Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Conrad Aiken: Georgia's Literary Mariner

Conrad Aiken in the 1950's
Conrad Potter Aiken was born on this day in Savannah in 1889. From the time he was eight or nine he wanted to be a poet. Soon he found himself captured by the works of Edgar Allan Poe and happily sharing the terror with his brother and sisters. He was surrounded by wealth, privilege, and pedigree, and seemed destined for happiness; however, it would elude him for much of his life after 1901. In January of that year - he was eleven - Aiken heard gunshots in his home. He ran upstairs to find his mother shot to death, his father dead by suicide. He never fully recover from the tragedy.

Aiken was separated from his brothers and sisters and sent to live with relatives in New England. He was a successful student both in private schools and at Harvard where he studied under the guidance of philosopher and writer, George Santayana. At Harvard he also struck up a life-long friendship with fellow student, T. S. Eliot.

Aiken wrote lyrical poetry, weighted with symbolism and psychological exploration so deep that, in his own words, "Freud was in everything after 1912." By 1920, he moved predominantly to prose expressing his "faith in consciousness" and an endless search for knowledge as the means to quell his
personal chaos and bring order and structure to the larger consciousness of the world. In all, he wrote or edited fifty books, including his poetry, short stories, five novels, and one autobiography.

For all of his output, Conrad Aiken never achieved the level of fame of his good friend, T. S. Eliot. He was deeply introverted to the point of being clinically shy and rarely appeared at public recitals. Furthermore, he was a very candid critic whose commentaries and reviews often made him unpopular with other writers. Perhaps the most significant reason for his limited early recognition was his inability to settle on one continent. He was a resident of both the United States and Europe and moved frequently without establishing himself in the salons, networks and writer's communities that were essential to success. By 1960, readers and critics "rediscovered" him after he had been resident in the U.S for some years. Two years later, he returned part-time to the elegance of Savannah where he spent the winters living next to his boyhood home. He soon became the focus of social and academic circles and sought out by admirers until his death in 1973.

If you wander toward the eastern bluff in Savannah's magnificent Bonaventure Cemetery you arrive at Aiken Way. There, with the vast salt marshes of the Wilmington River spreading out to the distant treeline, you find a simple granite bench. Conrad Aiken installed it as his memorial headstone before his death. His parents rest next to the memorial. Their headstone bears identical death dates, an eerie reminder of the chaos we all face in our lives.

How fitting it is that he found his epitaph quite by accident while perusing the Savannah newspapers. It appeared in the daily list of port activity and read simply: "Cosmos Mariner - Destination Unknown." On August 17, 1973, as he lived much of his life, he cast off without a port of call, destination unknown. He left behind, engraved on the bench the wish, "Give my love to the world." It is a rather confident wish coming from a restless sailor. We can pray that every man should find safe harbor, all the while knowing that we are not the final judge of such navigation. We are left merely to explore the products of a shy and troubled man who could appreciate a bawdy pun and have his say in singing words and lilting prose.

Ruinous blisses, joyous pains, 
Life the destroyer, life the breaker, 
And death, the everlasting maker....

If you want to learn more about Aiken and his world, I strongly recommend reading this interview published in The Paris Review in 1963.

The casting depicts the Hindu god, Shiva Nataraja, the King of the Cosmic Dance.
The lines of poetry are from Aiken's 1916 poem, The Dance of Life.



1950's portrait,


The New Georgia Encyclopedia, Conrad Aiken entry by Ted R. Spivey, Conrad Aiken: Progidy Unitarian Poet, Richard A. Kelloway

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