Jim McCarthy

Grounding a World

mccarthy02pic1.jpg In a symposium volume covering no less than 17 essays, including a final chapter by Kenneth White himself, it is inevitable that there will be unevenness in the quality of the contributions. Taken as a whole, though, this work provides a fascinatingly diverse insight into the writings, philosophy and influence of one of the most stimulating ‘poets’ from Scotland. The title of ‘poet’ is qualified to highlight the fact that White’s ‘poetry does not fall into any conventional bracket and embraces much prose and so-called waybooks of what Camilo Cela described as vagabundaje and which can be neatly translated into the Scots stravaigin’. ‘From Scotland’ is used here to indicate that White, with many of his earlier works published in French and himself domiciled in France, would eschew the label of ‘Scottish’ writer, with all its possible implications.

For many, the ‘geopoetics’ which White has promoted over the years will remain an elusive concept which refuses to be nailed down, if only because it cannot be readily accommodated within our modern cultural conditioning. For others, it has opened windows on an invigorating world they hardly knew existed. Stuart Kelly has described White as an author ‘precariously poised between veneration and suspicion’ while Catherine Lockerbie has stated that ‘he is the best known unknown author’, referring to the neglect of his work in his native country. As the first comprehensive analysis in the English language of White’s work, the volume includes a range of international contributions, with papers covering everything from White as educator to geopoetics and architecture, not to mention religion and the shamanic element in his work. The late Tony McManus, in an earlier essay reproduced here, aptly describes White’s work as ‘a new form of expression

… revealing the world, not the poet.’ Norman Bissell reminds us of White’s charismatic teaching in Glasgow and in France, which released the spirit and touched the heart as well as the mind. The contribution by Olivier Delbard goes into metaphysical territory comparing mind to landscape and detailing the poet’s physical/spiritual journeys.

For this reviewer, one of the most accessible essays was In Arab Lands by Omar Bsaithi who, using White’s own words, displayed the poet’s unique capacity to encapsulate the essence of incidents against the landscape background, highlighting mental as well as geographical exploration. Bsaithi describes White’s ‘succession of evocative snapshots which are as many moments of intense perception, containing the total experience.’ While other essayists attempt to analyse White’s work in relation to their own interests, In Arab Lands illuminates the poetry more clearly by focussing on White’s capacity to capture significant experience with the fewest words. In Anne Bineau’s essay on White as a reader and writer she makes the crucial point that White’s acknowledgement of his many and diverse sources is a strength and not a weakness, highlighting his intellectual honesty – the antithesis of literary and personal egoism.

Given his insistence on grounding his work in the physical reality of the earth, I once asked Kenneth White what the difference was between his poetry and, for example, the ‘nature poets’ of the 19th century such as Wordsworth. His reply was that his writing contained no moralistic message or reference to any Superior Being. Even so, two essays have ‘religion’ as their starting point. Pierre Jamet makes the valid point that while White disclaims any theistic influence, his work is permeated by references to the wandering Scots and Irish monks of mediaeval times, renowned throughout Europe for their adventurousness and learning. Elsewhere, Padmakara focuses on the strong connections between the philosophy underlying geopoetics and the Buddhist path to transcendental emptiness with its principle of freedom from the wrong sort of passions. Here there is a close affinity with Michael Tucker’s essay on White’s references to shamanism which he (White) is anxious to confine simply to being a basis for one perception of the world, and not the copying of shamanic forms.

While it is difficult to avoid the impression that some contributors are straining somewhat to redefine White and his work in their own terms, the volume as a whole is considerably enhanced where there is personal knowledge of the poet, and in the words of the cover, provides ‘a rich and accessible sourcebook’. This is enlivened by a final chapter written by White, in which he redefines, after forty years, his fundamental approach to geopoetics as an ‘original relationship to the universe’, revealing in passing his vast reading in the fields of literature, philosophy and politics. Further, it is difficult not to admire White’s courage and consistency in following his own ‘bird path’ over many years, often in the face of scepticism from a literary establishment which is still suspicious of poetry as a motivator of change both cultural and personal. In Stuart Kelly’s words, ‘White’s importance lies in his own commitment to the idea of the poetic act as work’, or as Anne Bineau has it, he represents ‘a new anthropological type – Homo poeticus‘.

Grounding a World: Essays on the work of Kenneth White, edited by Gavin Bowd, Charles Forsdick and Norman Bissell. Alba Editions (ISBN 0952933721 PBK £9.99)

® James McCarthy 2006