O Beautiful and Wise

T. S. Eliot (1888 – 1965)

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.

Conrad Aiken

Bread and Music

by Conrad Aiken  (1889 – 1973)

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, belovèd,
And yet your touch upon them will not pass.

For it was in my heart 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.


I wonder what archivists and critics of the future will do with all the electronic communication a person creates over a life time compared to when people wrote physical letters?   Will people take the time to collect a famous artists Instagram posts, emails, Face-book musings, texts and blog posts or will the electronic clutter of one’s life simply fade into obscurity?   What happens when someone stops paying WordPress for the privilege of being on the web?   I suppose Fourteen Lines gets taken down and goes into the ether from which it came is the answer.   The reason I ponder this question is because for poets of the era of Aiken and Eliot, their personal correspondence became another subject matter for publication once they became established as literary icons.   I doubt the young Aiken and Eliot gave much thought to it when they wrote letters to each other.   Here’s a couple of examples from the book of published letters of Eliot’s on the occasion of his 100th birthday. The first quote is before Eliot’s success as a poet when his confidence was thin and the second a few year’s later.  Pound is already living in London, where both Eliot and Aiken would spend considerable time in their careers. In 1914, Eliot has just arrived in London. 

There is a possibility of dining at a Chinese restaurant Monday with Yeats, – and the Pounds. Pound has been on n’est pas plus aimable, and is going to print ”Prufrock” in Poetry and pay me for it. He wants me to bring out a Vol. after the War. The devil of it is that I have done nothing good since J. A [ lfred ] P [ rufrock ] and writhe in impotence. . . . I think now that all my good stuff was done before I had begun to worry – three years ago. . . .

T. S. Eliot to Conrad Aiken,  September 30, 1914

Money was always a challenge for Eliot and so he went to work as a banker for Loyd’s Bank in London a few years later.  The position offered financial stability, social status in dating, and an opportunity to remain somewhat aloof from the literary world or at least engage it when he chose to engage it. 

They are decided now. I am staying in the bank. . . . The work gives opportunity for initiative and is work for which they wish men of higher education. It will give much more responsibility, and therefore more freedom. . . .

As it is, I occupy rather a privileged position. I am out of the intrigues and personal hatreds of journalism, and everyone respects me for working in a bank. My social position is quite as good as it would be as editor of a paper. I only write what I want to – now – and everyone knows that anything I do write is good. I can influence London opinion and English literature in a better way. I am known to be disinterested. Even through the Egoist I am getting to be looked up to by people who are far better known to the general public than I. There is a small and select public which regards me as the best living critic, as well as the best living poet, in England. . . . I really think that I have far more influence on English letters than any other American has ever had, unless it be Henry James. I know a great many people, but there are many more who would like to know me, and I can remain isolated and detached.

T. S. Eliot to his Mother March 29, 1919

I wonder what Eliot, Aiken, cummings and Pound would make of the current world of poetry?   Would they flourish and push new boundaries or would they be adrift? As for the two poems today, they could not be more different, the contrast is stark.  I think Eliot’s bleak depiction and misogynist tendencies would not get him published in Poetry today and I share it just because it is so strikingly odd a poem.  Do you have favorite poets that you find there are poems you hate and poems you like?  What’s your favorite Eliot poem(s)?


The Love Song of St. Sebastian

 
by T. S. Eliot
 
I would come in a shirt of hair
I would come with a lamp in the night
And sit at the foot of your stair;
I would flog myself until I bled,
And after hour on hour of prayer
And torture and delight
Until my blood should ring the lamp
And glisten in the light;
I should arise your neophyte
And then put out the light
To follow where you lead,
To follow where your feet are white
In the darkness toward your bed
And where your gown is white
And against your gown your braided hair.
Then you would take me in
Because I was hideous in your sight
You would take me in without shame
Because I should be dead
And when the morning came
Between your breasts should lie my head.

 

I would come with a towel in my hand
And bend your head beneath my knees;
Your ears curl back in a certain way
Like no one’s else in all the world.
When all the world shall melt in the sun,
Melt or freeze,
I shall remember how your ears were curled.
I should for a moment linger
And follow the curve with my finger
And your head beneath my knees—
I think that at last you would understand.
There would be nothing more to say.
You would love me because I should have strangled you
And because of my infamy;
And I should love you the more because I had mangled you
And because you were no longer beautiful
To anyone but me

In The Forest Of The Mind

Conrad Aiken (1889 – 1973)

All lovely things will have an ending, all lovely things will fade and die; and youth, that’s now so bravely spending, Will beg a penny by and by.

Conrad Aiken

The Ego 

by Conrad Aiken

Ego! Ego! Burning Blind
in the forest of the mind
what immortal alchemy
or what immortal chemistry
dared shape they fearful symmetry
dared dream they fearful liberty
and in the eye
conceived the I
and in the “Aye”
a Me!


I am enough years into this project that I can no longer remember exactly what poems I have shared from each poet. My process has evolved and I tend to stockpile poems in drafts as I stumble across them in my regular reading of poetry and then depending on my whimsy, use an old draft to start a new post. If its a poet that I have shared before, I go back and re-read those posts and make sure I am not regurgitating the same poems or same thoughts. In going through that process on this post, I laughed, because there must be something in my sub-conscious that draws me to Conrad Aiken in December.

Conrad Aiken’s life was turned upside down when he was 11 and his Father and Mother died as a result of domestic violence, his father murdering his Mother and then dying by suicide. He went on to live with a great, great Aunt in Massachusetts, who would change his life by giving him access to elite private schools and entry into Harvard. He was classmates and friends with T. S. Elliot and e. e. cummings. After Harvard he spent equal time in London and the U.S. for the next 30 years working for various journals as a correspondent and writing poetry, short stories, novels and literary criticism. Aiken’s writing influenced the trajectory of theories of consciousness and psychoanalysis. His greatest contribution, beyond his own writing, was possibly his work to anthologize and promote Emily Dickinson’s poetry, particularly outside the United States, helping to introduce her to readers around the world.

Aiken wrote poetry in a myriad of styles, so to only present his lyric poetry is a bit misleading. He wrote early in his career a series of what he called “symphonies”, poetry that he felt could be appreciated at multiple levels, like a bass clef and treble clef on a sheet of music. Aiken is one of those poets I tend to forget about and then when I stumble across him again I am amazed how fresh and interesting I find his work. Wouldn’t it have been interesting to have been a fly on the wall at a Harvard dining hall listening to Elliot, cummings and Aiken forge their way into the world as brash young men talking smart? It suggests that genius often needs other great minds to find their voice in pursuit of unique ideas. Friendship and fellowship with other creative and disruptive forces gives artists confidence that as a creative spirit we are not on an island by ourselves, and that creativity is limitless in its acceptance of eccentric minds because that very eccentricity often mirrors the commonness of our human condition while the artist ventures off into new territory, making all of us marching to our own tune feel less alone.


Six Sonnets

by Conrad Aiken

III

Think, love, how when a starry night of frost
Is ended, and the small pale winter sun
Shines on the garden trellis, ice-embossed,
And the stiff frozen flower-stalks, every one;
And turns their fine embroideries of ice
Into a loosening silver, skein by skein,
Warming cold leaves and stones, till, in a trice,
The garden smiles, and breathes, and lives again;
And further think, how the poor frozen snail
Creeps out with trembling horns to feel that heat,
And thaws the snowy mildew from his mail,
And stretches with all his length from his retreat:
Will he not praise, with his whole heart, the sun?
Then think, at last, I too am such an one?

The Wind Of A Dream

Snow in Northern Minnesota Forest

White Nocturne

by Conrad Aiken

IV

I would like to touch this snow with the wind of a dream,
With a sudden warmth of music, and turn it all
To petals of roses …. Why is it that I recall
Your two pale hands holding a bowl of roses,
Wide open like lotus flowers, floating in water?
I would like to touch this snow with the wind of a dream;
To hold the world in my hands and let it fall.
We have walked among the hills immortally white,
Golden by noon and blue by night.
I would like to touch this snow with the wind of a dream:
And hear you singing again by a starlight wall .



VII

White hours like snow, white hours like eternal snow ….
Long white streets jewelled with lights ….
Our steps are muffled and silent, we scarcely know
How swiftly we cross the nights.
I would like to touch this snow with the fire of a dream,
With the mouth of a dream. And turn it all
To petals of roses …. I would like to touch you, too,
And change you into the chord of music I knew.
Can you not change?…. Run back again to April?
Laugh out at me from among young lilac leaves?….
Play with your jewels, and sing!
Feeling the earth beneath you float with spring!….
You talk in an even tone, I answer you;
And all about us seems to say
Peace …. peace …. the hills and streets are cold.
You are growing cold.

Give Me Back That Night

Conrad Aiken (1989 – 1973)

I love you, what star do you live on?

Conrad Aiken

 

Bend As The Bow Bends

by Conrad Aiken 

Bend as the bow bends, and let fly the shaft,
the strong cord loose its words as light as flame;
speak without cunning, love, as without craft,
careless of answer, as of shame or blame:
this to be known, that love is love, despite
knowledge or ignorance, truth, untruth, despair;
careless of all things, if that love be bright,
careless of hate and fate, careless of care.
Spring the word as it must, the leaf or flower
broken or bruised, yet let it, broken, speak
of time transcending this too transient hour,
and space that finds the beating heart too weak:
thus, and thus only, will our tempest come
by continents of snow to find a home.


Conrad Aiken, it is reported, avoided military service during World War I by asserting writing poetry was an “essential industry”.  I love the idea of that claim but suspect Aiken, like 200,000 other young men during conscription into service in WWI, registered as a conscientious objector. 

I am glad that Aiken’s life experience was not distorted by the horrors of war.   His poetic voice served our nation better as a gentle soul.   His writing earned him the Pulitzer Price,  a National Book Award, and he was U.S. Poet Laureate from 1950 to 1952.  Although primarily a poet, he published novels, short stories, criticism and children’s stories during his long career.  Most of Aiken’s poetry reflects an interest in psychoanalysis and the development of identity.  His short story Silent Snow, Secret Snow was widely anthologized and is an example of the theme in his writing about imagination and how it shapes our inner and outer world. The short film based on it, might appear outdated, but its black and white images fit the black and white of the words of Aiken’s page.  

I wonder if I am a member of the last generation for which black and white photography and black and white films are nostalgic, comforting and not foreign feeling.   It’s not that they were the norm when I was growing up, but it was commonplace.   The short reels our parents and grandparents shot on home camera’s that were silent, by and large were black and white, photographs our our parents as children and grandparents were mostly black and white.   When it came time to shoot my own wedding photographs, we choose black and white, it just felt right.   There is a purity and simplicity to black and white photography that is lost in our ultra stylized, colorized, customized and filtered graphic world.  We have become accustomed to high quality video and photography with brilliant colors that anything else feels amateurish.  However, I often convert my favorite digital photos into black and white to see what’s really going on in the picture.   Do you have a favorite black and white family photograph?

Silent Snow, Secret Snow

Six Sonnets

I

by Conrad Aiken

Broad on the sunburnt hill the bright moon comes,
And cuts with silver horn the hurrying cloud;
and the cold Pole Star, in the dusk, resumes
His last night’s light, which light alone could shroud.
And legion other stars, that torch pursuing,
Take each their stations in the deepening night,
Lifting pale tapers for the Watch, renewing
Their glorious foreheads in the Infinite.
Never before had night so many eyes!
Never was darkness so divinely thronged,
As now – my love! bright star! – that you arise,
Giving me back that night which I had wronged.
Now with your voice sings all that immortal host,
That god of myriad stars whom I thought lost.