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|Born||Conrad Potter Aiken
August 5, 1889
Savannah, Georgia, USA
|Died||August 17, 1973
Savannah, Georgia, USA
|Occupation||Poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, critic|
Aiken was the son of wealthy, socially prominent New Englanders, William Ford and Anna (Potter) Aiken, who had moved to Savannah, Georgia, where his father became a respected physician and brain surgeon. But then something happened for which, as Aiken later said, no one could ever find a reason. Without warning or apparent cause, his father became increasingly irascible, unpredictable, and violent. Then, early in the morning of February 27, 1901, he murdered his wife and shot himself. According to his own writings, Aiken (who was eleven years old) heard the gunshots and discovered the bodies. He was raised by his aunt in Massachusetts. Aiken was educated at private schools and at Middlesex School in Concord, Massachusetts, then at Harvard University where he edited the Advocate with T. S. Eliot, who became a lifelong friend and associate.
Aiken's earliest poetry was written partly under the influence of a beloved teacher, the philosopher George Santayana. This relationship shaped Aiken as a poet deeply musical in his approach and, at the same time, philosophical in seeking answers to his own problems and the problems of the modern world.
Aiken was deeply influenced by symbolism, especially in his earlier works. In 1930 he received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his Selected Poems. Many of his writings had psychological themes. He wrote the widely anthologized short story Silent Snow, Secret Snow (1934). His collections of verse include Earth Triumphant (1911), The Charnel Rose (1918) and And In the Hanging Gardens (1933). His poem Music I Heard has been set to music by a number of composers, including Leonard Bernstein and Henry Cowell.
Other influences were Aiken's Grandfather Potter who has been a church preacher, as well as Whitman's poetry which was 'free' style. This helped Aiken shape his poetry more freely whilst his recognition of a God grounded his more visually rich explorations into the universe. Some of his best poetry such as Morning Song of Senlin uses these influences to great effect.
Aiken wrote or edited more than 51 books, the first of which was published in 1914, two years after his graduation from Harvard. His work includes novels, short stories (The Collected Short Stories appeared in 1961), criticism, autobiography, and, most important of all, poetry. He was awarded the National Medal for Literature, the Gold Medal for Poetry from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the Pulitzer Prize, the Bollingen Prize, and the National Book Award. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, taught briefly at Harvard, and served as Consultant in Poetry for the Library of Congress from 1950 to 1952. He lived at 323 Second Street SE, in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. He was also largely responsible for establishing Emily Dickinson's reputation as a major American poet.
After 1960, when his work was rediscovered by readers and critics, a new view of Aiken emerged—one that emphasized his psychological problems, along with his continuing study of Sigmund Freud, Carl G. Jung, Otto Rank, and other depth psychologists. Two of his five novels deal with depth psychology.
Aiken's writing was largely influenced by Freud (and he was also an admirer of Rank, Ferenczi, Adler, and somewhat less Jung); however, Freud never replied to a letter Aiken sent him. Although Aiken was encouraged by H.D to go to Vienna to meet Freud, the dream was never realized. As he later wrote, "Freud had read Great Circle, and I’m told kept a copy on his office table. But I didn’t go, though I started to. Misgivings set in, and so did poverty." The Paris Review
Conrad married Canadian Jessie McDonald in 1912, and the couple moved to England in 1921 with their first two children; John (born 1913) and Jane (born 1917). Joan was born in 1924 and the marriage was dissolved in 1929. During his time in England, up until the outbreak of World War II, he served in loco parentis as well as mentor to the budding English author Malcolm Lowry. In 1923 he acted as a witness at the marriage of his friend the poet W. H. Davies. In 1950, he became Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, more commonly known as Poet Laureate of the United States.
Aiken returned to Savannah for the last 11 years of his life. Aiken's tomb, located in Bonaventure Cemetery on the banks of the Wilmington River, was made famous by its mention in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, the bestselling book by John Berendt. According to local legend, Aiken wished to have his tombstone fashioned in the shape of a bench as an invitation to visitors to stop and enjoy a martini at his grave. Its inscriptions read "Give my love to the world," and "Cosmos Mariner—Destination Unknown."
He was married three times: first to Jessie McDonald (1912–1929); second to Clarissa Lorenz (1930) (author of a biography, Lorelei Two); and third to Mary Hoover (1937). He was the father, by Jessie McDonald, of the writers John Aiken, Jane Aiken Hodge and Joan Aiken.
Aiken had three younger siblings, Kempton, Robert and Elizabeth. After their parents' deaths, they were adopted by Frederick Winslow Taylor and his wife Louise, a distant relative, and took Taylor's last name. Kempton was known as K. P. A. Taylor (Kempton Potter Aiken Taylor) and Robert was known as Robert P. A. Taylor (Robert Potter Aiken Taylor). Kempton helped establish the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry.
The best source for information on Aiken's life is his autobiographical novel Ushant (1952), one of his major works. In this book he speaks candidly about his various affairs and marriages, his attempted suicide and fear of insanity, and his friendships with T.S. Eliot (who appears in the book as The Tsetse), Ezra Pound (Rabbi Ben Ezra), Malcolm Lowry (Hambo), and others.
Awards and recognition
Named Poetry Consultant of the Library of Congress from 1950–1952, Conrad Aiken earned numerous prestigious national writing awards, including a National Book Award, the Bollingen Prize in Poetry, the National Institute of Arts and Letters Gold Medal and the National Medal for Literature. Honored by his native state in 1973 with the title of Poet Laureate, Aiken will always be remembered in his native state as the first Georgia-born author to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1930, for his Selected Poems.
In 2009, The Library of America selected Aiken’s 1931 story "Mr. Arcularis" for inclusion in its two-century retrospective of American Fantastic Tales.
- Earth Triumphant (Aiken, 1914) (available online at archive.org)
- Turns and Movies and other Tales in Verse (Aiken, 1916, Houghton Mifflin) (available online at archive.org)
- The Jig of Forslin: A Symphony, 1916
- Nocturne of Remembered Spring: And Other Poems (Aiken, 1917) (available online at archive.org)
- Charnel Rose (Aiken, 1918) (available online at archive.org)
- The House of Dust: A Symphony, 1920
- Punch: The Immortal Liar, Documents in His History, 1921
- Priapus and the Pool, 1922
- The Pilgrimage of Festus, 1923
- Priapus and Other Pool, and Other Poems, 1925
- Selected Poems, 1929
- John Deth, A Metaphysical Legacy, and Other Poems, 1930
- The Coming Forth by Day of Oriris Jones, 1931
- Preludes for Memnon, 1931
- Landscape West of Eden, 1934
- Time in the Rock; Preludes to Definition, 1936
- And in the Human Heart, 1940
- Brownstone Eclogues, and Other Poems, 1942
- The Soldier: A Poem, 1944
- The Kid, 1947
- The Divine Pilgrim, 1949
- Skylight One: Fifteen Poems, 1949
- Collected Poems, 1953
- A Letter from Li Po and Other Poems, 1955
- Sheepfold Hill: Fifteen Poems, 1958
- The Morning Song of Lord Zero, Poems Old and New, 1963
- Thee: A Poem, 1967
- Scepticisms: Notes on Contemporary Poetry (1919)
- Blue Voyage (1927)
- Great Circle (1933)
- King Coffin (1935)
- A Heart for the Gods of Mexico (1939)
- The Conversation (1940)
- Ushant (1952)
- Collected Short Stories (1960)
- A Reviewer's ABC: Collected Criticism of Conrad Aiken from 1916 to the Present (1961)
- Collected Short Stories of Conrad Aiken (1965)
- Conrad Aiken
- "National Book Awards – 1954". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-02.
(With acceptance speech by Aiken and essay by Evie Shockley from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.)
- The Bohemian Aesthetic
- David Markson’s Malcolm Lowry’s Volcano: Myth, Symbol, Meaning:
A case in point involved Aiken, who had filled an in loco parentis role for [Lowry] in his youth… (Pg. 224).
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- Works by Conrad Aiken at Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about Conrad Aiken at Internet Archive
- Works by Conrad Aiken at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
- Poems by Conrad Aiken An extensive collection of Aiken's poetry
- Conrad Aiken: Unitarian Prodigy Poet Biography
- LitWeb.net: Conrad Aiken Biography
- Conrad Aiken's Grave in Savannah, Georgia
- New Georgia Encyclopedia entry
- Index entry for Conrad Aiken at Poets' Corner
- Famous Poets and Poems, Aiken Biography
- Conrad Aiken at University of Toronto Libraries
- Guides to Conrad Aiken's prose, poetry, and correspondence at Houghton Library, Harvard University
- Robert Hunter Wilbur (Winter–Spring 1968). "Conrad Aiken, The Art of Poetry No. 9". Paris Review.
- Conrad Aiken at Find a Grave