Kenneth White was born in the Gorbals in Glasgow on 28 April 1936 and grew up in Fairlie on the Ayrshire coast, where his father worked as a railway signalman. He was educated in Fairlie, Largs and Ardrossan. Befriended by the naturalist, vegetarian and advocate of simple living Dugald Semple, who lived in Fairlie, White read Henry Thoreau, Walt Whitman and Herman Melville. His walks along the Ayrshire coast and over its moorland had a profound influence on his writing and outlook on the world.
From 1954 to 1959 he studied at the University of Glasgow and read widely, including Ovid, Rimbaud, Nietzsche and Heidegger, as well as other philosophers and studies of geology. In 1959 he obtained a double first MA (Hons) in French and German and was named first student in the Faculty of Arts. From 1959 until 1963 he studied at the University of Paris, where he married Marie-Claude Charlut and worked on a thesis on Surrealism. In 1961 he purchased Gourgounel, an old farm in the Ardèche region of France, where he studied Taoism and Ch’an Buddhism and wrote what would become Letters from Gourgounel.
In 1963 his first collection of poetry Wild Coal, with a glowing introduction by Francis Scarfe, was published by the students of English at the Sorbonne in Paris, and later that year he returned to the University of Glasgow to lecture in modern French literature. There he set up the extra-mural Jargon Group, leading poetry readings, discussions and field trips and giving lectures which argued the need for a ‘cultural revolution’, attracting the interest of Alexander Trocchi’s Sigma Project.
In 1964 Mercure de France published his En tout candour, a collection of early poems and biographical sketches, and in 1966 Jonathan Cape brought out his poetry collection The Cold Wind of Dawn and a prose book, Letters from Gourgounel.
Disillusioned with the contemporary British cultural scene, White moved to Pau near the Pyrenees in south-west France in 1967. He lectured in English at the University of Bordeaux and set up the group Feuillage. As a result of his involvement in the student protests of May 1968 his contract was not renewed, but he remained in Pau and his second poetry collection, The Most Difficult Area, was published by Cape Goliard in 1969. From 1969 until 1983 White lectured at the University of Paris VII, where he founded a research seminar ‘East-West’ and another group and a review, The Feathered Egg.
During the 1970s he travelled extensively throughout Europe and South East Asia and his journals formed the basis of his later ‘way-books’. In 1979 he successfully defended a doctoral thesis on the theme of ‘intellectual nomadism’ before an academic jury which included Gilles Deleuze. On a trip along the north bank of the St Lawrence into Labrador, which formed the basis for his book The Blue Road, he came up with the concept of ‘geopoetics’ as a way of experiencing the world, expressing it creatively in a variety of different ways and promoting radical cultural renewal.
In 1983 he left the Pyrenees to live in a farmhouse near Trébeurden on the north coast of Brittany and was appointed Professor of Twentieth Century Poetics at the Sorbonne. In the 1980s and 1990s he travelled to Japan, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean Islands. Books resulting from these travels were published by Mainstream (Edinburgh): Travels in the Drifting Dawn (1989), The Blue Road (1990), Pilgrim of the Void (1992).
In 1989 he founded the International Institute of Geopoetics to promote further research into the cross-cultural, trans-disciplinary field of study which he had been developing during the previous decade. It has since produced six Cahiers de Géopoétique (journals) in French, publishing a range of work on geopoetics from throughout the world. Geopoetics Centres have since been set up in Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Serbia, Quebec, New Caledonia and France.
On Burns Night in 1995 the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics was set up in Edinburgh and in 1996 the National Library of Scotland held an exhibition White World, the itinerary of Kenneth White, curated by Tony McManus. It subsequently toured Scotland and France (in translation and re-titled as Open World). That year White gave up his post at the Sorbonne to devote himself to his writing, lecturing and travelling, publishing several collections of essays in the new millennium, as well as Open World: Collected Poems 1960–2000 (Polygon). He has written books about artists such as Van Gogh, Hokusai, Atlan and Richard Texier and has collaborated in over a hundred artist-books.
In 2003 a symposium ‘Horizons of Kenneth White – literature, thought, geopoetics’ was held at Bordeaux and another ‘Forty Years of the White World’ took place at the University of St Andrews. The latter led to the publication in 2005 of Grounding a World, Essays on the Work of Kenneth Whiteby Alba Editions which contains 18 essays by contributors from Scotland, England, France, Morocco and Italy.
From 2001 to 2009 Kenneth White gave lectures and readings each August at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and at other book festivals in Scotland, and in October 2005 he delivered three lectures on the Geopoetics project in Ullapool, Inverness and Kirkwall as part of a HI-Arts International Writing Fellowship. They were published with one of the Edinburgh lectures in On the Atlantic Edge by Sandstone Press in 2006.
Kenneth White is a charismatic lecturer and reader of his work, whose erudition ranges widely across different cultures, space and time. He continues to live near the north coast of Brittany with his wife Marie-Claude, who is a photographer, his personal assistant and the translator of his poetry into French. He is the recipient of many awards and honours, in Europe and Scotland, including the Grand Prix du Rayonnement Français by the Académie française for his work as a whole (1985), an Honorary D.Litt. from the University of Glasgow (1991), Officier des Arts et des Lettres (1993), Honorary member of the Royal Scottish Academy (2001), the Édouard Glissant prize from the University of Paris VIII for his ‘openness to the cultures of the world’ (2004), Prix de poésie Alain Bosquet for Les Archives du Littoral, a bilingual poetry collection (2011).
The work of Kenneth White has divided critical opinion between those who hail his poetry and radical thought as ground-breaking, opening up a world of possibilities, and others who dismiss his continental celebrity and exclude him from poetry anthologies and Scotland’s literary canon. ‘Erudite, elemental, big and bold, a manifestation of the kind of poetry MacDiarmid hoped for’ – Seamus Heaney; ‘Rumours of an heir to MacDiarmid unfounded’– Richard Price; ‘Perhaps, as I also at times desperately assume of theorists like Derrida or Kristeva, White works better in French. Or perhaps his beguiling ideas of wholeness and primal relationships and life-energy strike more of a chord over there’ – Adam Thorpe; ‘An intellectual nomad of genius’– Catherine Lockerbie (Director, Edinburgh International Book Festival); ‘It has a certain rhetorical force, I’ll grant, but it is a windy sort of rhetoric’ – Ian Bell (The Herald). The last word –or question – goes to the poet Gary Snyder: ‘What other poet gives us clarity, emptiness, purity of spirit, a north of the soul, a pathless path?’
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Manuscripts and Papers
Collections of his papers, manuscripts and publications in English are held at the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh and in French at the Institut Mémoires de l’Édition Contemporaine, at l’Abbaye d’Ardenne, 14280 Saint-Germain-la-Blanche-Herbe, Paris.