…if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, “tradition” should positively be discouraged.... Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want if you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense [which] involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order….
No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead... what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them.… 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…Of course a lot of people, my students among them, do find it preposterous that the present can modify the past (and it is preposterous, in the root meaning of that word: "preposterous" originally meant a confusing of time periods, a placing of the pre- and the post- in the wrong positions). But there's some sense to Eliot here. Consider Satan. Or, at any rate, consider Satan from Milton's Paradise Lost. Milton means for him to be a villain, but William Blake famously observed in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that Milton was "of the Devil's party without knowing it," meaning that Milton was more of a rebel than he thought he was, that a poem intended as a defense of obedience to God was really more in love with individualism than anything else. And after Romanticism — after Blake's Milton and Shelley's Prometheus Unbound and a thousand other poems and plays and novels that echo and reinterpret Milton — it's difficult to see Paradise Lost as one could see it before Romanticism. Milton's initially villainous Satan now seems to have had many of the positive qualities the Romantics found in him.
By the time we get to modernism, this kind of revisiting and revising of the literature of the past has become one of the major poetic moves: Eliot scrapes together the fragments that make up his Waste Land, Pound reworks Homer in The Cantos, David Jones mines Welsh literature and legend, H.D. reworks the classics in Helen in Egypt, and so on. (It's important to make a distinction here between modernism and the avant-garde, which often wanted to shrug off the past).
The age demanded an image
Of its accelerated grimace,
Something for the modern stage,
Not, at any rate, an Attic grace;
Not, not certainly, the obscure reveries
Of the inward gaze;
Than the classics in paraphrase!
The "age demanded" chiefly a mould in plaster,
Made with no loss of time,
A prose kinema, not, not assuredly, alabaster
Or the "sculpture" of rhyme.
There's another issue involved, too, which we might think of as political. When a poet talks to dead people, you're not going to understand the conversation if you, too, haven't tuned in to the past and done the (pleasurable, luxurious) work of acquiring a sense of the appropriate traditions. Many people find this off-putting right at the start. Many, too, find it elitist: it sets up a certain barrier to instant understanding for the reader, and, if you take it as a principle not just of reading but of writing, it sets up a very high cost of entry for anyone seeking to set up as a poet.
It’s often said that “difficult” poems exclude potential readers. This can certainly be true, but I feel excluded by poems that give me nothing to do as a reader, that offer me no new experience and nothing I didn’t already know. It’s wearying to read such poems, and it makes me want to watch music videos instead, where at least one sometimes gets glimpses of shirtless guys with six-pack abs. Any good poem gives the reader something, what Allen Grossman calls the interest of the world: feelings, sensations, experiences.
Reginald may have looked for different things in music videos than I do, but we have turned to poems for the same reasons.
With regard to the charge that the approach to becoming a poet that Eliot outlined in "Tradition and the Individual Talent" is elitist and restrictive — one can only respond that it's true. If you want to be the kind of poet who talks to dead people (and that's not the only kind of poet), you're going to have to spend a lot of time in conversation with old books. There's certainly an elitism to this, in that it requires a great deal of time and effort, and there's a material and financial reality behind the opportunity to take that time and make that effort. Of course the old modernist path to becoming a poet does not propose as great a material and financial burden as the new, 21st century way of becoming a poet we have in America: the completion of an MFA program. It's what our age demands, and in a way, the existence of these programs has shown the inexorable progress of the very forces of modernity — standardization, credentialing, commercialization, and commodification — that led so many modernists to turn against modernity itself and immerse themselves in the splendid alterity of the past.