BW Powe’s Presentation. The Toronto School: Then, Now, Next. October 14-16, 2016

Into the Unknown and New:
McLuhan-Frye, Electric Processing, Imagination, the Poetics of Opening Time


The Marshall McLuhan-Northrop Frye Matrix represents visionary legacies of insight into the global theatre, electricity, imagination and identity, and a quickening search into the future, where the “medium is the massage” joins with “the great code”. This presentation appreciates the seers who discovered pathways to recognizing present patterns and manifestations, and then moves on to see how these ideas and perceptions are shaping a 21st Century poetics. They spoke of Closing Time, a prophetic awareness inspired by their readings of the metamorphic, associative Finnegans Wake. Electric Processing and Imagination together form the recognition that our crossroads is both a Closing Time and an Opening Time: an evolutionary hyperdrive–where paradigms break down and new forms of consciousness emerge, where terror and fear simultaneously surge with visions of higher forms of consciousness and keener hearts. The closings we see in raging phenomena like the Brexit, xenophobia, the rise of Trump and Putin; the openings we see in the desire for people and ideas to cross barriers and boundaries, in the compassionate welcome to others and a creative inventive now. Our new Mysteries are jolting,mythically immersive, severe and ecstatic. This carries the imperative of perceiving that primary shifts are now happening in awareness and sensibility. Beyond ideology and theory, we´re experiencing immediacy and trancendence, darkening and illuminations, the closing of minds, openings of the soul. Can we sense what higher and lower frequencies are beginning to play out?

Bio Blurb:

B.W. Powe is a poet, philosopher, storyteller and essayist. An Associate Professor of English Literature in the Department of English at Toronto’s York University, he teaches courses on visionaries and the legacies of McLuhan and Frye. He was affiliated from 2011 until 2016  with the University of Catalunya in Barcelona, Spain, where worked on a virtual project called Opening Time: On the Energy Threshold,  with Cristina de Miranda Almeida and Matteo Ciastellardi. His newest works are Decoding Dust (poems and dramatic monologues) and The Tigers of Perception (a multi-media lyric essay).

Correcting the Errors in the Ottawa Citizen article, Friday March 4th, 2016

To the editors of the Ottawa Citizen:

Ottawa CitizenThere are two errors in the Ottawa Citizen piece on my book on Marshall McLuhan and Nothrop Frye and my presentation at Carlton University that very much need addressing:

One: I am not the Creative Writing Program Coordinator at York University. I haven’t been since July 2014. The CW Coordinator is Michael Helm, a well known and much respected novelist. He’s been doing a remarkable job, and deserves the acknowledgment.

Two: I would never have said (and could never have said) Marshall McLuhan didn’t read books. He read voraciously. What I said must have been this, “His preference was for the oral.”  I talked about how he listened deeply to the voices in poems. I said that his primary sensory approaches were oral-audile-tactile. And that he encouraged us to both read and listen to the books of the world.

I would never have perpetuated the cliche and misconception that McLuhan somehow didn’t read.
In fact, he was much more of an attentive practical literary critic (following in the I.A. Richards’ line) than was Frye. Frye tended to read poems in terms of how they fit his grand theoretical scheme. McLuhan always looked closely at a poem, instructing us on its tonalities, rhythms, forms and effects.

This is important to convey.

I hope these necessary corrections will be acknowledged.

Yours truly,

B.W. Powe

William Blake, Richard Holmes, Northrop Frye, and Canada: An unpublished letter by BWP to the New York Review of Books

To the Editors of the New York Review of Books

Regarding Richard Holmes article, “The Greatness of William Blake” (NYROB, December 3rd, 2015)

Dear Sirs,

I’m an admirer of Richard Holmes’ writings. His biographies of Coleridge I keep close on my book shelf. So I turned to his essay, “The Greatness of William Blake”, with anticipation. I was rewarded with pleasures. He writes a rich Pater-ish prose. I’ve always been impressed with his keen sympathy for his subjects. But I was startled, when, after his summary of the ideas in Heather Jackson’s Those Who Write for Immortality, towards the end of his essay, he joins Northrop Frye with a list of American writers. I may have misread his meaning, but he implies that Frye is part of an American discourse. Frye was born in Quebec; he grew up in New Brunswick, and then spent the greater part of his teaching life at the University of Toronto. All of his major works were written in Toronto.

Holmes rightly says there are many Blakes. And there is a Canadian Blake. The Canadian cunning sublime tacitly diverges from the American imaginative vision and critical debate. So we must diverge, lest we be overwhelmed by the cultural force of the Empire to the south. Frye reinvented Blake in his masterwork, Fearful Symmetry (1947), turning him into a dissident of the imagination, envisioning alternative states of consciousness, heightened states of being, malleable realities, a politics steeped in the missionary imperative to restore visions of a utopian Jerusalem, an exaltation of a singular, prophetic voice calling from the wilderness or the margins.

You find another example of Frye’s radical Blake-like statements in The Educated Imagination (1962). There he heretically (and beguilingly) says that the imagination prevails over ideology: imagination is the source not only of reverie but of transformation. Frye championed seeing realities, not just one reality, on the material plane. His posthumously published essay, The Double Vision (1991, the title drawn from one of Blake’s letters), carries this myriad-minded vision to its extreme: death becomes a mental category, all dimensions of reality subject to poetics. Frye’s insights burned from the intense inwardness of the life he found in Toronto, and from his recognition of the frontiers of the new, northern experience.

His eminent colleague in the English Department at the University of Toronto was Marshall McLuhan. The various McLuhan often turned Blakean, identifying changes of cognition with changes in media (we become what we behold). Blake’s spectacular engravings and visual illuminations influenced McLuhan’s multi-media works, especially The Medium is the Massage (1968) and the aphorisms and advertisements of Culture is our Business (1970). McLuhan’s teasing satiric and revelatory impulses were indebted to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. If there’s anyone we can claim to be prophetic—uncannily so—it’s McLuhan, who foresaw electronic technology changing how we communicate, what we sense and intuit, even consciousness itself. The global village vision came from a thinker living in a city that wasn’t then the centre of anything.

You can see Blake’s influence through the impact of these formidable teachers (Frye and McLuhan directly and indirectly educated generations of writers, teachers, film-makers, musicians, and politicians) and in many searching Canadian figures. Look at Margaret Atwood’s parables of catastrophe; Irving Layton’s apocalyptic reimagining of the poetics of identity; Leonard Cohen’s phantasmagoric Beautiful Losers (1966), and his beautiful early lyrics of innocence and experience; A. F. Moritz’s elegiac poems where dreamlife and perceptions of mortality fuse; in Michael Ondaatje’s first fictions that spiritedly mix modes. Anne Carson seems to stand aside from the Blakean current in Canada by making Sappho, Euripides, Simone Weil, Emily Bronte, her imaginative companions and collaborators. Yet in Carson’s unique writings there are muted tinges of Blakean ecstasies: her books combine poetry, prose, dramas, images, aphorisms and essays.

I doubt if the redoubtable Holmes would have said that the great Mexican poet, Octavio Paz (himself in Blake’s thrall) was inside the American discourse. You could say Paz is, like Canadian artists and thinkers, part of the Americas. Still, there is this persistence in melding Canadian writers with the Emerson, Whitman, tradition and with contemporary theorists in the United States. This forgets one of Blake’s great auguries: the visionary imagination–charged with paradoxes—is audaciously unique to a time and place, and without borders, a mental realm that gives shape to a communion of inspirations and perceptions. The poetic spirit, unlike Wilde’s muses, doesn’t care for geography (or history) and yet does care.

B.W. Powe