In the course of his influential essay “Traditional and the Individual Talent,” T. S. Eliot makes a number of key points, including the following:
- Ideally, poetic “tradition” does not refer simply to what has been done in the recent past but to the whole history of the art. Serious poets have an obligation to familiarize themselves with the history of poetry, and doing so requires hard work. Merely and slavishly imitating one’s immediate predecessors is not at all the kind of attention to tradition that Eliot values.
- The serious poet must write with a strong sense of the present but also with a strong sense of the best aspects of past writing; the poet must somehow help to imbue the writing s/he does today with an awareness of the best previous writing, over hundreds and even thousands of years. As Eliot puts it,
the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence.
- To properly value a poet’s work, readers and critics must compare it with all the best poetry that has been done before:
You cannot value [the poet] alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.
- Any really important new work of poetry inevitably affects our view of all the best poetry written in the past. Just as we compare and contrast a new work with the works of the past, so we now compare and contrast that new work to the works of the traditional canon. Our view of past works affects our view of the new work, and vice versa.
- The focus of the best criticism should not be the life of the poet but on the actual poetry s/he has written.
- The best poetry is not merely personal self-expression but is the achievement of a kind of impersonal art, in which the artistry is most important. What matters is not what the poet personally felt but what the poet was able to get down effectively on paper:
To divert interest from the poet to the poetry is a laudable aim: for it would conduce to a juster estimation of actual poetry, good and bad.