Earth-Based Poetics Beyond the Work of Kenneth White
In about 1994 I was mopping the kitchen floor and listening to Iain Anderson’s Mr. Anderson’s Fine Tunes, when he included an interview with poet and philosopher, Kenneth White, who was then in Edinburgh for the launch of Canongate’s reissue of his poetry collections The Bird Path, and Handbook of the Diamond Country. I put down the mop and listened to the interview which finished with the poem A High Blue Day on Scalpay. Next day, I found The Bird Path in my local library, and over the next few years, I read everything I could get hold of. Poetry had abandoned me at that time, but I immediately started writing again – although, being distracted by novels and short stories and working with our local Youth Theatre, I didn’t get anything published for another ten years.
In 2007, I began an initiative called ‘the Lúcháir Project’, combining climate awareness and artistic practice. It was pretty vague at the start, as I wasn’t sure what I was doing, or where I was going with it, but over the years it evolved into my own poetic practice. I blogged a lot about it as it developed, and Norman Bissell, the Director of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics got in touch and invited me to the Atlantic Islands Festival on Luing in 2009. This included a summer school for the Centre, and I met many speakers who talked about the impact of Geopoetics and the influence of Kenneth White on their work across many varied media and fields of study. Since then, I have served on the Council, edited two editions of the journal Stravaig, and was involved in the Expressing the Earth conference on Seil in 2017, where I presented a lecture called By the Book, investigating traditional herbal knowledge and healing, and its influence on how we see and learn about the earth. I have published four full collections of poetry with Red Squirrel Press, of which the second, The Territory of Rain, (2015) is probably most explicitly influenced by geopoetics.
Kenneth White was born in 1936 and was brought up in Fairlie on the Ayrshire coast. He took a double first in French and German at Glasgow University. He has lived and worked in France for most of his life, where he set up the International Institute of Geopoetics in 1989. He has written poetry, books of travel which he describes as ‘waybooks’ and a lot of philosophical and cultural commentary in which he advocates an evolving school of thought which he eventually named ‘geopoetics’. which the website for the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics defines thus:
Geopoetics is deeply critical of Western thinking and practice over the last 2500 years and its separation of human beings from the rest of the natural world, and proposes instead that the universe is a potentially integral whole, and that the various domains into which knowledge has been separated can be unified by a poetics which places the planet Earth at the centre of experience.
It looks for signs of those who have attempted to leave ‘the motorway of Western civilisation’ in the past in order to find a new approach to thinking and living e.g. in the writings of intellectual nomads such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Rimbaud, Henry Thoreau and Patrick Geddes.
It seeks a new or renewed sense of world, a sense of space, light and energy which is experienced both intellectually, by developing our knowledge, and sensitively, using all our senses to become attuned to the world, and requires both serious study and a certain amount of de-conditioning of ourselves by working on the body-mind.
It also seeks to express that sensitive and intelligent contact with the world by means of a poetics i.e. a language drawn from a way of being which attempts to express reality in different ways e.g. oral expression, writing, visual arts, music, and in combinations of different art forms, sciences and thinking.
It involves the coming together of a network of energies in the International Institute of Geopoetics and its various Centres where disparate disciplines of knowledge can converge in a common concern about the planet and a shared project to develop an understanding of geopoetics and apply it in different fields of research and creative work.https://www.geopoetics.org.uk/what-is-geopoetics/
Kenneth White is no longer well-known in the UK as he has lived and worked most of his life in France, and although his influence has been considerable in the French-speaking world, it has not had much impact among English speakers. His relations with publishers here have been strained and difficult, and he doesn’t seem to know so much or have much to say about what is happening in Britain. Literature has moved on, and it is no longer considered revolutionary to blend poetry with science, with philosophy or psychology. Poetry in particular has radicalised and diversified in a way that wasn’t predictable even in the nineties, and there are a lot of writers taking eco-centred work in new directions, exploring how issues of race, gender, colonialism, migration and disability might impact the ways we think and write. Other movements such as Dark Mountain, The Centre for Place Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University and The Centre for Ecozoic Studies are already working along parallel lines with the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics, but without much mutual awareness. Magazines such as Emergence, and Terrain, in the USA, or The Plumwood Journal and Elsewhere cover many similar issues and themes and may seem to make Geopoetics redundant. I would like to argue however that, despite several serious reservations, Geopoetics has a significant amount to offer cultural thinking at large, and literature in particular.
I am no longer comfortable with much of what Kenneth White wrote. His portrayal of medieval thought is grossly simplistic and his riff on the motorway of culture both narrow and dated. His travel writing reads like the last of the Angry Young Men of the fifties, with that lazy downmarket vocabulary and cynical tone which frequently comes over as racist, sexist, ableist and objectifying. He is undeniably elitist and arrogant, and an assiduous gatekeeper (I find it particularly hard to forgive him being patronising about Seamus Heaney). What’s worse, many poets who consciously imitated Kenneth White have produced a lot of flat and sterile poetry, interlarded with scientific jargon and misanthropy, which is discouraging.
Nonetheless, what I liked about Kenneth White’s work at the start, I still like very much. He is an original, outstandingly intelligent and remarkably diverse thinker, with the vision to bring together more different insights and source materials than almost anyone else on the planet (which he will tell you himself). And he expresses himself with verve and precision and an elegant economy that belies the enormous amount of work behind some of his more outrageous assertions. I like his stripped back aesthetic, its absence of floweriness and sentiment and blatant disregard for the soap opera mundanity of much current literature, for academic convention or trendy marketing angles. And I really love its focus on direct observation and its insistence on the reality of the material world:
“the real is richer than the imagination — The real demands investigation and is an invitation to sensitive knowledge — Then a relationship to the real and its resistance requires changes in thought, in ways of being, in ways of saying; it requires a transformation of the self — how much more interesting an open and poetic process involving contemplation, study, movement, meditation and composition.”Across the Territories (Polygon 2004) page 86
I feel a lot of disquiet about the baggage-free ‘intellectual nomad’ he writes so much and so romantically about in his early days. I’m convinced that there is at least as deep an engagement in reality, and as much self-transformation going on if you stay put rather than roaming about, and that dialogue between two (or more) people of alert and open minds might be as fruitful as his preferred unaligned solitude, but I’m all for this process of relating to the resistant real. There’s more joy in discovering the quirks and flaws and deviations and serendipities of a world which is regarded as a given, than in designing a matrix that obeys the narcissistic whims of the human fantasy. I love this phrase he uses in The Wanderer and His Charts: ‘a thinking-in-the-territory (implicated in it, not imposed on it)’ (The Wanderer and his Charts, Polygon 2004, page 63) which is the kind of concept I developed behind the Well of the Moon sequence in my last book. (The Well of the Moon, Red Squirrel Press 2021).
This makes Geopoetics different from most of the new genres of place writing or psychogeography. Cf Kathleen Jamie’s famous piece in the London Review of Books.
condemning the prevalence of the solitary (and privileged) wanderings amid romanticised wild places, and Richard Smyth’s article in The Fence lamenting the tendency of writers to amplify their own sense of ‘calling’ and ‘special’ relationship to the countryside, at the expense of actual knowledge or precision or conveying any actual sense of place at all.
I firmly believe that Geopoetics as a concept can offer a wider palette and perspective. Kenneth White writes in The House of Tides (Polygon 2004) that he isn’t interested in discovering his identity, but ‘finding an energy field’, which seems, on one level, much more constructive. He goes beyond the generic search for affirmation or projection of hidden conflicts onto nature, he doesn’t use nature or the landscape as a backdrop for human drama or fantasy. He is interested in establishing the reality and the significance of the material world as it is – and how the human mind can respond to that reality, live intelligently with it and make real creative art out of that dynamic. His philosophy differs, too, from the eco-poetics of the American tradition, having fewer orthodoxies, and a less strident campaigning edge, working towards a more holistic and therefore more interesting, cultural renewal.
I think, too, that the work-field outlined in geopoetics is the right work-field for the times we live in. His emphasis on bringing together the fields of art and science and philosophy has borne a lot of fruit in visual arts and music. His cross-fertilisation of eastern mental disciplines and western traditional cultures is no longer unusual but is seldom made so explicit. and I am absolutely with him in his emphasis on the common ground, across all cultures and historical periods, of life on earth. Geopoetics aspires to be genuinely multi-disciplinary, and genuinely cross-cultural.
In his essay Kenneth White: a Transcendental Scot, Tony McManus quotes Kenneth White:
“world emerges from a contact between the human mind and the things, the lines, the rhythms of the earth. When this contact is sensitive, subtle, intelligent, you have a world (a culture) in the strong confirming and enlightening sense of the word.Grounding a World: Essays on the work of Kenneth White (eds) Gavin Bowd, Charles Forsdick and Norman Bissell (alba editions 2005)
— Geopoetics is concerned with developing sensitive and intelligent contact, and with working out original ways to express that contact.”
There is much to do, however. To quote Norman Bissell at the Atlantic Islands Festival: there’s more to Geopoetics than what Kenneth White says, and I’d like to use future essays to explore some of the new directions it can take us. My own recent work has focussed on the very literal questions of ‘identity’ so derided by Kenneth White, considering the fabric of ‘a person’, the ways in which we build our awareness of identity through interaction with landscape and community, and the role of myth and memory in creating a sense of alignment and responsible engagement. Poets like Vahni Capildeo and Polly Atkin raise different issues of privilege (through gender or disability) around access to the countryside. Inuit poet Josephine Bacon writes about exclusion from the land and loss of heritage. Shetland-based poet Jen Hadfield and Mojave poet Natalie Diaz write in ways that remind us that language, and the way we use it, influences and renews the way we relate to the earth. Kei Miller and Seán Hewitt raise important questions about the relevance of history, and the clash of cultures within a territory, and John Bolland explores the impact of capitalism on the state of the environment. The ‘intellectual nomad’ trope is called into question by the poetry of Traveller writers such as Jo Clement and David Morley. There is enormous potential in this field, once we move beyond the idea that we are writing simply about ‘nature’, or ‘the environment’ – and while we must move beyond the writings of Kenneth White, he deserves the credit for opening it up for us.