News That Stays News: Marshall McLuhan & Media Poetics


Dr. Darren Wershler

Darren Wershler   –   Volume 14Issue 2, Fall 2011   –   DOI:


Beginning from the formative influence of Marshall McLuhan on the discourses of communication studies and media studies, this essay argues for a re-examination of the importance of poetics to these discourses. This re-examination would consist of two projects: an historical assessment of McLuhan’s own use of modernist avant-garde poetics (because of the deformations and transfigurations that McLuhan visits on poetic texts); and an investigation into the relevance that contemporary poetry and poetics holds for communication studies and media studies.

The only extant letter from Marshall McLuhan to Harold Innis (dated March 14, 1951) is one of the foundational documents of Communication Studies.[1] This letter is important because it’s not only one of the first clear statements of McLuhan’s interest in the importance of “technological form” over “informative purpose” (that is, “content”), [2] but also of his notion of “organizing an entire school of studies” around the subject of communication. [3] In terms of their home disciplines, the two were worlds apart; McLuhan was teaching in an English department, and Innis was working as a political economist. So what does McLuhan invoke to entice Innis with the viability of his new idea? The unlikely answer is poetry, specifically, the poetry of the modernist avant-garde: “the symbolists since Rimbaud and Mallarmé,” along with “Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Lewis and Yeats.” [4] From McLuhan’s perspective at the time of this letter, and, arguably, throughout his career, the germane discourse for the discussion of media is poetics. Or, as Charles Bernstein would have it, media poetics might be “the continuation of poetry by other means”. [5] Or in other media.

It should come as no surprise, then, that in “Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press,” McLuhan claims that “real understanding of the changes in modern communication should have come mainly from the resourceful technicians among modern poets and painters”. [6] The specific aspect of modernist avant-garde poetics that first attracted McLuhan is its interest in the formal qualities of newspapers. Ezra Pound, a frequent correspondent of McLuhan’s during the same period as the Innis letter, provides the most compact and pithy explanation. While explicating the basis of his argument for a material science of poetry [7]in his ABC of Reading, Pound writes that “Literature is news that STAYS news.” [8] Long after its subject matter has lost its immediacy, the material and formal properties of a poetic text, and the manner in which it circulates through culture, impart crucial information about how it continues to make meaning.

Regardless of McLuhan’s enthusiasms for Innis’s work on the economic and social consequences of communications media, “In particular his studies of the newspaper as a major branch of the technology of print,” [9] and regardless of Innis’s response to McLuhan’s letter that he “would like to see [McLuhan’s] views elaborated as they could be used as a basis for general discussion,” [10] Paul Heyer notes that “there is no evidence that Innis ever read Pound’s poetry, despite McLuhan’s efforts to show him its importance.” [11] Innis was not the only one: Outside of McLuhan’s own practice, too few scholars have been willing to recognize and tap the potential that the poetics of the modernist avant-garde offered, and still offer, for developing new theoretical and methodological tools for investigating the material and circulatory aspects of communication.

Read the full essay here:

Concordia University Homepage: My work focuses on the relationship between avant-garde art and writing on one hand and communication studies and media history on the other. Inside the academy, I’ve been a professor in both English and Communication Studies departments. I’ve also worked professionally as a writer, editor, designer and publisher of print and new media. As a result, I take an interdisciplinary approach to research and teaching, and am committed to the notion that universities need to search continually for ways to build connections to people, organizations and things outside of themselves.

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