Thomas Eliot set the old poetry world in order, by george, he did!
T.S. Eliot was correct to remind us that the Tradition—Works in Time that We Read Now—evolves constantly as a whole by every present addition, is a unique living creature, and is not simply a chronological collection, to be ‘got at’ in a haphazard (even if the ‘getting’ is rigorously chronological) manner; Eliot’s formula only works if we see the Tradition as a whole—not that we can really see it ‘all at once,’ because, of course, it is too big for that—which we grasp in its essence (characterized by its best examples going back to its hazy but finite beginning) as that which simultaneously enriches our present efforts as poets and is enriched by our present efforts. As Eliot points out—but it goes without saying—this is a major task: first, to read and be acquainted with the Tradition, and then to be good enough to effectively add to it. And nothing less than this is required if we take ourselves seriously as poets.
Two temptations face those who would somehow fight free of the Tradition.
It is tempting to say, here’s me, the poet, and here’s the world, and that’s enough; and the Tradition—which is over here, well, we can take it and toss it in the sea. Eliot, after all, was a conservative wretch, and making the Tradition, with all its weighty past, essential, was just his way of preventing change. We can toss the Tradition in the sea, but it will just emerge again; the Tradition is the Sea; the Tradition includes the very desire to erase itself, all for the sake of change; the temptation to destroy Tradition lives and breathes in the Tradition itself; as Eliot so pointedly observed, the past is what we are; Eliot’s is not a piece of advice—it is the primary literary fact. We are not standing on the shoulders of giants; we are the shoulders, and thus, the giants.
Another temptation is to treat more recent works in the Tradition as more essential, because they are closer to us in time. This is to fall into the chronological error: more recent works are assumed—within Eliot’s very definition—to be participating in Eliot’s formula: adding and altering the past with their novelty; but new works don’t succeed on their own; they only succeed in altering the Tradition—chronology does not exist in some worldly sense; we might read a 16th century work and the Whole Tradition grows a new limb for us; to bite off what is nearest to us in time is merely the world’s chronology, not the Tradition’s, nor ours. We are learning the Tradition, not where it “fits” in the world; to fit the Tradition “into” the world, even as we regard it with scholarly and historical respect, is to drift dangerously into the error of the First Temptation, above. The Tradition is not what we know; it is how we know, and we learn it to know both it and ourselves simultaneously—once we try and observe it objectively from afar, we are lost in that profound error of the egotistical scholar and the manic, irresponsible poet, publishing in a newspaper: the news, not poetry.
The progress of the Tradition and Us in Time is not a smooth or simple one. If this were so, it would be a lot harder to grasp. It is only possible to grasp the Tradition at all, precisely because it includes those authors who are of such primary importance that they obliterate, eclipse, swallow, subsume, assimilate, join, conquer, raze, and eat thousands of lesser scribblers, including the most advanced minds of our time: Shakespeare, for instance; once your professor has finished showing you what he or she knows of Shakespeare, is eaten by Shakespeare, and Shakespeare now belongs to you, and Shakespeare of the Tradition now belongs, in a living, and ever changing sense, to you.
The Program Era is naturally a bit wary of the Tradition, for the Creative Writing Industry is driven by a more immediate and practical concern—training the student, for a price, to be a writer—and it naturally seeks a shortcut past the giant, devouring Tradition—which the Creative Writing student—the old “English Major,”—has neither the time, nor the inclination, to read.
There is also the matter of present politics—politics as it exists and is practiced in the present (“Current Events”)—not literally ‘present politics,’ the practice of reading, as much as possible, present works, regarding their recent existence as more important because more recent—which we already covered in the Second temptation, above, but those recent politics that puff themselves up with great importance, which of course has the advantage of appealing to contemporaneous minds embroiled in all sorts of specific moral issues of the day; but the danger is: in as much as these issues come to the foreground, poetry fades into the background, where it apparently still exists for those whose moral indignation is fed by an outside source without poetic qualities. The dynamic is a slippery and subtle one, but is sufficiently lawful to kill poetry completely. A moral skin, a moral appearance, hides the emptiness.
Poetry does not live in the abstract; it lives in poetry: “Ode On A Grecian Urn.”
Poetry is not abstract. Even “the abstract” is not abstract. The abstract, by definition, is the boiled down essence of the forms, motions, shapes, speeds, accelerations, masses and vectors of the universe.
Useful abstraction aids the true understanding, which like Eliot’s Tradition, does not advance by accumulation of facts—which can make us dumber, loading us down with the mere puzzling plurality of the useless (the dull, wooly idiocy of the modernist gizmo school)—but rather by the shedding of facts, and so by careful elimination, the necessary necessarily enlightens the necessary.
The larger world, perceived by the mature person, has a use attached to every fact, and uses further attached to uses, in various and hierarchical ways. The best is not shied away from; transcendent inventions and breakthroughs are eagerly seized upon; poems are not treated as the learned expression of a scientist, nor as a scientific attempt at abstraction (the great error of Modernism) but rather as a great counter-expression to science and learning: otherwise the poem would drive the Tradition and not be driven by it; the poem and Tradition would not be distinct, and they must be, for either to properly exist; we study the Tradition, but not the poem—whose property is beauty, which can never be ‘got at’ by study. To miss this distinction is to miss everything.
We look at Keats’ Ode through the lens of the Tradition, and this is how we understand its greatness.
The person who does not find exquisite pleasure in reading Keats’ Ode certainly lacks those qualities that we look for not only in a poet, but in a human being; but this is not the same thing as reading the Ode through the lens of the Tradition, which we perform only in the aftermath of its beauty devouring us. The poets who attempt to reverse this process, by writing a Tradition-worthy poem before they experience the pleasure necessary to write a pleasurable poem, are barred from the glory which we find in Keats’ Ode.
The phrase “what maidens loth?” in the context of Keats’ Ode—the urn stands for the world in Keats’ poem, laid out before us, in mystery, in beautiful miniature (find another poem which replicates all existence as well)—contains a great deal: maidens pursued, maidens who resist this pursuit, the question, “what maidens?” as the misty yet clear world of the urn is gazed at, manifests greatness by saying a lot with a little.
The objective excellence belongs to the poem of the Tradition, but not to the poem—even though we feel what is objectively excellent as we experience the poem’s beauty.
Keats, feeling pure sentimental love (which the Moderns in their sophistication revile and ridicule and curse) dares to confront a great black hole of existence: maidens and the essence of maidenhood—which flashes at us quickly in the amoral, rolling-eye ecstasy of Keats’ ur-landscape, which offers sacrifice, rape, and love, and the stopping of a kiss (desire) which therefore preserves the lover’s beauty—the stoppage, ironically, driving the urn’s immortal journey through time; enabling the urn (and the poem!) to outlive us and our apparently more active life:—it is we who are stopped, while the poem/urn is that which, in an ironic reversal, moves, just as the delirious, metrical wonder that is Keats’ poem pitches forward with its music, and, in loving it, we move backward to read it again, our admiration turning the poem into an object of admiration that nonetheless constantly moves, imitating the ever-still, ever-moving universe, both beautiful/tragic in its stillness and beautiful/tragic in its moving. Did Keats consider all this before he wrote his poem? Obviously not; but surely the poet in him quickly fixed on the urn-idea for a poem; genius grasping and teasing out the many in an essential thing.
The simpleton, who sits passively in front of a film while it unpacks its frozen pictures to describe its story, finds it impossible to conceive how a poem merely sitting on a page could produce more insight and pleasure than a movie (with popcorn). Poor simpleton! The simpleton belongs to the world, not to the world and God. If we cannot appreciate a Keats poem and the Tradition, we are just like that simpleton, who may indeed feel as much pleasure as us, and in that sense, be as worthy. We cannot judge a simpleton or a poem; we bring about judgment (as we are doing here) only as we think with the self-consciousness of the Tradition.