What’s Lost

Language and literature reflect culture. That’s a truism, one that’s accurate, yet there’s an aspect of that truism that’s seldom explored. Everyone focuses on the additions to literature and to the new words and expressions, but almost never is there much examination of what’s gone out of fashion, or effectively been eliminated, in one way or another.

In one novel, I brought up the point that the change in meaning of the word “discriminate” had an untoward aspect to it. Once upon a time, the word “discriminate” was a positive term, meaning to choose wisely among alternatives. Now it means to treat others unfairly because of their race or skin color. What’s overlooked in this shift of meaning is that the English/American language has lost its only single word term meaning “to choose wisely” among alternatives.

That’s not an insignificant change for both the language and culture, because it implies that to rank or choose among alternatives is somehow no longer meaningful, perhaps even bad.

In past posts, I’ve lamented the loss of rhythm and rhyme in modern poetry, and the other day I came across an old recording, on the radio, of a hit song in the 1950s, “The Twelfth of Never.” One of the lines in the song reads, “I’ll love you till the poets run out of rhyme/ Until the Twelfth of Never, and that’s a long, long time…”

The poets have indeed run out of rhyme, but why? What does it mean, and what does that loss signify about our culture?

From what I can determine, modern poetry seems to present images and emotions. Some of those images are indeed striking, and the emotion ranges from stark and raw to delicate and nuanced. And almost none of it remains with the reader once he or she has turned from the page.

Rhyme and metered rhythm are largely what allow the human brain to retain structured human language unaltered. The ancients knew this well, and without the printing press and cheap reproduction of songs or poems, for either song or stories to last and be passed on, meter and rhythm were necessary.

What the change in poetry reflects is the triumph of transitory, contorted, and exaggerated images over the balance of words, meanings, rhyme, and rhythm that once were necessary to ensure that poetry endured. Today, printed paper copies, or electronic copies, ensure that no one needs to memorize poetry for it to last… at least theoretically.

But since the vast, vast majority of modern poetry is not, and cannot be, memorable, those images and emotions might as well be written on sand because there’s very little left in the mind of the reader to draw those readers back to such modern verse.

For the most part, modern verse has become a one-time consumable image, and because those word-images cannot compete in vividness to the electronic screen or to the thundered resonance of current popular song, most of which has an electric sameness to it, poetry has become less and less a vital part of literature and culture. A hundred fifty years ago, the great American poets were almost the equivalent of great pop stars. Most known poets today are popular as much as for their dramatic talents as for their words.

Either way, the words are now quickly forgotten, and the loss of what poetry once was reflects, in another way, our cultural obsession with momentary images.

6 thoughts on “What’s Lost”

  1. R. Hamilton says:

    Perhaps entropy, also seen in the devaluation of words well crafted or even of their individual meanings, also applies to people and cultures, unless they acknowledge and resist it.

  2. Michael Kilian says:

    I recently got round to reading the book that brought up the point you discussed here. For myself the changes in our language hits close to home because I’ve come to understand just how difficult discussion has become amongst people who speak English to communicate effectively when so many people have completely different definitions for words, let alone understandings of the concepts they represent.

    Few people growing up now in my experience have the background understanding of topics they talk about when snippets of information are available a couple of clicks away on the internet, and from that point can always then blame a misunderstanding on someone else’s research or lack thereof.

    I lament that I do not even know enough about poetry to understand what I’ve missed in the wake of modern culture, excepting maybe what I’ve been exposed to in your books. Perhaps western civilisation has stumbled into decadence once more?

  3. Two thoughts. One, I appreciate the addition to literature that prose novels (including your own!) represent. Admittedly, this addition occurred hundreds of years ago, but it wasn’t present when, say, “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” were written.

    Two, a recent loss to language and literature occurred, with Ursula K. Le Guin’s death on Monday. The opening to her 1968 book “A Wizard of Earthsea” is a short poem that I have remembered since I read it as a child, and that resonates now, in the wake of her death:

    Only in silence the word,
    only in dark the light,
    only in dying life:
    bright the hawk’s flight
    on the empty sky.
    – The Creation of Ea

  4. JakeB says:

    Putting this after the previous comment may sound disrespectful to Ms. LeGuin, which I certainly don’t mean. I’ve loved her work since I read the original Earthsea trilogy as a boy.

    That said, I can’t help quoting the great “Fantasy” by Earth Wind & Fire:

    “And we will live together
    Until the twelfth of never
    Our voices will ring forever, as one”

    Quite certainly a riff off the song Mr. Modesitt mentions.

  5. JakeB says:

    I should add that I generally agree with the sentiment expressed in the post. At the same time, Yeats’s “The Second Coming”, one of the greatest poems of the twentieth century, neither rhymes nor has regular meter.

    1. Actually, almost every line in “The Second Coming” is ten beats long, and it’s primarily iambic pentameter; when read aloud it’s far more rhythmic than it looks upon the page. And yes, it is a great poem and one of my favorites, but then, Yeats is also my favorite poet.

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