The poet said truly unique artists understand tradition…but what he meant by tradition might surprise you.
The other day I was skimming a really old copy I have of a collection of T.S. Eliot’s essays, and the very first essay in the series was called “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” It’s an insightful little read that deals with the question of the proper relationship between the talented person (poet, novelist, whatever) and tradition.
The piece made me think of the word “artsy.” It’s funny, we use the word “artsy” to describe someone or something that is intensely individual. That woman I’m friends with is “artsy” because she dresses in a noticeably unusual but very intentional way. Home decor is artsy when it looks like it was purchased from Anthropologie and then spray painted. The odd thing is, though, that “artsy” people tend to dress and act the same way as each other. Likewise, people who stubbornly try to dress in a way that challenges norms also tend to dress like each other (e.g. goths, hippies, or hip hop moguls). And that’s the funny thing–the more we try to be individual and unique, the more we find ourselves hopelessly enmeshed in traditions. We can’t escape them. And even choosing a smaller, newer, alternative “tradition” based on an oddball from the 1960s requires us to engage (at some level) Tradition itself; the thing from which that oddball was fleeing.
Eliot points out that we usually use the word “tradition” in a negative sense, e.g. “it’s too traditional.” We also tend to think of tradition as mindless habit or repetition. He challenges this understanding of tradition, and with it our understanding of what it means to be unique. He thinks anyone who wants to be a poet past age 25 (and I think we could say this about other artists and even politicians as well) has to grapple with true tradition. Because that’s the only way a creator can become truly individual.
Here’s an excerpt worth reading:
“[We have a] tendency to insist, when we praise a poet, upon those aspects of his work in which he least resembles anyone else. In these aspects or parts of his work we pretend to find what is individual, what is the peculiar essence of the man. We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet’s difference from his predecessors, especially his immediate predecessors; we endeavour to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed. Whereas if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously. And I do not mean the impressionable period of adolescence, but the period of full maturity.
“Yet if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, ‘tradition’ should positively be discouraged. We have seen many such simple currents soon lost in the sand; and novelty is better than repetition. Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaneity.”
This post was originally published on February 16 2012.