Kenneth White Biography
Born in Glasgow, south side of the river, in the Gorbals. Father, railway signalman, socially-minded, avid reader of books. Grandfather, musician, dancer, foundryman.
Raised on the west coast of Scotland ; sea, woods, hills and moor. Physical movement in this territory. Schooling at Fairlie, Largs, Ardrossan. Work on farms and on the shore (shellfish-gathering for Billingsgate), also as postman and purser on the Clyde steamers. Studies local geology and archaeology (first public text on the archaeology of Ayrshire). Reads Thoreau, Whitman, Melville.
Student at the University of Glasgow: French and German, with Latin and philosophy. Does a lot of reading in the University library: all sections, from metaphysics to mineralogy. Particular affinities with Ovid, Rimbaud, Hölderlin.
In Munich, lodged in a wooden shack on the banks of the Isar. Reading Nietzsche and Heidegger. Tough winter, beautiful Spring.
Back in Glasgow. Double First in French and German. Named first student in the Faculty of Arts. With a post-graduate scholarship, leaves for Paris.
Marriage with Marie-Claude Charlut. Lodged in 7th-floor rooms in Paris. Exploring Surrealism (Breton, Artaud) and connected fields (Daumal, Michaux). After two years, settles out in Meudon. Begins the manuscript that will become Incandescent Limbo. Gives private lessons in English.
Buys Gourgounel, an old farm in the mountains of the Ardèche, with several acres of moor, wood and rock. Hermit kingdom! Spends there summers and autumns, handling mattock and scythe, studying Eastern literature and thought (Taoism, Ch’an Buddhism). Works at the manuscript that will become Letters from Gourgounel.
Teaching at the Sorbonne. The students of English publish his first book of poems: Wild Coal.
Back to Scotland, sense of unfinished business in Glasgow. Much stravaiging in the streets. Assistant lecturer then lecturer at the University: teaching twentieth-century poetry and the Encyclopedists. Founds a para-university group, The Jargon Group, for lectures, debates, poetry-readings. Talks in terms of ‘cultural revolution’ (worked out the concept for himself – no reference to Mao).
En toute candeur, early poems plus three biographical sketches, appears at the Mercure de France in Paris. The only living author in that collection (‘Domaine anglais’).
Two books, one prose, one poetry, come out simultaneously from Jonathan Cape, London: Letters from Gourgounel and The Cold Wind of Dawn. Considered as being outside the norms of contemporary British literature: sort of erratic boulders.
Living in Edinburgh, thinking of Stevenson, De Quincey and other physical-mental travellers. Working at a long poem, A Walk along the Shore, which sums up his itinerarium mentis up to that point. Meets MacDiarmid: affinities and differences.
Back to France, living at Pau, in the Atlantic Pyrenees, teaching at the University of Bordeaux in Pau. Founds a group and a review: Feuillage. Involved in the May ’68 movement. Expelled from the University. The students protest. He goes for a long walk in the Basque country.
Out of (socio-economic) work in Pau. Studies and writes a lot, facing the Pyrenees, mountains he comes to know better and better. A book of poems, The Most Difficult Area, appears from Cape Goliard, London. As from this date, in Britain, his name is surrounded with silence. Does nothing to change this state of affairs, too engrossed in his own workfield.
Still in Pau, but lecturing at the University of Paris VII. Founds another group, another review: The Feathered Egg.
Senior Associate at the University of Paris VII. Founds a research seminar ‘East-West’, which will be known familiarly as ‘The Cold Mountain Seminar’ or ‘The Old Pond Seminar’. Moving around Europe, from Dublin to Marseilles, Amsterdam to Barcelona. These trans-Europe trips are the basis of Travels in the Drifting Dawn.
White’s post as Senior Associate terminating, after a new governmental decision, at the end of two years, he finds himself reduced to the position of ‘foreign assistant’, while continuing the same work and directing research.
Travelling in South-East Asia (Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, Thailand…). Working at a manuscript: The Face of the East Wind.
As from this date, the manuscripts accumulated during the Pyrenean period begin to appear in Paris at a rapid rate.
Defends a State doctorate thesis on the theme of ‘intellectual nomadism’: it is recognized by the jury as opening up a new field of studies and several of its concepts (geopoetics etc.) are now being used by geographers and psychologists, not to speak of writers. Leaves on a trip along the north bank of the St Lawrence into Labrador, which will turn into the book The Blue Road.
Leaving the Pyrenees, settles on the north coast of Brittany. Appointed to a newly founded chair of Twentieth-Century Poetics at the Sorbonne. The Labrador book, La Route bleue, published by Grasset, is awarded the Prix Médicis Étranger.
Trip to Japan, where he follows Basho’s trail from Tokyo north and continues on into the Hokkaido, a trip which will result in The Wild Swans.
Awarded the French Academy’s Grand Prix du Rayonnement Français for the totality of his work. Archives on his work are established at the municipal library of Bordeaux.
Awarded the Prix Alfred de Vigny for Atlantica.
Trip to the Isles of America (Martinique).
After a long exile, renews contact with English language publishing. Publishes The Bird Path, Collected Longer Poems, and Travels in the Drifting Dawn. Second trip to the Isles of America (Guadeloupe, Saintes, Martinique). Founds the International Institute of Geopoetics.
Publishes Handbook for the Diamond Country, Collected Shorter Poems, and The Blue Road. Brings out also the first number of the geopoetics review, Cahiers de Géopoetique.
Receives an Honorary D. Litt. from the University of Glasgow. Third trip to the Isles of America (Dominica, St Vincent, Grenada).
More progress is made in getting his work available in English with Pilgrim of the Void, which brings together two books recounting his Asian travels published separately in Paris: The Face of the East Wind (Hong Kong, South China Sea, Taiwan, Thailand) and The Wild Swans (Japan). Fourth trip to the Isles of America ( the northern section of the Antillian Arc).
Promoted in Paris from Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres to Officier des Arts et des Lettres. Fifth trip to the Isles of America (the Virgins).
Is awarded the prize of the Société de Géographie in Paris for Frontières d’Asie. Sixth trip to the Isles of America (the Virgins).
Trip to Corsica. Seventh trip to the Isles of America (the Virgins).
The National Library of Scotland stages an exhibition on his work: White World, the itinerary of Kenneth White, which is later shown in other cities and towns. Publishes a collection of interviews, Coast to Coast. Travels in Italy, Sweden, Norway, Canada. In Italy, receives the Aleramo Prize for his work in poetry. Eighth trip to the Isles of America (the Virgins). Withdraws from the Chair of Twentieth-Century Poetics at the Sorbonne.
Travels and lectures in Serbia, Montenegro, Sweden, Germany, Scotland, Spain. At Malaga, is awarded the Insignia of the Generación del 27. Ninth trip to the Isles of America (the Virgins). Publishes in Paris The Shores of Silence, the result of nine years’ work in the poetic field.
Travels and lectures in Poland, Sweden, Scotland and Morocco. Awarded a D. Litt. honoris causa by Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh. Tenth trip to the Isles of America (the Virgins). Publishes in France the book Strategy of Paradox, which sums up his socio-political itinerary. Commences the publication of his essays in English with On Scottish Ground. In France, is awarded the Prix Roger Caillois for his work as a whole. The French version, adapted and augmented, of the National Library of Scotland exhibition, retitled Open World, the itinerary of Kenneth White, begins to circulate in France. Le Vaudreuil, March; Trouville, April-May; Rouen, June-July.
Travels and lectures in Sweden and in Scotland. Trip to Spain and Portugal. First trip to the Indian Ocean: Reunion, Mauritius. Eleventh trip to the Isles of America (the Virgins). Elected to a three-year fellowship at Edinburgh College of Art. The exhibition Open World is presented at Rennes in January.
Publishes a new book of poetry in Paris, Limits and Margins. Second trip to the Indian Ocean (the Seychelles archipelago). An exhibition of his artist-books (close on a hundred) is held at the Librairie Nicaise in Paris. The exhibition Open World is shown at Evreux in March, at Le Lavandou in June, at Pau in November.
Publishes House of Tides at Edinburgh. Elected honorary member of the Royal Scottish Academy. Member of the executive council of the World Academy of Poetry (Verona, Italy). Founding member of the Atlantic Academy (France). Delivers the Consignia lecture at the International Book Festival in Edinburgh: ‘The Re-mapping of Scotland’. Third trip to the Indian Ocean (the Seychelles archipelago). Open World: at Besançon in January, at Châteauroux in February-March, at Mende in April, at Fontainebleau in December.
Is awarded the ARDUA prize (Bordeaux) for his work as a whole. Prepares the edition of his Collected Poems. Fourth trip to the Indian Ocean (the Seychelles archipelago). Open World: at Nancy in April-May, at Dunkirk in November.
A symposium ‘Horizons of Kenneth White – literature, thought, geopoetics’ is held at Bordeaux (February) and another ‘Forty Years of the White World’ in St Andrews (October). Trip to Polynesia: a lecture on Gauguin at Tahiti in the context of a conference organized by the University of French Polynesia, followed by a journey from island to island. In May, back to the Indian Ocean. In June: lecture on a French cruise boat down the Caledonian Canal and up the Hebrides. Publishes Open World: Collected Poems 1960–2000 and Geopoetics: place, culture, world. Open World at Brussels in January.
Takes part in an international poetry symposium in Italy at Stresa-Orta organised by the literary review Atelier (February). March: An international colloquium on geopoetics is held at Geneva, organized by the University of Geneva. Delivers a lecture on Rimbaud, at the poet’s birth-place, Charleville-Mézières. September: Delivers another lecture on Saint-John Perse at Paris in an international colloquium on that poet organized by the Sorbonne. Publishes two new books in Britain: The Wanderer and his Charts and Across the Territories. Receives the Édouard Glissant prize attributed by the University of Paris 8 for his ‘openness to the cultures of the world’. Open World at Charleville-Mézières, March-April.