The Poetry of Conrad Aiken

Long known as one of America's most sensitive and original writers, Conrad Aiken (1889-1973) has been called the most metaphysical, most learned and most modern of our poets. Through the years, while he has been wary of literary fashions and coteries, he has unceasingly explored the endless variety of human life and consciousness. His poetry reflects the most comprehensive world view of our time. Aiken was born in Savannah, Georgia on August 5, 1889. He graduated from Harvard in 1911, and was contributing editor of The Dial (1917-19). Later he was U.S. correspondent for The Athenaeum and London Mercury. He wrote the "London Letter" for The New Yorker (1933-36). Aiken received the Pulitzer Prize for his Selected Poems (1929) and the Shelley Memorial Award (1929). Other awards include the National Book Award for Poetry (1954), the Bollingen Prize (1956), the Gold Medal for Poetry for the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1958), and the Huntington Hartford Foundation Award (1960). Aiken was Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress (1950-52). In November 1969, at the age of 80, Conrad Aiken received the National Medal for Literature.

Conrad Aiken, Collected Poems, 2nd Ed.,
Oxford University Press, NY, 1970


Music I heard with you was more than music,
And bread I broke with you was more than bread;
Now that I am without you, all is desolate;
All that was once so beautiful is dead.

Your hands once touched this table and this silver,
And I have seen your fingers hold this glass.
These things do not remember you, beloved,—
And yet your touch upon them will not pass.

For it was in my heart that you moved among them,
And blessed them with your hands and with your eyes;
And in my heart they will remember always,—
They knew you once, O beautiful and wise.

— Part I of IV (from Turns and Movies)


Who can see the vision coming? Who can tell
What moments out of time will be the seed
To root itself, as swift as lightning roots
Into a cloud, and grow, swifter than thought,
And flower gigantic in the infinite?
Walk softly through your forest, and be ready
To hear the horn of horns. Or in the garden
Stoop, but upon your back be ever conscious
Of sunlight, and a shadow that may grow.

— Last stanza (from Punch: The Immortal Liar)



And there I saw the seed upon the mountain
but it was not a seed it was a star
but it was not a star it was a world
but it was not a world it was a god
but it was not a god it was a laughter


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.


Timeless. The morning is not deep as thought.
Spaceless. The noon is not as deep as dream.
Formless. The night is not as deep as death.
And I defer the notion of the infinite,
the thought of you, the thought of morning,
idea of evening, idea of noon.


I saw all these things and they meant nothing
I touched all these hands and they meant nothing
I saw all these faces Lord and they meant nothing
Lord Zero they meant nothing


Simple one, simpleton,
when will you learn the flower's simplicity—
lie open to all comers, permit yourself
to be rifled— fruitfully too— by other selves?
Self, and other self— permit them, permit them—
it is summer still, winter can do more
who brings them together in death, let them come
murderously now together, it is the lifelong
season of meeting, speak your secret.

— from Time in the Rock or Preludes to Definition



Northwest by north. The grasshopper weathervane
bares to the moon his golden breastplate, swings
in his predicted circle, gilded legs and wings
bright with frost, predicting frost. The tide
scales with moon-silver, floods the marsh, fulfils
Payne Creek and Quivett Creek, rises to lift
the fishing-boats against a jetty wall;
and past them floods the plankton and the weed
and limp sea-lettuce for the horseshoe crab
who sleeps till daybreak in his nest of reed.
The hour is open as the mind is open.
Closed as the mind is closed. Opens as the hand opens
to receive the ghostly snowflakes of the moon, closes
to feel the sunbeams of the bloodstream warm
our human inheritance of touch. The air tonight
brings back, to the all-remembering world, its ghosts,
borne from the Great Year on the Wind Wheel Circle.
On that invisible wave we lift, we too,
and drag at secret moorings,
stirred by the ancient currents that gave us birth.
And they are here, Li Po and all the others,
our fathers and our mothers: the dead leafıs footstep
touches the grass: those who were lost at sea
and those the innocents the too-soon dead:
all mankind
and all it ever knew is here in-gathered,
held in our hands, and in the wind
breathed by the pines on Sheepfold Hill.
How still
the Quaker Graveyard, the Meeting House
how still, where Cousin Abiel, on a night like this,
now long since dead, but then how young,
how young, scuffing among the dead leaves after frost
looked up and saw the Wine Star, listened and heard
borne from all quarters the Wind Wheel Circle word:
the father within him, the mother within him, the self
coming to self through love of each for each.
In this small mute democracy of stones
is it Abiel or Li Po who lies
and lends us against death our speech?
They are the same, and it is both who teach.
The poets and the prophecies are ours:
and these are with us as we turn, in turn,
the leaves of love that fill the Book of Change.

Part XII of XII (from A Letter from Li Po)



What time is it now, brother Pythagoras, by the pale stone
set like a jewel in the brow of Sheepfold Hill?
There where the little spider, your geometrist,
shrinks from autumn in the curl of a leaf,
his torn world blown in the wind? What time, tonight,
under the motionless mill-wheel, in the pouring brook,
which bears to the sea— O thalassa, thalassa,
pasa thalassa,
for the sea is still the sea—
the flickering fins, unnumbered, which will return thence
in April or May? By the dial in Samos what hour?
Or in Babylon among the Magi?


What is the voyage and who is the voyager?
Who is it now hoisting the sail
casting off the rope and running out the oars
the helmsman with his hand on the tiller
and his eyes turned to windward? What time is it now
in the westward pour of the worlds and the westward
pour of the mind? Like a centipede on a mirror
the galley stands still in a blaze of light
and yet swims forward: on the mirror of eternity
glitters like a golden scarab: and the ranked oars
strike down in harmony beat down in unison
churn up the water to phosphor and foam
and yet like the galley are still.
So you
still stand there, your hand on the tiller,
at the center of your thought, which is timeless,
yourself become crystal. While we,
still locked in the west, yet are present before you,
and wait and are silent.
In the ancient farmhouse
which has now become your temple
we listen again to the caucus of robins
the whistle of migrant voices and wings
the turn of the great glass of season.
You taught the migration of souls: all things
must continue, since numbers are deathless:
the mind, like these cries, is immortal.
The cocktails sparkle, are an oblation.
We pour for the gods, and will always,
you there, we here, and the others who follow,
pour thus in communion. Separate in time,
and yet not separate. Make oblation
in a single moment of consciousness
to the endless forever-together.
This night
we all set sail for the west.

— Parts I & V ( from Sheepfold Hill)


The way to meet the unmeetable—? It is this—
to step into the calyx of the sun
at daybreak or a shade before
(for such is the privilege of imagination)
and it will come to you, the event, in some such form
as history requires, though that is not
for immediate consideration. The history
is indeed another and inalterable matter.
For the moment, to meet the moment, you must step forth
fearlessly or with awareness of fear:
and that is perhaps better, for fear
is that by which you live, with which you die,
the edge of death, as it was the edge of birth.
What, pray, does the ailanthus do with its seeds
shaken at three o'clock by the alien southeast
to a shower of snow or is it sleet or a feathery
rainfall of blossom to the unreceptive
stones of a human path? Out of such
and into such unhuman paths we sow
without hope of fruit, maybe, our deeds or deaths
of seeds of hope. But what then
when the ailanthus in the penultimate April
or ultimate and desired May gives up
bloom for leaves, for the last time leaves
bloom for leaves?
For then it is, dear tree, dear heart,
dear earth, dear god, and all we love and owned,
when the deciduous becomes tired, that history
begins and speaks. When we no longer dream
forward, but only backward, in the desired May,
and death no longer in the fruit is in the root
then it is that history speaks
and the last sunset is the first, the first
sunrise becomes the last, the tree becomes again the seed,
and in a twinkling is again the tree,
and we are seed and tree, and we
like gods can both remember and forget,
and the unmeetable is met.

— from The Morning Song of Lord Zero (1963)

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