award, for his praise was better than any award I could receive.
Of greatest concern to me was Aiken's health and the often-deferred visit I was to pay him. It was put off for a final time when, on October 3rd, he wrote from Brewster, "Dear Lewis: This is sad, and I'm sorry, but I fear it can't be helped." Besides Mrs. Aiken's ill health, the poet himself had "...gone and had another heart flurry." The doctor told him he simply had to slow down and specifically not see people, as excitement sent his blood pressure soaring. "So, forgive me," he wrote, "but we'll just have to put it off for another year." He and Mrs. Aiken had "sorrowfully decided to leave for the south, and more clement weather, earlier than we'd planned. Don't hold it against me. And forgive me too," he continued, "if I don't correspond, for this too has become a burden, my desk is a snowdrift of unanswered letters. Hell."
The next note I wrote, on October 7th, was brief for two reasons: I felt I had been bothering Aiken excessively, and I didn't want to add to his problems. The other reason was that I was deeply disappointed, although I didn't want to show it. "Dear Conrad," I said. "You have my love. We'll see each other next year. Meanwhile, my very best to you and Mrs. Aiken."
After quite a long lapse I wrote Aiken again the next year, on March 10, 1972. "Please don't feel you have to answer this letter," I said. "I just feel like writing you. I thought you might not mind hearing what I've been doing...." I gave him the news and wrote, "I look forward to the summer, of course, which isn't far off now." I added, "Perhaps we can see each other then. I hope so."
I received no response, and I judged Aiken was still quite ill. A couple of months later I sent him another letter, dated May 15th, telling him I'd been "scouring the bookstores for Aikeniana." I asked if he'd be willing to sign some bookplates for me, and I sent him a copy of a poem I'd written. On the first of June 1972 Aiken wrote me his last letter, from Savannah.
It was as I had surmised — he had been "ill since fall, prostate with complications, had to delay trip south, and now the doctor won't let me travel. Nor can I walk, or read with intelligence...." He enclosed the signed bookplates — "that sounds like fun," he said. "Don't know when, if ever, we'll get back to the Cape. Meanwhile our house has been brutally robbed of most of its objets d'arts, lifetime collection. Sickening."
Conrad Aiken lived for a bit over another year. That he was a harried, disillusioned man with overwhelming health problems is true, but that he ever lost his interest in literature and life is not. If the current revival of the long narrative poem by the Neo-Formalists is successful, we will look to Aiken as one of the few modern masters of the form. Many of the poems in his Collected Poems 1916-1970, about which he was so exercised, were longer than short, more narrative than lyric; yet it is difficult to place Aiken definitively in any cage of conception or of genre, for he refused to sound like anyone but himself or to conform to mid-20th-century literary etiquette. That is to say, he derived very little from Pound and Eliot except, now and then, a slightly recognizable weltschmertz — which Babylon translates as “sentimental pessimism” — but even that isn’t certain, for it has been argued that Eliot and Pound derived something of their tone from Aiken.
Conrad Aiken’s poetry can be explicit and allusive at the same time; it can contain philosophical insights without obtuseness of diction or abstraction of syntax; it can evoke a scene, create a sonic “image,” print a spatial pattern without risking thralldom to traditional form or surrealist metaphor. A long story may be told with great variety of locutions, as in “The Coming Forth by Day of Osiris Jones,” a name and a title that combines the mystical with the quotidian. Here Aiken employs a sequence of related shorter poems with increasingly sharper viewpoints. The life story of O. Jones is told and retold in fragments by clocks, faces, mirrors, and coin machines; in short, the matter of a life becomes its accuser and judge until there is nothing left but the medical report of a dying old man and a “landscape with figures” — birches, larches, pines, junipers; brooks and crickets; echoes and grass — extended over a hollow time.
Aiken lived through both the Modernist and post-Modernist periods, and he survived the New Critics as well as the old simply by writing his own idiosyncratic work and refusing to engage in the literary scene. He was never in the forefront of the era’s imagination, nor was he ever a fad. His Collected Poems, then, was a major book by a major neglected poet. It contained the lifework of a man who listened with his inner ear to the nuances of the spirit and of the marrow. Aiken was not satisfied merely to listen, however. He worked to find the craft and the strategies that would enable him to convey to others what he experienced, and he succeeded in his intention in larger degree than nearly any other poet of the twentieth century.
The poetry of Conrad Aiken is a poetry of wholeness: whole meaning, whole experience, whole saying. From first to last his oeuvre is some of the most sustained and exquisite writing the tongue can boast. Aiken was a musician of the language, and he heard things in humanity few others have been able to articulate.
It is not so much that he wrote poems as that all his work is a single poem ranging over personalities and ways of being that Aiken obviously lived in his mind and committed to paper so that his audience might live these strangers and familiars as well. He built, out of words, a cosmos in which an identifiable and evolving consciousness resides, and that cosmos is large enough to accommodate the reader as well as hosts of fictive personae.
One of the reasons many critics and scholars have found it difficult to come to terms with Aiken is that he must be perceived in toto, not in shards and slices. Though the tenor of his creation has been apparent for decades, the vehicle was not complete at the time of his death, as no cosmos is ever completed. Nevertheless, it may be argued that in his oeuvre Aiken accomplished what Pound did not manage in his Cantos. We can finally perceive that Aiken was a Pythagoras of words — their depth, height, and breadth. He was a Magus who listened to a linguistic “music of the spheres,” but he lived in an existential age that seemed to deny a Pythagorean mathematical harmony of all things.
What Aiken did, then, was to create a paradox, a universe that cannot, but that despite all, does exist. The tension of his work derives from the mind’s symmetry opposed to the whirlpool of doubt, rationality struggling with instability, but it is Everyman’s struggle, not the ascetic’s, for we can all see ourselves standing in the circle of his horizon. The poetry of Aiken is an Ouroboros of consonance and dissonance, the hermetic worm that devours its own tail in order to exist, and in that metaphysical circle which contains all of Man — his mind and his heart, all men and women — all things are encouraged to be until they are extinguished in the total Being. Conrad Aiken left as a legacy to us a trove of poetry, fiction and autobiography that few writers have equaled in quality, and fewer have surpassed. He left, as well, the memory of great vitality to the end.
(1)A portion of this essay appeared as "Ouroboros" in Poetry, cxviii:5, August 1971; as "Corresponding with Conrad Aiken" in Conrad Aiken: Priest of Consciousness, Georgia State Literary Studies 6 edited by Ted R. Spivey and Arthur Waterman for AMS Press, 1990, and in Visions and Revisions of American Poetry by Lewis Turco, Fayetteville AR: University of Arkansas Press, UArkansasPress 1986.
(2)The Inhabitant, poems, with prints by Thom. Seawell, Northampton: Despa Press, 1970. Paper. Out-of-print; all poems are collected in Fearful Pleasures: The Complete Poems of Lewis Turco 1959-2007, www.StarCloudPress.com, 2007, ISBN 978-1-932842-19-5, jacketed cloth, $49.95; ISBN 978-1-932842-20-3, trade paperback, $32.95, 640 pages. ORDER FROM AMAZON.COM.
(3)Pocoangelini: A Fantography & Other Poems, Northampton: Despa Press, 1971. Paper. Out-of-print; most poems collected in The Collected Lyrics of Lewis Turco / Wesli Court, 1953-2004, www.StarCloudPress.com, 2004. ISBN 1932842004, jacketed cloth, $49.95; ISBN 1932842012, quality paperback, $26.95, 460 pages, © 2004, all rights reserved. ORDER FROM AMAZON.COM.
(4) Bordello, poems, with prints by George O'Connell, Oswego, NY: Grey Heron / Mathom, 1996. Cased portfolio, out-of-print, but the poems alone are available in The Collected Lyrics of Lewis Turco / Wesli Court, 1953-2004, www.StarCloudPress.com, 2004. ISBN 1932842004, jacketed cloth, $49.95; ISBN 1932842012, quality paperback, $26.95, 460 pages, © 2004, all rights reserved. ORDER FROM AMAZON.COM. .
(5) The Sketches of Lewis Turco and Livevil: A Mask, Cleveland: American Weave Press, 1962. American Weave Award Chapbook. Out-of-print, but the series of poems is collected in Fearful Pleasures: The Complete Poems of Lewis Turco 1959-2007, www.StarCloudPress.com, 2007, ISBN 978-1-932842-19-5, jacketed cloth, $49.95; ISBN 978-1-932842-20-3, trade paperback, $32.95, 640 pages. ORDER FROM AMAZON.COM.
(6) Poetry: An Introduction
through Writing, Reston: Reston Publishing, 1973. ISBN 0879096373, paper.
Out-of-print, but available from ERIC (Educational Resources Information Center)
of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) of the U. S. Department of