There are certain things that once experienced, there’s no going back. In this episode, we'll meet the forgotten author, Conrad Aiken. He witnessed the most horrific thing a person could when he was eleven years old. That life-altering event both haunted him an defined him. We’ll discuss the most famous poet most people have never known.
A video of Conrad's most popular short story.
The Conrad Aiken House + Burial Site.
Further reading [contains affiliate links]:
There are certain things that once experienced, there’s no going back. For example, did you know that the color blue did not exist in ancient Greek times? In fact, Homer used descriptions like “wine-dark” to describe the blue of the sea. And blue was the last of the colors to be used in English writing, as well. In fact, it wasn’t until 431 AD when the Catholic Church assigned blue as the saint color for Mary, that the color became more widespread.
Can you imagine a world without blue? It’s not to say that blue never actually existed because lots of things in nature are blue, but before giving the word “BLUE” to call them, the ocean was simply various shades of other colors. The color is pivotal in our language today. And once we’ve been introduced to blue, there’s no going back to a life without it. We see everything in a whole new way.
Certain events in life are like that. Once you’ve experienced marriage, the death of a loved one, or become a parent—the life you lived before those events can be no more. There’s no way to go back to the person you were pre-event.
The same could be said for the forgotten author I’ll be sharing with you today. He witnessed the worst possible thing a child could see, and there was no going back.
Eleven-year-old Conrad Aiken witnessed something no child should. After finding his parents dead on the floor, his childhood—like his family—was gone. And that sudden, brutal shift would become the defining moment that would haunt him forever.
Conrad Potter Aiken was the son of William Ford and Anna Potter Aiken. He was born in Savannah, GA in 1889. His father, William, was a prominent and respected physician and brain surgeon, but suddenly without any apparent reason became irritable and violent in the winter of 1901. Though his father chose to steal so much from young Conrad, the doctor ultimately began a lifelong search for truth and understanding in his son that would result in some amazing works of literature.
"The best known unread poet of the 20th century."
"The buried giant of 20th century American writing."
"When the tide of aesthetic sterility which is slowly engulfing us has withdrawn, our first great poet will be left. Perhaps Aiken is the man.”
These quotes were a part of the introduction to Conrad Aiken in a poet laureate anthology copyrighted in 2010. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1930, won a National Book Award, won the National Medal for Literature, and was honored as Poet Laureate in his home state of Georgia. He was named poetry consultant of the Library of Congress from 1950-1952. That’s just to name a few of his long list of accolades.
Conrad Aiken was known for his difficult poetry and his belief in not conforming to commercialized expectations. He believed in living in a sort of exile—where he could exercise his genius without the influence of society and the current literary giants of the day. He kept himself secluded to make sure that his art was both authentic and untouched by comparison.
Within his lifetime, he never wrote a bestseller. But that was not from lack of trying. He published over 50 books. And yet when I was looking for his work, I had a difficult time finding works by him. I was lucky enough to know that my local 1904 Carnegie library had a lot of older books. And that's where I was able to find four that mentioned him. And sadly, only one of those was a full book by him. Others were older anthologies. After reading many of his poems and his two most popular short stories, I realized that his childhood tragedy both haunted him and made him in a way.
He sings of a house he lived in long ago. It is strange; this house of dust was the house I lived in; The house you lived in, the house that all of us know.
I could just see him there, eleven years old, standing in shock after seeing his parents growing cold on the floor.
It is moonlight. The garden is silent.
Forever plagued by a fear of madness like his father, it is evident in his works. He was a huge fan of Freud and wanted desperately to understand mental health—he wanted to know his own mind. And that’s not more apparent than in his most famous short story “Silent Snow, Secret Snow.” In the story, a young 12-year-old boy named Paul, begins to see snow and is so relieved that he's not awoken every morning by the mailman's footsteps because the snow has dampened them. The only problem is, it's not really snowing. But Paul's obsession with the snow—the quieting of the world around him, the dampening of all the feelings, the numbness of the cold—becomes disturbing. So much so, his mother notices that he's withdrawing from society, from their family, from school. More and more Paul is retreating into his own little world, into this place where only the snow exists. And the snow itself is evil, in a way. The snow talks to Paul and lures him in. And Paul grows to resent the people in his life that try to keep him from the snow. He's happiest when he no longer hears the mailman's footsteps on the stoop every morning.
While I was reading it, I realized that without the context of Aiken's life, the story doesn't hold a lot of interest. It's an abstract thought. What does this world of snow represent? The snow is, or could at least be argued, as Aiken’s own creativity. His need to exhale himself from others to create. And then there are the footsteps of the mailman. You see, Aiken's parents died when he was 11 years old. And that was a switch for him. Paul, in the story, is 12 years old. Those footsteps Paul kept hearing that woke him up in the early morning hours must surely resemble the steps and the sounds that woke young Conrad up in the early morning hours of his parents’ death.
In his autobiography Ushant, he says:
after the desultory early morning quarrel, came a half-stilted scream, and the sound of his father’s voice counting to three, and the two loud pistol shots and he Aiken tiptoed into the dark room, where the two bodies lay motionless, and apart, and, finding them dead, found himself possessed of them forever.
After his parents’ death, Aiken was raised by a distant relative and sent to Harvard where he befriended TS Eliot. The two became lifelong friends. But Aiken’s work is largely unique from his contemporaries. Many of his poems deal with death or madness. And there's always an element of fear and sadness to them.
In Tetélestai which means “it is finished,” he writes:
The lover, the husband, and father, the struggler with shadows,
His fascination with death is why I believe he had such a connection with Emily Dickinson's writings. Conrad Aiken is credited with being primarily responsible for Emily Dickinson being such a wide known poet today. He edited her works and also wrote about her. After knowing what we know about him and if you're familiar with Emily Dickinson’s work, it’s easy to make comparisons. Both commonly explore death, and both poets were reclusive. It's not difficult to understand why he would be drawn to such an eccentric, loner, non-conforming poet like Emily.
I read an essay he wrote about her, and one of the most curious things he said about her is something I believe he must also have felt about himself.
He said, "She seems to have thought of [death] constantly—she died all her life, probed death daily." He also said that death and the problem of life after death obsessed her. And he mentions that Emily Dickinson seemed to be irreverent toward God and question what will happen to us after death. I feel like that Conrad must have, too.
In one of his poems, he talks about the old man and the shadow. The old man is afraid of the shadow even though the shadow is created by the old man.
Let us at last admit it.
One thing I found really interesting about Conrad Aiken's life is that he lived a sort of hero’s journey. If you know anything about Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, you know about something now referred to as a story circle. Which has been made famous by writer and producer Dan Harmon. If you think back to The Lord of the Rings, readers follow Frodo as he leaves the shire, goes on his grand adventure, and returns home. Just like Conrad Aiken did. He spent his first 11 years in Savannah Georgia and his last 11 years there, too.
Not only did Conrad return home to Savannah to die where it all began, he chose to live in the house next door to his childhood home—where his parents died. Creepy, right? In essence, he was the old man, and that house and all its awful memories was the shadow.
If you go to Savannah, storytellers will tell you how often Conrad Aiken went to visit his parents’ graves in Bonaventure Cemetery. It can seem sort of morbid to some, but for anyone who's ever visit visited Bonaventure cemetery, it’s not. Bonaventure is one of the most peaceful places. With this massive oaks and arms filled with Spanish moss stretched across pathways, sea wind in your hair, and nothing but the noise of nature surrounding you, I have to say… it’s one of the most beautiful places in the South.
The legend goes, that once while he was visiting his parents, he saw a ship named the Cosmos Mariner. Curious about the name and the destination of the boat, Conrad looked in the papers to see if he could find where the ship was going. But it was a mystery. Instead of a typical tombstone, Conrad had his epitaph written on a bench right next to his parents’ graves. Inscribed are the words “Cosmos Mariner, Destination Unknown.”
While I was researching Conrad Aiken, I felt sad. Sad, because in my own literature books when I that I've kept since college, Aiken is nowhere to be found. In fact, if it weren't for a tour I took in Savannah, I would not even know who Conrad Aiken was. And that's saying something, from a literature graduate.
I admired how much of an advocate he was for Emily Dickinson’s work, helping her become known and recognized for her brilliance. This episode is my own way of trying to acknowledge him. How could someone who won so many awards be forgotten? Worse still, how could he not have been more known in his lifetime?
In a world where entertainment reigns and people expect more and more for free, Conrad Aiken experienced then what so many writers feel today—their skills and talents thrown to the wayside, buried in critical reviews, rejection letters, and dwindling bank accounts.
But despite all the negativity and darkness surrounding his life and career, he says on his epitaph “Give my love to the world.”
Through his work, he is still sending his love to the world, even though it never loved him back.
Aiken, Conrad. The Morning Song of Lord Zero. 1963.
Bloom, Harold. Till I End My Song. 2010.
Schmidt, Elizabeth Hun. The Poets Laureate Anthology. 2010.
Sewall, Richard B. Emily Dickinson. 1963.
Sullivan, Nancy. The Treasury of American Poetry. 1978.