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Biography of Conrad Aiken

by PoetrySoup

Conrad Aiken was born in Savannah, Georgia on August 5, 1889 and died in the same town exactly 84 years and 12 days later. As a young boy, Aiken heard the gunshots that resulted in the murder of his mother and the subsequent suicide of his father which led to the long and eventful interim spent primarily in New England between his introduction to the world deep in the heart of Dixie and his final goodbye in the and his final goodbye to that world deep in the heart of Dixie. Among the highlights of that life spent away from Savannah was the publication of his novel "Great Circle" which can be interpreted as literary working through of the horrific trauma that defined his youth and poetry collections that earned him both a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize.

That Pulitzer Prize was awarded in 1930 for his poetry collection "Selected Poems" and with it Conrad Aiken became the native-born Georgian writer to ever receive the prestigious honor. The previous year saw Aiken become not just the first Georgian to win the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, but the first person born anywhere: Aiken was the inaugural recipient of this high and rare honor he would later share with such luminaries of the form as e.e. cummings, Edgar Lee Masters, Anne Sexton and Robert Pinsky.

"Collected Poems" earned Aiken his National Book Award for poetry in 1954. The poems that make up that volume as well as those that define such highly regarded works as "Preludes for Memnon" and "The House of Dust: A Symphony" and "Punch" The Immortal Liar" all serve the reveal the depth and breadth of the education at some of the finest private schools in New England his aunt was able to afford. His tenure at Harvard University resulted in co-editorship of that school's literary magazine, The Advocate, with no less a towering figure of 20th century poetry than T.S Eliot. The penetrating psychological subtext and expansively illuminating context of history and myth that define his poetry and make him worthy of comparisons to Eliot by many critics conspire to give lie to the conventional wisdom that formal education is of little use to the artistic temperament.

Conrad Aiken never quite realized the acclaim of contemporaries like Eliot nor did he enjoy the enamor of the public like e.e. cummings, but his hold on the history of 20th century literature still managed to surreptitiously find its way into the pop culture landscape. One of Aiken's most anthologized and enigmatic short stories (Aiken's use of prose almost manages to transmogrify the story into the ultimate example of Modernist poetic experimentation), "Silent Snow, Secret Snow" was produced as an episode of Rod Serling's post-Twilight Zone 1970s horror anthology series "Night Gallery" and has since come to be viewed by many as one of the finest literary penetrations into the thought process of the autistic mind.

More recently, Aiken entered into the pop culture zeitgeist courtesy of the bench at his gravesite in Savannah becoming something of a supporting character in the best-selling book "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil."