Kenneth White

Born: April 28, 1936

Died: August 11, 2023

Kenneth White, who has died aged 87, was regarded by many as Scotland’s most brilliant mind of the second half of the 20th century. He originated the idea of geopoetics, a way of experiencing the natural world of which we are part and expressing it creatively to bring about radical cultural renewal.

After he founded the International Institute of Geopoetics in France in 1989, geopoetics groups followed in different parts of Europe, North and South America, the Pacific and in Scotland. As a lecturer, White had an ability to touch minds and hearts with a depth that made the world come alive in a way that distinguished him from other scholars. At the University of Glasgow, he set up the Jargon Group and gave electrifying talks on Friedrich Nietzsche, Walt Whitman, the American Beat Poets, and more.

White later moved to France, and became Professor of 20th Century Poetry at the University of Paris (Sorbonne).When his books began to be published again in Scotland in 1989, the Open World Poetics group was set up which led to the founding in 1995 of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics where White’s work continues to inspire today.

Kenneth White was born in Gorbals, Glasgow to Janet (née Cameron) and William White. He grew up in Fairlie on the Ayrshire coast where his father was a railway signalman and trade unionist. White went to school in Fairlie, Largs and Ardrossan and, befriended by the naturalist Dugald Semple, devoured the work of Henry Thoreau, Walt Whitman and Eastern texts like the Upanishads. His walks along the coast and over its moorland saw him practise what he later discovered was a form of shamanism and had a lifelong influence on his writing and his outlook on the world.

From 1954 to 1959 he studied at the University of Glasgow, where he graduated with a double first MA (Hons) in French and German. From 1959 until 1963 he studied at the University of Paris where he worked on a thesis on Surrealism. He married Marie-Claude Charlut, who would later translate his poems into French and support his work. In 1961 he bought an old farm in the Ardèche region, 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 was published, and a year later, early poems and biographical sketches were collected as En tout candour. This was followed in 1966 by The Cold Wind of Dawn and The Most Difficult Area in 1969. White moved to Pau near the Pyrenees in 1967 and lived in France for the rest of his life. He lectured 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. From 1969 until 1983 he lectured at the University of Paris VII, where he founded a research seminar East-West and another group The Feathered Egg.

During the 1970s he travelled extensively in Europe and South East Asia and his journals formed the basis of later books. In 1979 a journey along the north bank of the St Lawrence into Labrador led to The Blue Road and to the concept of geopoetics. In 1983 he moved to a farmhouse he called Gwenved (white world) in Trébeurden on the north coast of Brittany and was appointed Professor of 20th Century Poetics at the Sorbonne. In the 1980s and 1990s he travelled widely resulting in what he called waybooks, first in French, then in English, such as Travels in the Drifting Dawn (1989 and Pilgrim of the Void (1992).

In 1989 he founded the International Institute of Geopoetics which published a range of work on geopoetics from throughout the world and led to Geopoetics Centres in more than a dozen countries. On Burns Night 1995, the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics was set up in Edinburgh by Tony McManus and others, and in 1996 the National Library of Scotland held an exhibition, White World, the itinerary of Kenneth White, curated by McManus which toured Scotland and France. Coast to Coast, Interviews and Conversations 1985-1995 was published that year and White gave up his post at the Sorbonne to devote himself to writing, lecturing and travelling.

White’s essays were collected in On Scottish Ground (1998) and The Wanderer and His Charts (2004) as well as the narrative House of Tides in 2000 and the monumental Open World, Collected Poems 1960-2000 in 2003. Four more books came out between 2013 and 2016 and two volumes of his extensive Collected Works edited by Cairns Craig in 2021. He also wrote about artists such as Van Gogh and Hokusai and collaborated in creating over 100 artist-books.

In 2003, a symposium, Forty Years of the White World, was organised by Gavin Bowd at the University of St Andrews which led to the publication of Grounding a World, Essays on the Work of Kenneth White (2005), the first comprehensive analysis of White’s work in English. From 2001 to 2009 White gave hugely popular lectures and readings each August at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and elsewhere. Three lectures on geopoetics were collected along with an EIBF one in On the Atlantic Edge (2006) and The Radical Field by Tony McManus was published in 2007.

White’s many awards included the Grand Prix du Rayonnement Français by the Académie française (1985) and the Édouard Glissant prize for his “openness to the cultures of the world” (2004). He was awarded honorary degrees by the University of Glasgow, Heriot-Watt University and the Open University, and became an honorary member of the Royal Scottish Academy. His work divides critical opinion between those who hail his poetry and radical thought as ground-breaking, opening a world of possibilities, and others who dismiss his continental celebrity and exclude him from poetry anthologies and Scotland’s literary canon.

His legacies include turning his home in Trébeurden into a house for artists and writers, and having a house of architecture built in the Ardèche as a geopoetic meeting place to encourage people to have a sensitive, intelligent and harmonious relationship with nature, and to renew culture radically.

In Scotland, on the Isle of Luing in Argyll, the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics is also developing a research and resource base with a library and archive to provide short courses on geopoetics and the work of White, as well as creative inspiration for artists and scientists of all kinds. At a time of acute climate and ecological crisis, interest in geopoetics has never been greater. The writings of Kenneth White will continue to inspire people all over the world. He is survived by his wife, Marie-Claude.


Norman Bissell is director of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics