The Collected Poems of Conrad AikenSometimes when I make the effort to read contemporary poetry -- which isn’t all that often these days -- I feel as if I’d set out to play tennis on a beautiful summer afternoon only to find myself standing disconsolately in the middle of a glaringly illuminated squash court. The point isn’t that squash is an inferior sport, or that it’s so radically different from tennis; after all, they’re both individual sports that use racquets and a ball and a court and some similar-looking strokes. No, the point is that my hopeful expectations were one thing -- tennis on a sunny and breezy day -- and the reality something quite different, less expansive, more insular and airless, with odd angles and tight corners that force you to dig and hack at the ball, and, at bottom, a tinny and irritating clang every time you aim too low.
The fact that contemporary poetry is superficially similar to but in fact quite different from older forms of verse is hardly an indictment in itself, but that clanging noise -- its persistent prosiness and choppiness -- and the “aiming too low” -- its lack of formal ambition and unwillingness to engage with great themes in a commensurately great style -- makes most recent poetry distinctly disappointing for me to read.
Some contemporary poetry is surreal or fractured or a pastiche, and some is banal or didactic or utterly depthless, but whatever the differences, virtually all of the whole hopeless enterprise has one thing in common; it is, in a word, flat. But it is sometimes hard to remember that not very long ago, poetry was, if nothing else (and, admittedly, sometimes there was nothing else) a pleasure to read in an almost physical, sensuous way, in the rush and the rhythm of its words. And there were few poets in the twentieth century more purely pleasurable to read in this regard than Conrad Aiken, who possessed a quality of musicality not only greater than any current poets but greater, I think, than nearly any of his contemporaries.
Aiken’s beginnings could hardly have been less lyrical -- in Aiken’s autobiograhical poem “Obituary in Bitcherel” he talks about being badly beaten as a child, and when he was 11, his father killed his mother and then committed suicide, leaving him and his siblings at the mercy of their relations. For the most part, his poetry reflects these difficult beginnings only obliquely, and he wears just as lightly in his poems his later accomplishments, his Harvard degree and Pulitzer and Bollingen and fellowships and all the other great honors that great poets deserve. Rather, his poetry focuses on issues of consciousness and mortality and the place of the individual in the universe. His most famous lines (which probably are not all that famous any more) are these, from his long poem “Senlin: A Biography”:
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.
Subject matter aside, there is an almost nursery-rhyme kind of pleasure (and I don’t mean “nursery rhyme” perjoratively -- a great many poets could benefit from reminding themselves why these poems are still read and remembered centuries after they were first composed as political commentaries or nonsense verse) to be had in reading these light-footed lines, or in saying them aloud -- in hearing, in one’s ears or in one’s head, the way the rhythms, and the rhymes, click precisely into place.
Aiken didn’t use rhyme much of the time, and only sometimes used traditional forms (as in his memorable sonnet sequence, “And in the Human Heart,” which is much more rewarding and profound than its soupy title might suggest). But nearly always, his verse was musical, and that quality may be -- in an age when popular music itself isn’t very “musical” anymore, its chief features, in lieu of long-departed melody, being percussion, appropriation, and melisma -- the real reason that, even among regular readers of poetry, he isn’t much thought of anymore.
Much of Aiken’s verse has a sort of lilting, philosophical resignation about it that seems to more or less cheerfully acknowledge the insignificance of humans in the face of eternity; here is an excerpt from his Preludes to Memnon that evokes, in its opening lines, Stevens’ “Sunday Morning,” and ends with the speaker swept up in the inexorable:
Two coffees in the Español, the last
Bright drops of golden Barsac in a goblet,
Fig paste and candied nuts… Hardy is dead,
And James and Conrad dead, and Shakspere dead,
And old Moore ripens for an obscene grave,
And Yeats for an arid one; and I, and you --
What winding sheet for us, what boards and bricks,
What mummeries, candles, prayers and pious frauds?
You shall be lapped in Syrian scarlet, woman,
And wear your pearls, and your bright bracelets, too,
Your agate ring, and round your neck shall hang
Your dark blue lapis with its specks of gold.
And I, beside you -- ah! But will that be?
For there are dark streams in this dark world, lady,
Gulf Streams and Arctic currrents of the soul;
And I may be, before our consummation
Beds us together, cheek by jowl, in earth,
Swept to another shore, where my white bones
Wil lie unhonored, or defiled by gulls.
Sometimes, Aiken’s ease with the language rendered his verse just a little bit glib. Consider these excerpts from his poem “The Street That Took a Wrong Turning” from the long sequence "Brownstone Eclogues":
Weep, for the street has lost its reputation.
They call it now the Alley of Assignation.
The houses, of peeling stucco, show their shame:
furnished apartments of ill, or little, fame.
Behind bead curtains the tipsy palmist sings,
waits for the telephone, slips off her rings,
then bathes her hands, and once more celebrates
the nightly encaenia of the heartless fates;
Soothsay? No truth remains, here, to explore:
nothing unknown behind that whispering door.
Even the children guess, the few there are,
and wear their sacred knowledge like a scar.
Beyond the dusty and stagy mise-en-scene itself (shared by many of the “Brownstone Eclogue” poems) isn’t there just the faintest whiff of doggerel in these lines, in the very neatness and simplicity of the poetic pattern? And isn’t doggerel -- poetry that uses rhyme and meter in an inept, or at least pat and superficial, way -- one of the very few vices that contemporary verse manages to avoid? (Interestingly, every time there is one of those Bad Poet contests, the “winners” tend to be earnest fabricators of awkward formal verse, rather than self-important scribblers of pretentious free verse, even though the latter art form can be just as comically inept, and lazier to boot.)
In short, contemporary verse that lacks metre and rhyme, sometimes punctuation and usually a, you know, point can be Bad in its own way, and without the compensatory quality of at least being pleasureable to read. The tremendously prolific Aiken -- my (out of print) Collected Poems runs to more than 1,000 pages, and doesn’t even include much of anything from his first three volumes of verse; he also wrote highly regarded novels, short fiction and criticism -- inevitably had some moments that were more memorable and impressive than others, and there are many poems in his oeuvre that are not only forgotten but, in their patness or predictability, deserve to be.
But Aiken was a poet who never played tennis without a net, as Frost famously accused the writers of free verse of doing, and the rhythms that informed Aiken’s poetry by all rights ought to be playing on into the present day, certainly in the sense that some of his better poems should continue to be read and enjoyed, but also in the sense that they should, in an ideal world, have a salutary influence on his more tin-eared and distressingly unpoetic descendants.
I’ll keep on reading poetry, once in a great while, to see, or rather hear, if this ever happens.
Collected Poems 1916 –1970
Oxford University Press
(No ISBN Number)