I would like to begin this post with a few words about Lettres de Gourgounel (1979), one of the first books written by Kenneth White (his first book of prose) and also the first book I‘ve read by this author. The title of the original English edition is Letters from Gourgounel (1966) but it has been out of print for a long time now. Lettres de Gourgounel remains one of my favourites books by Kenneth White. It is a ‘bouffée d’air pur’.
The author’s lively style and great sense of humour to tell us about the old farm he bought in Ardèche, a mountainous and wild region in south-central France, about his relationships with his colourful neighbours, make us feel as if we were up there at Gourgounel. We learn much about the place and the people who live there, about the author’s love for a simple life, close to nature, about his love for books and solitude, about his work. In Lettres de Gourgounel, Kenneth White shares with us, the best of his literary and philosophical knowledge and, at that early time of his life, it was already immense. He was only 26 when he wrote Letters from Gourgounel!
Having read this book a long time ago I feel like re-reading it now. I remember how I used to copy my favourite passages on the rough surface of the pages of a very nice leather-bound notebook I had been offered some time before. The kind of notebook so beautifully made you dare not write in it.
But the content is well-worth my nice hand-crafted notebook. I still keep it preciously
But let us try to know more about Kenneth White’s peregrinations ‘across the territories’! It is in Scotland that Kenneth White ‘s mental map begins to take shape.
I was born on that Atlantic shore of Europe and I have its topography imprinted on my mind.
(Kenneth White – On Scottish Ground)
Living as a boy on the shore
seeing and hearing the clouding
and clamouring of gulls
like overwhelming metaphors
or maybe a heron
‘na h’aonar ri atobh na tuinne
mar thigse leatha fhèin’s a’ chruinne
alone beside the sea
like a mind alone in the universe.
(From Kenneth White Le grand rivage - Editions Le Nouveau Commerce 1980 -
Original title : A Walk along the Shore)
Our best source of information about Kenneth White will be his own writings (poems and prose) and a few biographical books and studies written about him. There are many of them.
The Gorbals is an area on the south bank of the River Clyde in the city of Glasgow, Scotland. By the late 19th century, it had become over-populated and adversely affected by local industrialisation. It became widely known as a dangerous slum and was subject to efforts at redevelopment, which contributed to more problems. In recent decades, some buildings have been demolished for a mixture of market and social housing; others are being refurbished and restored to a higher standard.
Kenneth White was born in the Gorbals area of Glasgow on 28 April 1936 which was not reputed then for being the ideal place to rear a family. Kenneth White’s father who worked as a railway signalman and was also an avid reader and a lover of nature, decided to move to a more genial place and Kenneth White was only three years old when the family settled in Fairlie, a little village on the west coast, south of Largs in Ayrshire. There he spent his childhood and adolescence.
In that house of three storeys
only yards from the sea
a house with
anwar don lavar
a wild wave talking
and clashing beside it.
(From Le grand rivage -1980 – A Walk along the Shore)
A few strange words in this extract has for a long time puzzled me. I’ve found an answer to my questions in The Radical Field. Here is what Tony McManus writes about this passage: ‘It is in his removal of the family to the coast that White senior most influenced the future of his son, for so much of what Kenneth White has come to do has its origins in that landscape and seascape. In his long poem, ‘Walking the Coast’, he writes of the sound of the sea (quoting in the by-going, both for sound and sense, an old Welsh poem) which was a constant feature of his surrounding’
In Kenneth White’s books, we find many happy memories of this early time in Ayrshire : family life, relationships with friends and neighbours, school life, open-air activities including playing as well as working ones (Kenneth White contributed to the family economy by gathering wrack and picking shellfish on the shore), reading, much reading – and even churchgoing which he recalls with humour in the following poem:
I’d be getting at the window
and forgetting the sermon
(all about good and evil
with a lot of mangled metaphor
and heavy comparison)
eager to get back out
onto the naked shore
there to walk for hours on end
with a book sometimes in my hand
but never a thought of preaching in my mind
trying to grasp at something
that wanted no godly name
something that took the form
of blue waves and grey rock
and that tasted of salt.
(From ‘Scotia Deserta’ quoted by Tony McManus in The Radical Field)
Of course, we can only try to imagine what it was like to live on the Ayrshire coast in the 1930s, decades ago and in such a different kind of society as our own, but even today it also remains ‘terra incognita’ for us for, when we go there, we are only passing travellers. However, even if Ayrshire is not the Scottish region we know the best, we quite remember the beautiful and wintry place, close to the ocean, with its many islands, hills, woods and moors. Good ground for a young poet to grow up!
We didn’t have time to stop at Fairlie and Largs when we passed there on our way to Ardrossan for we had booked on the next Caledonian ferry which was about to depart for Arran, the rugged and mountainous island often mentioned by Kenneth White in his writings. No wonder the poet found inspiration in these unforgettable Scottish landscapes, still wild enough to offer many opportunities to admire the landscape in silence and solitude.
When driving southward on the picturesque A78 coastal road we only had time to catch a glimpse of the Little and Great Cumbraes, the two small islands situated just in front of Largs and Fairlie but we have been lucky to visit the nearby island of Bute, in May 2004, at the time when its gigantic rhododendrons are in full bloom. It’s quite magical! We’ll soon devote a page on Scotiana to this little island for it is really worth the visit. At Rothesay, there is an old mediaeval fortress with moats full of water reflecting canons which seem ready to fire, a mysterious and quite fascinating gothic palace at Mountstuart and the ruins of a very ancient abbey at St Blane’s in the South from where you can also get magnificent views across the water of the the island of Arran. While taking the ferry which crosses from Rothesay to Wemyss Bay and if the weather is fine you can also get unforgettable views of the Cowal Hills. The Kintyre peninsula is not far either but we’ll come back to it later, for it would be too long today to describe whatwe’ve seen there.
One of the most recent books published about Kenneth White, The Radical Field by Tony McManus, which is subtitled ‘Kenneth White and Geopoetics’, is open on my desk. There is often no better source of information about an author than his own writings and Kenneth White’s books are particularly rich in autobiographical elements but Tony McManus who is a great admirer of Kenneth White has devoted much time to the study of his works and of geopoetics and his book is full of quotations drawn from Kenneth White’s books .
The Radical Field is divided into into three parts: ‘The Initial Ground’, ‘The Emergent Field’ and ‘Open World Writing’). To make you an idea, I give you the contents of the book, the titles and subtitles of which are particularly revealing.
PART ONE: THE INITIAL GROUND
1 Family Alchemy
2 Shore and Moor
3 The Glasgow Student
4 Munich: Isolation and Meditation
5 Paris: The Incandescent Zone
6 Gourgounel : Resourcing
7 First Publications
8 On the British Literary Scene
9 The Departure
PART TWO: THE EMERGENT FIELD
1 A Scottish Constellation
2 Universal Ancestor: The Shaman
3 Cultural Analysis Now
4 The Drifting Dawn
5 Radical Europen Thought
6 On American Trails
7 Investigations into Asia
8 Pathways in Science
9 From Scotland to Alba end Beyond
PART THREE/ OPEN WORLD WRITING
1 The Essay
2 The Waybook
3 The Poem of the Earth
‘If I set out to write this book on the work of Kenneth White and geopoetics, it’s because it has been obvious to me for some time now, not only that White stands among the most significant writers and thinkers working today, but that his work belongs to a very rare category, one that stands outside those currently in vogue.
This has already been recognised in contexts other than the English language one.
Looking through the already bulky archives gathering around White’s work in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh and the Fonds Kenneth White in the city of Bordeaux, one comes across statements such as these: (…) ‘At a time when a certain mediocrity is reaching planetary proportions, one of us has stood up, turned his back and, possessed of real knowledge,moved off’ (Revue des Belles-Lettres, Geneva); ‘White belongs to a silent vanguard, in solitary rebellion against not only the entrenched establishments, but the modernist cliques’ (Review of the University of Mexico); ‘Travelling out on his own ways, kenneth White is bound to appear more and more as the foremost English poet of these times’ (Le Nouvel Observateur, Paris).’ (The Radical Field - Foreword –Tony McManus – Edinburgh, September 2001)
To enter Kenneth White’s world is a fascinating quest but not an easy one. We hope this post and the other ones which we intend to devote to the great Scottish-French poet will be helpful for the readers who are trying, as we do, to enter this vast universe. You follow a blue road and you discover a white world, ‘un monde blanc’…
Bonne lecture !