The big question about geopoetics is: Is it the work of Kenneth White, and therefore absolutely and exactly just what he says it is, or is it something bigger, broader, and more generally applicable? What I mean is, is it like the theory of evolution or psychoanalysis, which depended on Darwin, Freud and Jung for their very existence, but which have been taken beyond the original flaws and limits of the original thinking to become usable disciplines of general science?
There is a case for leaving it simply as the definition of Kenneth White’s own work. He is an original, outstandingly intelligent and remarkably diverse thinker, with the vision to bring together more different insights and source materials than almost anyone else on the planet. And he expresses himself with a verve and precision and elegant economy that belies the enormous amount of work behind some of his more outrageous assertions.
This hardly justifies his professed ambitions to reform the state of education and culture as we know it. And, moreover, it fails to take on board his influence on many other artists and poets. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that I would not be writing poetry now if I hadn’t read him in the early nineties, and realised that it is possible to operate in a mind-field where my deepest interests can come together and fertilise each other rather than fitting into separate ‘appropriate’ boxes.
It also fails to recognise a big shift in the way we are all thinking, writing and creating, perhaps the biggest since the development of Courtly Love in the early Middle Ages.
Let’s be really brutally simplistic (I’m drawing heavily on C.S. Lewis’ Allegory of Love, now, despite all its limitations, just to make it easier to see the direction of thought) and say that, broadly speaking, the big thing in literature, the arena where the story takes place, before the twelfth century, was the hero/heroine confronting his/her destiny. After then, it was love. Now more and more we find that the arena artists/campaigners/academics want to work in is the relationship of the central character with the earth. It’s everywhere. Middle-aged heroines finish up with a garden instead of a marriage. Young men tackle mountains or oceans instead of criminals. Nature writing has become a recognised literary genre and is taught at Arvon courses. Ethical concerns are now about pollution, biodiversity and climate change, as well as political or personal relationships. Kenneth White has given geopoetics a flying start to organise our thinking in this new arena.
But the bigger it gets, and the more it develops, the more it has to go beyond Kenneth White’s original brief. We need a new generation of geopoetical thinkers, who will translate the work of solitary intellectual nomads into the life of communities.
This will have to wait until tomorrow, when I will review the work of Jamie Whittle and Norman Bissell and see where that gets us.