Conrad Aiken wrote too much poetry, was too imitative, hammered one bad idea too long, and gave his books terrible titles. Yet, helped by the magic of online scans, I have been read his first five books, from Earth Triumphant (1914) through The Charnel Rose (1918). Five books in five years! That is what I mean by too much. The Jig of Forslin: A Symphony (1916) – that is what I mean by bad titles, and the bad idea, of attributing musical structures to poems, is also visible. In Nocturne of Remembered Spring: And Other Poems (1917), for example, besides the title poem there is a “Sonata in Pathos,” a “Nocturne in a Minor Key,” and so on. “I do not wish to press the musical analogies too closely,” Aiken writes in Poetry in June 1919, in a review of one of his own books. Fair enough.
He was invited to write that review. “Even so, the variation of tine has not been carried far enough: a little more statement and a little less implication would have been a good thing, for it verges on the invertebrate.” Accurate.
As for imitative, Aiken was all too adept at picking up whatever was in the air. Imagism, Spoon River Anthology, T. S. Eliot – to my ear, mostly Eliot. Aiken’s poems often include a Prufrock or Sweeney-like figure – Forslin, he of the “jig” above, is one of them – introverted, interiorized, old before his time.
You see me: I am plain: and growing baldish.
The clothes I wear are old, but carefully kept. (“Jig,” I.iiii.)
But starring in a much longer, more repetitive (“symphonic”) poem. Bloated Eliot, gaseous Eliot.
Useful, though. Aiken has helped me see what is going on around him. That is one reason I have been reading his early poems. The other reason is of course that the poems are often quite good. “Senlin: A Biography,” a 1918 poem, has a great one. I have to break the symphony into its component poems.
It is morning, Senlin says, and in the morning
When the light drips through the shutters like the dew,
I arise, I face the sunrise,
And do the things my fathers learned to do.
Stars in the purple dusk above the rooftops
Pale in a saffron mist and seem to die,
And I myself on a swiftly tilting planet
Stand before a glass and tie my tie.
The stanzas repeat and develop this mismatch between the ordinary, pointless ritual activity and the narrator’s sense of his place in the cosmos, and similarly his astonishment by mundane natural details that he experiences himself (“Vine leaves tap my window”) and those that he can only imagine (“a sun far off in a shell of silence”), some of which may be contiguous with “god,” who is “immense and lonely as a cloud.” “Silence” is one of the repeated motifs.
The earth revolves with me, yet makes no motion,
The stars pale silently in a coral sky.
In a whistling void I stand before my mirror,
Unconcerned, and tie my tie.
I don’t know what happens next with Aiken. His Collected Poems is a thousand pages long; his Collected Stories is only half as long. Maybe I will switch to a Selected Poems sometime. Not yet.