Conrad Potter Aiken was born in Savannah, Georgia, on August 5, 1889. When he was a small boy, his father killed his mother and committed suicide himself, a tragedy that had a profound impact on Aiken’s development. He was raised by a great-great-aunt in Massachusetts and graduated from Harvard in 1912, during the same period as T. S. Eliot and E. E. Cummings. During this time, he was also a contributing editor to Dial magazine, where he befriended Ezra Pound.
Aiken’s first collection of poetry, Earth Triumphant (Macmillan Company), was published in 1914, establishing his reputation as a poet. He avoided military service during World War I by claiming that, as a poet, he was part of an “essential industry.” During the 1920s and 1930s, Aiken traveled extensively between England and North America and married three times, once to Jessie McDonald, then to Clarissa M. Lorenz and, later, the artist Mary Hoover. (Joan Aiken, the children’s book writer, is Aiken and McDonald’s daughter.)
Most of Aiken’s poetry reflects an intense interest in psychoanalysis and the development of identity. Of the many influences Aiken acknowledged, the writings of Sigmund Freud, William James, Edgar Allan Poe, and the French Symbolists are most evident in his work. The forms and sounds of music pervade all of Aiken’s highly introspective poetry, including Collected Poems, 1916–1970 (Oxford University Press, 1970); Collected Poems (Oxford University Press, 1953), which won the National Book Award; The Kid (Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1947); Brownstone Eclogues (Duell, Sloan and and Pearce, 1942); Selected Poems (C. Scribner’s Sons, 1929), which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1930 and was reissued in 2003 with a foreword by Harold Bloom; The Charnel Rose (Four Seas Company, 1918); and The Jig of Forslin: A Symphony (Four Seas Company, 1916). His work in The Collected Novels of Conrad Aiken (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964), which includes Blue Voyage (C. Scribner’s Sons, 1927), shows Aiken to be a master of interior monologue. His novels had a profound influence on the works of many young writers of the day, including his protégé, Malcolm Lowry.
Aiken was poetry consultant to the Library of Congress (now, U.S. poet laureate) from 1950–52. His other honors include the Bollingen Prize, the Gold Medal in Poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a National Medal for Literature. Aiken’s critical essays are compiled in A Reviewer’s ABC: Collected Criticism of Conrad Aiken (W. H. Allen, 1958). His Collected Short Stories (World Publishing Company) appeared in 1960. As editor of Emily Dickinson’s Selected Poems (J. Cape, Limited, 1924), Aiken was largely responsible for establishing her posthumous literary reputation. The Selected Letters of Conrad Aiken (Yale University Press, 1978) contains correspondence with such literary colleagues as Wallace Stevens, Harriet Monroe, and Edmund Wilson, and his autobiographical book Ushant: An Essay (Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1952) affords much insight into other literary figures he knew, mingling personal references with mention of his associates.
Conrad Aiken died in Savannah in 1973.