In T. S. Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” he argues that the past and the present are both important aspects of tradition. Consider the main point of the first part of the essay:
the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.
According to Eliot, poetry should not be about imitating the writers of the past, nor should it be about creating work that is completely original and separated from the poetry of the past. Instead, poetry should build on the traditions of past writers and expand on their ideas with new ones. In doing so, the concept of tradition is constantly evolving out of what it once was. Thus according to Eliot, poets must understand the literary traditions of the past and be familiar with what is considered the European literary canon. This will allow them to understand the consciousness of the past but also “develop this consciousness” in their own careers.
Since Eliot feels that poetry exists in this steadily evolving concept of tradition, he goes on to stress that poets must be separated from their poems. He thinks literary criticism should focus on the poem itself instead of the poet, since poets do not write in isolation but as part of a tradition.