Thursday, April 13, 2017

It is time to rediscover Conrad Aiken

The piece of Aiken appreciation that appeared earlier today on the Los Angeles Times website for some reason puts that in the form of a question, perhaps because its author, Tyler Malone, does not want the rediscovery to occur until the publication, now imminent, of the new issue of his magazine, The Scofield, which for some unlikely reason is entirely devoted to Aiken.

I plan to study the magazine with close attention, but I say let’s rediscover Aiken right now!  In this very blog post!  Which will be about Aiken’s The House of Dust: A Symphony (1920), Aiken’s sixth book of poems in seven years.  All of the poetry T. S. Eliot published during the 1910s and 1920s would fit inside any single Aiken book from the same period.  Aiken published roughly ten times as much poetry as Eliot at this time.

I mention Eliot because Aiken can be so derivative of Eliot, although by this point he has his own voice – Eliot is possibly influenced by Aiken now – which he developed incrementally, book by book, each one a variation on the previous.  Sweeney-like men agonizing about women, books labeled “symphonies” with poems organized in four movements, and recurring motifs that may well be music-like.  Is the third “movement” of The House of Dust meant to be a scherzo, with its climatic witches' Sabbath?  I find these conceptual musical claims hard to see.

One recurring motif is dust, the stuff of which of which me are made and to which we will return, but also – see title – the stuff of which our buildings are made:

What did we build it for?  Was it all a dream…
Ghostly above us in lamplight the towers gleam…
And after a while they will fall to dust and rain;
Or else we will tear them down with impatient hands;
And hew rocks out of the earth, and build them again.  (last lines, ellipses in original)

I would love to interpret this as Aiken writing about his previous books of poems.

The characters are the best part of the book.  House of Dust is like a Spoon River Anthology of a single New York City block.  A construction worker, building a high rise, experiences vertigo (“The Fulfilled Dream”).  An actress, pregnant and unmarried, imagines suicide.  A poet’s dream girl steps out of a Hiroshige print, rewarding his devotion.  A couple steps into a movie – or perhaps it is just the poet, the Sweeney figure finding another dream girl on screen.  Only Aiken and Vachel Lindsay seemed to really get movies this early:

The music ends.  The screen grows dark.  We hurry
To go our devious secret ways, forgetting
Those many lives…  We loved, we laughed, we killed,
We danced in fire, we drowned in a whirl of sea-waves.
The flutes are stilled, and a thousand dreams are stilled.  (“Cinema,”

Those “flutes” are from the movie theater’s organ.  This is not exactly as much fun as Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr. (1924) but it’s pretty good.

Let’s see, next up is Punch: The Immortal Liar, Documents in His History (1921) and then Priapus and the Pool (1922).  Maybe the reason to read Aiken in a collected or selected volume is to get some distance from his terrible titles.

A holiday approaches, so I will recede for a few days.  Next post on Tuesday.


  1. Mandelstam wrote an excellent movie poem in 1913; I know of two translations, which unfortuately are not online. Google Books will show you the Sidney Monas one if you google "The movie. Three benches. Sentimental fever"; alas, the much better Robert Tracy one, beginning "Silent movie. Three benches for seats," is not even on Google Books -- they don't appear to have digitized his facing-page bilingual Stone (London: Collins Harvill, 1991), which is a pity. The translations and notes are good; if you see it, pick it up!

  2. How interesting, thanks. I will get the book at the university library at some point.