I was just reading a lecture by Jorge Guillén on Pedro Salinas (both poets were members of the Generation of ’27). He quotes T.S. Eliot as saying, “If we have no living literature, we shall become more and more alienated from the literature of the past.”

Well, Eliot was right, as the subsequent years have proven. The decay in the quality of contemporary poetry over the past 40 years can hardly be unrelated to the devaluation and ignorace of the poetry of the past. And vice versa.

Guillén then quotes Salinas as saying, “Tradition is the fullest degree of freedom that the writer can have…The artist who manages to master his tradition is freer because he knows more lines along which to explore.”

This is exactly the benefit of poets learning to master the primary forms of the tradition they are writing in, and against. I’m no poetic hermeticist. One of the most exciting things to do in writing poetry is to find new ways. But of all the artistic disciplines, poetry has been the most ill-served by the excessive theorizing and bland egalitarianism of the academy.

Guillén was right, quoting Giambattista Vico, verum ipsum factum. The truth is the thing made. No amount of theory will ever be equal to learning to master the forms. Even, or especially, if your goal is to break them.

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