The conversation with the classical works has changed meaning. What once they were, they are not today. They are, but they will always be something other, and yet they can preserve their intensity across historical time – a most important quality. At some points the connection is integration, at others a distance, but the dialogue never ceases to acquire a new character.
The ‘old ones’ are interesting not because they are old, but for the simple reason that some of them are masters. What makes their works classics is not only that they are executed with artistic precision, but that they contain a universal value. They are still able to make an impression and set our minds ablaze, they still urge us to read and re-read them, and to reconsider them. New poetry that really wants to be challenging must take the poetry of earlier times seriously.
The idea of a tabula rasa is an illusory one. All that we know, we know through language. Even our thoughts can never really be said to be our own. To a certain extent, therefore, tradition is already forced upon us. It would, moreover, be extremely foolish to try to ignore the past, or pretend to have lost our memory. Why not examine what the art that now exists looks like? Why not find out where it can be carried on from? For how otherwise is one to contribute something new and never seen before?
An epoch is characterised at least as much by what it reads as by what it writes.
The new does not consist in an overturning of the older poetry, in fact the new exists only by virtue of it. Ideas may take a rest and acquire topicality again, or with intervals of years may prove to be unexpected challenges. The question is not: what would my poems look like without a tradition? But: would they exist at all, had not poems been written before?
For something to be able to call itself new, it must be new in relation to something else. If I want to seek the new, it will not happen unless I have first made discoveries in what has gone before, or at any rate the new will not allow itself to be embraced with a flight from the past. Knowledge of tradition is required if I want to step over that tradition and not run the risk of writing poems that have already been written. Only by acquiring an insight into the poetry of earlier times can I have any hope - starting from my personal universe - of continuing the aesthetic articulation that all art is.
Every reading of the classical works adds new knowledge to what one already has. Thus one book is more than a book, it is a conscious multiplication, for the greatest works are born of many other readings and are therefore bearers of an insight and a memory at which no one would be able to arrive at, no matter how long they lived.
The poet who has run out of ideals is finished.
translated from Danish by David McDuff
Over the Water I Walk (II) - 1
Note: the posts with the translated text of Chapter I can be accessed here.