Conrad Aiken Aiken, Conrad (Vol. 1) - Essay

Aiken, Conrad (Vol. 1)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Aiken, Conrad 1889–

Aiken, Pulitzer Prize winner and one of America's foremost men of letters, is a poet, novelist, short story writer, and critic. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Conrad Aiken is one of the most remarkable figures modern American literature has produced. The extent and variety of his writings are so impressive as to defy classification, or so it may seem at the beginning. But, within the richness of conception and the quantity of result, some essential themes persist; and they are developmental—that is, they grow in clarity and importance as Aiken's many approaches to them gradually diminish and as Aiken's grasp of the fundamental distinctions between major and lesser forms becomes more certain. Ultimately, the product is impressive, not for its quantity and variety but for its excellence and depth. (Preface)

Aiken's writings—perhaps all of them—are essentially an attempt to recover consciousness, to reestablish it on a secular basis. This effort comprehends several patterns in the work itself: the preoccupation with the artist as person; the uncomfortable sense of separation, of isolation, from "raw life," which leads both to a contempt of it and a sense of "inferiority" to it; the constant search for a "compromise" with the flesh, manifested in the frequent experiments in adultery in which his characters are engaged; the compulsion to suffer and to offer oneself as a secular Christ in an anxiety-burdened crucifixion; the fearsome and fearful preoccupation with death, and—on another level—with the nihilation of consciousness…. Aiken's writings are perhaps the most thoroughgoing effort in modern literature to establish a formal and a secular refuge from the threat of chaos. More than that, they are dominated by a formal dialectic, comprehending the relationship of consciousness and form to the universe. Superficially, the poles of this dialectic are living and dead matter; the human consciousness mediates between the two, dramatically rescuing living forms from death and insistently risking its own obliteration in the process. (pp. 19-20)

Taking short stories and novels together, we find both variety and consistency. Like the poems, they bear the mark of Conrad Aiken, but of course the forms enable him to develop different perspectives. The personae of the poems are often imbedded in technical displays: they become sui generis, consciousnesses reflecting tonalities which are subservient to the poetry. The fictional ego is much more sharply focused, localized; in most cases, he survives technique or is immensely benefited by it. These differences are not unnaturally a consequence of the general distinctions of genre. In the short story especially, Aiken is more clearly the servant of contemporary fashion. Katherine Mansfield, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and others are echoed in the short stories, as is Joyce in at least one of the novels. This is merely to say that Aiken is aware of the most interesting examples of the forms. But many of Aiken's stories survive the threat of imitation and remain distinctively his, as we might reasonably expect. (p. 32)

The basic requirement of the Aiken story is the fact of human relationship. His fictional world is inhabited by persons at its center (not necessarily happily so) engaged in tense struggles for "understanding"; by persons moving from the edge to the center, in a voyage of emotional discovery; by persons far from the center, who have deliberately separated themselves from it, from a delusion of superiority; and by persons (usually the very young or the very old) who have left the center and are moving, alone and pitifully, toward "infinity." All of these figurations of the ego assume a basic aloneness—and of the kind suggested so often in Emily Dickinson's poems about God and "that gentleman guest," Death. At his best, Aiken is a superb storyteller. He succeeds much more often in the short form than in the novel. His sharpness of observation and his insights into character momentarily "trapped" by his imagination seem more suitably adapted to the short story form. (p. 35)

The problem of assessing Aiken as poet is one of noting his growth. As is the case of any substantial poet, there are several stages in this growth. In the beginning, there are juvenilia, in which the sources imitated are spoiled by the imitation. There is a time of acceleration, in which ideas and forms occur in such abundance that the poetry can only occasionally take proper advantage of them. This is followed by an attempt to formulate independent modes and philosophies; in Aiken's case, it is the parallels of music, of thematic structures and rhythms…. Aiken moves beyond the "symphonies." The years from 1925 to 1931 are years of consolidation and refinement. The scope of the individual poems diminishes, and the individual lines and forms submit to close and profitable scrutiny. The Preludes of 1931 and 1936, which most critics who are at all willing to give Aiken a fair reading have applauded, are a culmination as well as a new direction. They are followed by "occasional" volumes, some of them utilizing the methods of the Preludes; others, an experiment in an independent mode or a revision of an old one; still others, "compilations" of the good and the ordinary. Looking back upon almost a half century of Aiken's practice, we may say that the time of the Preludes still remains the "time of genius."… Aiken is an extraordinarily gifted poet. The terms "profligate genius," "versatility," and "great richness and variety" come to mind. From the beginning his poems have demonstrated not only an exceptional, a "natural," sense of word, line, elementary form but also a great sensitivity to the work of his contemporaries and his tradition. (This is responsible as well for making him the good critic he is.) I should add to these qualities a restless desire to experiment, to seek out new ways and means of expanding the structure of his poems and of bringing particular insights within the range of new perceptive orders. (pp. 70-1)

Aiken presents an imaginative gift extremely rare in modern literature, in any literature. But he has not been timid, or cautious, in the exercising of it. Worse, he has often squandered the talent and published the results too quickly and easily. Nevertheless, he is one of our underrated, "neglected" figures. He has not "caught on." Always there, with rarely a year without a publication of one kind or another, he has nevertheless been passed over for reputations made by writers who "struck it rich" in a favorable time and who have successfully extended them since…. I should say the most remarkable fact of his career is his having moved from a romantic to a "metaphysical" mode of intellectual analysis and representation. The "Symphonies" are too often falsely "musical," self-consciously maneuvered in the interests of a theory; the poetic values which result are inappropriate to what the poems are trying to say, or they get in the way of saying it. As he turns to the Preludes, Aiken shows again and again—often in the least ambitious of his poems—a competence in fitting the word to the thought, with results sometimes resembling [Wallace] Stevens at his best, sometimes quite distinctively his own. (pp. 153-54)

Frederick J. Hoffman, in his Conrad Aiken, Twayne, 1962.

The course of poetry appears to have turned away from Conrad Aiken, leaving him an industrious and unfashionable Historic Personage with space in all the textbooks and anthologies and very few readers. Beside the work of those poets who sweat for the ultimate concentration—Thomas, Robert Lowell, John Berryman—Aiken seems terribly low-keyed and diffuse. His long later poems, in fact, seem very like words murmuring endlessly to themselves in poetic terms without in the least resembling poetry as we have come to believe it should be. Part of this neglect—surely unfortunate—results from the fact that Aiken is consistently evaluated by standards which are inimical to his temperament and the characteristics of his verse: concentration, ambiguity, verbal eccentricity, irony, paradox, concreteness (à la Williams), and the ability to produce powerfully suggestive phrases suitable for quotation in reviews. Aiken has none of these attributes to any marked degree; he is obviously after other things.

[Through] the clouds of poetic vapor that Aiken exudes, through the long-winded and unworkable analogies, the unprofitable word play, the vagueness of reference and the on-and-on-and-on of his grave, muffled words, a kind of kingdom exists. One is troubled on going into it, and remains troubled on coming out of it, as though haunted by a sensibility so astonishingly rich, various, and self-obsessed that language is inadequate to express it. Perhaps the aim of Aiken's lifelong reverie is not to send one back into one's external world, where the thorn draws blood and the sun shines differently from moment to moment, but into the endlessly ramifying labyrinth of one's own memory. And it is no small compliment to Aiken to say that, once one enters there with the total commitment Aiken's example encourages, one is struck by its likeness to Aiken's: to that vast, ectoplasmic, ultimately inexplicable—though one tries to explain—and often dimly beautiful universe whose only voice he is.

James Dickey, "Conrad Aiken" (1963), in his Babel to Byzantium (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by James Dickey), Farrar, Straus, 1968, pp. 89-93.

It is worth noticing that although [Conrad] Aiken himself has made not a few references to the French Symbolists, he attached himself to them far less programmatically than some other American poets of his generation and his own style is that of impressionism—impressionism strongly tinged with that still older school that the French called Parnassian. Such predilections led him to produce poems whose strength lies in their brilliant and fulsome rendering of typical human temperaments. (p. 10)

Aiken speaks in terms of a creed, liberalism, which has been on the defensive among the most inquiring poetic minds of the past two generations. He has written, to be sure, in terms of not classical political economic liberalism but rather the social-psychological liberalism which since the 1880's has rejected that earlier laissez-faire liberalism almost as much as it rejects absolutism. The coherence of creed and art in Aiken is rather more noticeable than it is in many of his contemporaries. Yet Aiken's own vaguenesses as well as the development of psychological doctrine in his own lifetime are probably responsible for some of the oversimplified views of the Freudianism that was a formative element in his art, liberalism, and relativism. (p. 39)

Aiken is the poetic, less carapaced, side of the American mentality of his generation that represents itself on the more intellectualized and discursive side in the confident criticism of Edmund Wilson. As artist and as man, he displays an affection for the very world that he attacks for being too distinct a giver of pain, too uncertain a giver of pleasure, and too monstrous to be grasped by a divided consciousness. His perception of suffering is not Christian or Nietzschean, or tragic, or skeptical, or withdrawing. It is liberal, ironic, humane, conscious of the discontents that civilization itself imposes and therefore relativistic and partly hopeful. It is probably inconsistent for those who emphasize in Aiken a sympathy for the Freudian formula of the "pathology of everyday life" to see him as a poet of clear-cut pessimism about personality or culture. (p. 42)

Aiken has created a fluent and colorful picturization of man learning to enjoy and realize himself. The process is conceived of as a response to a universal challenge, first in the sense that the ancestral gods are against enjoyment and ultimately in the sense that enjoyment leads to a need to transcend itself. The poetic art in which he embodies this view of life is Indian in its luxuriance, repetition, and decoration. It stands over against the sparer poetic line that has won much of the lip service as well as some of the practice of the more influential poets since Hulme and Pound made their voices felt half a century ago. The energetic profusion of Aiken has a masculine bouquet that allies him more closely with Yeats and Tate than with most of his contemporaries. Aiken, as they say, has written lines below his own best level and was thoughtful enough in his Selected Poems of 1961 to anthologize himself at his best. His lifelong performance in a luxuriant style is not only one of the strongest testaments to the power of his youthful insights but also the preserver of a tradition whose vitality, we should be glad to say, he has helped to pass on. (p. 45)

Reuel Denney, in his Conrad Aiken ("University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers," No. 38), University of Minnesota Press, © 1964 (and in Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Scribner's, © 1973).

[Book] by book, [Aiken's] method grows in surety (with some slip-ups, as in the conventional sonnet sequence, "And in the Human Heart"); there is a sound of greatness, a mastery of music, fearlessness of form, integrity to inner vision, and a satisfying wholeness … to be applauded and awarded, as happily, after long years of relative neglect, deserved honors and prizes have been heaped on Conrad Aiken.

Harold Witt, "Mesmeric Music," (© 1971 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), in Prairie Schooner, Fall, 1971, pp. 267-68.