The Poet in Limbo

Conrad Aiken: Poet of White Horse Vale

by Edward Butscher
University of Georgia Press, 518 pp., $34.95

Conrad Aiken
Conrad Aiken; drawing by David Levine

On March 13, 1952, Wallace Stevens responded to an inquiry from Professor Norman Holmes Pearson, who planned to be of service to Conrad Aiken:

There is something about him that keeps him from rising, both personally and as a poet. No doubt this is his gentleness. He seems to be entirely without selfishness and aggressiveness.

He has always been on my side and of course he is of my generation. My liking for him may be influenced by those facts. He is honest, unaffected and a man of general all-round integrity…. There is much that is precious in his work. It would be a great pity to have a chance to do for him what he seems to be unable to do for himself and to fail to take the chance. Most of the attention that poetry attracts is attracted by manner and form, which, to him, mean very little. Nothing could make me happier than to be of help to him.

In the event, Aiken won the National Book Award for his Collected Poems (1953). But prizes made little difference to his repute: something continued to keep him from rising. When he died on August 17, 1973, he was still without the honors that might have been expected to attend him.

Stevens’s explanations are worth noting, but they don’t go far enough. Aiken was overshadowed by more imperious poets: Eliot, Pound, Yeats, Frost, and Stevens himself. He thought of himself in a direct relation to Romanticism, and of Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Poe, Emerson, Whitman, and Swinburne as his masters, so he had no part to play in Eliot’s version of modernism or in Pound’s. His novels—Blue Voyage (1927), Great Circle (1933), King Coffin (1935), A Heart for the Gods of Mexico (1939), and Conversation (1940)—could not have been written without Joyce’s example, but they added nothing to it. Graham Greene, Allen Tate, and other critics have admired them, but it is my impression that only a few readers have been won. Ushant, an autobiographical fiction, is well regarded as an account of Aiken, Eliot, Pound, and their associates. Of Aiken’s short stories, “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” “By My Troth, Nerissa,” and “The Letter” are to be found in anthologies and regularly compared with some of Katherine Mansfield’s best stories.

As a critic, Aiken was generously attentive to Eliot, Stevens, Williams, a little wary of Pound and of Virginia Woolf. He had no sympathy with D.H. Lawrence’s fiction, or Wyndham Lewis’s; later, he overrated Dylan Thomas—“such magic as we have not seen since Wallace Stevens published Harmonium.” But at least his early reviews of Eliot show that he knew exactly what Eliot was doing in “Prufrock” and The Waste Land. Still, Aiken has failed to rise. Indeed, he hasn’t gained much from the modern rejection of Eliot’s authority or from reasserted claims for the traditions of English and American…

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