Contemporary Scottish Poetry

By Matt McGuire; Colin Nicholson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ELEVEN
Kenneth White

Cairns Craig

Kenneth White does not appear in Robert Crawford and Mick Imlah's Penguin Book of Scottish Poetry, and gets five pages in the much shorter time-frame of Douglas Dunn's Faber Book of Twentieth-Century Scottish Poetry (less than Robin Fulton or Alan Bold). Despite a special issue of the magazine Chapman devoted to his work in the 1980s, the critical literature on his work largely comes from France, where he has lived since the 1960s, and where he became Professor of Poetics at the Sorbonne in 1983. In France his work has won major awards, and the Centre for Geopoetics that he established in Paris in 1989 represented a groundbreaking introduction of environmental issues into contemporary literature, one which confirmed him as a culture-hero of the post-communist, and yet anti-capitalist, French intelligentsia. White has stood as the representative of an alternative to modern industrial society, as a pathbreaker for a new ecological awareness, as a writer whose work is engaged – in the tradition of Jean Paul Sartre's littérature engagée – but engaged with the world we inhabit rather than the history we had hoped to create. Such a career might make him, also, a culture-hero of Scotland, a Scotland turned towards its European destiny in the aftermath of Empire. And yet White, it seems, remains marginal to modern Scottish poetry – let alone to Scottish culture in general. Enormous admiration among a small group of followers committed to the ideology of ‘geopoetics’ seems to ensure a profound scepticism on the part of the general public for poetry (if such a thing can be said to exist). Neither a poet in the line of writing in Scots established by Hugh MacDiarmid's early work in the 1920s, nor one of those sophisticated experimenters with the traditional forms of English literature in the line of MacCaig and Dunn; neither an assertive promoter of working-class language, like Tom Leonard, nor an inquisitive ear upon contemporary Scottish mores like Liz Lochhead, White has generally been regarded as an outsider to Scottish writing.1 In so far as he forms part of a tradition of Scottish writing, it is the tradition that Hugh MacDiarmid proposed in ‘The Kind of Poetry I Want’ –

-154-

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