White's World

29th November 1996 at 00:00
Kenneth White was - until recently - a prophet without honour in his own country. Certainly, the Govan-born professor of poetics at the Sorbonne University in Paris has long had a prestigious literary and philosophical reputation in France, but now he is beginning to be recognised in his native land.

Recently awarded an honorary Doctorate of Letters from Glasgow University (where he graduated and once taught), he has just published a new book, Coast to Coast, and a substantial exhibition, White World, devoted to his work has just opened at the National Library of Scotland.

Indeed, those who propagate his ideas in Scotland - many of them school teachers - often confer on him a prophet-like status as the founder of "geopoetics".

"Poetics is fundamental language. It's trying to get language rid of its ideological superstructures and get down into a radical expression," says White. "At the centre of every live culture you have poetics."

White's holistic approach to culture is one that attempts to break down barriers between separate academic disciplines - he always talks in terms of "poetics" rather than simply of poetry. Philosophy and poetry, for example, merge in White's worldview of culture. Seminal figures for his ideas range from Nietzsche and Rimbaud to Patrick Geddes and Hugh

MacDiarmid, "figures who tried to leave the motorway of progress to get out into a larger space".

"Space" and "field" are common terms in White's writings and conversation and they are related very much to the "geo'' in geopoetics, which he defines as "an attempt to renew the field of culture from the ground up".

"We have been dominated for too long by the idea that progress will eventually lead us to somewhere great - the superstate, the Marxist withering of the state or the greatest good,'' says White. "That logic has now to be questioned. We've lost contact with what's out there, with the cosmos. Poets are trying to renew that contact, to 'make cosmos' as Ezra Pound put it."

For the Sorbonne professor, political and social problems are subsumed under cultural questions because "the cultural level is the deeper level". In geopoetics, education has, for White, a crucial role to play in the political, social and moral spheres.

"Education is absolutely central and I've always tried to be active in it.I've always taught in universities - and always founded para-university groups." White declares for "small groups and associations'' and has built up a network of geopoetic groups in 10 countries, including Scotland.

"I believe that real education starts with individuals in the system. And the first thing required of a teacher pursuing these ideas is resistance. In the classroom it means resistance to a system of education which is more and more market-geared; a tech-minded processing with a managerial lingo of cost benefit-analysis, performance indicators and all that stuff.

"There's now a corpus of geopoetic texts that a teacher can get hold of and they are used in some countries including France by 14 to 18 year olds,and sometimes even younger.

"Geopoetics means radical change, choosing certain texts in preference to others, texts that give you a sense of world culture and an initiation into a way of life. That's what culture means, as opposed to a literature that just turns around some personal fantasia or is simply a description of a contemporary situation. A good text will give pupils not only matter to work with but material really to be alive with. That's what education is about.

"You have to try to synthesise various fields of knowledge from science and philosophy to poetics and social thinking. It's not a question of every teacher having to do this from scratch. As I said, there are texts already in use. But my system of education would leave more time for teachers to do free reading and think around things. The present system is,on the contrary, toe-the-line, produce!"

Born in 1936, White grew up when the Scottish socialist tradition for self-education was still strong. "My father, who left school at 13, picked up his education at Glasgow Green, at meetings and at John MacLean's economics classes. You could get Marxism and anarchism on Glasgow street corners in those days as well as Darwin on the side."

Books coming into the Whites' Gorbals home included those of Marx, Kropotkin, Emerson and Darwin - and White says he read On the Origin of Species at the tender age of 10. This background infused his belief in "free universities'', in small groups coming together to pursue ideas outside educational officialdom.

What advice, then, might he have for the budding poet-philosophers of today? "Take your time. Read a lot, think a lot, live a lot. Get nourishment for your writing instead of maybe just writing off the top of your head or from your own personal cinema. Open up a field so that your writing means something, and means something to somebody else. "

Coast to Coast: Interviews and Conversations 1985-95, Open WorldMythic Horse Press #163;7.95. White World is at the National Library of Scotland,George IV Bridge, Edinburgh, until February 28.

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