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Wild Coal

Paris, Club des Étudiants d’Anglais de la Sorbonne, 1963.

Introduction by Francis Scarfe, poet and director of the British Institute in Paris

     This is a testimony, not a testimonial, but in the case of poems like Kenneth White’s  in which the whole stress is on the inward truth of men and things, one is immediately face to face with the man. Since I first met Kenneth White when he was a brittle sharpeyed student, I have been increasingly impressed by his ferocious honesty. He has that wilfulness, sense of purpose and of destiny which is an essential element in the character of a poet or in poetry itself. He compels, irritates and excites the mind in much the same way as D. H. Lawrence, and his poems have all that living freshness (or what D. H. L. called starkness), of Lawrence’s. Nobody can read these poems without being under the spell of their naked vision and it is important to notice that the vision is equally clean and original in his landscapes and townscapes. Another refreshing quality is their energy which is both intellectual and nervous. The gift that White is probably least aware of because it is entirely natural in his faultless sense of rhythm. I do not find here any of those platitudes of rhythm or tone which are so common today : the poet’s versification (if he has any) is as instinctive as his touch on the world. It would perhaps be an impertinence to analyse such qualities in an introduction of this kind. It is more important to point out especially to readers in France that poetry is passing through a very bad phase in Britain. So far as Scottish poets are concerned – and I have read them all – I do not see one who approaches White’s honesty, clarity and seriousness. As for English poetry, in the past ten years or so it has become much too cerebral and artificial. I do not hesitate to say that a book like Kenneth White’s which contains at least a dozen poems which can teach something to other writers ("Coffin Close" is a masterpiece), not only stands against the current but may help to turn it and bring poetry back to what it ought to be. And this is because he is more than intellectual. There is no split in his personality, no distance between what he knows and what he feels, or between what he is and what he writes.

Morning Walk

It was a cold slow-moving mist
clotted round the sun, clinging
to the small white sun, and the earth
was alone and lonely, and a great bird
harshly squawked from the heronry
as the boy walked under the beeches
seeing the pale-blue shells
and the moist piles of mouldering leaves.

Poem of the White Hare

A thought that leaped out like a hare
over the moor, from behind a great rock
oh, it was a white leaping hare, and
the heather was a fine red world
for its joyance, just that day on the moor
a grey day marching on the winds
into winter, a day for a sparkling sea
three miles away in the trough of the islands
a day high up at the end of the year
a silence to break your heart, oh
the white hare leaping, see the white hare.

Winter Evening

Sun a beetroot thrown in mud
six o’clock winter in Dumbarton Road

oatcakes and milk I buy at the dairy
as cars spit their way towards the ferry

the lampstands caught in beginning frost
send out whiskers of light that are lost

in the electric bonfires of the passing trams
while bored-looking women lug their prams

to family tea. I could go home at once and eat
but I wait till the rush is over in the street

and feel that deep loneliness cover my mind
now the moon has appeared like a turnip rind

above the cranes and the gables. The Caspar Hauser song
trails in my conscience as I trudge along

stopping at the corner to drink the milk
while a cat spick and span in genteel silk

black and with inaccessible eyes surveys with disdain
my enterprise decides he need not remain

and slips off into a close without a backward look
I think I shall make an excursion to Pollock

for I cannot return to my spurious home
where all day I’ve written of Jonah’s tomb

I shall take my trip on the trams and hope
that my spirits will be not too ashamed to elope

with the first image tossed from the city’s rusty womb.

Song of the Coffin Close

Have you heard of the Coffin Close, boys
have you heard of the Coffin Close
it’s one of life’s rare joys, boys
it smells like a summer rose
yes, it smells like a summer rose

Have you ever climbed up the stair, boys
have you ever climbed up the stair
where the lavvy-pan overflows, boys
and gives you a whiff of rotten air
yes, a whiff of rotten air

Have you ever fallen down the stair, boys
have you ever fallen down the stair
and buried your sensitive nose, boys
in the filth and muck which is there
yes, the filth and muck which is there

Have you ever come up at night, boys
have you ever come up at nigh
when the burner throws its rays, boys
you see many a ghastly sight
yes, many a ghastly sight

Have you ever seen Bill McNeice, boys
have you ever seen Bill McNeice
lying dead to the world, boys
and a cat being sick in his face
yes, a cat being sick in his face

Have you ever seen Mary Cape, boys
have you ever seen Mary Cape
she often hangs there on the stairs, boys
coughing her insides up
yes, coughing her insides up

You all know the Coffin Close, boys
you all know the Coffin Close
if I bother you all with my noise, boys
it’s all for a very good cause
yes, it’s all for a very good cause

I live in the Coffin Close, boys
I live in the Coffin Close
very soon they’ll be taking me out, boys
and my head will come after my toes
yes, my head will come after my toes.

Wild Coal was published in France a few years ago in a limited edition. The appearance of this volume should establish Mr. White as one of the two or three finest poets of his generation. It would be possible to trace in these poems Mr. White’s  literary ancestry – possible, but superfluous. For what matters in his poetry is his own response to the visible world, and to his experience of life, his own vision of what it means to be a human being in the slums of Glasgow and in the invigorating landscapes and seascapes which are the source of his most impressive poetic images. Mr White is a poet of winter, of ice, frost, snow, fog, red berries, gulls in frozen skies. His world is one of harsh purity, or arrogant coldness.
     John Press, Punch