A Walk Along the Shore

Kenneth White.
A Walk Along the Shore. With nine screen-prints by John Christie.
Guildford, Surrey: Circle Press, 1977. (32364)

Signed by the poet and the artist on the edition page. Numbered 64 in an edition of ninety-five. 

Son of a railway signalman, poet Kenneth White (b. 1936) grew up at Fairlie on the west coast of Scotland laboring on farms and on the shore. As a young adult he served as postman, and purser on the Clyde river steamer, while independently studying local geology and archeology. He entered the University of Glasgow to follow programs in French, German, and philosophy; continued at Universität München; and earned a doctorate at the Université de Paris. In 1961 he bought Gourgounel (“Gurgling”), a farm in the Ardèche valley in southeastern France, where he spent summers working the land and writing. He was a lecturer at the University of Glasgow, the Université de Bordeaux, Université Paris Diderot, and in 1983 was appointed chair of Twentieth Century Poetics at the Sorbonne. White is known for his development of Geopoetics, a move to dissolve the rational literary and other compartments typical of Western thought, allowing a more integral perspective on our existence. The approach works the poetic or aesthetic course through a matrix of natural science, human cultures, philosophy, and psychology.

White’s 1967 poem, A Walk Along the Shore, has been compared to “On a Raised Beach” by fellow Scot Hugh MacDiarmid (1892–1978), whom White met the same year. Both poets explore geological, agrarian, meteorological, and Gaelic references; the preoccupation with “elemental things”; and the sense that opposing forces are complementary and indispensable to each other.

A Walk Along the Shore begins with the text, “for the question is always / how / out of all the chances and changes / to select / the features of real significance / so as to make / of the welter [confusion] / a world that will last / and how to order / the signs and the symbols / so they will continue / to form new patterns / developing into / new harmonic wholes / so to keep life alive / in complexity / and complicity / with all of being— / there is only poetry.” The verses state the quandary and a solution that would take fuller form as Geopoetics. His process, according to White in notes included after the poem, is urged along by actions of the weather and the sea. Some words and phrases of the poem appear in a variant of Old Norse, Orkney Norn. “Ootbrecks” is a stony ground. “Ortan” means to work energetically. “Grand” is a spit of rocky beach running into the sea. “Fann” is a snowdrift. “Goliment” is high spirits, and “fargis” means a load. White’s notes fail to define “owdny”.

Ron King, Willow King, and Walter Taylor set and printed the Baskerville type. The text moves across each page like waves climbing the beach and retreating. British artist and filmmaker John Christie (b. 1945) created nine screen prints for this edition. Christie stated that his prints were not intended as illustrations to any particular section of the poem. They “follow a route parallel to the one Kenneth had taken; showing, against a measured background, an ordering of photographic quotations, ‘signs and symbols’, in a steady upwards (south to north) movement towards white.”

A Walk Along the Shore