June 2024
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Kenneth White’s Life & Works Across the Territories

Kenneth White The Blue Road 1990 Mainstream Publishing

Scotiana readers who have followed us on our ‘blue road’, in Quebec, already know we are great admirers of Kenneth White. Now, we would like to share with you what we know about the well-known Scottish-French poet, academic and writer.

Open on my desk are the last two books published by Kenneth White : La carte de Guido and Les Archives du Littoral . Some of the author’s key words appear in the titles : ‘archives’, ‘carte’ and ‘littoral’, evoking a poetry of earth and ocean, geography and travel. Kenneth White is a born traveller, a poet and a scholar too, and in La carte de Guido, subtitled ‘Un pélerinage européen’, we follow him in the European countries, discovering landscapes, people, art and literature with as much pleasure as when we followed the author on The Blue Road

 La carte de Guido is a French-written book but I’ve noticed that it had been translated, as most of Kenneth White’s books, by his wife Marie-Claude and though I’ve still not found its English version there must be one, or there will be one, sooner or later…

Les Archives du Littoral is a book of poetry and it is bilingual. The three parts of the book reflect Kenneth White’s periples all over the world.

I – A travers l’Europe (Up and down in Europe)

II – Pacifique Nord (North Pacific)

III – Memoires d’Armor (Armorican Memoirs)

When I first opened Les Archives du Littoral,  still remembering our unforgettable journey in Quebec on the steps of Kenneth White, I immediately looked for a poem which would ring a bell  and I found one, in part II,  entitled ‘Mackenzie’s report’.  Here’s an extract:

(..) day after day we spent

paddling, poling, towing

lugging packages over portages:

tedious and toilsome labour –

but what splendid beauty everywhere!

tall clifs, red and grey

a multitude of rapids and cascades

birch, cedar, hemlock, willow

lofty blue mountains crowned with snow (..)

to the armchair geographers

this definitive message :

having travelled the road

I can say with no fear of reproach

there is no fabulous North-West passage

leading to some Asia indolent and rich

only a wan and silent water

a seaweed-covered beach

involved in fog

inhabited by seal and otter.

I entrust this letter

to a battered old rum-cask

which I hereby deliver

this June 27th, 1793

to the waters of the Unnamed River

thinking that, who knows

one day someone in the future

will discover it with eyes full of wonder.

I invite our readers to find Les Archives du littoral and to read the whole poem. After reading it, I’ve made a research on Wikipedia to try and find who was this explorer, named Mackenzie 😉

Kenneth White La carte de Guido Albin Michel 2011

Kenneth White La carte de Guido Albin Michel 2011

Kenneth White Les archives du littoral Mercure de France 2011

Kenneth White Les archives du littoral Traduit de l'anglais par Marie-Claude White - Edition Bilingue -Mercure de France 2011

Kenneth White Comédie du Livre Montpellier Edition 2009 - Source Wikipedia

Kenneth White Comédie du Livre Montpellier Edition 2009 - Source Wikipedia

Kenneth White has written many books in English as well as in French, he has given and still gives lectures and interviews all over the world and, after creating the revolutionary concept of Geopoetics, he has founded, in April 1989,  the International Institute of Geopoetics. His talent is internationally recognized and he has received a number of literary awards, especially in France where he has been living for a long time. After spending several years in Pau, Aquitaine, teaching at the University of Bordeaux and Paris, he now holds the Chair of XXth Century Poetics at Paris-Sorbonne. He lives and works with his wife Marie-Claude, in the ‘House of Tides’, at Trebeurden, on the Pink Granite Coast, in Brittany.

Indeed, it’s with infinite pleasure that I’ve read La maison des marées (in English: House of Tides) in which the poet invites us to visit his ‘House of Tides’ and his ‘Atlantic Studio’. The chapters entitled ‘A Bibliophile Fantasia’, ‘The Paths of Stone and Wind’, ‘A Garden’, ‘The Great World of Little Catou’ 😉 , to mention only a few of them, are windows opened on Kenneth White’s world and there are more than one lovely passages about the daily life of the great poet.

Kenneth White La Maison des marées Albin Michel 2005

Kenneth White La Maison des marées Traduit de l'anglais par Marie-Claude White Albin Michel 2005

Kenneth White La Maison des marées Albin Michel 2005

Kenneth White La Maison des marées Albin Michel 2005

‘My workroom is laid out on a west-east axis, so that I go to work with the rising sun in one window, and finish it with the setting sun in the other.’

I work in here about twelve hours a day. Around eight in the morning, I’ll be crossing the yard with a pot of tea (a heavy cast-iron Japanese teapot) and one of the bowls made by my friend the potter. Let’s say it’s a winter morning, overcast, no stars to be seen, only a light in the neighbouring farm, a misty light from behind trees, and, down to the south-west there, the noise of the waves on the beaches of Lannion Bay. I switch on the lamp and the heater, sit at my table, pour myself a bowl of tea, and the day’s work begins.’

(Kenneth White House of Tides ‘An Atlantic Studio’)

The title of this post has been called after Kenneth White’s book, Across the Territories, a book which we’ve read in French under the title of “Le rôdeur des confins”.


Kenneth White Le rôdeur des confins Editions Albin Michel 2006

Kenneth White Le rôdeur des confins Editions Albin Michel 2006




 The first chapter of Across the Territories, is devoted to Orkney, a place we went to in 2003. We had been attracted there by the magnificent weather-beaten landscapes of these northern islands and their rich archeological heritage (Skara Brae – Maes Howe – the Ring of Brodgar). I also  wanted to pay homage to George Mackay Brown, ‘the Orkney Bard’, a marvellous Scottish poet born in Stromness and buried there, close to his beloved seashore.  ‘Carve the runes and then be silent’ can we read on his grave.  I will never forget our pilgrimage to the Warbeth Kirkyard, overlooking Hoy Sound.

Added to the fact that Kenneth White is second to none to catch the sense of a place and to show empathy with the people he happens to meet on the road, his writing is quite entertaining. Humour is omnipresent in his books.  (‘Maybe more than one passenger thought fleetingly of the life jacket under the seat, equipped, as we’d been told, ‘with a light and a whistle to attract attention’. Though looking out into the murky turmoil, who wouldn’t be thinking too that, in a storm like that, a wee light and a pink plastic whistle would have about half the chance of a snowball in hell.’).

Here’s a short passage I’m particularly fond of, from the chapter ‘The Isles of the Orks’.

‘I laid out my things, set out books (among them Orkneyinga Saga) on the table by the window,

pinned a map of the archipelago on the wall,

and felt immediately at home –

as in a captain’s cabin, or maybe rather a monk’s cell.’

These lines make me think of another passage written by H.V. Morton, one of our favourite travel-writers, in his famous book In Search of Scotland :

‘There is one way only to bring a reluctant smile to the face of a bedroom which looks as though it doubted your ability to pay the bill

– smother it in books! Pile them on chairs, tables, washstands, on mantelpiece and, if possible, on the floor.

The most bitter and resentful room is flattered if you try to turn it into a library.

Books and a fire can humanize any room, so that if you travel, as I do, with more books than clothes you have nothing to fear from any hotel’.

The relationships between a traveller and his or her books are revealing. As far as we’re concerned, we can’t help to take a number of them with us each time we travel and, as we always add new ones during the journey, we recurrently find ourselves confronted with luggage problems at the airport or in the car. And we still haven’t learned the lesson.

For you to make a first idea of Across the Territories I’ve transcribed the comment figuring out on the back cover of the book and also its contents. Having a look at the contents is always the first thing I do before buying and reading a book. The choice of titles are important too and those of Kenneth White are particularly well-chosen, in English and in French : The Blue Road’, ‘The Wanderer and his Charts’, ‘House of Tides’, ‘Le grand rivage’, ‘Scènes d’un monde flottant’, ‘Terre de diamant’, ‘Les rives du silence’, ‘L’anorak du goéland’ ;-), ‘Les cygnes sauvages’. As a haïku writer, Kenneth White excells in telling things in a minimum words.  I also like very much the cover illustration of Across the Territories.  It’s  a reproduction of a watercolour entitled “Junction of the Yellowstone and the Missouri’  painted c. 1835 by Kark Bodmer.

Kenneth White Across the Territories Polygon 2004

Kenneth White Across the Territories Polygon 2004

An initial mapping of this book might say that it goes from Orkney to Polynesia via Scandinavia and the Baltic regions, the Iberian peninsula, and North America. But it’s impossible to sum up the diverse pathways and the multiple dimensions of Kenneth White’s method in that highly original type of travel-writing he calls the waybook. The thing is to get out on the road with him. Along with, for example, three Quebeckers from the St Lawrence river-country through the forest and along the coast of Maine, or with an eleven-century Jewish poet across Spain. Other chapters will take the reader to the haunts of migrating cranes in Sweden, the misty margins of Portugal, across the plains of Poland, into the Atlas mountains, or along the coast of Norway into the Lofotens. The book ends on the atoll of Rangiroa in the Tuamotu archipelago, on a shore of dark jagged coral, wild bird cries and empty sea. The result of the whole complex process is an acutely increased sensation of life, a vastly enlarged experience of the world.
Real poets are explorers, and Kenneth White is one in the fullest sense of the term. He brings together the near and the far, poetry and everyday living. Kenneth White, with the wind on his heels and his brain ablaze!
André Laude, Le Monde

Who could imagine a more pleasant companion than this Scotsman ? He has a way of listening to how people talk, or of watching a hawk in the sky, that makes you want to get out there and travel with him.
Claude Roy, Le Nouvel Observateur.

White’s work is very much about life on the periphery, a rim of civilization which somehow he imbues with a sense of centrality : new beginnings, outside the outmoded, over-used and over-worked centres.


The Isles of the Orks

The Dancing Cranes

Aurora Borealis

Winds of the Skagerrak

Travels in a Sea of Vodka

The Cry of the Loon on the Kennebec

Around Corsica

The Big Andalusian Trip

Rainy Margins and Misty Horizons

The Lights of the Atlas

The Road to Rangiroa




I will begin my next post with  Lettres de Gourgounel which is the first book by Kenneth White I’ve read but in the meantime, here’s a bibliography of Kenneth White’s books.

Kenneth White Letters from Gourgounel London Jonathan Cape. (1966)

Kenneth White Letters from Gourgounel London Jonathan Cape. (1966)

Kenneth White Lettres de Gourgounel Les Presses d'Aujourd'hui 1979


· Wild Coal. Paris: Club des Étudiants d’Anglais (Sorbonne). (1963)
· En toute candeur. Paris: Mercure de France. (1964)
· The Cold Wind of Dawn. London: Jonathan Cape. (1966)
· The Most Difficult Area. London: Cape Goliard. (1968)
· Scènes d’un monde flottant. Lausanne: Alfred Eibel Editeur. (1976)
· Terre de diamant. Lausanne: Alfred Eibel Editeur. (1977)
· Mahamudra. Paris: Mercure de France. (1979)
· Le Grand Rivage. Paris: Nouveau Commerce. (1980)
· Eloge du corbeau (1983)
· Scènes d’un monde flottant (Grasset 1983)
· Terre de diamant (Grasset 1983)
· Atlantica. Paris: Grasset. (1986)
· L’anorak du goéland. Rouen: L’Instant Perpétuel. (1986)
. The Bird Path: Collected Longer Poems. Edinburgh and London: Mainstream. (1989)
· Handbook for the Diamond Country, Collected Shorter Poems 1960-1990. Edinburgh and London: Mainstream. (1990)
· Les Rives du silence. Paris: Mercure de France. (1998)
· Limites et marges. Paris: Mercure de France. (2000)
· Open World: Collected Poems 1960-2000. Edinburgh: Polygon. (2003
· Le passage extérieur (Mercure de France 2005)
· L’anorak du goéland in L’Ermitage des brumes (Dervy 2005)
· Un monde ouvert (Gallimard, collection Poésie 2007)
· Letters from Gourgounel. London: Jonathan Cape. (1966)
· Dérives (Maurice Nadeau 1978)
· Lettres de Gourgounel (Les Presses d’aujourd’hui 1979, Grasset-Cahiers rouges 1986)
· Les Limbes incandescents (Denoël-Lettres nouvelles 1976, Denoël 1990)
· Le Visage du vent d’est. Paris: Les Presses d’aujourd’hui. (1980)
· La Route bleue. Paris: Grasset. (Grasset 1983 – prix Médicis étranger)
· Une apocalypse tranquille. Paris: Grasset (1985)
· Travels in the Drifting Dawn. Edinburgh and London: Mainstream. (1989)
· Les Cygnes sauvages. Paris: Grasset. (1990)
· The Blue Road. Edinburgh and London: Mainstream Publishing. (1990)
· Pilgrim of the Void. Edinburgh and London: Mainstream. (1992)
· Corsica. L’itinéraire des rives et des monts (traduit de l’anglais par Marie-Claude White et illustré par Jacqueline Ricard de gravures au carborundum; Les Bibliophiles de France, 1998)
· House of Tides: Letters from Brittany and Other Lands of the West. Edinburgh: Polygon. (2000)
· Across the Territories. Edinburgh: Polygon. (2004)
· La Maison des marées (traduit de l’anglais par Marie-Claude White; Paris, Albin Michel, 2005;
· Le Rôdeur des confins. Paris: Albin Michel. (2006)
· Le Visage du vent d’est, Albin Michel, 2007
· Les Affinités extrêmes, Albin Michel, 2009
· La Figure du dehors. Paris: Grasset. (1982)
· Une apocalypse tranquille (Grasset 1985)
· L’Esprit nomade (Grasset 1987)
· Le monde d’Antonin Artaud (Éditions Complexe 1989)
· Hokusaï ou l’horizon sensible – Prélude à une esthétique du monde (Terrain Vague 1990)
· Le Plateau de l’albatros: Introduction à la géopoétique. Paris: Grasset. (1994)
· Les finisterres de l’esprit (Éditions du Scorff 1998)
· Une stratégie paradoxale : essais de résistance culturelle (Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux 1998)
· On Scottish Ground. Edinburgh: Polygon. (1998)
· The Wanderer and His Charts. Edinburgh: Polygon. (2004)
· Le chemin des crêtes, avec Stevenson dans les Cévennes” (Études et Communication Éditions 1999, 2005)
· On the Atlantic Edge. Sandstone. (2006)
· Écosse, le pays derrière les noms (Terre De Brume, 2010)

Bonne lecture ! A bientôt. Mairiuna

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