Conrad Aiken

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I love you, what star do you live on?

Conrad Potter Aiken (5 August 188917 August 1973) was an American writer and poet.


Walk with me world, upon my right hand walk,
speak to me Babel, that I may strive to assemble
of all these syllables a single word
before the purpose of speech is gone.
Separate we come, and separate we go, And this be it known, is all that we know.
  • Walk with me world, upon my right hand walk,
    speak to me Babel, that I may strive to assemble
    of all these syllables a single word
    before the purpose of speech is gone.
    • "This image or another," The Nation (28 December 1932)
  • Separate we come and separate we go,
    And this, be it known, is all that we know.
    • Self written obituary in verse, The New York Herald Tribune (1969), cited in Wisdom for the Soul: Five Millennia of Prescriptions for Spiritual Healing (2006) edited by Larry Chang, p. 664
    • Variant: Separate we come, and separate we go, and this be it known, is all that we know.
      • As quoted in Webster's New World Best Book of Aphorisms (1989), p. 72

Discordants (1916)[edit]

Published in Turns and Movies and Other Tales in Verse (1916)
  • 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.
    • I, This section is also known as "Bread and Music"
  • My heart has become as hard as a city street,
    The horses trample upon it, it sings like iron,
    All day long and all night long they beat,
    They ring like the hooves of time.
    • II
  • My heart is torn with the sound of raucous voices,
    They shout from the slums, from the streets, from the crowded places,
    And tunes from the hurdy-gurdy that coldly rejoices
    Shoot arrows into my heart.
    • II
  • O sweet clean earth, from whom the green blade cometh!
    When we are dead, my best belovèd and I,
    Close well above us, that we may rest forever,
    Sending up grass and blossoms to the sky.
    • IV

All Lovely Things (1916)[edit]

  • 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.
  • Come back, true love! Sweet youth, return!—
    But time goes on, and will, unheeding,
    Though hands will reach, and eyes will yearn,
    And the wild days set true hearts bleeding.

The House of Dust (1916 - 1917)[edit]

I am the one who passed unnoticed before you,
Invisible, in a cloud of secret pain.
  • The wandering one, the inquisitive dreamer of dreams,
    The eternal asker of answers, stands in the street,
    And lifts his palms for the first cold ghost of rain.
  • 'I will ask them all, I will ask them all their dreams,
    I will hold my light above them and seek their faces.
    I will hear them whisper, invisible in their veins . . .'
    The eternal asker of answers becomes as the darkness,
    Or as a wind blown over a myriad forest,
    Or as the numberless voices of long-drawn rains.
  • We flow, we descend, we turn . . . and the eternal dreamer
    Moves among us like light, like evening air . . .
  • Our hands are hot and raw with the stones we have laid,
    We have built a tower of stone high into the sky,
    We have built a city of towers.
  • What did we build it for? Was it all a dream? . . .
    Ghostly above us in lamplight the towers gleam . . .
    And after a while they will fall to dust and rain;
    Or else we will tear them down with impatient hands;
    And hew rock out of the earth, and build them again.
  • There, in the high bright window he dreams, and sees
    What we are blind to,—we who mass and crowd
    From wall to wall in the darkening of a cloud.
  • Before him, numberless lovers smiled and talked.
    And death was observed with sudden cries,
    And birth with laughter and pain.
    And the trees grew taller and blacker against the skies
    And night came down again.
  • From high black walls, gleaming vaguely with rain,
    Each yellow light looked down like a golden eye.
    They trembled from coign to coign, and tower to tower,
    Along high terraces quicker than dream they flew.
    And some of them steadily glowed, and some soon vanished,
    And some strange shadows threw.
  • From some, the light was scarcely more than a gloom:
    From some, a dazzling desire.
  • And there was one, beneath black eaves, who thought,
    Combing with lifted arms her golden hair,
    Of the lover who hurried towards her through the night;
    And there was one who dreamed of a sudden death
    As she blew out her light.
  • We were all born of flesh, in a flare of pain,
    We do not remember the red roots whence we rose,
    But we know that we rose and walked, that after a while
    We shall lie down again.
  • One of us sings in the street, and we listen to him;
    The words ring over us like vague bells of sorrow.
    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.
  • And we recall, with a gleaming stab of sadness,
    Vaguely and incoherently, some dream
    Of a world we came from, a world of sun-blue hills . . .
    A black wood whispers around us, green eyes gleam;
    Someone cries in the forest, and someone kills.
  • And, growing tired, we turn aside at last,
    Remember our secret selves, seek out our towers,
    Lay weary hands on the banisters, and climb;
    Climbing, each, to his little four-square dream
    Of love or lust or beauty or death or crime.
  • Over the darkened city, the city of towers,
    The city of a thousand gates,
    Over the gleaming terraced roofs, the huddled towers,
    Over a somnolent whisper of loves and hates,
    The slow wind flows, drearily streams and falls,
    With a mournful sound down rain-dark walls.
  • A chorus of elfin voices blowing about me
    Weaves to a babel of sound. Each cries a secret.
    I run among them, reach out vain hands, and drown.
  • 'I am the one who stood beside you and smiled,
    Thinking your face so strangely young . . . '
    'I am the one who loved you but did not dare.'
  • 'I am the one you saw to-day, who fell
    Senseless before you, hearing a certain bell:
    A bell that broke great memories in my brain.'
    'I am the one who passed unnoticed before you,
    Invisible, in a cloud of secret pain.'
  • Weave, weave, weave, you streaks of rain!
    I am dissolved and woven again...
    Thousands of faces rise and vanish before me.
    Thousands of voices weave in the rain.
  • My veins are afire with music,
    Her eyes have kissed me, my body is turned to light;
    I shall dream to her secret heart tonight...
  • 'I bound her to me in all soft ways,
    I bound her to me in a net of days,
    Yet now she has gone in silence and said no word.
    How can we face these dazzling things, I ask you?
    There is no use: we cry: and are not heard.
  • The wind shrieks, the wind grieves;
    It dashes the leaves on walls, it whirls then again;
    And the enormous sleeper vaguely and stupidly dreams
    And desires to stir, to resist a ghost of pain.
  • We reach vague-gesturing hands, we lift our heads,
    Hear sounds far off,—and dream, with quivering breath,
    Our curious separate ways through life and death.
  • We rub the darkness from our eyes,
    And face our thousand devious secret mornings . . .
    And do not see how the pale mist, slowly ascending,
    Shaped by the sun, shines like a white-robed dreamer
    Compassionate over our towers bending.
  • Each gleaming point of light is like a seed
    Dilating swiftly to coiling fires.
    Each cloud becomes a rapidly dimming face,
    Each hurrying face records its strange desires.
  • More towers must yet be built—more towers destroyed—
    Great rocks hoisted in air;
    And he must seek his bread in high pale sunlight
    With gulls about him, and clouds just over his eyes . . .
    And so he did not mention his dream of falling
    But drank his coffee in silence, and heard in his ears
    That horrible whistle of wind, and felt his breath
    Sucked out of him, and saw the tower flash by
    And the small tree swell beneath him . . .
    He patted his boy on the head, and kissed his wife,
    Looked quickly around the room, to remember it,—
    And so went out . . . For once, he forgot his pail.
  • Something had changed—but it was not the street—
    The street was just the same—it was himself.
  • He would not yield, he thought, and walk more slowly,
    As if he knew for certain he walked to death:
    But with his usual pace,—deliberate, firm,
    Looking about him calmly, watching the world,
    Taking his ease . . .
  • Was forty, then, too old for work like this?
    Why should it be? He'd never been afraid—
    His eye was sure, his hand was steady . . .
    But dreams had meanings.
  • His thoughts were blown and scattered like leaves;
    He thought of the pail . . . Why, then, was it forgotten?
    Because he would not need it?
  • I walk in a cloud of wonder; I am glad.
    I mingle among the crowds; my heart is pounding;
    You do not guess the adventure I have had! . . .
    Yet you, too, all have had your dark adventures,
    Your sudden adventures, or strange, or sweet . . .
    My peril goes out from me, is blown among you.
    We loiter, dreaming together, along the street.
  • Lovers walk in the noontime by that fountain.
    Pigeons dip their beaks to drink from the water.
    And soon the pond must freeze.
  • Time is a dream, he thinks, a destroying dream;
    It lays great cities in dust, it fills the seas;
    It covers the face of beauty, and tumbles walls.
    Where was the woman he loved? Where was his youth?
    Where was the dream that burned his brain like fire?
    Even a dream grows grey at last and falls.
  • Death is a meeting place of sea and sea.
  • Two lovers, here at the corner, by the steeple,
    Two lovers blow together like music blowing:
    And the crowd dissolves about them like a sea.
    Recurring waves of sound break vaguely about them,
    They drift from wall to wall, from tree to tree.
  • 'One white rose . . . or is it pink, to-day?'
    They pause and smile, not caring what they say,
    If only they may talk.
    The crowd flows past them like dividing waters.
    Dreaming they stand, dreaming they walk.
  • Two lovers move in the crowd like a link of music,
    We press upon them, we hold them, and let them pass;
    A chord of music strikes us and straight we tremble;
    We tremble like wind-blown grass.
  • What was this dream we had, a dream of music,
    Music that rose from the opening earth like magic
    And shook its beauty upon us and died away?
    The long cold streets extend once more before us.
    The red sun drops, the walls grow grey.
  • The days, the nights, flow one by one above us,
    The hours go silently over our lifted faces,
    We are like dreamers who walk beneath a sea.
    Beneath high walls we flow in the sun together.
    We sleep, we wake, we laugh, we pursue, we flee.
  • The young boy whistles, hurrying down the street,
    The young girl hums beneath her breath.
    One goes out to beauty, and does not know it.
    And one goes out to death.
  • In one room, silently, lover looks upon lover,
    And thinks the air is fire.
  • As darkness falls
    The walls grow luminous and warm, the walls
    Tremble and glow with the lives within them moving,
    Moving like music, secret and rich and warm.
    How shall we live tonight? Where shall we turn?
    To what new light or darkness yearn?
    A thousand winding stairs lead down before us;
    And one by one in myriads we descend
    By lamplit flowered walls, long balustrades,
    Through half-lit halls which reach no end.
  • The poet walked alone in a cold late rain,
    And thought his grief was like the crying of sea-birds;
    For his lover was dead, he never would love again.
  • 'When you are dead your spirit will find my spirit,
    And then we shall die no more.'
  • Through soundless labyrinths of dream you pass,
    Through many doors to the one door of all.
    Soon as it's opened we shall hear a music:
    Or see a skeleton fall . . .
  • Let us retrace our steps: I have deceived you:
    Nothing is here I could not frankly tell you:
    No hint of guilt, or faithlessness, or threat.
    Dreams—they are madness. Staring eyes—illusion.
    Let us return, hear music, and forget . . .
  • Of what she said to me that night—no matter.
    The strange thing came next day.
    My brain was full of music—something she played me—;
    I couldn't remember it all, but phrases of it
    Wreathed and wreathed among faint memories,
    Seeking for something, trying to tell me something,
    Urging to restlessness: verging on grief.
    I tried to play the tune, from memory,—
    But memory failed: the chords and discords climbed
    And found no resolution—only hung there,
    And left me morbid . . . Where, then, had I heard it? . . .
  • You know, without my telling you, how sometimes
    A word or name eludes you, and you seek it
    Through running ghosts of shadow,—leaping at it,
    Lying in wait for it to spring upon it,
    Spreading faint snares for it of sense or sound:
    Until, of a sudden, as if in a phantom forest,
    You hear it, see it flash among the branches,
    And scarcely knowing how, suddenly have it—
    Well, it was so I followed down this music,
    Glimpsing a face in darkness, hearing a cry,
    Remembering days forgotten, moods exhausted,
    Corners in sunlight, puddles reflecting stars—
  • The music ends. The screen grows dark. We hurry
    To go our devious secret ways, forgetting
    Those many lives . . . We loved, we laughed, we killed,
    We danced in fire, we drowned in a whirl of sea-waves.
    The flutes are stilled, and a thousand dreams are stilled.
  • Once I loved, and she I loved was darkened.
    Again I loved, and love itself was darkened.
    Vainly we follow the circle of shadowy days.
    The screen at last grows dark, the flutes are silent.
    The doors of night are closed. We go our ways.

Chance Meetings (1917)[edit]

Originally published as section VII of "Variations" in Contemporary Verse, Vol. 3, No. 5 (May 1917), p. 86
  • In the mazes of loitering people, the watchful and furtive,
    The shadows of tree-trunks and shadows of leaves,
    In the drowse of the sunlight, among the low voices,
    I suddenly face you
  • I love you, what star do you live on?
  • And the shadows of tree-trunks and shadows of leaves
    Interlace with low voices and footsteps and sunlight
    To divide us forever.

Senlin: A Biography (1918)[edit]

Published in The Charnel Rose; Senlin: A Biography; and Other Poems. The section that begins with the following stanza is often printed as the "Morning Song".
  • It is morning, Senlin says, and in the morning
    When the light drips through the shutters like the dew,
    I arise, I face the sunrise,
    And do the things my fathers learned to do.
    Stars in the purple dusk above the rooftops
    Pale in a saffron mist and seem to die,
    And I myself on a swiftly tilting planet
    Stand before a glass and tie my tie.

Preludes for Memnon (1935)[edit]

Preludes for Memnon; or, Preludes to Attitude
  • Let us describe the evening as it is:—
    The stars disposed in heaven as they are:
    Verlaine and Shakspere rotting, where they rot,
    Rimbaud remembered, and too soon forgot;
    Order in all things, logic in the dark;
    Arrangement in the atom and the spark;
    Time in the heart and sequence in the brain—
    Such as destroyed Rimbaud and fooled Verlaine.
    And let us then take godhead by the neck—
    And strangle it, and with it, rhetoric.

The Paris Review interview (1963)[edit]

“I’m the poet of White Horse Vale, sir, with Liberal notions under my cap!” For some reason those lines stuck in my head, and I’ve never forgotten them. This image became something I had to be.
I do believe in this evolution of consciousness as the only thing which we can embark on, or in fact, willy-nilly, are embarked on; and along with that will go the spiritual discoveries and, I feel, the inexhaustible wonder that one feels, that opens more and more the more you know.
A small but brilliant advance made today by someone’s awareness may for the moment reach a very small audience, but insofar as it’s valid and beautiful, it will make its way and become part of the whole world of consciousness.
Interview of September 1963, published in "Conrad Aiken, The Art of Poetry No. 9" by Robert Hunter Wilbur, in The Paris Review (Winter–Spring 1968)
  • I think Ushant describes it pretty well, with that epigraph from Tom Brown’s School Days: “I’m the poet of White Horse Vale, sir, with Liberal notions under my cap!” For some reason those lines stuck in my head, and I’ve never forgotten them. This image became something I had to be. … I compelled myself all through to write an exercise in verse, in a different form, every day of the year. I turned out my page every day, of some sort — I mean I didn’t give a damn about the meaning, I just wanted to master the form — all the way from free verse, Walt Whitman, to the most elaborate of villanelles and ballad forms. Very good training. I’ve always told everybody who has ever come to me that I thought that was the first thing to do. And to study all the vowel effects and all the consonant effects and the variation in vowel sounds.
    • On his childhood inspiration to become a poet, and later studies and efforts to produce poetry.
  • Whitman had a profound influence on me. … He was useful to me in the perfection of form, as a sort of compromise between the strict and the free.
  • We developed a shorthand language of our own which we fell into for the rest of our lives whenever we met, no holds barred — all a matter of past reference, a common language, but basically affection, along with humor, and appreciation of each other’s minds, and of Krazy Kat . Faced with England, and the New World, and Freud and all, we always managed to relax, and go back to the kidding, and bad punning, and drinking, to the end. It really was marvelous.
  • I do believe in this evolution of consciousness as the only thing which we can embark on, or in fact, willy-nilly, are embarked on; and along with that will go the spiritual discoveries and, I feel, the inexhaustible wonder that one feels, that opens more and more the more you know. It’s simply that this increasing knowledge constantly enlarges your kingdom and the capacity for admiring and loving the universe.
  • I’ve been carrying the corpus of my grandfather — to change the famous saying—with me all my life. I was given very early two volumes of his sermons; and I never go anywhere without them. … He actually took his parish out of the Unitarian Church. As he put it, “They have defrocked not only me, but my church.” For thirty years he and the church, the New Bedford parish, were in the wilderness. Then the Unitarians, about 1890, caught up with him and embraced him. By this time he was president of the Free Religious Association and was lecturing all over the country on the necessity for a religion without dogma.
    And this inheritance has been my guiding light: I regard myself simply as a continuance of my grandfather, and primarily, therefore, as a teacher and preacher, and a distributor, in poetic terms, of the news of the world, by which I mean new knowledge. This is gone into at some length in Ushant. And elsewhere I have said repeatedly that 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.
  • A small but brilliant advance made today by someone’s awareness may for the moment reach a very small audience, but insofar as it’s valid and beautiful, it will make its way and become part of the whole world of consciousness. So in that sense it’s all working toward this huge audience, and all working toward a better man.

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