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.