Symbolism and literary devices make eloquence possible. Without it we would be hunkered down to literal meanings. While we can make a little head way without allusion in keeping writing as something aesthetic that can truly be enjoyed we need those little bits of language that make it all worth while.
Are we declining in our use of image devices in literature?
Arguing that we have flattened our culture or dumbed it down in the US actually manages to pack some rhetorical punch. Proving it, well that’s always a bit harder, but if one were to attempt such a thing the decline in symbolism and complexity in our popular culture would seem like a good place to start.
However, I think that’s the wrong approach.
It’s impossibly difficult to get a good aggregate sense of writing across the centuries. I’m sure someone could manage that task, an imaginary elite team of people willing to read the dross from over the centuries and chronicle the transformation of literature may be able to accomplish this herculean task… But let’s face it, they would want to be paid for their work at some point.
I want to counter the prevailing sensation through what is probably falacious reasoning. First, I think it is wrong to assume the literary skill of an entire generation, and while I think there are great improvements to be made in areas like education and cognitive skill specifically for the complex problems that we face now, that does not mean that we are any better or worse off than the generations that preceded us.
Importantly, we can note that there are still insanely beautiful works coming out, and some of them are on random blogs. You might not ever be able to find them, and even when I do manage to sift through the haystack, I miss parts of the writer’s imagery from ignorance. Even in a culture that is “in decline” we find works that suggest otherwise. The complexity of our culture has even added some brilliant subcultural works that are inspirational but someone esoteric – definitely harder to get a handle on.
One of the problems with teaching in our culture is getting people to take poetry seriously. It’s why “The Dead Poets Society” or “Finding Forester” come off so strong. If we are going to form good writers we have to take time. One reaction that I will have against our culture and education system is that we spend by far too much time on science and mathematics and far to little on literature and composition.
In other words, that limerick you wrote in eighth grade probably wasn’t sufficient to teach you how to dream up and compose a poem that resonates with your soul. The sonnet you wrote freshman year, yeah that rhyme scheme and meter takes quite a bit of practice to tease out the parts of your heart that do more than move blood about. It takes time to work with these and use them in a meaningful way.
We need that language formation. It allows us to express who we are in ways that we cannot through a bit of engineering and concrete, and poetry is that which gives all that engineering a scope and a scale within human existence. While it can be beautiful to throw up a building or craft an airplane wing – those lack meaning without human beings that can share their reactions to what is going on. An Albatross is a pretty bird, but becomes something so much more in the hands of Coleridge crafting a tale of an ancient mariner.
It might not help us save the planet or give us modern conveniences beyond the dreams of avarice, but time spent in verse takes that time saved and those last moments and drapes them with the depth of human meaning.