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Letters from Gourgounel

London, Jonathan Cape, 1966.
Extract from the Prologue

After five years at university (with a break of isolation in between, at Munich) I left
Scotland where I knew I would live more and more by reaction only, and went to Paris.
But after two years in that city, I found reaction again setting in, and removed a few
miles out of it to the relative quietude of Meudon, where I lived in a house surrounded
by a garden of pear trees, apple trees, plum trees, peach trees, cherry trees, and began to
feel and live and express the kind of life I wanted.
In the same year that I removed out of Paris (a chambre de bonne on the seventh
floor, Avenue de Saxe) to Meudon (a room in that villa), I went on a spring trip to the
South. I had heard that houses could be bought cheap in the Ardèche, and I had got
together some extra cash by doing translations and several other odd jobs. I left from the
Gare de Lyon and arrived one April morning in Montélimar. There I hired a bicycle for
one franc fifty a day (a new tyre thrown in) and set out for this Ardèche I had already
heard and read so much about. Michelet, for example, in his book The People, writes
“…in the month of May 1844, travelling from Nîmes to Le Puy, I crossed the Ardèche,
that harsh country where man has created everything. Nature had made it so awful…” It
sounded like one of those “desert places” the old hermits were always looking for, a
kind of Thebaid. That was what I wanted.
Extracts
I go to sleep to the sound of thunder, and I wake to the sound of thunder. The sky is
grey and black, the forests are green, dark green, into black.
I no longer need to wash. I just take a step out of the house in the mornings and stand
naked for a while in the rain. Then I come back into the house, rub myself down, and
pull my chair to the mectra and begin my meditations. It is usually still half-dark and I
can hardly see. Sometimes I light a candle. Sometimes I simply wait till enough light
comes.
This morning there was a woodpecker at the mulberry trees, around five o‟clock. I
do not know if it is a recognized sign but it seemed to me he was calling the thunder.
The Tanargue replied to him just a little later.
The whole Cévennes is whirling with storms.


Extract from the chapter “Cimmerian Notes”


There was a shirt-seller in Valgorge the next Sunday, and I needed a shirt. He had his
van parked, and his stall laid out beside it. Shirts he had, all sizes, pink, blue and grey.
No one was buying a shirt till I stepped up.“What size do you think ?” I asked the shirt-
man. “Two”, said he, the shirts being marked from one to four. I off with the shirt I was
wearing, and tried the two, but it was on the tight side. So I off with it, and tried the
three, which was fine. Which colour had been for me a matter of hesitation. Tempted by
the pink, and then fingering the blue, I finally took the grey. And I went on down
Valgorge with my new shirt on my back and the old one in my hand.
At the café Rieu, a man appeared with an accordion, and shouted to me :
“Do you want to dance ?”
“I don‟t know how”, I said and went on dancing down the road. I was just a little
sorry for the man with the accordion.
I‟m not an organized dancer, I dont‟ know any special steps, just the old pedestrian
one-two, one-two, but there is a dancing god within me, and I have a dancing soul.
Sometimes it feels more like a lurch than a dance, but it‟s a movement anyway,
vigorous and sprightly whereas souls in general are flaccid and flat, or hard as nails. I‟m
a dancer, all right, but you‟ll never get me in a ballroom, I don‟t like to follow the band,
I am wary even of an accordionist. What do I dance to ? – let‟s say, the music of the
world. Not the spheres, no, just the world, the common-or-garden world.

Extract from the chapter “The Music of the World”
Press
Kenneth White introduces himself to his own countrymen in prose an verse,
simultaneously. […] His is a new voice, distinctive and resonant, and although after
several readings I am still not sure of his destination, I approve of his direction. He
takes life and literature seriously. His aim is Truth or bust. […]
When he is writing as a gossipy reporter about life in the primitive Ardèche he is first-
class, and you wish he would do more of it. But he has a deeper purpose. […] There is
an acknowledged influence of Whitman, unacknowledged influences or echoes of Blake
and D. H. Lawrence, and a strong reminder of the Jefferies of The Story of my Heart. In
another way, Mr White reminds me of Colin Wilson, though they are very unlike except
in this deadpan confidence which they share. Wilson is the intellectual side of the coin,
White the poetic. What they share is this confident bright ring, this quality of being
outside the “main-stream” (or muddy-eddy) of contemporary classifications. Good
luck ! […]
So. Here are the first-fruits of a writer who may amount to something sizeable. At twice
the length, with twice the trivia and twice the documentation, Letters from Gourgounel
would have rivalled Ring of Bright Water in popularity (and surpassed it in profundity).
As it stands, it is a fascinating curiosity of literature, and may portend much more.
Maurice Wiggin, The Sunday Times

This little book on the Ardèche reminds one of Travels with a Donkey. White doesn‟t
have Stevenson‟s smoothness, thank God, and he seems more genuinely eccentric.
There is an absurd hymn to mushroom hunting which would make an excellent school
anthology piece. […] And as an old-fashioned study of man in communion with Nature,
à la Richard Jefferies, Letters from Gourgounel has an almost hilarious irrelevance to
our space age. Why go to the moon, Mr White asks, when you can worship her,
standing buck naked in any field ?
John Montague, The Guardian

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Wild Coal
Paris, Club des Étudiants d‟Anglais de la Sorbonne, 1963.
Introduction by Francis Scarfe, poet and director of the British Institute in Paris

This is a testimony, not a testimonial, but in the case of poems like Kenneth White‟s
in which the whole stress is on the inward truth of men and things, one is immediately
face to face with the man. Since I first met Kenneth White when he was a brittle
sharpeyed student, I have been increasingly impressed by his ferocious honesty. He has
that wilfulness, sense of purpose and of destiny which is an essential element in the
character of a poet or in poetry itself. He compels, irritates and excites the mind in much
the same way as D. H. Lawrence, and his poems have all that living freshness (or what
D. H. L. called starkness), of Lawrence‟s. Nobody can read these poems without being
under the spell of their naked vision and it is important to notice that the vision is
equally clean and original in his landscapes and townscapes. Another refreshing quality
is their energy which is both intellectual and nervous. The gift that White is probably
least aware of because it is entirely natural in his faultless sense of rhythm. I do not find
here any of those platitudes of rhythm or tone which are so common today : the poet‟s
versification (if he has any) is as instinctive as his touch on the world. It would perhaps
be an impertinence to analyse such qualities in an introduction of this kind. It is more
important to point out especially to readers in France that poetry is passing through a
very bad phase in Britain. So far as Scottish poets are concerned – and I have read them
all – I do not see one who approaches White‟s honesty, clarity and seriousness. As for
English poetry, in the past ten years or so it has become much too cerebral and artificial.
I do not hesitate to say that a book like Kenneth White‟s which contains at least a dozen
poems which can teach something to other writers ("Coffin Close" is a masterpiece), not
only stands against the current but may help to turn it and bring poetry back to what it
ought to be. And this is because he is more than intellectual. There is no split in his
personality, no distance between what he knows and what he feels, or between what he
is and what he writes.
Extracts
Morning Walk

It was a cold slow-moving mist
clotted round the sun, clinging
to the small white sun, and the earth
was alone and lonely, and a great bird
harshly squawked from the heronry
as the boy walked under the beeches
seeing the pale-blue shells
and the moist piles of mouldering leaves.


Poem of the White Hare

A thought that leaped out like a hare
over the moor, from behind a great rock
oh, it was a white leaping hare, and
the heather was a fine red world
for its joyance, just that day on the moor
a grey day marching on the winds
into winter, a day for a sparkling sea
three miles away in the trough of the islands
a day high up at the end of the year
a silence to break your heart, oh
the white hare leaping, see the white hare.


Winter Evening

Sun a beetroot thrown in mud
six o‟clock winter in Dumbarton Road

oatcakes and milk I buy at the dairy
as cars spit their way towards the ferry

the lampstands caught in beginning frost
send out whiskers of light that are lost

in the electric bonfires of the passing trams
while bored-looking women lug their prams

to family tea. I could go home at once and eat
but I wait till the rush is over in the street

and feel that deep loneliness cover my mind
now the moon has appeared like a turnip rind

above the cranes and the gables. The Caspar Hauser song
trails in my conscience as I trudge along

stopping at the corner to drink the milk
while a cat spick and span in genteel silk

black and with inaccessible eyes surveys with disdain
my enterprise decides he need not remain

and slips off into a close without a backward look
I think I shall make an excursion to Pollock

for I cannot return to my spurious home
where all day I‟ve written of Jonah‟s tomb

I shall take my trip on the trams and hope
that my spirits will be not too ashamed to elope

with the first image tossed from the city‟s rusty womb.


Song of the Coffin Close

Have you heard of the Coffin Close, boys
have you heard of the Coffin Close
it‟s one of life‟s rare joys, boys
it smells like a summer rose
yes, it smells like a summer rose

Have you ever climbed up the stair, boys
have you ever climbed up the stair
where the lavvy-pan overflows, boys
and gives you a whiff of rotten air
yes, a whiff of rotten air

Have you ever fallen down the stair, boys
have you ever fallen down the stair
and buried your sensitive nose, boys
in the filth and muck which is there
yes, the filth and muck which is there

Have you ever come up at night, boys
have you ever come up at nigh
when the burner throws its rays, boys
you see many a ghastly sight
yes, many a ghastly sight

Have you ever seen Bill McNeice, boys
have you ever seen Bill McNeice
lying dead to the world, boys
and a cat being sick in his face
yes, a cat being sick in his face

Have you ever seen Mary Cape, boys
have you ever seen Mary Cape
she often hangs there on the stairs, boys
coughing her insides up
yes, coughing her insides up

You all know the Coffin Close, boys
you all know the Coffin Close
if I bother you all with my noise, boys
it‟s all for a very good cause
yes, it‟s all for a very good cause

I live in the Coffin Close, boys
I live in the Coffin Close
very soon they‟ll be taking me out, boys
and my head will come after my toes
yes, my head will come after my toes.
Press
Wild Coal was published in France a few years ago in a limited edition. The appearance
of this volume should establish Mr. White as one of the two or three finest poets of his
generation. It would be possible to trace in these poems Mr. White‟s literary ancestry –
possible, but superfluous. For what matters in his poetry is his own response to the
visible world, and to his experience of life, his own vision of what it means to be a
human being in the slums of Glasgow and in the invigorating landscapes and seascapes
which are the source of his most impressive poetic images. Mr White is a poet of
winter, of ice, frost, snow, fog, red berries, gulls in frozen skies. His world is one of
harsh purity, or arrogant coldness.
John Press, Punch

The Cold Wind of Dawn
London, Jonathan Cape, 1966.
Author’s presentation

The Cold Wind of Dawn, my first book of poetry to be published in English, is
divided into three parts : “Virgin Territory”, “Zone”, “Naked Ground”. The middle part
is urban and communitarian, more specifically, anarcho-nihilistic. The first and third
part are concerned with a larger, more-than-human context. The first part represents an
entry into this context, the third part a radicalisation of that initial contact.
The landscape is recognizably Scottish : a lowland and highland Scotland seen as
though (which is geologically the case), the ice-sheet had disappeared only recently,
leaving a territory of deep fractures, abrupt nonconformities, acute oulines. The
townscape is that of an industrial civilisation on the wane and a humanity alienated,
stunted, bruised and brutalised.
Back of all that, there is an emergent mindscape, the attempt to move into another
dimension. If a religious-apocalyptical vocabulary is still used, it is as combustion, not
as faith. The impulse is to get back through to a beginning (“dawn”) with fresh energy
and without illusions (“cold wind”), a whole energy-field.
This book is the first expression of that energy-field.
Extracts
Near Winter

Let winter now come

ox-laden sky
cold spume of rivers
nakedness of moors
mist in the forest
let winter now come

the spoor of animals
blue in melting snow
the sun polished hard
birds and berries
bronzen shadow
water icy and thin
black crust of earth
oar glint of stone
let winter now come

seaweed covers the moon
wind harrows the firth
the islands glint in fog
I fish in cold waters
my boat black as tar
the horned rowlocks
creak to the oar

let winter now come.


New Moon

These walls have grown sullen, and I
lodged between a dairy and an antique shop
between a station and a library, read
no future, live no present, sick
with a bellyful of memory, my skull
like an old tin can that rattles, yet

the sun will move northwards, rising
in the frozen heavens, and the day
will lengthen. New at the month‟s
beginning, the moon, on the fifteenth night
being close to earth and very full
will raise the tides like whales along the coast.


Song about the uselessness of life

We were brought up hale and hearty
though our mother‟s breast was clarty
and a whisky dribble sometimes touched our lips
we were dragged up by the ears
through a maze of ragged years
and our staff of life was Tally fish and chips

When the nation came to call us
we were fourteen and quite gallus
and we thought the future held the promised land
but the City quickly taught us
that a man‟s own work and thought is
what the sparrow‟s to the eagle, to the mighty ocean, sand

We were there to aid production
meant to work without objection
and the prize they held before us was : a wage
just to keep ourselves alive
so the happy few might thrive
and eat the cake of righteousness within their gilded cage

So the slaved enslave the slaves
since we first dwelt in the caves
and Society‟s a hellish rigmarole
you may think that the Creator
planned it all when on the batter
and may turn your arse sky-blue for the saving of your Soul

You may try to get together
call the other man your brother
and the venture may seem hopeful for a spell
you may form associations
you may draw up regulations
but your brother‟s son will twist them all to hell

About the problem that remains
we have often beat our brains :
is it worth while hanging on then after all ?
there must be some solution
to society‟s pollution
if you find it, don‟t forget to give the call.



The Cold Wind of Dawn (sections 2, 3, 4)

2.
Over the great world the cold has come
the voice of the great companions is dumb

the old moon follows its path through the dark
the sun of our days is red and stark

there is sorrow in turning one‟s mind away
I am lonely as the wind that opens the day


3.
The bone of my hand the bone of my skull
and the sharp cry of the arctic gull

I cried in rage for a tongue of fire
I travel through winter with that desire

hold the boat calmly on her course
till the wind of dawn springs into force

4.
The wave in the darkness pulses slow
a floating buoy sheds a momentary glow

the sky is filled with unseen flight
in the east appears a ragged light

I hear a low wind over the firth
and the day bursts out from its night of birth.
Press
Many of the poems in The Cold Wind of Dawn were printed in Wild Coal which was
published in France a few years ago in a limited edition. […] White's later poems are
more intense and concentrated than his earlier verse, more savage in their delineation of
the world of nature, more impassioned and uncompromising in their celebration of
man‟s unity with created things. […]
Mr. White is a poet of rare quality.
John Press, Punch

Kenneth White‟s voice is one of affirmation and joy ; the same exultation that is found
in Burns, Blake, Whitman and Lawrence ; a passionate longing to communicate through
a poetry that is not removed from the layman, too many of whom were bored or scared
away from poetry long ago. […]
White‟s first volume of poems, The Cold Wind of Dawn is a remarkable achievement by
any standards. […] Many of his poems vibrate with an organic energy that is far too rare
a force in much contemporary verse.
Graham Ackroyd, Akros

The wind of the title poem whistles through this book, not always gaily by any means
but often with intensity and passion, necessary procreators of genuine poetry.
Kenneth White‟s first collection of poems to be published in England (following two in
France) reveals a young poet acutely aware of himself, in the Wordsworthian tradition,
in relation to his environment – of grim Glasgow streets, but chiefly of the elemental
world of storm, sea, and stars, a world of woods and the wild wind crying through them.
[…]
After so much of the “stone for bread” sort of writing today, wilfully contrived to swell
the trivial into significance, here is what many of us need : refreshment for the soul.
Phoebe Hesketh, The World of Books

The poems are all of a piece with the prose : high-flying if not high-flown, vibrant with
stress. Again the Whitman influence is strong. He sees himself big, dares all. He
believes in himself ; there is no trace of irony, humour or self-deprecation. He may be
wise ; the world tends to take writers at their own valuation, and his innocent arrogance
is refreshing, if open to parody. Shrewdly he says : “Personal force can work wonders ;
without it talent is nothing.” […] I hope his mastery of language will grow, for his
ambition demands, and deserves, no less than mastery.
Maurice Wiggin, The Sunday Times


The Most Difficult Area (El camino más difícil)
London, Cape Goliard, 1968.
Author’s presentation

This is the book of a crisis. A crisis concerning both identity (the nature of the self)
and intentionality (what can be done with existence other than just reproduction of the
same, or the production of worse).
Yeats spoke of the fascination of the difficult, but turned, like so many others, that
fascination into a mystery. Mallarmé grappled more with the reality of that difficulty (“I
am no longer that Stéphane you know, but a faculty of the universe…”), then veered
away from it into ultra-aesthetics.
Like so many problems, the solution can only be found in a larger field with different
co-ordinates. This radical break with “literature” and “poetry” as commonly understood
meant for me also a break with Great Britain, the whole Anglo-Saxon context seeming
to me totally beside the point.
This, the second of my books of poems to be published in my homeland, was also
the last I was to publish there for twenty years.
Extracts
The Wandering J ew
(On a picture in The Book of Hours of Anne de Bretagne)

Comes out of the white wastes
at four o‟clock in the afternoon maybe
some time in the XVth century or eternity
wrapped in a darblue cloak of grief
(like Ceres when she searched for Proserpine)
a dog there scowling at his frozen heels

looking for refuge at this French house
where the servants are busy with food and firewood
(what chance has he ?) his foot is on the stair

(perhaps they will not know him ? have forgotten ?
it is so long ago : it would be good to stay…
perhaps this house needs a secretary ?) He enters –

next day along the hedges, a blizzard blowing.


The Study at Culross

The lower room is full of objects
history‟s ordered bric-a-brac
in which visitors inherently bored
show intelligent interest

The upper room is still empty
there (in that small cartesian cell)
remains the merest chance
for the essential to happen.


Theory

1.
The white cell almost in darkness
outside : rocks in abruption, sea-
silence wavering. It is there

2.
Rough shape, clifted, that kwartz
chaos-given, ashored, tide-washed and
in the good space gazed-at

3.
Cast – the first stone ; only the
thrust and the not-silver, not-white, not-crystal
splash – no reading in the widening circles

4.
Great reason grasped, the twelve-worded
orator walks on the shingle
with quiet eyes.


The Crab Nebula

In this lighted chaos I
live and move and have my being
in this mass of incandescence
the birthplace of a world perhaps
at least of a dancing star

in this lighted chaos I
no longer think or feel but am
involved in this swirling matter
the form I was no longer holding me
the form I will be not even imagined.
Press
White‟s poems are not easy to write about. Often, they demand contemplation and
silence rather than review and thesis. It‟s not that they‟re difficult to understand or that
they need a great deal of academic exegesis. They are mostly simple. They are also
loaded. They are loaded with learning and also with that lovely lightness (if lightness is
a load) that is close to the Tao and to the old poetry of China and Japan.
Sean Dunne, Poetry Ireland Review, n° 29.

Man may be pitiable, ugly, tormented, lost – but White stubbornly refuses, in his latest
volume, The Most Difficult Area, to accept momentary literary fashions and keeps on
writing with an eye on man contemplating his condition honestly in poems that often
oscillate between violently expressionist representation and a clarity that strikes as true
and hard as knuckle-bones, and clear, precise poems that perhaps owe something to the
Chinese.
Graham Ackroyd, Akros


The Bird Path
Collected longer poem
Mainstream Publishing, Edinburgh and London, 1989.
Author’s presentation

This book (“collected longer poems 1964-1988”) marked my return to English-
language publishing.
Along with the longer poems of my earlier books, The Cold Wind of Dawn and The
Most difficult Area, it gathered in poems from books that, after my break with Britain in
1967, had appeared (in bilingual editions) in Paris, books such as Le Grand Rivage,
Mahamudra, Atlantica, Les Rives du silence.
Its title refers in the first instance to a movement of migration across the territories.
But, on a more intellectual level, the term “the bird path” has a long tradition behind it,
going back to shamanism, where “the bird path” represents the path of the spirit from
the personal and the social to the cosmic, and present in the meditative context of
Chinese Ch‟an where it indicates the movement of a mind free of simple identity,
simple location and simple direction.
I made the connection beween these “outlandish" notions and the local context by a
reference to an old Celtic text, the Story of Branwen: “You will be a long time on the
road, but in Harddlach you will be rejoycing seven white years and the birds of Riannon
singing to you over the water.”
Extracts
I nterpretations of a Twisted Pine

1.
I started off
by growing up
like everybody else


2.
Then I took
a bend to the south
an inclination east
a prolongation north
and a sharp turn west


3.
Now, approaching me
be prepared for grotesquerie

there are more than pines in my philosophy


4.
Yes, I‟m something more than a pine
I‟m a cosmological sign


5.
I‟m idiomatic
I‟m idiosyncratic

I‟m pre-socratic


6.
I‟m maybe Chinese too

like Li Po, Tu Fu
and Mr Chuang-tzu


7.
I live quietly
but storms visit me
I do a metaphysical dance
at the heart of existence


8.
The branches of my brain
are alive to sun and rain

my forest mind
is in tune with the wind


9.
Behold the mad pine
stark on the sky-line.


I n the Nashvak Night

A summer night on the Labrador
in the twilight watching countless birds
settled and asleep
only a few still on the wing –
that passing flight of Sabine Gulls

is this a death
or the prelude to another life ?
the question is all too heavy
breenges into this rippling silence
like a bull into china
better simply to wait
taking pleasure in the twilight

tongues of water
tongues of water from the Labrador
running up the bays and fiords
lapping against the archaean rocks
will say the poem beyond the questioning

the birds are asleep
geese, duck, brant, deal, plover
all are asleep
as though this land were one great sanctuary

a place to rest
on the long trail of the migrations

a place to rest

here in the stillness
halfway between the Old World and the New
moving in deeper
ever deeper
into a world
that is neither old nor new

a world
neither old nor new
on the bird path
feeling it out

……

dawn comes
with the cry of the wild goose.
Press
The Bird Path is the first substantial edition to appear in its original English. […]
Heaney, who knows about cadence, is quoted on the dust-jacket as finding Bird Path
“erudite, elemental, big and bold… the kind of poetry MacDiarmid hoped for”. The
collection‟s scale and sustained pitch of world-music certainly emulates the Joycean
MacDiarmid of A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle. But while MacDiarmid […] came to
recognise without curing his writing‟s besetting deficiency of rhythmic pulse, White
abounds in rhythmic inventions. His book contains even more of the kind of poetry W.
C. Williams wanted, […] and unlike most of William‟s disciples on both sides of the
Atlantic (unlike, indeed, most poets I can think of) White seems to have found his
mature style and voice quite independently of any master. The living poet he most
closely resembles and parallels is another who is disgracefully neglected here, Gary
Snyder. Both aspire to, and with a wonderful frequency and ease inhabit, that air of
fresh breath and perpetual greening of the spirit that might just save us yet. To switch
from the banalities of so-called leaders and headlines to White in full flight is to levitate
in pure delight.
Michael Horovitz, The Spectator

One word used of White by several admirers is “unclassifiable”. […] But to seek to go
beyond classification is not to be unclassifiable, and White belongs clearly in a
tradition, mainly American, which includes writers like Emerson, Whitman, Henry
Miller and Gary Snyder. These people, like White, have been influenced by Eastern
mystical ideas, without ceasing to belong in the Western world or be aware of science
and the problems of modern life. All, in different ways, tend to repudiate much of
mainstream Euro-American literature ; they wish to live with both sensual and
intellectual intensity […]. White is not “unclassifiable” : he belongs, at his best, very
impressively, in a great modern tradition.
D. M. Black, Chapman, n° 65.



Handbook for the Diamond Country
Collected shorter poems
Mainstream Publishing, Edinburgh and London, 1990.
Author’s preface

These poems were written around the world, from Scotland out.
The earliest are from The Cold Wind of Dawn (London, 1966) and The Most Difficult
Area (London, 1968). Thereafter, they come from the French bilingual volume Terre de
Diamant (Paris, 1983). And there are quite a few hitherto uncollected.
In his free meditation on a phrase from Heraclitus, Heidegger says this : “It is long,
the road that is most necessary for our thought. It leads to that simplicity which is what
must be thought of under the name of logos. There are still very few signs around to
show us this road.”
What I‟m presenting here are maybe a few signs arising from one body-mind‟s
attempt to follow that road.
Extracts
A High Blue Day on Scalpay

This is the summit of contemplation, and
no art can touch it
blue, so blue, the far-out archipelago
and the sea shimmering, shimmering
no art can touch it, the mind can only
try to become attuned to it
to become quiet, and space itself out, to
become open and still, unworlded
knowing itself in the diamond country, in
the ultimate unlettered light.


Meditant

It was the cold talk of the gulls he liked
and rain whispering at the western window
long days, long nights
moving in
to what was always nameless
(though the walls were hung with maps
and below him
lay a library of science)

Outside
at the end of that dark winter
he saw blue smoke, green waters
as he‟d never seen them before
they were enough
a black row busy on a branch
made him laugh aloud
the shape of the slightest leaf
entertained his mind
his intellect
danced among satisfactory words.


Report to Erigena

"Labour" suddenly seems exactly right
hard slogging, no facility
like learning the basis of a grammar
working your way into unknown logic

it‟s earth in labour makes for diamond

here on this nameless shore, knowing the work
who are the workers ? who the travellers ?
reality works – wonders ? travel-travail

the old signs come out of the morning
the skull fills and empties with the tide
energy gathered, the first act

ragged coast, rugged, rough winds
the language bears us, bares us

rock province, roots – and lights.


A Snowy Morning in Montreal

Some poems have no title
This title has no poem

it‟s all out there.
Press
“Open form” does not mean you cannot be spare and concise, any more than W. C
.Williams “no ideas but in things” means no ideas at all ; two of the numerous
experimental propositions proved in the course of White‟s Handbook for the Diamond
Country. He composes music as sharp, sweet, subtle and immaculate as Heaney‟s, or
anyone‟s : “…the lip-lip-lipping/of grey water on white sand” ; “Field after field/my
eyes can‟t see/enough of this whiteness”. He has composed an original fleet-footed
body of work so transcendently far from the corrosive careerism of London-Oxbridge
and transatlantic literary hierarchies as to make them seem marginal as well as grubby.
Michael Horovitz, The Financial Times

The “diamond country” is not so much another country as another state or space of
mind. And as one reads through the Handbook one notices that the direction is always
towards the “white”, towards the removal of the stain of the self, until the thing spoken
of seems to speak of itself without any intermediary. One is in the territory of the haiku,
of which it has been written “A haiku is not a poem, it is not literature ; it is a hand
beckoning, a door half-opened, a mirror wiped clean…” The haiku attempts to abolish
the boundary between geographical space and mental space and thus enlarges the
territory of being.
Many of the poems in the Handbook are haiku, or sequences of haiku, although
Kenneth White ignores the stricter demands of the form, wisely considering that the
strict counting of syllables is, in English, an eccentricity. In compensation he makes
subtle use of assonance and alliteration and places the line endings with an eye to both
the sensual and the sensible.
Douglas Sealy, Irish Times.

In Britain, poetry is still seen as one of the decorative arts, a verbal equivalent of
ornaments on the mantelpiece. […] More radical commentators see poetry in much the
same fashion. “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways ; the
point is to change it”, said Marx in the Theses on Feuerbach, and the left wing has
tended to take the same attitude to poetry. […] White challenges this view. The very
title of his Collected Shorter poems – Handbook for the Diamond Country – has a
practical ring, as if it were a kind of prospector‟s guidebook to regions of the mind. […]
Each poem of the book contains moments of perception that leads to a new way of
responding to what‟s around us, a new feeling of identification and respect. The
cumulative result of that is a new attitude and a different set of priorities.
Hugh Macpherson, Scottish Book Collector


Open World
Collected Poems 1960-2000
Edinburgh, Polygon, 2003.
Publisher’s presentation

Kenneth White has long enjoyed an eminent international reputation and is now
increasingly recognised in his own land as one of Scotland‟s finest poets and most
creative thinkers.
This book is a landmark. A collection spanning four decades of work includes poems
that range from early city ballads marked by the humour and wit of a strong folk
tradition to the open sequences of an “Atlantic Atlas”.
White uses a wide spectrum of forms, in a highly distintive way, from the sharp
phenomenology, the lucidity and translucence of the short “diamond poems”, to the
polyphony of the longer itinerary-poems that explore landscape and mindscape.
But what is most striking is the ongoing force. Poetry here reaches out to the highest
dimensions of philosophical contemplation and spiritual realisation.
Extracts
Finisterra
or
The logic of Lannion Bay

It's in the shape of the headlands
it's in the way the wave
breaks along the shoreline
(with a slow motion shpoof against the rocks)
it's in the variant light
it's in the clear silence of this April morning

up at Yaudet
which was Roman ground
before it yielded
to the syntax of Christianity
you can watch the Léguer
(which recalls the Loire
as well as all other Ligurian waters)
running down to its estuary
in brilliant bluegreen ripples

thereafter
to walk along the coastal path
from, say, Goaslagorn valley
to the beach of Pors Mabo
is to move between foam and flourish
wondering what whiteness
you'll ever be able to add to those whitenesses

the points one has in mind
are Dourven
(off it, the wreck of the Azalea)
Bihit
hiding to view the isle of Milo
(to whom Brandan may have paid a friendly visit)
and way far off
lost in the light and spray
the land's end, Roscoff

heather, thorn and pine
gorse and whin
rush down
to curving, sandy beaches
and it's a large arc of land
indicating the Atlantic
lies extended before you

years ago, I remember
when first I came here
sitting with my back to a pine
above Pors Mabo
reading Pyrrho
in Estienne's XVIth century version :
“‟Is this work serious
or is it just full of noise ?‟
„I'll think it over.‟
„What's it all about ?‟
„I don't get the drift of your question.‟
„What have you defined ?‟
„I never define.‟
„ What do you do, then ?‟
„ I just keep looking.‟”

looking at this place
looking into this place
and at the same time
into the circuits of my mind

in Summer dawns
in golden autumn evenings
in chill winter mists
something like those old taoists
who founded the Academy of Gulls
(a bird and an eye, a bird and an eye :
ideogram for monastery)
an academy without walls
active contemplation : no ideals, no idols
and no over-hasty
over-personal, over-poetical projections

rather long-ranging recognitions
in space and in time

as one who has studied
the grammar of granite
I have walked here
as one who would equate
landscape with mindscape
I have walked here
as one who loves
the ways and the waves of silence
I have walked here

who knows
maybe in years to come
some time after the aftermath
a curious tourist from outer space
will walk along this selfsame path
and be aware of my ghost :
still looking out at the lines
still looking into the light.


At St Matthew’s Point

When Matthew fared out from Galilee
he was making vaguely for the Celtic Sea

over there, at the end of the land
he met old Enoch, with a book in his hand

since he himself had written a book
Matthew was eager to have a look

“it‟s all about wind and rock and wave
how they become and how they behave”

“what about God and love and sin
what salvation is there in a fish‟s fin ?”

old Enoch, he made no reply
just kept gazing at sea and sky

Matthew thought, this is something new
I‟ll stick around for a year or two.


Black Sea Letter
Recalling Ovid

Another Sarmatian winter setting in
goats blethering in what passes for a garden
rain falling when it isn‟t poisoned arrows
(how many summers since I smelled a Roman rose !)
eyes bleary, frosty weather on my chin

why bother writing yet another book ?
well, it keeps my mind off stupid folk
the scratching of my stilus on the page
is music to my ears and cools my rage
I know now I‟ll be here until I croak

so, here‟s a man will listen to the snow
and let the hours come, long and slow
such distance and such silence, all I wish
salt fish is now my favorite dish
I was a famous Roman poet, years ago.
Press
Open World – The Collected Poems 1960-2000 emerges as a testimony to the writer‟s
prolific output and provides a resting point, a place in which to take stock, assess and
reassess the work as a single stream, enabling the full arc of the journey or trajectory to
be experienced. […]
Open World comes at a time when White‟s work is emerging, massively and
luminously, from years of relative obscurity in his homeland. One reason for this
obscurity is, perhaps, that his poetry resists assimilation into any of the predominant
post-war factions in Scottish poetry or intellectualism ; it is mercifully free of any
obvious local inheritance. […] It seems to serve the Earth but has no master.
Peter Urpeth, Northings, Highlands and Islands Arts Journal

Kenneth White has described his three-fold approach to writing using the image of an
arrow : his essays are the feathers, giving direction ; his way-books are the shaft,
dynamic exploration of the world ; and his poems are the arrow-head, the point of it all.
The publication of Open World marks forty years of productive arrow-head honing.
This wonderful, highly recommended poetry collection is well named, offering a
prescription for a wide-open engagement with the world around us. […] White‟s poems
abound with fresh air, salt air, gulls and gannets, but also many pointers to open-minded
thinkers, such as Eckhart, Duns Scotus, Pelagius, Han Shan, Basho, and Schopenhauer.
[…] White convincingly encourages us to get out into the wild world, engage with the
chaos of it all, love it more, and converse with what is intelligent – from grey heron to
Heraclitus, from boulder to Buddha. As he says : “The world is always more open than
we think.”
Padmakara, Dharma Life (England)

Latitudes & Longitudes
Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies.
University of Aberdeen, 2013.
Editor's presentation

Kenneth White's work has always been global in scale and local in concentration and in
this new book of poems, his first since his collected poems Open World (2003), he
travels out from Scotland across Europe to traverse the Americas and Asia before
coming back to Armorica, the northern French coast where he now has his home.
Populated by intellectual nomads like himself, from the medieval philosopher Erigena
by way of David Hume to Edmund Husserl, Latitudes & Longitudes charts alternative
paths throught he cultural inheritance of both West and East, in order to recover a
fundamental earth-poetics.

Hailed by many as Scotland's most important poet-thinker since Hugh MacDiarmid,
and by many others as one of the most significant writers working anywhere today,
Kenneth White's poetry co-ordinates the intensity of immediate responsiveness to the
natural world with a perspective on universal history which mounts a powerful
challenge to the values of modernity.
Extracts
Mackenzie’s Report

I, Mackenzie, Alexander
gather these notes together
in the midst of the American wilderness
to tell of our expectation
state and progress
in the course
of that memorable journey we made
from Fort Chipewyan to the Pacific Ocean

with myself, McKay and a dog
were ten French Canadians
(the best canoe-men you can get
except of course for Eskimos and Indians)
all aboard a crazy boat
loaded to the gunwhale
with 3000 pounds of heterogeneous material

day after day we spent
paddling, poling, towing
lugging packages over portages :
tedious and toilsome labour –
but what splendid beauty everywhere !
tall cliffs, red and grey
a multitude of rapids and cascades
birch, cedar, hemlock, willow
lofty blue mountains crowned with snow

doing trade with the Beaver People
the Rocky Mountain bands
the Salmon Folk
learning how they talk
looking into their ways of living
in those extreme northern lands

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.


Letter from the Indian Ocean

Banana leaves
flap indolently at the window

elegant vanilla
climbs inch by inch up a palm

an emeraldgreen lizard
flickers over grey granite boulders

tweetering sunbirds
flit from one flower to another

white-tailed phaetons
cross and recross the sky

lying open on the table
an album of paleo-geography

a notice on the door says
« Gone away to Gondwana. »


A Monk in Tibet

Up in these highlands
that look down over
the criss-cross roads of Eurasia…

seen from the outside
this country of ours is hard and harsh :
icy ridges, cold scrub, salt-encrusted wastes

but here in this stony cell at Sa-Skya
between the Kunlun and the Himalaya
I contemplate the morning clouds
wrap myself in the snow of meditation
and walk for hours on end
in the pure land of the liberated mind.


On the Road to San Remo

Sunset on the Ligurian coast
and a wild wind blowing from the West

Nietzsche holds his head in Genoa
while Shelley drowns in the tide off La Spezia

the man at the wheel turns round and says
Italy‟s in a hell of state these days

sure, I answer, I„ve heard the story
but there are still some signs of the paradiso terrestre

a full moon was rising in the sky
like the premise of a lonely philosophy.