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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Number 249: Conrad Aiken "Beloved, Let Us Once More Praise The Rain"

Beloved Let Us Once More Praise The Rain

Beloved, let us once more praise the rain.
Let us discover some new alphabet,
For this, the often praised; and be ourselves,
The rain, the chickweed, and the burdock leaf,
The green-white privet flower, the spotted stone,
And all that welcomes the rain; the sparrow too,—
Who watches with a hard eye from seclusion,
Beneath the elm-tree bough, till rain is done.
There is an oriole who, upside down,
Hangs at his nest, and flicks an orange wing,—
Under a tree as dead and still as lead;
There is a single leaf, in all this heaven
Of leaves, which rain has loosened from its twig:
The stem breaks, and it falls, but it is caught
Upon a sister leaf, and thus she hangs;
There is an acorn cup, beside a mushroom
Which catches three drops from the stooping cloud.
The timid bee goes back to the hive; the fly
Under the broad leaf of the hollyhock
Perpends stupid with cold; the raindark snail
Surveys the wet world from a watery stone...
And still the syllables of water whisper:
The wheel of cloud whirs slowly: while we wait
In the dark room; and in your heart I find
One silver raindrop,—on a hawthorn leaf,—
Orion in a cobweb, and the World.

-- Conrad Aiken

Hap Notes: I've been dragging my feet on doing Conrad Aiken (1889-1973) because I am somewhat flummoxed by his obscurity. He called T.S. Eliot, "Tom," and when they were students at Harvard, they drank beer, went to burlesque shows and read comics (Krazy Kat!) together (both of their grandpas were Unitarian ministers). He wrote an extraordinary short story, "Silent Snow, Secret Snow" that burns in the memory once read: (That story and "Paul's Case" by Willa Cather are branded on my memory, I've read them so many times.) Freud claimed Aiken as a favorite author. Aiken was mentored by no less than George Santayana. His writing is both charming and alarming. So what gives?

Let's start at the beginning. Conrad Aiken was born in Savannah, Georgia. His mother and father came from upper crust East coast families. When Conrad was 11, his physician dad, who had become increasingly irritable and erratic, killed his mother and then committed suicide. (Surely you have noted by this point in our blog that difficult circumstances and mental illness criss-cross in the lives those who write good literature?) Young Conrad was at home when it happened, heard the shots and discovered the bodies. He was subsequently raised by an aunt in Massachusetts, attended private schools and then Harvard (where he met "Tom".)

Aiken was a fascinating writer, intensely involved in exploring consciousness, musicality (of words, thoughts, expressions) and the universe. His relationship with Eliot was always familiar and cordial but Aiken found Eliot's work too affected. Eliot once, with his characteristic sly polite wryness, commented that each of Conrad's new books were "better than the last."

So, one supposes that being somewhat at odds, in poetic theories only, with Eliot (the most influential poet, with Pound, of the time) coupled with Aiken's somewhat shy and reclusive nature, leads Aiken to the pile of under-read poets. He is often mentioned as being "too difficult" for the average reader. Which is all the more amazing when you know that he received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1930. He also was awarded the National Medal for Literature, the Gold Medal for Poetry from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the Bollingen Prize, the National Book Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship and served as Poetry Consultant/Laureate for the U.S. from 1950-1952.

Aiken was very interested in psychology and was an avid reader of both Freud and Jung. If you are a fan of Emily Dickinson, you can thank Aiken for pretty much establishing her work on a critical level.

If you read Jon Berendt's Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil, you'll remember Aiken's grave in Savannah is mentioned.

If you want to really get to know Aiken better, I recommend his autobiographical novel, Ushant.

In today's poem, the poet celebrates the beauties and wonders of the natural world as it rains. Orion, is the constellation of the hunter, thought to be a giant man who hung around with Artemis and was killed by a giant scorpion (the Scorpio constellation is named for it). If you saw "Men In Black," you'll remember mention of "Orion's Belt," which are the three stars in the center of the constellation (and a cat collar.) There is much more to discover in the poem.

Here's a fascinating Aiken quote about Eliot and Pound:

"In 1914 I persuaded Tom to let me take “Prufrock” to England; he wasn’t at all sure of it. I tried it everywhere—not even Harold Monro of the famous Poetry Bookshop could see it, thought it crazy; many years later he said it was the “Kubla Khan” of the twentieth century. Then I met Pound, showed it to him, and he was at once bowled over. He sent it to Poetry. So, when Tom had to retreat from Germany, when the war started, one of his first moves was to go and see Ezra."

and another Aiken quote (both of these from his Paris Review interview): " Of course I do believe in this evolution of consciousness as the only thing which we can embark on, or in fact, willy-nilly, are embarked on; and along with that will go the spiritual discoveries and, I feel, the inexhaustible wonder that one feels, that opens more and more the more you know. It’s simply that this increasing knowledge constantly enlarges your kingdom and the capacity for admiring and loving the universe."

and one more: "...I have said repeatedly that as poetry is the highest speech of man, it can not only accept and contain, but in the end express best everything in the world, or in himself, that he discovers. It will absorb and transmute, as it always has done, and glorify, all that we can know. This has always been, and always will be, poetry’s office."

Here's an interesting "Unitarian" view of Aiken:

You can find more Aiken here:

and here: /

The masthead picture is the constellation Orion with an inset of Aiken's grave in Savannah, where he hoped people would sit, have a martini and contemplate.

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