Death is never an ending, death is a change; Death is beautiful, for death is strange; Death is one dream out of another flowing.
—Conrad Aiken, House of Dust
FOR SURE, Conrad Aiken has a firm place in the pantheon of famous Savannah writers.
The Savannah-born poet published hundreds of poems, stories, novels and critical essays in his lifetime, earning a Pulitzer Prize, a Guggenheim fellowship and a U.S. Poet Laureate title. His following was small but formidable and included international icons like Sigmund Freud.
Yet while local literati can easily name a favorite Flannery O’Connor story or a sing a jingle by Johnny Mercer, most of us would be hard-pressed to quote even a single line from Aiken’s massive body of work.
As prolific as he was, Aiken might be best known around here for the traumatic events of his childhood. When he was 11, he witnessed his father shoot his mother to death and then turn the gun on himself at their home at 228 W. Oglethorpe. The young poet was then shipped off to live in Massachusetts with relatives before embarking on his 50-year writing career in England, condensed on a historical marker across the street from the site of the legendary murder-suicide.
Orlando Montoya would like to see Aiken’s work and talent come to overshadow the tragedy.
An award-winning radio personality,Connect contributor and part-time tour guide, Montoya is hosting a “Celebration of Conrad Aiken” to help people become better acquainted with the man he calls “a most gifted wordsmith.” Featuring readings, rare recordings, discussions and light refreshments, the evening will be held at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Troup Square this Friday, Aug. 12.
Montoya confesses that he didn’t really “dig in” into Aiken until a few years ago after realizing that he knew of the sensational nature of the author’s childhood but little about his writing.
Once he began reading, Montoya found an anthology that varies far beyond the realm of poetry, from serious psychological explorations to whimsical limericks, each somehow hearkening back to the theme of “finding of the truth about man, and man’s mind, and of man’s place in the universe.”
“He does amazing things with language,” marvels the self-professed Aiken convert. “He’s very musical, and the words move like a symphony.”
Montoya was inspired to delve even more deeply into Aiken’s work in 2014 after interviewing Joseph Killorin, a retired Armstrong professor and Tybee denizen who was one of Aiken’s best friends. After the interview aired on Montoya’s Savannah Podcast Radio Hour, Killorin shared the letters Aiken had written to him, some of which will be read on Friday along with selections from “Senlin,” “The Poet in Granada,” “Preludes for Memnon,” and “House of Dust.”
When it comes to scholarship, Montoya defers to his friends Bertha Husband and Mari Jo Marchnight, both of whom he says are far more versed in Aiken’s work than he.
“He’s the real deal,” confirms Husband, who has been a serious reader of Aiken’s 40-plus volumes of work since moving to Savannah in 2000. “He’s a poet of vocation, rather than a calculated careerist. He put it first in his life, and that really comes across when you’re reading. He’s very honest.”
Husband has a clear idea of why Aiken isn’t more famous.
“He wasn’t a self-publicist. He didn’t do public readings, and no university picked him up so he never taught,” she says of a modern poet’s narrow road to academic and commercial success.
“People read what they’re told to read—that’s the thing. So now we’re going to try to and tell people to read Aiken and see what it does.”
She and Marchnight will read their favorite Aiken excerpts, along with the Ships of the Sea Museum’s Tony Pizzo, who will contribute a piece about Aiken’s mentorship of writer Malcolm Lowry.
Also on the program is the poet himself: While combing the internet one night, Montoya came across a rare 1966 recording of Aiken reading his own poetry and bought the vinyl LP on the spot.
“It’s funny, you never know what someone’s going to sound like,” muses Montoya. “I don’t know what I expected, but I was a bit surprised when I heard Aiken’s voice for the first time—it has that very Boston, patrician, upper class tone.”
A few recordings will be played during the evening as well as on the “Conrad Aiken Radio Special” during the Savannah Podcast the same day at 2pm on Savannah State University’s WHCJ 90.3 FM.
While Aiken’s 1934 short story “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” was adapted for a 1971 episode of Rod Serling’s popular TV show Night Gallery, the author’s detest of self-promotion and heavy criticism of his contemporaries have earned him a reputation as the “most well-known and least read” poets of the 20th century.
“He is quite simply a genius obscured by the vagaries of posthumous remembrance, a subject about which he wrote often,” says Montoya, clicking his tongue at how Aiken’s biography similarly obscures his writing. “I hope people will take the time to get to know him.”
Being known by readers is “precisely the sort of thing” Aiken strived to do: “To present...actions and reactions, thoughts, memories and feelings—in the vain hope that at the end [the reader] will see that the whole thing represents only one moment, one feeling, one person. A raging, trumpeting jungle of associations, and then I announce at the end of it, with a gesture of despair, ‘This is I!’” he wrote plaintively.
To celebrate Conrad Aiken in August has its own significance: It is the month of both his birth (Aug. 5, 1889) and his death (Aug. 17, 1973). Despite the difficult memories that must have surfaced, Aiken returned to Savannah in his 70s and died in the house next door to the home of his troubled childhood.
He is buried in Bonaventure Cemetery next to his parents, his grave marked by a marble bench bearing the phrases “Give my love to the world” and “Cosmos Mariner—Destination Unknown.”
“One of his most famous works of fiction is called the ‘Great Circle,’” notes Montoya.
“It’s interesting that he made a great circle in his own life.”