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Four Poets on Interacting with Tradition

Gary Snyder in The Poet’s Work.

I learn [from an ideal mentor] what it really takes to be a craftsman, what it really means to be committed, what it really means to work. What it means to be serious about your craft . . . Not backing off any of the challenges that are offered to you. You know, like not being willing to read books . . . You run into people who want to write poetry who don’t want to read anything in the tradition. That’s like wanting to be a builder but not finding out what different kinds of woods you use.


John Haines in this interview.

One of the reasons I think Yeats is such a pivotal figure in modern poetry is that he was able to make use of the old tradition of ballads and folk poetry—which is part of himself, of his background—and then he wove this material, one way or another, into the modern period. But he kept the best of the old tradition—the musicality and the forms. And most of us of don’t have that background. We’ve lost it.


Michael Robbins in a January 2009 interview with Zach Baron of The Village Voice

I think part of [writing good poetry] is that you really have to realize how hard it is. You know, you can’t just sit down and — I mean, this is banal answer [sic], but it’s something that requires a great deal of immersion in the tradition. I kinda decided when I was in my twenties that I was just going to read everything. So I read Blake and Milton and Pope and Chaucer and Donne, and Shakespeare, and I read Philip Larkin and John Ashbery and I just read as much as I could, and I didn’t worry about whether it was sanctioned by this or that school. And I read poems that I hated and I read poets that I thought were terrible, and I read poets that just moved me into a completely different ballpark in terms of my appreciation of poetry.

You know, I never write without spending some time looking at other people’s poems. Just kind of trying to remind myself how well this has been done before, and how much I’m going to have to sweat to get something that anyone else is going to care about.


Wendell Berry in The Poet’s Work.

[T]here is much that we need that we cannot get from our contemporaries—even assuming that the work we have from them is the best that is possible: they cannot give us the sense of the longevity of human experience, the sense of the practicable, of proven possibility, that we get from older writing. Our past is not merely something to depart from; it is to commune with, to speak with. “Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night showeth knowledge.” Remove this sense of continuity, and we are left with the thoughtless present tense of machines. If we fail to see that we live in the same world that Homer lived in, then we not only misunderstand Homer; we misunderstand ourselves. The past is our definition. We may strive, with good reason, to escape it, but we will escape it only by adding something better to it.

If, as I believe, one of the functions of tradition is to convey a sense of our perennial nature, and of the necessities and values that are the foundation of our life, then it follows that without a live tradition we are necessarily the prey of fashion: we have no choice but to emulate in the arts the “practical” men of commerce and industry whose mode of life is distraction of spirit and whose livelihood is the outdating of fads.


About David Oestreich

David Oestreich lives in northwest Ohio with his wife and three children. He is a maker of poems, photographs, fishing flies, and Saturday afternoon semi-haute cuisine. His poetry has appeared in various venues, both print and online.

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