Let it be the flower

The great American poet Conrad Aiken (1889-1973) was a religious man who referred to his grandfather as his “guiding light.”  His grandfather happened to be a Unitarian minister who advocated for religion without dogma and was open to the concept of evolution. I am not sure what Aiken’s concept of God was, whether he believed in concept of a literal supreme being or not.  Aiken once told the Paris Review he viewed himself as “a preacher” of “new knowledge.” Of course, he did not mean he was a preacher in any conventional sense. I think his true religion was poetry.

However, from his poem “A Letter from Li Po” I presume he admired Chinese poetry (Li Po was a famous poet of the Tang Dynasty), and I imagine that he must had some understanding of Eastern Philosophy. To me, a number of his poems evince appreciable Buddhist/Taoist-like aspects.

In honor of the 116th anniversary of his birth, here is one Aiken poem that I have always thought might have been inspired by the famous story told about a time when the Buddha was sitting with the bhikkhus on Vulture Peak and everyone expected the Buddha to give a dharma talk but instead of speaking he simply held up a flower. No one understood except for a bhikkhu named Mahakasyapa, who communicated his grasp of the Buddha’s message by smiling.

I shared an excerpt from this poem once and you can find other posts of mine featuring Aiken’s poetry here and here.


Mysticism, but let us have no words,
angels, but let us have no fantasies,
churches, but let us have no creeds,
no dead gods hung in crosses in shop,
nor beads nor prayers nor faith nor sin nor penance:
and yet, let us believe, let us believe.

pink_rose_closeupLet it be the flower
seen by the child for the first time, plucked without
broken for love and as soon forgotten:

and the angels, let them be our friends,
used for our needs with selfish simplicity,
broken for love and as soon forgotten;

and let the churches be our houses
defiled daily, loud with discord,–
where the dead gods that were our selves may hang,
our outgrown gods on every wall;
Christ on the mantelpiece, with downcast eyes;
Buddha above the stove;
the Holy Ghost by the hatrack, and God himself
staring like Narcissus from the mirror,
clad in a raincoat, and with hat and gloves.

Mysticism, but let it be a flower,
let it be the hand that reaches for the flower,
let it be the flower that imagined the first hand,
let it be the space that removed itself to give place
for the hand that reaches, the flower to be reached–
let it be self displacing self
as quietly as a child lifts a pebble,
as softly as a flower decides to fall,–
self replacing self
as seed follows flower to earth.


Hatteras Calling

Irene prior to landfall. (NASA)

Hurricane Irene made landfall near Cape Hatteras, NC, on Saturday morning and then sluggishly churned its way up the Eastern Seaboard.

The cape is part of Hatteras Island, one of those barrier islands they call the Outer Banks. It has been hit by hurricanes 104 times in the last 140 years. It gets a direct hit about once every 4.34 years. Hurricanes affect Hatteras every 1.35 years on average. The last time was September 2010 when Hurricane Earl passed within 70 miles. In 2003, Isabel hit Hatteras hard, causing extensive damage to the entire Outer Banks

In August of 1889, William Aiken, a surgeon and his wife, Anna who was seven months pregnant, were on a short voyage along the coast. According to one account,

Their ship was caught in a hurricane, floundering against the rocky shore off Cape Hatteras, and William and Anna were handed to safety with the air of a human chain formed by the crew only a short time before a wave washed away the deckhouse where their cabin was located. But Anna suffered no ill effects, and she and her husband reached their new home . . . There on August 5, 1899, their first child was born . . .”

That child was Conrad Aiken, a poet I profiled a few weeks back. He wrote the following poem which is so terribly apropos for this weekend.

Hatteras Calling

Southeast, and storm, and every weather vane
shivers and moans upon its dripping pin,
ragged on chimneys the cloud whips, the rain
howls at the flues and windows to get in,

the golden rooster claps his golden wings
and from the Baptist Chapel shrieks no more,
the golden arrow in the southeast sings
and hears on the roof the Atlantic Ocean roar.

Waves among wires, sea scudding over poles,
down every alley the magnificence of rain,
dead gutters live once more, the deep manholes
hollow in triumph a passage to the main.

Umbrellas, and in the Gardens one old man
hurries away along a dancing path,
listens to music on a watering-can,
observes among the tulips the sudden wrath,

pale willows thrashing to the needled lake,
and dinghies filled with water; while the sky
smashes the lilacs, swoops to shake and break,
till shattered branches shriek and railings cry.

Speak, Hatteras, your language of the sea:
scour with kelp and spindrift the stale street:
that man in terror may learn once more to be
child of that hour when rock and ocean meet.


Hurricane info: hurricanecity.com
Aiken info: Edward Butscher, Poet of White Horse Vale (University of Georgia Press, 2010)



The Winds of Doctrine

Conrad Aiken, a poet I admire very much, was born on this day in 1899. You can get some details on his life here at his Wikipedia page if you like. One of my favorite Aiken facts, not mentioned there, is that he got out of military service during World War I by claiming that as a poet he was part of an “essential industry.” The men on his draft board must have been really dumb to fall for that. Although, to me, it sounds perfectly reasonable.

Conrad Aiken wrote short stories, plays and novels, but it is for his contributions to poetry that he is best remembered. He was instrumental in bringing much deserved attention to the work of Emily Dickinson. Conrad himself was honored with an appointment as Named Poetry Consultant of the Library of Congress from 1950–1952, a position now known as Poet Laureate of the United States.

Aiken’s grandfather, William J. Potter, was a Unitarian minister who co-founded the Free Religious Association, which Potter described as “spiritual anti-slavery society” with a mission to “emancipate religion from the dogmatic traditions it had been previously bound to.” The first person to join the association was Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Hayden Carruth in his introduction to Aiken’s poems in The Voice That Is Great Within Us notes that Aiken “has said that his work as a writer has been a continuation of his grandfather’s search for evolving forms of consciousness under the impact of modern science, especially psychoanalysis.”

While the imprint of Freud and late 19th century Symbolism on Aiken’s writing is frequently noted, what often seems overlooked is the influence of Eastern philosophy and poetry, which I think was considerable, as evidence by this excerpt from “A Letter to Li Po”, Aiken’s meditation on the great Chinese poet and the true nature of the self, that I first read in Carruth’s anthology so long ago:


The winds of doctrine blow both ways at once.
The wetted finger feels the wind each way,
presaging plums from north, and snow from south.
The dust-wind whistles from the eastern sea
to dry the nectarine and parch the mouth.
The west wind from the desert wreathes the rain
too late to fill our wells, but soon enough,
the four-day rain that bears the leaves away.
Song with the wind will change, but is still song
and pierces to the rightness in the wrong
or makes the wrong a rightness, a delight.
Where are the eager guests that yesterday
thronged at the gate? Like leaves, they could not stay,
the winds of doctrine blew their minds away,
and we shall have no loving-cup tonight.
No loving-cup: for not ourselves are here
to entertain us in that outer year,
where, so they say, we see the Greater Earth.
The winds of doctrine blow our minds away,
and we are absent till another birth.