Autobiography – McLuhan’s place in Canada and in the arts

In a short entry in The Concise Encyclopedia of English and American Poets and Poetry (ed Spender & Hall, 1963) under the heading ‘Canadian Poetry’, McLuhan reflected on Canada and its arts. It is a description (given here in abbreviated and rearranged form) which may be taken to specify what he took to be his own place in them. 

From the colonial beginnings until 1920, Canadian poets accepted the fate of outer landscape as the formula for inner states of mind, if only because this pattern had been worked out by the [English] Romantics on the basis of Newton’s Opticks.

Alienation from the medium of speech as such has been a special Canadian problem, because Canadians began to write poetry just when English poets had shifted the stress in poetry away from speech to the presentation of mental states by means of descriptions of landscape. Canada has a macroscopic landscape and a microscopic social life; and the coincidence of the new landscape poetry and the new Canadian settlement was not fortunate for the arts. Its shaping effect on Canadian poetry was noted by a reviewer as follows: “For what emerges indubitably (…) is that Canada is a country where every prospect is so vile that the villainies of man are dwarfed by the assembled cruelties of rock, wind and snow.”

This theme of stark isolation and human insignificance was to be repeated by Canadian poet and novelist alike (…). What Pascal had shuddered at in the unsocial spaces of the heavens, the Canadian writer lived with at home.

The struggle to perceive some sort of autonomous centre of significance in Canadian expression is made difficult by the fact that a third of the small population is French-speaking. The English group, reading and speaking a principal literary language of the world, can scarcely discern the segment of its image or detect its own intonation in the mosaic of English (…), the Canadian poet feels like an amateur radio-station operator who has to compete with a national network. The Canadian writer has never been encouraged to imagine that English, as a medium of experience and expression, was a personal responsibility and possession. But this situation is not even mainly due to the circumstances of marginal remoteness. Lack of confidence in the medium of English is also due to lack of community and conversation in an over-sized environment. Yet Robert Frost [in the United States] was able to use this very factor of lonely incoherence in North American speech in achieving many of his uniquely successful effects of laconicism amidst large silences.

Writing in the second issue of The Tyro (1922) in an essay entitled “The Three Provincialities”, T.S. Eliot began by observing: “It has been perceptible for several years that not one but three English literatures exist: that written by Irishmen, that written by Americans, and that composed by the English themselves.” By provinciality Eliot here indicates that uneasy state of groping towards identity and definition which was once referred to by a Canadian critic as “the sense of our density”. When a remote section of population aspires to be in the mode, it involuntarily becomes provincial. When the same group simply assumes the right to innovate and to create without any regard to modishness, it becomes an authentic centre of culture. Canada has not yet approached this state, but the once provincial United States have done so.

But Canadian landscapes, if used as equations for inner mental states [= “the world of natural and urban processes alike traversed with tactile rather than visual stress”], would yield some quite amazing results. (…) Had Canadians been daring enough to accept their landscape as the formula for mental states, they would have been projected into non-human orbits at once.1

Canadian poets have never been disposed to wipe their hands across their mouth and laugh. The ability to yearn for pre-industrial charm among the ice-floes and the blasted pines appears as an impressively rugged trait of the Canadian artist and writer. But it may have been no more than loyalty to British fashion.

Corresponding to the Group of Seven in Canadian painting, we find E. J. Pratt and the Montreal poets who turned to Expressionism and observation of the outer processes of nature and urban commercial life. This meant a quite sharp break with picturesque poetry. Finally, corresponding to the new International Group in painting, are the Academic poets who consider that poetry is made from other poetry. Just as the painters became very much aware of other painters and publics, the poets have begun to notice varieties of poetry and reading publics. The result is a strong tendency towards what might be described as a dialogue in the arts. It even points towards the possibility of Canadian poets beginning to take the resources and traditions of language as their province. 

The world of natural and urban processes alike traversed with tactile rather than visual stress — such was the new Canadian poetry and painting as it arose in the twenties to the fifties. (…) And this tendency, so different from derivative adaptation, has led (…) deeper into the world of language than Canadians have ventured before.

The emergence of a dialogue among the poets speaks of an entry into the world of the English language which is quite new. The long reign of the picturesque landscape may be over.

  1. McLuhan seems to have been of two minds as regards “outer landscape as the formula for inner states of mind”.  On the one hand, he plainly welcomed the fact that “the long reign of the picturesque landscape may be over”. On the other, he saw actual landscape, rural and urban, natural and constructed, as an integral aspect of engaged perception. This same ambiguity may be seen in his Foreword to The Interior Landscape where he first reports: “After a conventional and devoted initiation to poetry as a romantic rebellion against mechanical industry and bureaucratic stupidity, Cambridge was a shock. Richards, Leavis, Eliot and Pound and Joyce in a few weeks opened the doors of perception on the poetic process, and its role in adjusting the reader to the contemporary world.” But he then concludes: “All this is merely to say that my juvenile devotion to Romantic poetry is closely related to my present concerns with the effects of the media in our personal and political lives.” He seems to have thought that the modernists not only turned decisively away from the romantics, but were also their fulfillment.

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