*Aiken, Conrad (Potter) (1889-1973)


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Conrad (Potter) Aiken (1889-1973)

American poet, short story writer, critic and novelist. Most of Aiken’s work reflects his intense interest in psychoanalysis and the development of identity. As editor of Emily Dickinson’s Selected Poems (1924) he was largely responsible for establishing that poet’s posthumous literary reputation. From the 1920s Aiken divided his life between England and the United States, playing a significant role in introducing American poets to the British audience.

“All lovely things will have an ending,
All lovely things will fade and die,
And youth, that’s now so bravely spending,
Will beg a penny and by.”
(from ‘All Lovely Things Will Have an Ending’)

Conrad Aiken was born in Savannah, Georgia. In his childhood Aiken experienced a considerable trauma when he found the bodies of his parents-his physician father, brilliant but unstable, had killed his mother and committed suicide. When reaching the age of his father at the time of the tragedy, Aiken had also difficulties in keeping his depression at bay. In his “autobiographical narrative” USHANT: AN ESSAY (1952), Aiken confessed that finding his parents dead, he “found himself possessed of them forever”.

Aiken was brought up in Massachusetts from the age of eleven by a great-great-aunt. Before entering Harvard Aiken was educated at private schools and at Middlesex School, Concord. In Harvard he shared a class with T.S. Eliot, with whom he edited the Advocate and whose poetry was to influence his own. Aiken graduated in 1912, in the same era as Eliot, Walter Lippman, Van Wyck Brooks, and E.E. Cummings. In the same year he married Jessie McDonald, a graduate student from Canada.

After working as a reporter, Aiken devoted himself entirely to writing, along with having a small private income. Of the many influences Aiken acknowledged, the writings of Freud, Havelock Ellis, William James, Edgar Allan Poe, and the French Symbolists are evident in his work. Freud considered Aiken’s GREAT CIRCLE a masterpiece of analytical introspection.

Aiken’s first collection of verse, EARTH TRIUMPHANT (1914) made him known as a poet. He was a contributing editor to Dial, which led to a friendship with Ezra Pound. Aiken’s essays, collected in SKEPTICISMS (1919) and A REVIEWER’S ABC (1958), dealt with the questions provoked by his commitment to literature as a mode of self-understanding.

During the First World War Aiken claimed that he was in an “essential industry” because of being a poet, and was granted an exemption for this reason.
Aiken’s adult life was marked by trans-Atlantic journeys. In 1921 he moved from Massachusetts to England, settling in Rye, Sussex, where Jessie gave birth to their third children. At that time Aiken’s marriage began to fall apart; they divorced in 1929.

In 1927-28 Aiken was a tutor in English at Harvard. He married Clarissa M. Lorenz in 1930, she was a musician and journalist. During the following years Aiken produced his famous preludes, collected in PRELUDES TO MEMNON (1931) and TIME IN THE ROCK (1936), but there was also a suicide attempt in 1932. He sailed again for Boston in 1933, and then spent two years in Rye (1934-36), writing ‘London Letters’ to the New Yorker. He returned to New York and Boston, and travelled in Mexico, where he married in 1937 the artist Mary Hoover after divorcing Clarissa. They returned to Rye in 1937. After the outbreak of World War II, they moved to the United States.

“Walk with me world, upon my right hand walk,
speak to me Babel, that I may strive to assemble
of all these syllables a single word
before the purpose of speech is gone.”
(from ‘This image or another’)

In 1930 Aiken was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his collection SELECTED POEMS. Most of Aiken’s fiction was written between the 1920s and ’30s, among others the novels BLUE VOYAGE (1927), in which he used interior monologue, KING COFFIN (1934), and the short story collections BRING! BRING! (1925), and AMONG THE LOST PEOPLE (1934), which contains the classic ‘Silent Snow, Secret Snow’, a horror story in which the sounds of the falling snow start to haunt a young boy.

After staying two years in Rye, Aiken settled in 1947 in Brewster, Massachusetts. He was a consultant in poetry at the Library of Congress from 1950 to 1952. In 1953 he published COLLECTED POEMS, which included the masterwork ‘Preludes to Definition’ and ‘Morning Song of Senlin’. Ushant depicted his friendships with Malcolm Lowry, T.S. Eliot, and other figures he knew. It dramatized the attempt of its protagonist, the author’s persona, to read the palimpsest of hieroglyphs that constitutes the landscape of his soul, and mingled sketches of the literary generation between the wars with psychoanalytic free association.

From 1962 on Aiken wintered in a Savannah house adjacent to that of his childhood. He died in Savannah on August 17, 1973. Posthumously published THE SELECTED LETTERS OF CONRAD AIKEN (1978) contains correspondence with such literary colleagues as Wallace Stevens, Harriet Monroe, and Edmund Wilson. Besides the Pulitzer Prize, Aiken’s many honors and awards include National Book Award (1954), Bollinger Prize in 1956, Gold Medal in Poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1958, and National Medal for Literature in 1969.

Aiken was married three times. Two of his daughters from the first marriage became writers: Jane Aiken Hodge (born in 1917), who started to publish popular historical novels and works of romantic suspense from the 1960s, and Joan Aiken. She was born in Sussex in 1924 and educated at home before entering the school at the age of 12. A prolific writer like her sister, Aiken produced more than 30 books for adults and over 60 for children. Her first collection of short stories for children, All You’ve Ever Wanted, appeared in 1953. Other works include The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962), Black Hearts in Battersea (1964), The Silence of Herondale (1964), A Necklace of Raindrops (1968), Midnight is a Place (1974), The Shadow Guests (1980), The Cuckoo Tree (1981), The Way to Write for Children (1982), Mansfield Revisited (1984), Deception (1987), Blackground (1989), Jane Fairfax (1990), Morningquest (1992), Eliza’s Daughter (1994), The Winter Sleepwalker (1994), Cold Shoulder Road (1995); The Cockatrice Boys (1996), The Jewel Seed (1997). Her works combine elements from fairy tales, history, horror, supernatural, and adventure.

For further reading: Aiken: A Life of His Art by Jay Martin (1962); From Fiction To Film: Conrad Aiken’s silent Snow, Secret Snow by Gerald R. Barrett, . & Thomas L. Erskine (c1972); Aiken: A Bibliography (1902-1978) by F.W. and F.C. Bonnell (1982); Lorelei Two: My Life with Aiken by Clarissa M. Lorenz (1983); The Writer As Shaman: The Pilgrimages of Conrad Aiken and Walker Percy by Ted R. Spivey (1986); Conrad Aiken by Edward Butsche (1988); Aiken: Poet of White Horse Vale by Edward Butscher (1988); The Art of Knowing: The Poetry and Prose of Conrad Aiken by H. Martin (1988); Conrad Aiken, Our Father by Joan Aiken and Jane Aiken Hodge (1989); Aiken: A Priest of Consciousness, ed. by Ted R. Spirey and Arthur Waterman (1989); The Fictive World of Conrad Aiken by C.F. Seigel (1993) – See also: Ezra Pound

Selected works:

  • EARTH TRIUMPHANT, AND OTHER TALES IN VERSE, 1914
  • THE JIG OF FORSLIN: A SYMPHONY, 1916
  • TURNS AND MOVIES, 1916
  • NOCTURNE OF REMEMBERED SPRING, 1917
  • THE CHARNEL ROSE, 1918
  • SKEPTICISM, NOTES ON CONTEMPORARY POETRY, 1919
  • THE HOUSE OF DUST: A SYMPHONY, 1920
  • PUNCH: THE IMMORTAL LIAR,1921
  • Modern American Poetry, 1922 (ed., rev. 1927. rev. as Twentieth Century American Poetry, 1945, 1963)
  • PRIAPUS AND THE POOL, 1922
  • THE PILGRIMAGE OF FESTUS, 1923
  • Emily Dickinson’s Selected Poems, 1924 (ed.)
  • PRIAPUS AND OTHER POOL AND OTHER POEMS, 1925
  • BRING! BRING!, 1925
  • BLUE VOYAGE, 1927
  • POEMS, 1927
  • COSTUMES BY EROS, 1928
  • PRELUDE, 1929
  • SELECTED POEMS, 1930 – Pulitzer Prize
  • JOHN DETH AND OTHER POEMS, 1930
  • GEHENNA, 1930
  • THE COMING FORTH BY DAY OF OSIRIS JONES, 1931
  • PRELUDES OF MEMNON, 1931
  • GREAT CIRCLE, 1933
  • AMONG THE LOST PEOPLE, 1934
  • KING COFFIN, 1934
  • LANDSCAPE WEST OF EDEN, 1934
  • TIME IN THE ROCK, 1936
  • A HEART FOR THE GODS OF MEXICO, 1939
  • AND IN THE HUMAN HEART, 1940
  • CONVERSATION, 1940
  • BROWNSTONE ECLOGUES, 1942
  • THE SOLDIER, 1944
  • An Anthology of Famous English and American Poetry, 1945 (ed. with W.R. Benét)
  • THE KID, 1947
  • THE DIVINE PILGRIM, 1949
  • SKYLIGHT ONE, 1949
  • THE SHORT STORIES OF CONRAD AIKEN, 1950
  • USHANT, 1952
  • COLLECTED POEMS, 1953 – The National Book Award
  • A LETTER FROM LI PO, 1955
  • THE FLUTE PLAYER, 1956
  • A REVIEWER’S ABC, 1958
  • SHEEPFOLD HILL, 1958
  • THE COLLECTED SHORT STORIES OF CONRAD AIKEN, 1960
  • SELECTED POEMS, 1961
  • THE MORNING SONG OF LORD ZERO, 1963
  • THE COLLECTED NOVELS OF CONRAD AIKEN, 1964
  • A SEIZURE OF LIMERICKS, 1964
  • CATS AND BATS AND THINGS WITH WINGS, 1965
  • TOM, SUE, AND THE CLOCK, 1966
  • PRELUDES, 1966
  • THEE, 1967
  • COLLECTED POEMS 1916, 1970, 1970
  • THE CLERK’S JOURNAL, 1971
  • A LITTLE WHO’S ZOO OF MILD ANIMALS, 1977
  • SELECTED LETTERS, 1978

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