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The Early Poetry of Conrad Aiken

Earth Triumphant

Conrad Aiken combines a love of storytelling, great skill as a poet, a fascination with character and psychology, and a keen eye for the world around him. He writes about ordinary people and ordinary things in extraordinary ways; he has a talent for seeing great issues in small things. A man converses with a woman in a perfectly ordinary way, and yet:

And he would almost hold his breath
Like one who peers, at gates of death,
Through infinite dark silences,
Where not a sound or presence is ...
Waiting, waiting, for his breath
To come up shining through that death . . .
And all the while upon her knee
Her small hand lay so quietly,
As though it did not know she led
His soul so far among the dead;
Stroking, with a slow caress,
The soft knee and the silky dress....

He leads us from the most ordinary things to a profound vision of deep connectedness with the earth and all that is in it.

Turns and Movies

The title poems in this book refer to vaudeville--not the glamorous world of Gypsy Rose Lee, but the gritty world of small-timers like the unidentifiable trio in our cover picture. How they love, hate, befriend and betray each other is what this series  of poems is all about. Like Edgar Lee Masters in Spoon River Anthology, each poem is a distilled portrait of a person struggling for survival in this small-time cut-throat world.  Like Masters, like Aiken: passions, betrayals, secrets, sins, victories, defeats, and inevitable losing struggles against age and death are the stuff of this work. And that's only the first part of the book.

The rest of the book consists of a set of four long poems: "Discordants", "Evensong", "Disenchantment", and "This Dance of Life". In these poems Aiken takes on a subject that strikes home now just as much as it did then: what happens to love when the flame of romance flickers, or even goes out? Aiken's men - he always writes from a man's point of view - make a variety of decisions, but for Aiken, the underlying determinant of all of those choices, for good or ill, is the ongoing, quiet, patient force of life itself:

A light wind blew; the curtains stirred; The east grew pale; a sleepy bird
Sang a few notes, then life was still: A calm, unhurrying, soulless will.

Aiken's words may be a almost a century old, but they still speak powerfully today.

Nocturne of Remembered Spring

Conrad Aiken was fascinated throughout his early work with the image of a tempestuous, romantic young man who tears himself away from his wife, his first love, and from a pastoral, peaceful life in a rural setting, to pursue what he hopes will be a richer, fuller, more rewarding life in a great city. In this book, Aiken explores this theme in full, especially in the final long poem, "Dust in Starlight", which also forms Part III of his trilogy, Earth Triumphant.

However, that story is not the only concern in this collection. He also provides us with a stunningly dry-eyed study of existence in the trenches of World War I, an environment as far from the urban heart-searchings of his primary poems as one could imagine.

Throughout the book, Aiken's work is deeply embedded in his vivid perceptions of the natural world, the qualities of light and shadow, the mysteries of night and darkness, the strangely mixed peace and fury of rain and wind and storm.

He expresses himself in deeply musical fashion, using repetition, theme, and rhythm much as a composer would do, providiing a hypnotic experience of the power of musical language.

Charnel Rose

In Charnel Rose, Conrad Aiken takes the plunge into a deeply metaphysical and surrealistic world, capturing the essence of one aspect of quintessential humanity: how we create and pursue a deeply personal, intensely idealistic, physically and emotionally draining search for love, and how some of us turn away from real love when we do find it, preferring instead to re-invent and re-amplify our idealistic vision of passionate perfection.

He does this through an amazing combination of highly imaginative imagery conveyed through strikingly simple and beautiful poetry, musically complex and intensely rhythmic without empty literary gesture or hollow convention.

The first part of the book is "Senlin," a study of the complex reality of a man who is part stonemason, part philosopher, and possibly part ancient deity. The second part of the book is "Variations," short, intense poems that ring the changes on intimate relationships. The third and last part of the book is "Charnel Rose," from which the book takes its name; this explores the passions and self-delusions we all go through in the name of love..

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