(Revelore Press, Seattle, 2021)
Review by John Fraim
The book Written Matter by Andrew McLuhan is a book of 28 short poems written between October 15 and December 31, 2021. As Andrew notes in a post to me, “the title is meant to suggest alchemy, transformation, for thoughts in the mind become written, become matter.” While it is a short book it is not easy to review because it continues to grow and change in my mind. I find myself returning to parts of it after my first reading as ideas and images of it continues evolve in my mind. It is one of those rare works of art that refuses to sit still after presenting itself to us. One of the leading media scholars today – Paul Levinson – wrote a good basic view of the book for the Media Ecology Association (MEA) ListServe I’ve been on for a number of years. Paul was a friend of both Andrew’s grandfather Marshall McLuhan and his father Eric McLuhan.
I got to know Andrew through his father Eric who I had followed for years since the death of his father. I specifically liked Eric’s 1998 book Electric Language. Our friendship was cemented when we spent a few days together in Toronto in 2003 and since that time we exchanged ideas and thoughts on a number of things. In 2018, Eric died unexpectedly during a conference in Bogota, Columbia.
Being related to two famous men, Andrew has worked to discover his own voice and – at the same time – carry forward the work of his grandfather and father. Today, he plays a number of roles as husband, father, writer, poet, teacher, craftsman and explorer. He is also a media educator and Associate Editor of the Winnipeg School of Communication’s journal, Winnsox. Andrew has been involved with McLuhan Studies for over a decade and has been responsible for the inventory and evaluation of Marshall McLuhan’s “working library” and presents on the subject widely. Marshall McLuhan’s working library is now located at the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library and has recently been added to the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. In 2017, Andrew conceived and formed The McLuhan Institute to preserve and promote McLuhan studies.
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Those familiar with the work of Marshall McLuhan have heard his famous phrase “The medium is the message.” It was McLuhan’s notion that the meaning of communication messages is influenced by the type of media technology they arrive in. In a sense, the famous phrase of MM observes that the context of content provides the real meaning of the content. In establishing this idea, MM set-up a type of duality between medium and message, context and content.
For this reason, it seems appropriate to first approach Written Matter from the context and medium it was written in. One context was the time, the last months of the pandemic’s first year. While the poems do not directly address the pandemic, it is always present. Yet the book goes far beyond pondering the events of 2020. As Andrew notes in the Afterwards of the book, the poems are “hard-won” and “represent many years of exploring the world around me, imagining, searching, playing with words and language and expression, writing.” The direct impetus for the book was an invitation by media scholar Lance Strate to write 8 poems over 8 days. As Andrew says, the invitation was “one of those silly social media things I usually ignore.” This time, though, he accepted it. “I’m always keen for an invitation to write or create something new.” The first 8 poems in 8 days “kicked off a bit of a writing spree, and the rest of the poems in this collection followed.”
Apart from the above context, the poems are all short, one-page “matters” as Andrew refers to them in the title of his book. One might mention here is that they attempt to be what his grandfather MM called “cool” media or participatory media. In this sense, they are not what his grandfather would label “hot” media that broadcasts messages one-way. Rather, they have the coolness of another literary device of his grandfather called “probes” or quick “pokes” at the subject matter without attempts to define it, allowing definition to form itself through the participation of the reader in the particular piece.
There is also the matter of the short amount of time the book was created in. Many think great art needs to be pondered and struggled with over a long period of time. Like Joyce did with Ulysses. But one might also conclude that the muse of true art comes and goes from artists pretty much at its own will.
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An artist (or really anyone when possessed by the art spirit) can call out one’s artistic muse and even spend years constructing a work of art that honors this muse. But at the end of the day – to use a popular cliche – which work represents the true, spontaneous improvisation of art? The long work, struggled with? Or the short book of short pieces that comes within a relatively short period of time? Which has the potential to express the freedom of creativity brought by one’s muse? Which has the potential to be a true, cool, participatory probe that brings the reader into the probe? For example, in the poem “be my alchemy” Andrew begins the poem playing with the two meanings of “a way”
Throughout the short book, there is evidence of the tradition of the Japanese literary form of Haiku poetry as well as ideas from the Impressionist and Cubist painters. A fleeting image, emotion, feeling is provided without much explanation or argument. The meaning calls for reader participation. (If in fact there is a meaning rather than an impression in the first place). The poems and the book do not attempt some connecting narrative. There is the unstated assumption that linear narratives have little place in our modern digital world of short Tweets, text messages, social media comments, rabbit holes, fake news and click bait. The intent is more to offer impressions rather than dramatic narratives like Hollywood films and novels. How can we have clashing emotions and feelings in a particular story when we have lost the ability to feel in the first place?
The relatively short creation time and content of the “probe” poems of Written Matter works to its advantage in many ways and serves to allow great freedom for Andrew’s creative muse. In this short creation time, the book is in the company of other works created almost by serendipity in short amounts of time such as The Red Badge of Courage,Citizen Kane and Casablanca. The list goes on and on.
It also offers examples of the playing out of what Jung called synchronicities, or meaningful coincidences. The shorter the creation time for a work of art, the more possibilities for these coincidences to come together, the more open to that old Chinese method of forecasting called the iChing. Less thought and contemplation allow the unconsciousness of synchronicity to enter without being stopped by the roadblock police of consciousness.
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Written Matter offers an interesting addition to the idea of creating art when the muse arrives for brief daily visits. One has to at recognize her (?) when she comes and be grateful for her daily visits. Perhaps at a later date we will get into talking a little about the individual poems and images presented in the book. But at this time, it seems more appropriate to say little about these 28 short pieces and let the reader discover them for his or herself.
With this in mind, it does seem worthwhile to offer a few comments on the last poem in the work titled “to stand” created on December 31, 2020. Andrew writes to me about the significance of this date: it is the 40th anniversary of his grandfather Marshall’s death on December 31, 1980. In the piece, McLuhan acknowledges few certainties in this modern world of the pandemic, playing with words again …
a certain ease
are not so certain
The last lines of the poem “to stand” perhaps sum up much of the exploration and philosophy of Written Matter. In this world where certainties “are not so certain” fear attempts to rule over us but it “cannot hold.”
the fears will keep
but cannot hold
we may weep
we will grow old
but still we leap
These lines suggest that fear is something that doesn’t go away and that we go through life with the sorrows of weeping and growing old. Yet, this fear “cannot hold” because we still have the freedom to “leap” away from it. As McLuhan does in his brief book of exploratory probes. The three words “keep” then “weep” and finally “leap” are tied together with the transition from kept fears to being able to leap away from them. And, the second line of the above – “but cannot hold” – is an interesting reference to a famous poem from William Butler Yeats titled “The Second Coming.”
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Yeats presents a pessimistic interpretation of “cannot hold” suggesting chaos is let loose on the world because the “centre cannot hold.” But McLuhan’s reference to “cannot hold” refers to breaking away from a center of fear after after weeping and growing old. We are still able to “leap” away from the fears kept within us. Yeats’ “The Second Coming” was written in 1919 and uses imagery regarding the apocalypse to describe the atmosphere of post-war Europe. McLuhan’s “to stand” was written one hundred years later in 2020 and describes the post-pandemic world. Yeats vision is dark and pessimistic. McLuhans vision is full of light and hope, in spite of the fears we “keep” from the great pandemic.
(Perhaps more ponderings on Written Word in future posts. Meanwhile, order the book from the Revelore Press site at https://revelore.press/product/written-matter-andrew-mcluhan/. For those interested in reviewing the book, Andrew asks you contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org)