Aiken, Conrad (1889-1973) by Solomon, Susan

Savannah, Georgia was both the birth- and death-place of Conrad Aiken, but he spent most of his life in New England and Britain. At the age of twelve he suffered the trauma of discovering his parents’ bodies after his father murdered his mother and killed himself. He was then separated from his siblings and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts to live with his uncle. Aiken attended Harvard with T. S. Eliot, e. e. cummings, and John Reed, and he studied under George Santayana, whose understanding of poetry as a philosophical form had a powerful influence on him.

Aiken was recipient of the Pulitzer Prize (1930), the National Book Award (1954), the Bollingen Prize (1956), and the National Medal for Literature (1969) among others. By the time of his death he had published more than fifty volumes of poems, short stories, and novels, along with an autobiography. He was also responsible for the 1924 edition of Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson, which was one of the first collections to print her work in its original “free” form; the volume contributed to Dickinson’s increasing popularity in the modernist period. Aiken was also the American Editor of Coterie, the short-lived little magazine based in England.

By the time Aiken’s poetry first appeared in Poetry in 1915 (vol. 6, no. 6), he had published only one volume of poetry, juvenilia that he would later discredit. During the next five years, as he contributed verse to both Poetry and Coterie, he published six more volumes. “Discordants, I-V,” which appeared in Poetry (6.6), was reprinted the following year in Turns and Movies and Other Tales in Verse. All of the poems he contributed to Coterie (2-5) and Poetry (13.4, 14.5) appeared in The House of Dust (1920), a four-part collection of poems in symphonic form.

In “Counterpoint and Implication,” a critical essay posing as a review of his own 1918 volume of poetry, The Charnel Rose, Aiken implicitly differentiates himself from the Imagists he attacks. Explicating his “symphonic” method of versification, he writes:

Not content to present emotions or things or sensations for their own sakes—as is the case with most poetry—this method takes only the most delicately evocative aspects of them, makes of them a keyboard, and plays upon them a music of which the chief characteristic is its elusiveness, its fleetingness, and its richness in the shimmering overtones of hint and suggestion. Such a poetry, in other words, will not so much present an idea as use its resonance. (157)

By contrast, imagist poetry, according to his attack in a New Republic essay, “mislead[s] us into expecting arrows in the heart” but instead “shoot[s] pretty darts at the more sophisticated brain” (“The Place of Imagism”). Since 1915, Aiken positioned himself as an opponent of the Imagist school and accused Harriet Monroe (editor of Poetry) of favoring Imagists for publication and the awarding of prizes.


Selected Works by Conrad Aiken

Further Reading

  • Hoffman, Frederick J. Conrad Aiken. New York: Twayne, 1962.
  • Martin, Jay. Conrad Aiken: A Life of His Art. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1962.
  • Studies in the Literary Imagination 13 (Fall 1980); special issue on Conrad Aiken.
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