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Collected Poems

by Conrad Aiken

Original and Current Publisher: Oxford University Press

Evie Shockley writes:

Prior to my taking on this blog assignment, Conrad Aiken was to me just a name in the list of people who held the U. S. Poet Laureate position before it bore that title, back when it was the less glamorous-sounding job of Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.  I had never, to my knowledge, read a single poem of his, though I’m sure he is included in more than one of the anthologies on my shelves.  Moreover, I had never had or even overheard a conversation about his work, such that would give me a sense of what his poetry was like.

Most readers and critics of poetry and, of course, most poets themselves can name a poet whom they admire deeply and who, nonetheless, goes unread, untaught, unwritten about—quite unjustly, they would argue.  I certainly could!  But it is much less often that I encounter a twentieth-century American poet who was so highly and repeatedly recognized in his day, only to have fallen almost entirely out of circulation.  Aiken not only served as Poetry Consultant and won the National Book Award (for his Collected Poems in 1954), he won a Pulitzer Prize (Selected Poems, 1930), the Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Award, the Bollingen Prize, the Gold Medal in Poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a National Medal for Literature.  All this—and around thirty collections of poetry to his name—and yet his work is not noticeably a part of the critical (or popular) conversation about American modernist poetry.

It should be said that his fiction has fared better over time.  But my perusal of his Collected Poems does not inspire me to challenge the tacit consensus on his poetry.  One of the brief biographies of Aiken available online included the comment that his work remained too indebted to Romanticism to rival the popularity or importance of the major modernists.  I found that assessment really illuminating as I contemplated the 800+ pages of Aiken’s poetic oeuvre.

It is composed significantly of long poems and book-length or multi-book projects: for example, The Divine Pilgrim, a work concerned with representing the sound and structure of (classical) music, is composed of six “symphonies,” five of which were published in book form serially over a period of seven years.  Across his numerous books, he works primarily in vers libre lines, blank verse, and rhyming iambic pentameter and tetrameter couplets.  He uses meter loosely, but unmistakably.  In one poem I spent some time with, “The Coming Forth by Day of Osiris Jones,” he reviews Jones’s life, from birth to death, by listing the places, things, people, words, and moments that characterize the man.  For example, in the section called “The Costumes,” we find this passage:

Item: a pair of moccasins

Item: a tweed hat bought in England, green,
goloshes, silk shirts, collars of increasing sizes,
and assorted neckties, mostly blue

Item: pyjamas, linen for summer, woolen for winter
with tassled cords and pockets in the jackets

I’d hoped the formal device of the list, which has enjoyed some popularity in recent years, would make this poem more compelling to me than some of the others, but ultimately it didn’t.  Then I realized that all the specificity of the lists Aiken compiled, rather than individuating Jones, constructed him as an “everyman”—which is precisely the character Aiken is presenting in each of the books of The Divine Pilgrim (as he says explicitly in the notes in the back of the book) and, apparently, in many of the other poems as well.  His works being also quite autobiographical, by his own admission, we arrive at one of the qualities that prevented me from enjoying his poetry more.  That is, Aiken’s “everyman” is a very particular specimen of humanity, but neither the character nor the poet shows any consciousness of the limited ability of this particular existence to stand in for the rest of humankind in the poems’ metaphysical quests.

I hardly knew whether to be surprised or not to learn that Aiken was a friend of T. S. Eliot’s beginning during their college years at Harvard, where the two edited the university’s literary magazine together, as well as a friend of Pound’s.  He strikes me as having all of their writerly bombast, without Eliot’s eye and ear for image or the cosmopolitanism or sense of scope that mark Pound’s work.  But it may be that I’m too close to speaking of the man, rather than the poet, here.  Maybe this is the moment for me to conclude, hoping that, despite my own lack of enthusiasm, I’ve gestured toward something in Aiken’s work that might move other readers to seek it out and, perhaps, to become the ones to insist on its importance for the tradition, in the face of its current neglect.

Evie Shockley’s collections of poetry include the new black (Wesleyan University Press, forthcoming 2011), a half-red sea (Carolina Wren Press, 2006), and two chapbooks. She is also author of the forthcoming critical study, Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry (Iowa, 2011). Poems have recently appeared or will soon appear in such journals and anthologies as Callaloo, A Broken Thing: Contemporary Poets on the Line, Iron Horse Literary Review, esque, Talisman, Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook, and Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. Shockley co-edits jubilat and is an Assistant Professor of English at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. (Photo credit: Stéphane Robolin)

Poetry Finalists that Year: Not Announced

Poetry Judges that Year: Katherine Garrison Chapin, Norman Holmes Pearson,
John Crowe Ransom, Delmore Schwartz, Richard Wilbur

The Year in Literature: The Waking by Theodore Roethke won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Other Information:

  • Conrad Aiken (1889-1973) was born in Savannah, GA.
  • In 1901, Aiken’s father murdered his mother and then killed himself. Aiken, who was eleven years old at the time, heard the gunshots and discovered their bodies.  

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Reader Comments (25)

Evie, your post echoes much of my early response to Aiken's work when I was a student at Wesleyan College (Macon, Ga) . I wanted a bit more from it, while, at the same time, I admired its stately tone, its "quiet" workings, no doubt because I'd been told my own student verse was "quiet." Something about his lines compelled me, though now I could not specifically tell you why. This post encourages me to go back and read Aiken after so many years. A splendid idea for a blog, by the way. I'll continue to visit this site.
Well-written assessment, too, Evie. Elegant in style and tone.

February 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKathryn Stripling Byer

Many thanks for your kind words, Kay, and for letting me know that the hope I expressed in my concluding lines has already borne some fruit!


February 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEvie Shockley

You may be interested to know that a series of audiobook productions of Conrad Aiken's poetry has appeared on Audible.com. The series consists of Earth Triumphant, Charnel Rose, Turns and Movies, and Nocturne of Remembered Spring.

You can see the titles at http://www.audible.com/search/ref=sr_1_48_asrch?searchAuthor=Conrad+Aiken.

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