Tradition and the Individual Talent

No pic this time: all business.

I might have to take a step back and clarify a little about what I wrote in the article Joyce and Modernism: Why is it Important? I’ll try and iron a little of this out while also explaining a little more in-depth what’s going on with what I’ll refer to as the Living Body of Work. Or, to be more specific, the texts one studies while learning about literature, writing, and the human condition that constantly changes due to visualizing through other lenses. Examples of lenses could include structuralist focus, mythic method, cultural upbringing, fresh input or opinions on specific topics, or life experiences such as war or death of a loved one. I see it as a kind of time-stamped sociographic pattern. Reading texts in parallel that are written with previous texts in mind, creates an alternative narration for both.

Much as in other forms of art, where good artists don’t simply exist in a vacuum and create solely off creativity (although I’m certain some do), writers who write with an understanding of the vast network of previous material are steeped in the “tradition.” This is what I refer to as the “tradition” of literature. Van Gogh is a “must study” in painting, Rembrandt is a “must study” in sculpture (and painting. And possibly architecture), Milton is a “must study” in literature. That doesn’t mean everyone does. The doesn’t mean you can’t create quality, intensive books without him.

T.S. Eliot says, “Individual talent is the poet. Tradition is the expectation of knowing what has been written.” In essence, it is our duty to understand the past, what has been written then, and what talent they possessed to improve on your writing. It is also our duty to be the poet, to be the writer, and to create something new.

This is why so many people say: If you want to be a good writer, read a lot. Read a lot in your field. This reading is more than simply stuffing as much information into your head as you can, or creating an environment from which you create (read: more than. It can be these things as well). It is strengthening your writing ability, strengthening your skill with words, sentences, ideas, poetic impact. It is the scaffolding from which you begin your work.

The body of literature is a function of texts upon texts, yes, but it is also a function of intertextuality, or literally, a discussion between texts. It is a conversation that stretches through time, between writers.


We writers are a funny people we all want to communicate. Some want to write, yes, solely to get a story out of their heads. And some do. A few of those want to continue to improve on their craft, learn it and study it and become better. Some become masters, with a whole lifetime of work behind them to support the words they use.

And those masters, with the insight and ability they have, are able to alter previous writers’ words with their own. Their texts become a lens through which to view other texts.

When I read Milton, I still hear the booming silence of war.

For example, I used a line in the Modernism post about Milton’s “trippy, fourth-dimensional” writing. (I admit was a cop-out. I assumed everyone was in my class, and had studied the same texts I have, so I didn’t explain it much. Apologies. I will try to do so now, in conjunction with my current topic) His work Paradise Lost focused on the fall of the angels, the fall of Lucifer, and the war on heaven. Lucifer fell before Adam and Eve. Before pure humanity even existed. And Milton’s text wrote of that fall. In fact, it went so far into the past that it covered the dawn of the universe. Yeah. Milton had a big head. Cocky dude. He wrote the epic to end all epics. Yet he also republished the books in a series of twelve, to pay homage to the Aeneid. He wrote his epic not in the old style of kings and gods, but in a much more “domestic” in nature: Adam and Eve weren’t simply symbols of all man and all woman, they had personalities and individual qualities even before the fall. Lucifer takes center stage with wry slyness, a lithe tongue, and great ability to communicate. Before now, these things were unheard-of. Lucifer, the anti-hero?

Yet Milton wrote this with many previous texts in mind, and he wrote this in the same manner as Homer wrote his epics: with an interest in bringing the gods (God and Lucifer) and Kings (Adam and Eve) to a relatable place, for the people. The similarities in structure and construction are too many to list, here, but reading Paradise Lost, then reading the Bible changes your understanding of the Bible.

Reading Joyce’s Ulysses will change your reading of Milton, of Yeats, of the Bible, of Homer. Why? Because Joyce plays with the inherent power structures of Man and Wife to create a new, modern narrative, recounted in Homer’s Agamemnon and Helen (and Priam), Odysseus and Penelope (and Antinus), Odysseus and Calypso (and Penelope), Aphrodite and Ares (And Hephaestus), Milton’s Adam and Eve (and Lucifer), Adam and Eve (and God), Dante’s Dante and Beatrice (and God), in his own Leopold and Molly (and Blazes). Homer’s Telemachia and Odysseus are repeated in Milton’s God and Lucifer, (or, should I say, retreated), in Dante’s Dante and Virgil, in Joyce’s Dedalus and Bloom. I could branch out from these texts to find similar elsewhere, but the examples could go on, and on. To play off the original relationships recounted in Homer’s Odyssey and rebirthing them in more modern texts, these writers are breathing new life into old teachings, creating a backstory to what they write through inducing the “Muse,” or previous writers.

It is an intertextuality that, in a way, extends a narrative that began with Homer’s epics, continued through others, to the modern world. And here it stops, oddly, somewhere in the 1980’s.

This is the “tradition” of writing. As a writer, you could study 1970’s literature, and that’s it, and write in a very narrow vein and be great at it. Successful. Entertaining. As a writer, you could read the Harry Potter series, find amore in the work, write your own and be very successful without ever touching a piece of classical literature. Your individual talent continues the story.

This tradition is what I focus on, what I’ve always focused on. It is a long, winding staircase through which great advances are saved in time. These texts became cultural landmarks, and in many ways, historical ones. The tradition should stay alive, always.

(This post is, in many ways, a recreation of the Modernism post. I hope I could build off the previous one, while not including things like modern vs modernist definitions from the previous, and allow you, the reader, to better understand both this post and the Modernism one. Yes, I tried also to create a macro-focus so you could better understand the purpose of intertextuality, and why these previous writers are so important.)


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