Conrad Aiken Aiken, Conrad (Vol. 3) - Essay

Aiken, Conrad (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Aiken, Conrad 1889–1973

Aiken, whom Allen Tate called "one of the few genuine men of letters left," shared the concerns of the Moderns as a novelist, short story writer, and "unfashionable" poet. The "Preludes" are regarded as his greatest poetic achievement, and he is recognized as one of the most perceptive critics of modern poetry. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

The accomplished body of Conrad Aiken's work—which has been at once respected and neglected—is something you read with consistent pleasure, but without the astonished joy that you feel for the finest poetry, which is always extraordinary. It is peculiarly hard to say what is lacking in Aiken's work, since he has written poems that come as close to being good poems, without ever quite being so, as any I know….

He is a kind of Midas: everything that he touches turns to verse; so that reading his poems is like listening to Delius—one is experiencing an unending undifferentiating wash of lovely sounds—or like watching an only moderately interesting, because almost entirely predictable, kaleidoscope. Aiken's diluted world is a world where everything blurs into everything else, where the accomplished, elegiac, nostalgic verse turns everything into itself….

Randall Jarrell, "Fifty Years of American Poetry" (1962), in his The Third Book of Criticism (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1941, 1945, 1955, 1956, 1962, 1963, 1965 by Mrs. Randall Jarrell; copyright © 1963, 1965 by Randall Jarrell), Farrar, Straus, 1969.

Aiken's poetry, at its best, is a changing flow of watery utterance—which is why we must read it patiently and as a whole, if we are to understand its progression. As the Preludes continue their uneven way, that verbal flux begins to clarify itself. The lapses into decorative rhetoric become less frequent…. And in the second series, the preludes to definition, a more austere beauty begins to emerge.

Aiken's apparently innate facility with rhyming and his long fascination with musical form are now leading him toward a limpid and eddying speech that renders life itself as cosmic rhyme, a swirling non-duality within which we are but participating words…. Aiken begins more and more to sound like a character from "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven":

          A philosopher practicing scales on his piano,
          A woman writing a note and tearing it up.

But by the end of Time in the Rock, such "swarming activities of the formulae / Of statement" can merge quietly with the tougher rhythms of colloquial speech….

When Aiken allows cosmic rhyme to inform the particulars of his personal experience, the result is a serio-comic richness of tone, an intellectual complexity, and a vividness of detail that had never entered his verse. On its own terms, Ushant is a clear history indeed—though it would require a long essay to demonstrate the symmetries that focus the meaning of this "pour-in-stillness" so like the kakemono of a waterfall described by D. Chapters, episodes, and paragraphs tend toward spiral form, and even sentences wind through self-revising appositions and parenthetical expansions, looking now backward and now forward, until they emerge with fresh discoveries. This entire writing is, like little Jean's quoted poem "The Playlanders," a "master-piece of alternative spellings," a serial pattern of symbolic episodes, characters, and landscapes which point obscurely to a constant meaning. Even the pastiche and rhetorical inflation carry thematic freight—from the Browning leitmotif, "Your ghost will walk, you lover of trees," to such Shakespeare-Melville-Crane posturings as "Spout, whale! Blow your conch, lost fisherman …" or "—up from his cabin, his sea-gown scarfed about him …, for the seal's wide spindrift gaze at eternity." Such various means render D.'s emergence into a shape out of "all these antecedent ghosts and essences," his recognition and celebration of that emergence, and his discovery that love, poiesis, and consciousness itself are aspects of a single crystalline light. Accepting the fact that the self is all others, he is freed to love the flux of the self as others. In him the present voice of the past can therefore accept his dying into future voices. Not, however, without a secret "starfish turn" of creative encompassment—as in the tangled father-son relation with Hambo….

If Aiken's metaphor of the self observing itself in the verbal mirror of the world is a fundamental mistake, not just Ushant but the entire modernist tradition may be called in doubt. The Diamond and Heart Sutras tell us that mind can't know mind, that objects can't be seen by objects, and that as long as a specific who looks at himself, there can be no true presence….

Which is "the 'I' / of 'I's'?" Any answer seems enclosed within skepticism: "the only voice that answers is our own." And yet that dialectic between Eastern intimation and Western doubt seems itself "the alchemy by which we grow."

From this perspective the poem invites us to reaffirm the perceptions that have grounded Aiken's finest verse: "The timelessness of time takes form in rhyme"; the "living word / springs from the dying"; and "all is text, is holy text."

Thomas R. Whitaker, "Repeating Is What I am Loving," in Parnassus, Fall/Winter, 1972, pp. 59-68.

For Aiken in his poetry as well as here in his autobiographical essay [Ushant], the question of method concerns not so much what one knows as how one came to know it; and this has a transforming effect on the knowledge itself. The distinction was given form by Coleridge: The ideas one thinks of are of altogether less importance than the ideas one thinks with. Aiken's book is, or should become, one of the ideas we think with; and its premise is a humbling of the self and a charity of the imagination before experience; for once the author chooses to abandon the framework of chronological sequence that will suffice for the entry in Who's Who, he has to begin, and we have to begin with him, in chaos itself, listening for the resonances that alone will establish pattern and the prospect, however far off, of meaning.

Howard Nemerov, "Conrad Aiken," in his Reflexions on Poetry & Poetics, Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, N.J.), 1972, pp. 92-6.

The variety of Aiken's work is astonishing. We usually think of him as a poet because poetry was his principal and abiding interest throughout the whole of his long career, and his poetry is itself a body of diverse work using a great variety of forms and approaches. But he also wrote five novels, three collections of distinguished short stories, one play, a remarkable autobiography, and a considerable body of sensitive and penetrating literary criticism. There was also a fair amount of journalistic hack-work which he recognized for exactly that….

Ushant is certainly an "experimental" literary production, but not for the sake of being original or different. Aiken's own introspective tendencies were intensified by the early and abiding influence of Freudian psychology. What he is attempting is to see himself and his life as clearly as possible, and as honestly. The changed names and the use of the third person are an aid to objectivity. The chronological chaos is due to the fact that the book is not supposed to be the story of a life, but an attempt to answer the question "Who—or what—am I?" And all his past is, of course, present, both as memory and as a shaping force, in his consciousness during the brief period of introspection that Ushant represents….

Since Ushant gives us a long, hard look into Aiken's character and interests, it also provides a key to all the rest of his work, where the same character and interests appear in a remarkable variety of forms and disguises. This is true even of his literary criticism….

[Aiken's] literary criticism … is as objective as possible. It never dawdles on the surface, but goes right to the heart of the matter. It sets high standards, both artistically and ethically, for the art of literature, and is merciless towards any betrayal of these standards. No wonder he could not participate in the mutual puffery of literary cliques! And, by the same token, it is no wonder that his book-reviews often turned out to be real literary criticism of permanent value, and that he was able to understand and evaluate difficult writers like Eliot and Faulkner at a time when most reviewers were floundering in bewilderment or dismissing them with snide witticisms.

Aiken's prose fiction, consisting of five shortish novels and some forty short stories, is all of a piece and can be considered as a single unit. The short stories are probably better than the novels, though Graham Greene once called Aiken "perhaps the most exciting, the most finally satisfying of all novelists." Practically all the fiction is psychological in that, no matter how interesting the events of the plot or the actions of the characters may be, the essential drama is played out in their minds….

Not all the fiction is … directly psychological …, but it is true that in all of it the internal drama predominates and the external events are primarily a setting for it. The effect, however, is far from abstract or analytical. In his settings Aiken is a naturalist who exploits the concrete details of everyday life for a maximum sense of the real and even the trivial. We are constantly told how things looked, and who ordered what drinks, and what the waitress said, and what the band or the juke-box was playing. We are frequently given tantalizing fragments of conversation overheard from the next table or from people passing on the street or in the subway. Much of the effect of Aiken's fiction springs from the tension between the two worlds—outer and inner—in which his characters live. Since all of us live in this same tension, this method is actually far closer to reality than the so-called realism that confines itself to the external world, or than the opposite pole, the stream of consciousness, which represents only the inner one. From this point of view, Aiken's fiction can be said to be a synthesis of the two dominant fictional schools during the period from 1920 to 1940, when practically all of it was written….

[Aiken's] poetry exhibits an astonishing variety of forms and types. Beginning with narrative verse, he soon reduced the narrative element to a mere scaffolding—often perilously flimsy—to support an investigation of the minds and inner lives of his characters. In this vein he produced a series of "symphonies," as he called them, large poems subdivided into a few main sections, with further subdivisions on several levels, so that in a poem of fifty pages there might be no section longer than a page and a half. Individual sections are in blank verse, free verse, and rhymed verse, sometimes in fixed stanzas, sometimes irregular. These poems do not attempt to reproduce the sonata-form of the symphony, but they deliberately borrow many of the techniques and effects of music….

In spite of the great variety of his poetry, it is possible to see a set of basic themes and ideas that run through it all. One of these is the common man. Aiken's novels are full of artists because they are basically autobiographical, but he has none of the narcissism that makes many poets incapable of writing about anything else. He is as fond of the music hall as he is of the string quartet….

Another permanent characteristic is Aiken's sharp eye for the external world, and delight in it. His early work was related to that of the Imagists, and the fondness for the sharp, detailed image remained with him. Because of his many clear observations of such things as wet leaves, rain, the robin in the chinaberry tree, wild flowers (the fruit of boyhood ramblings with a botanizing uncle), and the varied effects of sunlight and moonlight, it is hard not to think of him as a poet of nature. But he is equally fascinated by the modern metropolis, even in its most sordid manifestations…. He observes street-walkers as lovingly as sunsets, and as accurately.

But Aiken is very far from being a mere pictorial or descriptive poet. Always he is concerned with the aspect of the world specifically explored in "The Crystal"—the miracle of interconnectedness.

Calvin S. Brown, "The Achievement of Conrad Aiken," in The Georgia Review, Winter, 1973, pp. 477-88.

Mr. Aiken sees the mutability of things more as chaos than pattern, for although pattern in the flux of events is at times discernible, it is pattern behind which still lie mystery and … chaos…. What emerges is an evocation of the ancient vision of "permanence in impermanence," of timelessness and chaos, of death become the seedbed of new life. And, characteristically for Mr. Aiken, in this vision of mutability formal religion, with its dogmas to explain everything, is an unnecessary artifice….

[There] is no gainsaying the burden assumed by the person who attempts to live with the full consciousness of a mind awake…. [But] there is no returning again to the time before knowledge: "the truth is permanent in the mind."

Mr. Aiken engages this complex subject in various ways throughout his poetry, and although his poetry deals, of course, with other subjects, too, this is the one, with its rich diversity of implications, that calls forth much of his most memorable poetry. In a volume as inclusive as this [Collected Poems], no reader should be surprised to find that not all of the poetry is uniformly excellent or successful…. [But] few of Mr. Aiken's contemporaries have written poetry better than he has at his best.

Frederick K. Sanders, "A Chronology of Awarenesses: A Poet's Vision," in Sewanee Review (© 1973 by the University of the South), Winter, 1973, pp. 172-84.

All of Aiken's work centers on the term "consciousness": it leads to the psychological emphasis in his criticism, provides the main direction in his poetry, informs the themes of his short tales, and, as this essay will show, illuminates the meaning of both his novels and his autobiography, Ushant. Consciousness is Aiken's answer to one of the central problems in modern life, namely the discrepancy, even the breakdown, between man and the world, that widening gap separating the ego's urgent drives from the harsh edges of reality….

Aiken became aware of the broken nature of his world in a singularly brutal way: at the age of eleven he found his parents dead; his mother shot by his father, who then committed suicide. Reality was literally a "blood-dimmed tide," and from that terrifying moment Aiken would search for "an equivalent to it all, in terms of his own life, or work." He faced in extremis what the rest of us only glimpse occasionally. His reality was more chaotic, his ego more fragile, his need to grow in consciousness more acute than almost any other modern writer's—giving him a unique perspective and a special advantage. In particular, he could foresee the risks involved in beginning a journey to consciousness….

Aiken is a modern mind, who insists on looking within the modern chaos for the solution that will both account for that chaos and resolve it. However tempting Eliot's retreat to the past, to tradition and the church, was for Aiken—and his long residency in England and deep affinity for both a familial and literary heritage indicate how strongly he was drawn to the past—he would not turn his back on the secular present. In Freudian psychology he discovered a key to explain the "moral terror" of our time as well as a guide to point the way out of that terror and begin the journey of consciousness. Aiken's concern with consciousness, then, is significant because it is based on psychology and insists on being modern. Its modernity lies in its refusal to hide from reality and take refuge in history or tradition. Although the past often helps us understand the present, the truth of the present must be faced, however appalling. The psychological basis of consciousness means that cause and cure are within man himself. The journey begins with the ego then moves outward to others, to the world. Perhaps evident and obvious, such discovery is, nonetheless, moving and important.

Aiken's poetry provides the fullest expression of consciousness, and his reputation will in all likelihood be based on his poetry. But his novels are interesting because they offer a simpler and clearer treatment of the evolution of consciousness, as if the dense lines of the poetry had become untangled into the straightforward narrative line of the fiction. Furthermore, the five novels lead toward Ushant, one of the most brilliant autobiographies in modern literature. In writing the novels, between 1927 and 1940, experimenting with fictional aspects of "symphonic form," by creating characters who shared segments of his life and thoughts, Aiken learned the limits of fiction. He discovered that the novel inhibited him, particularly in forcing him into the subterfuge of hiding behind a made-up persona, whose fictive life was invention, not truth. By the time he had finished his last novel Aiken had come to realize that the only honest version of the evolution of consciousness had to be an autobiographical one.

Furthermore, the novels prepare for Ushant in that each contains in varying degrees a confession wherein the hero pours out his inner frustrations to make a kind of self-analysis, which, in turn, allows him to begin to be free of those frustrations and turn outward….

Ushant brings together all the concerns of the novels: the relation of past to present, the interaction between memory and art, the intrusions of the world on the ego, the growth of the self through love and friendship, and, most importantly, the marvel of a man acknowledging the painful truth about his life and reaching toward consciousness through self-knowledge—all merge to form the shape of Aiken's life, a shape, he says in a brilliant passage of self-analysis, that is like a dance….

As we know from the novels, confession is a necessary beginning for the growth of consciousness, and, like his fictional prototypes, Aiken has had to balance the imperatives of self with the demands of reality. At the same time he is confessing to his many selfish vices, he is also describing a living world of places, events, and people…. Ushant is a hymn to pluralism, creating and enjoying a teeming world whose very [plenitude] signifies that here is the essence of life, the "brutal and beautiful here-and-now of it."…

The most intricate step in the dance that is Aiken's life … lies in its subtle whisperings of myth. The voyage that opens and closes Ushant is a mythic journey backward to a past forever lost and forward to a homeland yet to be recovered, a timeless cycle of death and rebirth. The evolution of consciousness becomes a divine pilgrimage, where psychic growth and mythic journey go hand in hand. Ultimately the voyage touches God and that holy center where all things are one. Thus one man's confession suggests the possibility of everyman's redemption. All of Aiken's protagonists have been quasi-everymen: Demarest, who matures through his encounters with reality; Cather, who lifts his burden of guilt to seek a new life; Jasper Ammen, who rejects life for death and warns us of what happens when we deny life; Tip, who learns to accept the responsibilities of love; and Aiken himself. Moving in shifting balance between the inner vision and the outer reality, Aiken and his heroes exhibit the evolution of consciousness, creating a dance of life, wondrous and plentiful, wherein they enlarge their capacities "for admiring and loving the universe."

Arthur Waterman, "The Evolution of Consciousness: Conrad Aiken's Novels and Ushant," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XV, No. 2, 1973, pp. 67-81.