From the inaugural Poets Forum, presented by the Academy of American Poets on October 20, 2007, at Marymount College in New York City. On the second panel of the day, Frank Bidart, Rita Dove, Sharon Olds, and Gerald Stern answered questions about "Drawing From the Past, Breaking From the Past" from poet Elizabeth Alexander.
I think it's fruitful to think of previous works of art as containers that people have found for things that are crucial to them. Then you try to understand what that container is doing, and see if you can use a similar container, or learn something from how that container was used? And let me give an example.
In terms of my own life, I remember very early in the middle Sixties, the whole world discovered the work of Sylvia Plath. And when I first read "Lady Lazarus," which I think is a great poem; it certainly seemed to me a new and original work. But, of course, it is a dramatic monlogue: it is spoken by Lady Lazarus, who is a figure in a side show—"Gentlemen, ladies / These are my hands / My knees"—she's also a holocaust victim of the Nazis. She is someone who has a similar autobiographical background with Sylvia Plath—and there is a part of that poem that seems sort of out of The Bell Jar—and at the end, she's the phoenix: "Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air."
You feel that she has treated the dramatic monologue, she has filled that form—which is a form we all grew up with, and I suppose I first experienced in Shakespeare, and "Prufrock" was one of my favorite poems—she's filled it in a new way, but she didn't have to invent a form out of nothing. When we walk into a room, well, we've seen a lot of people walk into rooms, and we know how—but the way we do it will be a little different.
When we fill a form, out of our insight, passion, intensity, it's going to change the form. And it seems to me as an artist what one wants is not the reader to say oh my, isn't she cleverly manipulating a dramatic monologue, but Plath makes one feel that this subject, this process of almost dying every ten years but not dying and coming back as triumphant and dangerous, she makes one feel that that is the center of her consciousness. And you don't think about the variations she has done on dramatic monologue—but she has.
So I argue that on the one hand one feels a work is powerful and original when the writer's eye is on those animating insights that lead one to write the poem in the first place, and you're not saying look how clever I am in relation to the tradition. But, in fact, you are using something from the tradition; you are using a form or container, but you are making it seem so necessitous, it is so animated by a sense that this is how I must speak, that it feels fresh and original. And that is a way in which something—I think it's what Eliot means in the first half of "Tradition and the Individual Talent" when he talks about somebody conforming to the past, but being new, and truly new.