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A long walk with Kenneth White – Scottish Review of Books
by Ian Bell

A long walk with Kenneth White

October 28, 2009 | by Ian Bell

Some day, sooner or later, someone will get around to admitting that you cannot write a haiku properly in English. It doesn’t work. The language does not take well to syllabic verse-forms, not least when filched from ideographic Japanese, even if we can all count out the 17 syllables required. What looks easy is, in fact, all-but impossible in a culture whose poetry, whose natural voice, is stubbornly accentual. So why bother?

Kenneth White will do you pages filled with haiku after haiku. The little, imagistic things, and variants of them, seem to come easily to him. That may the problem. Put aside, for a moment, the story of the Scots “intellectual nomad”, the theoretical armour he calls “geopoetics”, and the gathering movement to grant White the sort of reputation in his native land that he enjoys in France. Think about the poetry.

You can sketch a lineage. There are traces of the Black Mountain school, of late modernism, Charles Olson, William Carlos Williams and the first culprit, Ezra Pound, his “Imagism” and his confessedly botched Cantos. There is that declamatory style, even when White is being self-effacing, that has its roots in Walt Whitman. There is an affinity with the Zen exoticism of someone like Gary Snyder. You can hear faint echoes of Kenneth Rexroth, catch the usual nod (in this sort of company) to Rimbaud, the bow to Prevert.

What you don’t hear often, to take some near-random examples, is anything that chimes with typical British prosody. White owes next to nothing to Auden, to the influences that shaped a Larkin, a Heaney, a Dunn, or a MacCaig. His is what they used to call vers libre (as in the old joke: who let it escape?). He verges on mysticism, given half a chance. Most recent Scots and Irish poetry, the successful variety at least, has been fundamentally empiricist. You could call it a matter of taste, but the difference of opinion has sometimes resembled a running battle.

Let The Bird Path, White’s Collected Longer Poems (1989), fall open. Here, in the middle of the page, is stanza 6 of a poem called ‘Cape Breton Uplight’. I cannot reproduce its scattered, unjustified lines, but they go as follows: “At the edge of the world/in the emptiness/maintaining the relations/the primordial contact/ the principles by which/reality is formed/on the verge of the abstract”. Any good?

It has a certain rhetorical force, I’ll grant, but it is a windy sort of rhetoric. It strains after profundity, but it relies – indeed concludes with – abstraction. This is less a matter of what the poet “means” than the way the language is deployed. It represents, it seems to me, the pose of the poet, not the making of poetry. You could live without it.

Declamatory poets have coincided rarely with British tastes in the last century or so. We don’t do Mayakovsky, or even Frank O’Hara. In English – Gaelic is a different matter – Dylan Thomas was the last one truly to pull it off, but Thomas was vastly more technically-accomplished, in a traditional sense, than White. Proponents of the latter’s work would no doubt say that this is entirely irrelevant, that White isn’t interested in rhyming stanzas or pentameter, and that there is no reason why he should be in the 21st century. They’re right, of course. The toughness and visual intensity of a William Carlos Williams did not require the old props, after all. But what does White give us instead?

One argument says that his work is of a piece, that his “poem-books” are complemented and extended by his “prose-books” (essays) and his “way-books” (travel-writing). Fair enough. But if his poems are unsatisfactory affairs, composed in a style that might have done for a San Francisco bookshop in the early sixties but seeming hackneyed and contrived now, then we have a problem with sum and parts. Try this one, from Handbook for the Diamond Country, a collection of 30 years’ worth of shorter poems first published in France in 1983 and in Britain in 1990. It is called ‘No Four-Star Hotel’ and its epigram says “My neighbour was Van Gogh”. It reads, in its entirety:

Sardines and rice rice and sardines with a red tomato rice and sardines sardines and rice with a red tomato

It is less a poem than a gesture. You could claim, possibly, that it is evocative or atmospheric. You could note that its imagistic style isn’t actually modern in any important sense, given its debt to Pound’s two-line attempted haiku ‘In a Station of the Metro’ (“The apparition of these faces in the crowd;/Petals on a wet, black bough.”), a poem published before the First World War. But I could make another claim: it is lazy, empty, and not very good. Where poetry is concerned, neither is White.

One final quotation, from a poem entitled ‘The House of Insight’, was perhaps the single verse that sealed the argument for this reviewer. It runs: “taking off the clothes of the mind/and making love/to the body of reality”. It could almost be a parody, pretentious, silly and clichéd simultaneously. White in person is a charming and unassuming man, but that’s the sort of stuff people write when they are 16 and cringe over, if they are lucky, when they are 17.

Why, then, the simultaneous publication of three more of White’s books in English, two from Polygon and one from Alba, with the implicit argument that White is too important to be overlooked in Britain? He has won all sorts of prizes in France, after all, and has Kenneth White will do you pages filled with haiku after haiku held the chair of 20th Century Poetics at the Sorbonne. His International Institute of Geopoetics (we’ll get to that) has eight centres in various countries, Scotland included. Last year, Birlinn, having taken over Polygon, made it the imprint’s first act to publish Open World, White’s latest version of his collected poems. Some people are certainly committed to his work.

The trouble with finding an audience for White is that it has been tried before, and not so very long ago. It was Edinburgh’s Mainstream who published handsome editions of The Bird Path and the autobiographical “transcendental travelogue” Travels in the Drifting Dawn in 1989, followed by Handbook for the Diamond Country and the difficult-to-classify memoir The Blue Road in 1990. They did not make a great deal of difference to White’s reputation.

In France, living these days in Brittany, he is about as distinguished a writer as it is possible to be. Indeed, Le Nouvel Observateur once described him as “the foremost living English language poet”, though perhaps they meant the foremost poet in English they had heard of. Even here, large claims are made for him by some of the few people who really know his work. These days it is sometimes claimed that he is being given, or is about to be given, his due at last. Yet if the poetry doesn’t satisfy, what is there for a new or sceptical reader?

WHITE was born in Gorbals in 1936, son of a railway worker, but raised from his teenage years on the west coast, near Largs. It was in the nearby countryside that he had the poet’s classic, mind-expanding contact with nature, an affinity for which has been the hallmark of so much of his writing and his conceptual work. At Glasgow University he gained a first in French and German and later he did some teaching, but by the early 1960s, as Travels in the Drifting Dawn describes, he had made contact with “underground London” and the likes of Alex Trocchi. In 1966 he published his first book of verse, The Cold Wind of Dawn, yet only a year later he had quit Britain.

He found British poetry limited and circumscribed, prose still more tedious. At this distance in time it is possible to say that he made a bet and it paid off. As a writer and teacher France and Europe were for him. Teaching in Paris led, in due course, to that professorship at the Sorbonne.

Meanwhile, his doctoral thesis on “The Intellectual Nomad” had also persuaded him of a Nietszchean need to wander in the wider world. He became an inveterate traveller, a walking theory of a sort that is, still, more French than Scottish. That thesis was the beginning of geopoetics.

Geopoetics. We can count ourselves lucky that he did not call it biocosmopoetics, as he once intended. That might have scared more than the horses. As it is, Geopoetics – Place, Culture, World, the little pamphlet from Alba, and The Wanderer and his Charts – Essays on Cultural Renewal should probably glut most people’s appetite for an elaborate reinterpretation of European intellectual history that accords neatly with White’s pessimism over the modern world.

Geopoetics “contains ecology, ecology does not contain geopoetics”. It does not think much of the state we are in, culturally, and looks for a central concern that can reunite all strands of modern society and open up a new cultural “space”. White believes that the earth itself will do nicely for that.

What we have with him are meditations, spread across the range of his work, on “the state of the human being in the universe, the relationship between human being and the planet Earth, presence in the world”. He wants, he says, “intelligent”, “sensitive” and “subtle” contact between us and our corner of the cosmos.

Along the way, White gives free rein to his habit of defining words – “world”, “culture”, “poetics” itself – in ways that tend to suit his purpose. Harshly, you could also say that he plays fast and loose with cultural history. Fans might say he makes brilliant intuitive leaps across eras, disciplines and intellectual works. For my money, his approach is a sort of pick and mix, magpie reasoning that makes almost any sort of thesis possible once you have selected your vocabulary, decided who and what was historically important, and made the choices that will get you to the conclusion you want to reach. It is not as rigorous as White wants us to think it is.

This is especially true when he rummages around in philosophy. He is looking for a means by which society can enter a new era, a genuine post-modernism. He wants us to envisage the drive of western civilisation towards “progress”, a notion he does not much trust, as a metaphorical motorway. But every thinker he summons – and he neatly avoids those who might prove problematical – is yoked to this schematic and rather shop worn notion. If the philosophy and history of ideas teaches anything, it is the complexity of intellectual change. It is not a straight line petering out in our present decadence, not a depiction of cultural history that effectively says “Next stop the renaissance”, or “Passengers for Descartes Central, please have your tickets ready”.

It would have been interesting to have seen what White would have made of Thomas Kuhn’s conception of the history of science as a series of paradigm shifts, of sudden seismic movements. You could apply the same idea to culture, after all, but it would not have accorded with White’s romantic attachment – to be fair, he utterly denies romanticism – to the figure of the “Outgoer”, the figure on the fringes making the deep connections with the world.

To be fair yet again, his ideas are not entirely without merit. It is perfectly true to say that many areas of modern science, leaving conventional language behind, now also talk in terms of poetics as the only viable way to express their sense of the universe. It is also right, in my book, to talk of the limits of politics as an instrument for change. But White has arrived at a complicated theoretical construct that will seem attractive to some people because of its apparently multiple applications, from art to ecology by way of social change. Yet that, and a very French taste for the grandiose unifying theory, is the real problem.

Geopoetics is like one of those improbable multi-purpose tools you see advertised on TV, the ones that are supposed to solve every household problem and turn out to solve none. At his most sweeping, White is talking about changing the nature of human society, altering the way in which culture operates and is understood, and saving the planet while we are at it. By its very nature, his multi-purpose tool is not going to do the jobs it is supposed to do. These unifying theories never have. Complexity, in art or nature, always counts against them.

Yet to be fair to White for a third time, it works for him, at least in his prose, though perhaps for him alone.

Reading the theoretical stuff, that was always the suspicion. Geopoetics seems, at bottom, like a personal credo, worked up from a youthful fascination with the relationship the wandering Nietzsche and the itinerant Rimbaud had with the world, how it affected the thought of the former and the poetry of the latter, and how it might be attuned to White’s own responses. It is one man’s way of doing art and I doubt many others could bring the same intensity to it after the decades White has spent finding paths in the world. That said, while his poetry does not convince me in anything like the way I am supposed to be impressed, his travel writings, his “way-books”, of which Across the Territories – Travels from Orkney to Rangiroa (Polygon) is the latest, are a different matter.

White doesn’t have much faith in the novel, believing the form to be more or less exhausted. As a rule, I’m suspicious of the familiar claim (can’t come up with a plot, eh?), but I believe White. His accounts of his many travels are, for me, a case of a writer finding his perfect form, insightful, personal and luminously written. In the case of something like The Blue Road, his account of a pilgrimage to Labrador, it hardly matters, in any case, that he is not writing fiction. The book, dialogue and all, has most of the qualities of a novel.

Travels from Orkney to Rangiroa is geopoetics in execution, not theory. This is where all the stuff about the human in sensitive and subtle contact with the world begins to make a useful kind of sense. The writing is tight, too, in contrast with an awful lot of the verse. Whether in Orkney or Polynesia, Scandinavia or North America, White possesses, first, the sort of eye for detail that is an obvious necessity for a travel writer. Yet he has something more. It resembles the cliché of the “sense of place”, but it is more a man’s sense of himself in a place, attentive not just to what he is seeing and hearing, but alert to his own responses. The world, particularly the natural world, seems to spread around him. It is the real point of geopoetics, after all.

Of Corsica: “As is probably obvious enough by this time, I prefer, by far, real islands to imaginary islands, just as I prefer prime documents to novelistic remakes. That’s because the real is richer than the imagination. The real demands investigation and is an invitation to sensitive knowledge, whereas the imaginary is more often than not a collection of stereotypes, a soup of clichés offering an infantile kind of satisfaction. Then, a relationship to the real and its resistance requires changes in thought, in ways of being, in ways of saying, it leads to a transformation of the self.”

He’s wrong, of course. Novelistic invention may be “horribly autistic” – poetry isn’t so very different, we may guess – but the glory of the novel is the interplay between imagination and reality. It says something about White that he doesn’t get this, but it is his stubborn attachment to reality that makes him such a good travel writer.

Even when you disagree with the geopoeticist’s interpretations of history, you can grant that his sense of it is another dimension he brings to his accounts of his journeys. In ‘Travels in a Sea of Vodka’, one of the best pieces in Across the Territories, he writes of the great plain of Poland, the “vast expanse of fields that must at one time have been a wild, wan, glacier-scrubbed wilderness – nomad lands, crossed by all kinds of migrating peoples: Goths, Vandals, Huns, Avars, Scythians, Sarmatians, Magyars, Mongols, Tartars, Slavs… Crosses all along the road. Graveyards with myriads of red lights flickering on the tombs. A beetroot factory belching smoke into the pale purple sky . . . Night falls early on the North Euro-pean Plain.”

Putting aside the fact that, inevitably, some of the passage was “imagined”, you can see the essentials of White’s elaborate theory emerge from the drifts of intellectual dross. When the connections are made between man, landscape and history in this fashion sparks fly. You do not have to buy the whole geopoetics package to see it, and it is probably best if you don’t.

The writer himself is none too certain, in any case, that his theory matches his ambition. In The Wanderer and his Charts he wonders, near the end, whether “a real turning of the times” is in fact possible. The answer from geopoetics is a mere “perhaps”. So what does the fuss amount to?

“At the very least,” White writes, “it presents itself as a beautiful gesture (a final gesture of sentient-intelligent humanity?) and as the most interesting thing around.” Not quite, but it does present us with some of the finest travel-writing there is around.


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