Saturday, August 5, 2017

Conrad Aiken: "I Love You, What Star Do You Live On?"

Conrad Potter Aiken was born on this day in Savannah in 1889 and lived in an elegant townhouse on Oglethorpe Avenue across the street from Colonial Cemetery. He often played in that ancient burial ground midst tabby crypts and tombstones where the mortal remains of many of Georgia's aristocracy found rest. 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.

Born in that most magical city, Savannah, I was allowed to run wild in that earthly paradise until I was nine: ideal for the boy who early decided he wanted to write.

With his parents immersed in Savannah society and surrounded by wealth, privilege, and pedigree, he seemed destined for happiness. After all, his father was a successful New England physician and both parents had a long heritage steeped in Unitarianism and transcendental thought. But all was not well. One day, when he was eleven, he returned home to find his mother shot to death, his father dead by suicide. Conrad Aiken's world changed forever that day and he would never fully recover from the horror he saw.

His parents gone, young Aiken was separated from his brothers and sisters and sent to live with relatives in New England, but he felt homeless there. Aiken felt detached from his world, but he was a successful student both in private schools and at Harvard where he studied under the guidance of philosopher and writer, George Santayana, and struck up a life-long friendship with fellow student, T. S. Eliot.

Aiken would go on to write lyrical poetry weighted with symbolism and psychological exploration so deep that, in his own words, "Freud was in everything after 1912." Later in his career he moved predominantly to prose expressing "faith in consciousness" and an endless search for knowledge as the means to 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.

Unfortunately, for all of his output Conrad Aiken never achieved the level of fame of his good friend, T. S. Eliot or other contemporaries. Shyness kept him away from readings that, for a poet, were lifelines to his audience. Also, he was a most candid critic, a posture that did not endear him to his fellow writers. Lastly, as a resident of both the United States and Europe he could never quite be associated with writers, benefactors, and salons on both sides of the Atlantic. By 1960, he had been resident in the U.S for some years and "rediscovered." Aiken eventually returned part-time to the elegance of Savannah. He spent the winters living next to his boyhood home, becoming 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.

For those of us who have found our peace, there is a profound release there under the live oaks and Spanish moss. Others may not be so fortunate. Aiken is one them. In life, he was restless, a constant searcher forever sailing through an uncertain sea. He felt the same about death and wanted us to know. How fitting it was that he should find 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." Aiken indeed saw himself a cosmic mariner who on his death in 1973 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 his 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 readers want to learn more about Aiken and his world, I strongly recommend they read this interview published in The Paris Review in 1963.



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

The poem fragment is the conclusion from Aiken's, "The Dance of Life" published in 1916.

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