Friday, May 04, 2007

On Tradition

I'll just let Helen C. White speak for herself when she discusses “the value of a knowledge of literary tradition for the poet.

Tradition gives a poet perspective, standards; it gives him discipline. The contemporary poet needs to be reminded of this for, like most contemporary men, he shares the contemporary illusion that the present has a reality, a validity that never was and probably never will be again. This is instinctive, I suspect, to untutored humanity. But the poet is not instinctive and untutored man or, if he is, there is no need of his remaining so. For in the works of his predecessors he has access to a sympathy and a support which his own immediate world may not always afford him.

The past is not a prison house to which he dare not return. It is the treasury of the past experience of men from which any intelligent man may draw. It is an arsenal of techniques, of imaginative resources, of hints and suggestions, of insights, and warnings, and reassurances, from which the man not imprisoned in his own moment may draw at will. Its vitality is his own surest pledge of future sympathy and helpfulness. For tradition is the continuing and deepening and widening stream of human experience. Not to enter into its mighty current is to be becalmed in a backwater, however turbulent. Not to be aware of its existence is to live and to die without ever entering into one’s human inheritance and to leave the world poorer than one found it. Tradition should be presented to the poet, then, not as something monitory or disciplinary but as something creative and fructifying and dynamic. It is that dynamic, creative function of tradition that should be stressed. And the loyalty to be invoked is not to the past but to the future.

For more along these lines, read T.S. Eliot's essay if you haven't already.

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