Thomas Eliot: He won!
There will always be two traditions. With the greatest philosophical rigor we claim this to be true, and by the simplest possible mathematical reasoning, it is.
The Tradition will always be: those works that stick to each other as notable over time, comprising what cannot help but exist— due to both formal and imitative significance—as that which is definable as the—Tradition.
In poetry, these works are palpable and visible and real. This is not some abstract, theorizing gambit at work. Plato’s philosophy, Dante’s Commedia, Shakespeare’s plays, Pope’s essays, Shelley’s odes, Poe’s fiction, Dickinson’s poems, Eliot’s criticism are the Tradition— and this is a certainty, and not for argument.
This defining Tradition can only be opposed by one other tradition—the opposing tradition, which, because by definition only one tradition can exist, is not a tradition, but will be called one and will be believed (by some) to be one, as such, and exists, therefore, as a shadow exists next to a body.
There is one Tradition, one Body (made of actual works that comprise a recognized canon) and not two. We can see this logically: there is one universe and we can divide the universe up in any number of ways without violating the idea of one universe, and so, without quibbling about the fluctuating content of the Tradition, we acknowledge with simple logic the Tradition as definitionally one.
Waiting impatiently in the wings, of course, is the “other” tradition, waiting for its moment on stage, the anti-tradition, the new tradition, the different tradition, etc, etc, the inevitable shadow to the body.
Because the Tradition is, by definition, one, it cannot, without destroying its identity, admit another tradition. But just as a body may have a shadow, and just as there may exist both a thing and a desire for a thing, a Shadow or Desire Tradition has a shadowy existence which blooms in rhetoric and thought: and here is where tradition number two “exists.”
No further traditions can exist, even though “multiple counter-traditions” may dance on the tongues of a thousand professors.
Either a new work, or a new group of works, connects to the Tradition, or a new work or a new group of works desires to connect to the Tradition; in terms of what a tradition is, then, “multiple counter-traditions” is a mere shadow of a shadow, without any existence at all.
We hope the reader is following the logic of our theme and noting its iron-clad character.
We now turn to our specific case.
The canonical work has two things going for it: a formalist excellence as well as a content that enlightens or instructs in the way it reflects the world outside of it. The Tradition is not a series of works which comment and talk only to each other; art is not some place where artists speak a similar “art language” to one another; the Tradition is not a club or clique of self-imitators.
Poetry is precisely that which counteracts the ‘in-the-know’ coterie-mind and speaks to the newcomer. The word is like money: it does its job on everyone equally. One can narrow one’s appeal to a specific audience and it may elicit giggles and applause from a certain type, but playing to a type will inevitably keep one out of the canon, because the Tradition reflects the world at large and appeals to it as something immediately pleasurable— not as something one has ‘to get’ by having specialized knowledge. There is nothing wrong with specialized knowledge and universally popular art may contain specialized knowledge as one of its side features—which may be exploited by those who are endeared to that sort of thing— but it is never the source of its ultimate appeal.
The counter-tradition, as we pointed out above, is a desire to be a tradition, but a desire for a thing is not the thing, no matter how strong the desire and its rhetoric; this is why there is really only one Tradition. But the shadow Tradition can be a very convincing thing.
The most convincing and cunning shadow Tradition of all is the one constructed by T.S. Eliot in the beginning of the 20th century, the one outlined in his now iconic essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in which he flattered the Tradition by saying it was self- aware, a living chain of succession that lives anew with each work that is added to it.
T.S. Eliot, however, was a flatterer and a liar. The Tradition is not self-aware. The Tradition is not a clique of self-imitators, a club in which only art-speak is spoken. If we buy Eliot’s premise, it follows that art is only about other art (the key to post-modernism) which is the great lie of the coterie-mind. Coteries and specialized knowledge do have their place, but the Tradition, if it is one, has no place for the temptations of coteries and specialized knowledge.
The Tradition is not a series of works aware of each other; every canonical work stands on its own, reflecting the world beyond art, even as it revels in formalist mastery.
Is there occasionally a self-conscious echo among works? Of course. But this is not the ruling animus of the works which make up the Tradition, as Mr. Eliot would have us believe.
The works themselves don’t know they are in a Tradition.
We are aware of the Tradition.
The Tradition, however, is not self-aware.
Unbelievable as this may sound, the Tradition was not waiting to be blessed by the addition of Modernism.
Modernism did not change the Tradition. Modernism is interesting only in that it existed, and exists, as a cunning attempt to join the Tradition.
We mentioned T.S. Eliot, whose brilliant attempt to enter the Tradition on behalf of himself and his Modernist friends is the defining moment of Modernism itself.
“The Waste Land,” with its numerous self-conscious echoes of canonical works in the Tradition, was the embodiment of Eliot’s earlier theory expressed in “Tradition and the Individual Talent:” works talk to each other. But of course they don’t. Don’t tell T.S. Eliot that—that’s his ticket to the Big Dance.
Of course then there is the added bonus that Eliot is writing of a world ruined by post-world-war modernist calamity ostensibly never seen before, which the Tradition, hyper-aware of itself, in Eliot’s new view, will obviously welcome in order to move forward as a self-consciously historical entity.
History examines the Tradition from outside; the Tradition, however, is not itself self-consciously historical—this is the crucial difference which “Modernists” do not get.
Eliot’s theory pitches us forward into that state where art has no independent existence, but is only art talking to art, or, professors talking to each other, endlessly, in ivory towers.
This state of things—Eliot’s coup, we might call it—fortunately (for the Modernists) occurred with two other events: the take-over of literature by the university and the rise of modern art in partnership with modern poetry.
Pound and Eliot’s lawyer, John Quinn, who negotiated the book deal for “The Waste Land,” and secured Eliot the Dial magazine prize while Pound was still editing the soon-to-be-famous work, was the instrumental figure in making the Armory Show happen, the 1913 tour that made Duchamp famous and brought cubism and modern art to America. Quinn not only made the welcoming remarks at the show, he went to the U.S. Congress and successfully changed import/export laws to facilitate bringing European paintings to the U.S.
Painting witnessed content disappearing into technique as art became more abstract, a precise mirroring of what was happening to poetry in the reverse, poetry chucking its technique (metrical language) for the sake of content (imagery). The experiment simultaneously murdered the healthy fullness of both arts, but because the experiment was new, it appealed to the idea Eliot had advertised: the Tradition was not exemplifying the Best, but self-consciously unfolding the New.
Art, it was discovered, could be validated simply by hiring enough critics and building enough museums, with the added stimulus of huge profits gained in buying unknown Picassos which in a self-prophecizing frenzy, appreciated in value as the century progressed.
The Modernist scheme—academic, intellectual, aesthetic, monetary, institutional, ribald, exciting, fashionable—with the ordinary philistine masses sputtering and howling in ineffective protest—climbed heights after WW I which no one could have predicted.
Modern art successfully infiltrated modern life. Tall buildings and million dollar abstract art did some kind of Bauhaus dance which only the rich can understand.
Meanwhile, modern poetry toiled in university classrooms, gaining converts to Pound and Williams one student and one professor at a time, with help of the New Critic textbook “Understanding Poetry,” which extolled in its pages “The Red Wheel Barrow” and “A Station at the Metro.”
The New York School sealed the deal, as Harvard poets O’Hara and Ashbery, friends of modern art money, Peggy Guggenheim, mingled with abstract artists, writing poems secretly supplying what painting no longer had to offer.
Painting and poetry collapsed into each other. The Tradition wobbled. All fall down.
We read that Williams was an important counter-tradition to Eliot. Who could be more unlike than Williams and Eliot? But then we realize that Williams and Pound and Eliot all belonged to the same experimental, ‘make it new,’ Modern Art/Modern Poetry crash-the-canon clique.
If Eliot had not successfully crashed the Tradition, his friend Pound, and his friend Williams, would have lacked legitimacy—for all counter-traditions need a body in order to be its shadow. All that we find in Eliot that we do not find in Williams, then, is precisely that which got Eliot into the Tradition.
Eliot made it into the mother ship; Williams throws rocks from below.
The excellent works of the Tradition have originality as one of their features; the new is worthy, but only if it is good.
In the new order established by Eliot, however, the Tradition, we are told, values the new over the good.
Poets cease using meter; this fact, becomes, by dint of time passing, a piece of the Tradition; but this is to confuse history with the Tradition; the latter demands excellence, the former does not.
The early 20th century Imagistes borrowed from haiku, which became the rage in 1905 in the wake of the stunning Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War. This key aspect of Modernism was not new; nor was prose poetry new, either. In this case history helps us to select the truly original as a criterion for the Tradition: which is nothing more than a collection of excellent models of literature—one of those excellent features being originality.
One of Eliot’s gambits was to write poems, like “Sweeney Among the Nightingales,” with references to “Agamemnon” and “The Convent of the Sacred Heart.” This alone will not get you into the Tradition.
We now copy the work of four Modernist poets:
Two, by Hulme (a founder of Imagism who was killed in WW I) and Williams, are in the imagist tradition; Pound references, as Eliot did, old literature (the myth of Daphne and Apollo) and finally, we copy Eliot’s excerpt from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
Note the dismal flatness of the first three poems; the Eliot is the only one that moves, the only one that has real interest.
“Autumn” by T.E. Hulme
A touch of cold in the Autumn night –
I walked abroad,
And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge
Like a red-faced farmer.
I did not stop to speak, but nodded,
And round about were the wistful stars
With white faces like town children.
“Approach of Winter” by W.C. Williams
The half-stripped trees
struck by a wind together,
the leaves flutter drily
and refuse to let go
or driven like hail
stream bitterly out to one side
where the salvias, hard carmine–
like no leaf that ever was–
edge the bare garden.
“A Girl” by Ezra Pound
The tree has entered my hands,
The sap has ascended my arms,
The tree has grown in my breast -
The branches grow out of me, like arms.
Tree you are,
Moss you are,
You are violets with wind above them.
A child – so high – you are,
And all this is folly to the world.
From “Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot
The yellow fog that rubs it back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
Eliot was clever enough, with his fake Criticism, to knock down a few entrance-doors to the Tradition; but a few of his poems will keep him there.
The Tradition will finally welcome Eliot, but, as Eliot probably knew all along, it will not admit his friends.
Fragmenting counter-traditions finally become a crowd of shadows, with the dogs fighting it out in the dark, below those beacons of the influential and the blessed.