tradition in process

Eliot writes that obtaining the tradition “involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to any one who would continue to be a poet beyond his twentieth-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence.” He saw the past “altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.” The canon is steadily undergoing formation, both vertically and—more recently—horizontally. The future will applaud our generation’s widening the stream. We must not, however, as we widen the course of the canon, make its bed shallow. Despite the labor necessary to appreciate them, those dead white guys are great. Sometimes in spite of themselves. Sometimes, I suspect, not even knowing, before they wrote the work, the truth the work reveals.

Too often we ignore the fact that tradition is process. Believing that tradition is created in retrospect, we search tirelessly for the great but unpublished black lesbian poet of the seventeenth century. Perhaps someday someone will find her, and that discovery will force us to make new maps of the literary landscape. What will be changed, however, is not the landscape of the seventeenth century, but that of the generation that discovers her. For tradition, as process, is formed as we go forward. There is no doubling back, no taking that other fork in the road, no rewinding the tape.

Marilyn Nelson Waniek, “Owning the Masters,” The Gettysburg Review (Spring, 1995)

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