Poetry and the Mind of Modern Man

BY CONRAD AIKEN One of America’s leading poets, CONRAD AIKEN here describes the coming of age of American poetry and its inextricable relationship with man’s consciousness. This essay was the first in the Voice of America Forum series on American Poetry, coordinated by Howard Nemerov.

As A regular and pretty energetic critic of American poetry from 1915 on, contributing editor of the Dial, American correspondent for the Athenaeum in London and the London Mercury, and editor of three anthologies of American poetry, it will be clear that from very early in this century I had to take sides, and to make up my mind not only where poetry should go, but where I, too, as a poet, should go.

In my first volume of criticism, Scepticisms, published in 1919, I discussed this involvement with considerable candor in a preface called Apologia Pro Specie Sua. In sum, I argued that each of us was trying to urge poetry in a direction favorable to himself, and that dispassionate judgment was a chimera. This was, of course, the period when the so-called New American Poetry was emerging in the persons of Frost, Robinson, Masters, the Imagists, Pound, Eliot, the Vorticists, and the group in New York known as the Others. My own position in this melee was, I would say, a shade to the left of center, if we take Robinson as the center. i was opposed to the extremes of fragmentation advocated by the Imagists and the Others, and argued, in my review of PruFrock and Other Observations, in 1917, that Eliot’s rhymed free verse, which was not really free verse at all, but a highly controlled and subtly modulated medium, was probably the best signpost available as to the direction in which the form and tone of poetry might most adventurously go.

This precocious judgment has, I think, been proved true by time. A great deal of the “newest” of the so-called new poetry has now either become dated or disappeared, and in the perspective we have since gained we can see that there was never any real revolution in American poetry, in the true sense of an overturning, but rather an orderly and quite logical development from the past, both American and European. It is true that, as James said in his study of Hawthorne, we were aware of a meagerness in our past, or, at any rate, a lack of richness in it, or at least some of us thought so; and this accounts, but only partly, for the remarkable exodus of young American writers to Europe after World War I. It accounts, too, for the fact that Eliot and myself, who were friends at Harvard College from 1908 on, discussed this need for a richer chemical solution in which to swim and breathe, a more sustaining ambiente, than our own then appeared to be. What could be done about it? Eliot elected France and what was then “modern” French poetry, and got this creative venom into his veins before the fortunes of the First War settled him in England. I preferred the English tradition, and lived there many years, because that seemed to me what I needed. Later, the fortunes of another war sent me back to America, where I found that my ancestral roots claimed me — I should have remained there all the time.

And the truth is that James was wrong, and so were Eliot and myself, and all the others, in thinking that there was an insufficient cultural inheritance in this country: it was there, but neither our teachers nor ourselves were yet aware of it. In Whitman, Melville, Dickinson, Mark Twain, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Poe, and James, what more could the ripening consciousness of this country, which in a curious way was both old and young, demand? It was enough, if only someone had pointed it out to us; but it remained for ourselves to make the discovery. As it was left for me, for example, to make the “discovery” of Emily Dickinson-which was disapproved of by both Pound and Eliot — in an essay on her, and a selection of her poems, published in England in 1924.

Anyway, there it all was, waiting for us; and I think we can now see that at about this point, in the early twenties, we can be said to have first taken possession of it, and that this possession began to be manifest in our work. We could see our roots, in Whitman and Emerson and Dickinson; and then, in the forgotten figure of Trumbull Stickney, the link between them and us, the first sounding of the “modern" note, the abandonment of the oratorical or grandiose for a more flexible and colloquial tone of voice, which, nevertheless, when occasion demanded, could rise to the full vox humana of the highest poetic speech. We were quite conscious of our search for this medium. Eliot found it in Vildrac and Laforgue, even in Henley’s “Sunday Up the River,” while I found it in Stickney, John Masefield, and in some of Francis Thompson. As early as 1911, in a composition course at Harvard, I produced a longish narrative poem called “The Clerk’s Journal,” which deliberately eschewed “poetic” words and tried to emphasize the telephone wires and cobblestones, not to mention the lunch counters and coffee cups.

This was one side of the poetic experiment in which we were all engaged, the linguistic and tonal side; but in my own case it was made more complicated by the fact that at this time two other influences were brought to bear on me. Music was one of these, in particular that of Richard Strauss, in the tone poems, and the symphonies and quartets of Beethoven; and this was to lead me pretty far afield. An early poem of this period was subtitled “A TonePoem.” It was followed by a group of sonatas and nocturnes, very bad indeed, and then by the group of “symphonies” which now compose the book called The Divine Pilgrim. Admittedly, this preoccupation led to considerable diffuseness, which I was the first to acknowledge; but I defended it, too, and not without ingenuity, and I think these poems still have their virtues.

But if they have, it is largely because of the other influence — both had really begun at Harvard — and this was my interest in the then “new” psychology of Freud, and in the notion, learned from Santayana in his lectures on “Three Philosophical Poets” — Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe — that poetry at its best and broadest must be philosophical, must have at its center some sort of world view, or Weltanschauung. But how, in the fragmented world of the psychologists-not only Freud, but Jung, Adler, Ferenczi, Holt, and all the rest —was one to shape this? The symphonies of The Divine Pilgrim sought it in an overall solipsism, but with increasing accent on the disintegration of the ego, the disappearance of the self into series, in the manner of the vaudeville actors who come and go on the stage. The two interests do, I think, hold the book together and give it an aim. If it is no Faust, it at least belongs to that category. And its final section, “Changing Mind,” written a little later than the others, which takes as its theme the complete breakdown of personality into its components of heredity and sex, signals, I think, the moment of changeover from the earlier and more deliberately musical style to the later, which is more condensed, analytic, and even, at times, preceptual.

But before I go into that, let us pause at this moment, which is 1925, and look around at what the other poets were up to. As a matter of fact, it was one of the most brilliant moments for poetry in the century. Stevens had just published Harmonium, probably his best book, with all his characteristics fully developed, but with the form in tight and delicious control and the humor and metaphysics going hand in hand. Eliot had stunned us all with The Waste Land. Robinson was at his apogee, in that extraordinary sequence of Arthurian romances, Merlin and the others, which can only be likened, psychologically, to Henry James. And if Masters had come and gone, leaving behind him little more than Spoon River, Frost was at the top of his form, and Cummings, Marianne Moore, and William Carlos Williams were coming importantly on stage. Sandburg was having his greatest success; Jeffers and MacLeish were emerging. On the whole, I think it can be said that at this point, and for the next thirty years, the best poetry written in English was American. In fact, I think it has remained so since. English poetry, in a sense, had moved to America.

But with complications. For this galaxy of poets were seldom agreed on anything. Each had to go his own way. It was in some respects a kind of quiet — and sometimes not so quiet — gang warfare. And I think we all realized this. It was kill or be killed; it was the normal evolutionary process, and involved, quite rightly, the survival of the fittest; it was poetry, as the vanguard of man’s consciousness — as it always has been —once again, by trial and loss, finding out its own way—or trying to — to bring into consciousness every scrap of knowledge, from whatever field, and no matter how uncompromisingly unpoetic or antipoetic it might seem to be.

And it was toward this concept of poetry that I began more and more deliberately to move, and in this I think it can be said that although my later poetry looks different, or sounds different, nevertheless this basic direction can be seen in it all. What begins with the musical fragmentation of The Jig of Forslin and The House of Dust, or the animist dissociations and reassociations of the consciousness of Senlin in Senlin: A Biography, turns more and more, by degrees, into a preoccupation with the very nature of consciousness itself, that evanescent bubble of awareness which is all that we know of ourselves. This, of course, is my answer to the question whether the change in man’s world, during this century, has preoccupied me. And how could it not? With Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud behind us, where were the comfortable values to which we had been born? Perhaps this fact was brought home to me earlier than to most of my generation; for I inherited a sort of liberalism and agnosticism from my grandfather, William James Potter, who was one of the great liberal Unitarians of the nineteenth century, had adapted himself by midcentury to The Origin of Species, studied with Humboldt, and was one of the founders, and then president, of the Free Religious Association. I was brought up with no beliefs, or none of a dogmatic sort. Wasn’t it enough that the world was beautiful, terrible, astonishing, even incredible? One could, if one liked, call it divine, or conceive of a god in various forms, as my Festus does, to amuse himself, in The Pilgrimage of Festus. But more important, it seemed to me, was to take the next step, and analyze the world in the only terms we had any genuine knowledge of, to wit, ourselves. One must be as conscious of this as possible, if only as a preliminary step to anything else; and this endeavor seemed to involve another concept, that in the evolution of consciousness man was already embarked, willy-nilly, on a perhaps divine pilgrimage of his own.

I do not want to be, and cannot be, too precise about all this, or the timing of it —who of us can possibly remember the exact point at which he became finally conscious of the compass of his mind, and the relation of this compass to his body, the whole psychosomatic machine? Like everything else, this knowledge comes in fractions, is a ecries, an accretion. One observes, as a child, the wasp stinging the locust to death, then dragging away the locust to its underground nest. And to bring this observation into association with the small boy’s experience of urinating into a bowl, and there, by himself, creating an entire cosmos of bubbles, and of an extraordinary beauty, is to realize how early in life one begins this attempt at a correlation of the mysteries, apparently inexplicable, with one’s own unexplainable existence at the very center of it. Who am I? We inevitably get back to that fundamental question. And how did I come by it? And what should I do with it?

Well, those have been my preoccupations, and they have allowed me a quite considerable range. As for form, here again I have always maintained that as poetry is an art, and perhaps the highest, it should use every prosodic and linguistic device at its disposal — I cannot subscribe to the theory that a mere counting of syllables can be substituted for verse. And the form must be suited to the theme. In the two series of “Preludes,” which I think are the center of my work, I did not hesitate to mix a sort of organic free verse with the most formal of lyrics. As for another poem, The Kid, a poem that deals with the pioneers of America, those of the mind as well as of the broadax, I did not hesitate to use a kind of ballad form, a folk doggerel, in couplets, which nevertheless, when necessary, could become pure seventeenth-century severity. And again, for such longer philosophical meditations as “A Letter From Li Po,” or “The Crystal,” I found a free blank verse most suitable. In short, the theme will almost invariably, left to itself, call the tune. The poet is only the medium.

Finally, I would like to repeat something I said thirty years ago about poetry and its function. Poetry has always kept easily abreast with the utmost man can do in extending the horizon of his consciousness, whether outward or inward. It has always been the most flexible, the most comprehensive, the most farseeing, and hence the most successful, of the modes by which he has accepted the new in experience, realized it, and adjusted himself to it. Whether it is a change in his conception of the heavens, or of the law of gravity, or of morality, or of the nature of consciousness, it has always at last been in poetry that man has given his thought its supreme expression —which is to say that most of all, in this, he succeeds in making real for himself the profound myth of personal existence and experience.

But if poetry is to accomplish this in any age, it must think: it must embody the full consciousness of man at that given moment. It cannot afford to lag behind the explorations of knowledge, whether of the inner or outer worlds: these it is its business to absorb and transmute. What made Elizabethan poetry great, above all, was the fearlessness with which it plunged into the problem of consciousness itself. No item of man’s awareness was too trivial to be noted, too terrifying to be plumbed. Shakespeare’s poetry is everywhere vascular with this rich consciousness of self, thought being carried boldly into the realm of feeling, and feeling as boldly carried into the realm of thought. This was no mere decorative toy, no amusement or anodyne for women; it was the advance guard in man’s conquest of the knowable. It was a portrait of man with the sweat on his brow, the blood on his hands, the agony in his heart; with his gaieties, his absurdities, his obscenities; his beliefs and his doubts. No poetry since has been so great, for none has been either so comprehensive or so truthful. The fashions changed, the “idea” of poetry changed, the novel absorbed a part of its province — one could multiply indefinitely the reasons for it. But today the signs are not wanting that poetry may again occupy its own province, may again speak with full-voiced gusto of the horrors and subtleties and magnificences of the great myth in which we find ourselves the bewildered actors.

And I would like to say again what I said in 1948 in one of the prefaces to my collection of symphonies, that in the evolution of man’s consciousness, ever widening and deepening and subtilizing his awareness, and in the dedication of himself to this supreme task, man possesses all that he could possibly require in the way of a religious credo: when the half gods go, the gods arrive; he can, if he only will, become divine.