27 March 2007

Conrad Aiken (1889-1973)

toward the end of his entertaining memoirs Edward Field mentions Conrad Aiken in passing: "Aiken published many well-received books of poetry in his lifetime, and is now pretty much dismissed."

altho I was never passionate abt Aiken this simple sentence depressd me. I recall that during my student years his poem "Morning Song of Senlin" was often mentiond alongside a poem of his Harvard classmate T.S. Eliot -- "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." & altho I never read his autobiographical novel Ushant I remember my belovd professor Howard Vincent enthusing abt its opening pages.

I saw Aiken once. it was at a small restaurant on Cape Cod in the summer of 1970. he was with his third wife Mary Hoover -- a painter best rememberd for her 1933 work "Cafe Fortune Teller." at one point I overheard the name Eliot mentiond but I was trying not to eavesdrop & have no idea if they were talking abt that Eliot.

some 90 years ago Aiken wrote a poem abt Cleopatra in her casket. the image of her remains -- gold rings pulld from her fingers by graverobbers -- almost fits Aiken. he was a mighty literary figure in his day but does anyone still read him?

I return to Howard Vincent. he once told me that literary history is like the stock market. he was a Melville scholar. we all know that after his death Melville was forgotten. his stock was worthless. that's hard to imagine today when he's so firmly part of the pantheon.

I'm not suggesting that Aiken shd be reconsiderd. I have no investment in his work. but I've always been fascinatd in the ups & downs of fame. one has only to look in the crowd scenes of many 40s films to find major stars of the silent era in fleeting glimpses.

but as depressd as Edward made me with that one sentence I'm also glad. it promptd me to put down his book & look up some Aiken poems for the first time in decades.

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