TS Eliot famously remarked that "a tradition without intelligence is not worth having".

In saying this, it seems clear that he was critiquing a common misconception that confuses tradition with the dead letter of convention. In fact, as Italian poet Eugenio Montale points out, tradition is the polar opposite of conventionality.

"Where tradition is understood not as a dead weight of forms, of extrinsic rules and customs, but as an inner spirit, a genius of the race, a consonance with the most enduring spirits that our country has produced, then it becomes somewhat difficult to suggest an external model for it or draw a precise lesson from it," he wrote. "Tradition is continued not by those who want to do so, but by those who can."

Montale was speaking about Italy, though his idea of tradition could easily be applied to many other European countries. Where it becomes more problematical, however, is where questions of "race" and "our country" have been points of issue. For example, what happens when a tradition, and even a language, are imposed on a poet by those who colonised her ancestral home and eradicated much of her culture?

"I have forgotten my name in the language I was born to," says the Muscogee Native American poet Joy Harjo, who writes in English because, having been educated in the language and traditions of those who displaced her forebears, she has no choice.

As a poet, this led her to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and to academic positions, but the work she produced, though written in what she has called "the enemy’s language", remained true to that forgotten name. "I have a responsibility to all the sources that I am," she has said: "To all past and future ancestors, to my home country, to all places that I touch down on and that are myself, to all voices, all women, all of my tribe, all people, all earth, and beyond that to all beginnings and endings." In her poem How to Write a Poem in a Time of War, she tells the story of a people invaded by a nameless army: "We tried to pretend war wasn’t going to happen. Though they began building their houses all around us and demanding more. They started teaching our children their god’s story/A story in which we’d always be slaves."

This could be a painfully succinct summary of what happened to the indigenous people of North America when whites arrived, but it could also be applied to any colonised culture. What Harjo sets up in opposition to this war, however, is a powerful expression of survivance, an act of indigenous self-validation that the Anishinaabe scholar and writer Gerald Vizenor defines as "an active sense of presence, the continuance of native stories, not a mere reaction, or a survivable name. Native survivance stories are renunciations of dominance, tragedy, and victimry. Survivance means the right of succession or reversion of an estate, and in that sense, the estate of native survivancy."

As is so often the case in her work, Harjo emphasises the importance of narrative song and story to this process of reclaiming native presence. Her pledge to "to all voices, all women, all of my tribe, all people" reveals the profound commitment that the project of native survivance demands.

A somewhat different approach can be found in African American poet Terrance Hayes’s extraordinary poem Snow for Wallace Stevens, from his 2010 collection Lighthead: "No one living a snowed-in life can sleep without a blindfold."

The reference here is to the Wallace Stevens not only of The Snow Man but also of Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery, a poem in which Stevens reveals a brand of casual racism that has tainted his work for many readers. As an African-American poet working in an American tradition, however, Hayes cannot simply abandon a predecessor of Stevens’s importance, and so, as he seeks to find a way to avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as it were, he works the last line of Like Decorations into what he calls his "song": "This song is for the wise man who avenges/by building his city in snow."

From the first, Hayes identifies Stevens’s snowed-in life as a retreat, the whiteness blinding, his city predicated on vengeance. As for the "song" he claims to be addressing to Stevens, he explained in an interview with the poet David Wojahn that "the contradictory gesture of singing for a foe is meant to be ironic and sincere. It’s maybe more complicated than ambivalent. It’s another moment of trying to capture paradoxical impulses."

What is problematical here – what leads to those paradoxical impulses – is that Stevens, in spite of his racism and his retreat into the comforts of Hartford, remains a formidable poet and an essential figure in the tradition to which Hayes belongs. Stevens’s genius as a poet is a source of wonder: "How, with pipes of winter lining his cognition, does someone learn to bring a sentence to its knees?"

At the same time, Hayes is obliged to recognise a poetic connection with a man whose routine prejudices he abhors, to the extent that, like Stevens: "I too, having lost faith in language, have placed my faith in language.

"It is here, in this recognition, that the surprising yet wonderfully elegant turning point of the poem comes as Hayes resorts not to anger, or hatred, but to the basic imperative that, officially at least, lies at the heart of white Christian morality: "Thus, I have a capacity for love without forgiveness. This song is for my foe, the clean-shaven, gray-suited, gray patron of Hartford, the emperor of whiteness blue as a body made of snow."

Now the song is for a "foe", which means that the love Hayes speaks of is love for an enemy. That love does not imply forgiveness, however; after all, Jesus may have instructed his followers to love their enemies, but he did not demand that they overlook the enemy’s misdeeds. In fact, is it not a vital element of charitable love that we recognise others for what they are, and do not blind ourselves to their flaws?

What Jesus was advocating was, as Hayes puts it here, a specific capacity, an ability to hold or contain the anger and disappointment that arises from recognition of an author’s failures alongside the love one feels for the example of his work. That capacity – love without forgiveness – is born of hope, not optimism, and it is this that informs both its truth and its elegance.

Where optimism (like pessimism, which is by no means its opposite) is frequently a mistake, hope is always an act of courage, even when it is contradicted by every rule of logic. As we have noted, optimism speaks of the individual or in-group, not for the species as whole.

Optimism tries to engineer accord by setting up sociological standards by which to judge art; hope thrives on the idea that the fundamental measure of an art work – of anything at all – is its quality. Quality, first and last.

The task remains to seek out quality work wherever it is being made, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation and geography (i.e. social class), but we have to remember that "regardless" – and, like Terrance Hayes, we need to exercise the great virtue of love without forgiveness, so that the tradition may continue, even while we take cognisance of, and then set aside, the uglier characteristics of its practitioners, and of the sometimes rapacious cultures to which, historically and geographically at least, they belonged.

We do not overlook Pound’s anti-Semitism, and we do not forgive Stevens his racism (an impossibility, according to Christian doctrine, in fact; for the sinner to be forgiven, he or she must first repent, and there is no persuasive evidence of such contrition in either case).

We treasure the work, however, because it adds something to a "live tradition" that is forever changing and adapting and, as Hayes so pertinently asks about us all: "Who is not more than his limitations?"

Extract from The Music of Time: Poetry in the Twentieth Century. Copyright © John Burnside, 2019. Reproduced with permission by Profile Books Ltd. The book is available now, priced £25.