This essay is a slightly edited version of an address given at a conference--'Northern Irish Poetry since 1960: The Resilient Voice'--in the Institute of English Studies, University of London (February 2003). The fact that 'Voice' seemed to be a collective noun prompted me to raise two related questions. First, to what extent does criticism, or should criticism, deal with a collectivity of poets from Northern Ireland? Second, if critics were to lay greater stress on a collective poetic phenomenon, what meaning might this have for readings of 'modern poetry'? Would it exceed the impact of what poets have separately achieved? In other words, this essay is about 'Tradition and the Individual Talent' or about tradition and a coincidence of talent. Eliot famously proposed: 'The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted. [...] Whoever has approved this idea of order [...] will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.' (1)
I am not grandly concerned with 'the whole existing order' of European literature but with how canons of modern English-language poetry have been ordered by the academy, and with how the aesthetics of modern poetry are read to justify those canonical orderings: 'relations, proportions, values'. In this sense, has 'Northern Irish Poetry since 1960' altered the past? For some poets and critics, of course, tradition, canons, and aesthetics are now beside the decentred point. Surely poetry, itself once a collective noun, has been virtuously Balkanized into 'poetries'? But the politics of poetics look much the same even if terminologies change. 'Poetries' is itself political. At a 'Language Poetry' conference in London the organizer gave the show away by shouting: 'We are the mainstream.' Further, as Eliot says, 'criticism is as inevitable as breathing'. Criticism has long lurked in the vicinity of 'Northern Irish Poetry since 1960'. Paul Muldoon, through whose poetry runs a steely literary-critical thread, says of the early 1970s: 'There was no sloppiness [...] everyone was quite outspoken.' (2) There is a long-standing joke about the 'Belfast School of Criticism' with its finely nuanced discriminations: 'shite, dog-shite, mad-dog shite'. More politely, a Frank O'Hara poem says of a friend: 'I suspect he is making a distinction | well, who isn't?' (3)
Even if Eliot's 'tradition' can sound like an exclusive gentlemen's club, he leaves matters creatively open by implying that tradition can be read only from the vantage-point of the new work: work that occupies 'the present moment of the past'. But this poses two questions which beg the question of criticism: how do we recognize that elusive temporal whereabouts 'the present moment of the past'? And which contemporary poems have 'altered the past'? It is relevant that Northern Irish poets are themselves critically interested in tradition (see below); but the nature of that interest requires a preliminary comparison between Eliot and W. B. Yeats.
'Tradition and the Individual Talent' conceals debts to, and dialogues with, Yeats. Eliot's readings or misreadings of Yeats (and vice versa) underline the inter-national dynamics that engendered 'modern poetry'. Eliot's simplest definition of tradition, that 'no poet has his complete meaning alone', applies not only to critical retrospect but to creative exchange in 'the present moment of the past'. When he was incubating 'Tradition and the Individual Talent', Eliot reviewed Gregory Smith's Scottish Literature and Yeats's The Cutting of an Agate, putting down both in an anti-Celtic double whammy. Thus, in a review headed 'A Foreign Mind', he judged Yeats's world so different from 'ours' as to make its foreignness not just 'national' but 'physiological'. The Anglo-American first-person universal-plural also kickstarts 'Tradition and the Individual Talent': 'In English writing we seldom speak of tradition'. This was cheeky since Eliot had so recently read Yeats's 1907 essay 'Poetry and Tradition'. (4)
These foundational essays overlap in that both are strikes against Wordsworthian/English subjectivism. If neither poet can escape the paradox that individual talents may subjectively cast tradition in their own current aesthetic image, such positioning itself feeds the dialectics that constitute tradition. Among several verbal overlaps: Yeats praises 'perfection of personality, the perfection of its surrender'; Eliot urges 'not the expression of personality, but an extinction of personality'. Yeats recommends 'long frequenting of the great Masters'; Eliot says: 'tradition [...] cannot be inherited [...] you must obtain it by great labour'. The main difference is that Eliot sticks to literature while Yeats, even in an essay that belongs to his gyre of retreat from Irish movements, links and identifies poetic tradition with communal tradition: with nationality, folk-lore, aristocracy. Hence Poetry and Tradition. Yeats pictures tradition as 'an unbroken thread' or 'an old and broken stem' with a newly grafted rose. Ireland's supposed advantage is that it offers poets living 'precedents in the popular memory'. But tradition must be 'shaped' too, by the artist, by society. Yeats's images of shaping are an anvil and 'little walled towns' in Renaissance Tuscany. The two (rather 1890s) adjectives that he plays off one another are 'ancient' and 'deliberate': 'ancient imagination', 'the makers of deliberate literature'. In contrast, Eliot, whose architectural subtext seems more London than Urbino, pictures tradition as a centrally established 'order': 'the existing monuments', 'the main current'. As for people named in the essays: they share Homer and Shakespeare, but Yeats's mentors or co-workers in tradition span politics and more recent poetry: John O'Leary, Henry Grattan, Giuseppe Mazzini, John Mitchel, William Allingham, Samuel Ferguson, Edward Walsh, Lionel Johnson, Katharine Tynan, William Morris, John Ruskin. These names invoke European cultural nationalism, English aestheticism, Irish poetry. Like Eliot, Yeats represents the object of activating 'tradition' as being to make it new: in his case, to give Irish poetry 'a more subtle rhythm, a more organic form'.
This is, admittedly, to compare pre-war and post-war essays and to ignore other writings by both poets. Yet key differences were to continue into the 1930s. Yeats's influence on English and American poetry in that decade, and his aesthetic dialectics with Eliot and Pound, have been neglected by most constructions of 'modernism'. In 'A General Introduction for My Work' Yeats says (more positively than usual) that Pound and Lawrence 'wrote admirable free verse', but he could not. The well-known passage which glosses this inability defines tradition as the mutations of form, persona, and genre:
Because I need a passionate syntax for a passionate subject-matter I compel myself to accept those traditional metres that have developed with the language. [...] If I wrote of personal love or sorrow in free verse, or in any rhythm that left it unchanged, amid all its accidence, I would be full of self-contempt because of my egotism and indiscretion. [...] I must choose a traditional stanza, even what I alter must seem traditional. I commit my emotion to shepherds [...] learned men, Milton's or Shelley's Platonist. [...] I am a crowd, I am a lonely man, I am nothing. Ancient salt is best packing. (5)
Here Yeats again attacks …