A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Poem of the Day: Conrad Aiken


Absolute zero: the locust sings: 
summer's caught in eternity's rings: 
the rock explodes, the planet dies, 
we shovel up our verities. 

The razor rasps across the face 
and in the glass our fleeting race 
lit by infinity's lightning wink 
under the thunder tries to think. 

In this frail gourd the granite pours 
the timeless howls like all outdoors 
the sensuous moment builds a wall 
open as wind, no wall at all: 

while still obedient to valves and knobs 
the vascular jukebox throbs and sobs 
expounding hope propounding yearning 
proposing love, but never learning 

or only learning at zero's gate 
like summer's locust the final hate 
formless ice on a formless plain 
that was and is and comes again.
--Conrad Aiken

When he was at Harvard (at the same time as T.S. Eliot), Aiken trained himself to write verse by attempting a different form every day, "all the way from free verse, Walt Whitman, to the most elaborate of villanelles and ballad forms," he told the Paris Review interviewer. "I didn't give a damn about the meaning, I just wanted to master the form." "Summer" is the simplest of forms -- aabb stanzas -- but the meaning is a hard knot to unpick. That it was written in the postwar '40s gives us a clue -- it has that atomic era tension to it, the sense of the ephemeral about the once-solidest things: "the rock explodes, the planet dies." He also claimed, in the same interview, "I'm not in the least Southern; I'm entirely New England." This despite being born and buried in that most gothic of Southern cities, Savannah. But I see what he means. There's a note of flinty despair in his verse that's at odd with the ironic resignation of most Southern poets.     

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