Literature

Seeing Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Poetics

by Nick Thurston

DEK.

In my view, all of my work, in all of its forms, from the simplest concrete poems to the war with Strathclyde Region, has been based on an aspiration for ordered simplicity. (In such a light do I see Saint-Just and Robespierre; in such a light, equally, do I decry Danton.)

—Letter to Francis Edeline, 2 October 1988

The off-center centerpiece in Tate Britain’s current Duveen Gallery display of works by Ian Hamilton Finlay is a 7.3m long text-only engraving across six bath stone panels, which reads: “THE WORLD HAS BEEN EMPTY SINCE THE ROMANS” (made with Nicholas Sloan, 1985). Suspended on chains from a scaffold rig set at the baseline of the barrel-vaulted ceiling on the towering inside wall of one of the two neoclassical gallery halls, these high hanging fragments are buttressed into sequence like an archaeological reconstruction looking down, imposingly, at anyone willing to read them literarily. This one declarative phrase is suspended in space and time and conviction, as if it had been written by and/or for some bygone society whose superiority the poet wished to restate or even resurrect. The modal intensity and literal breaking of classicism’s truth claim—that a certain virtuous civility is the social consciousness by which the human world could exercise, or at least realize, its full potential, so as to fulfill “being human” as a socio-virtuous project—keenly represents the three unavoidable problems with reading Finlay seriously as a poet.


The World has been Empty Since the Romans 1985 (Installation view) © Estate of Ian Hamilton Finlay.

In my view, all of my work, in all of its forms, from the simplest concrete poems to the war with Strathclyde Region, has been based on an aspiration for ordered simplicity. (In such a light do I see Saint-Just and Robespierre; in such a light, equally, do I decry Danton.)

—Letter to Francis Edeline, 2 October 1988

The off-center centerpiece in Tate Britain’s current Duveen Gallery display of works by Ian Hamilton Finlay is a 7.3m long text-only engraving across six bath stone panels, which reads: “THE WORLD HAS BEEN EMPTY SINCE THE ROMANS” (made with Nicholas Sloan, 1985). Suspended on chains from a scaffold rig set at the baseline of the barrel-vaulted ceiling on the towering inside wall of one of the two neoclassical gallery halls, these high hanging fragments are buttressed into sequence like an archaeological reconstruction looking down, imposingly, at anyone willing to read them literarily. This one declarative phrase is suspended in space and time and conviction, as if it had been written by and/or for some bygone society whose superiority the poet wished to restate or even resurrect. The modal intensity and literal breaking of classicism’s truth claim—that a certain virtuous civility is the social consciousness by which the human world could exercise, or at least realize, its full potential, so as to fulfill “being human” as a socio-virtuous project—keenly represents the three unavoidable problems with reading Finlay seriously as a poet.

Figuring out how to read Finlay poetically is a challenge taken up in differing ways by two recent collections of his writings. In one, published this spring by the University of California Press, the poet who died in 2006 is claimed as a Poet For The Millenium, and his writings are treated to the full historical re-presentation that that status and book series imposes, as an act of historiographic and typographic disciplining. In another volume, published two years ago by the Glasgow-based small press Wax 366, the fullness of the poet’s oeuvre is set aside to instead address what had been, until this book’s release, a lacuna in Finlay’s academization: the poet’s own thoughts “on poiesis on making and form.”

Selections is edited by Finlay’s son, Alec Finlay, whose introduction and particular closeness to the subject has brought about an interesting reference collection but one that holds the wrong kind of closeness for anyone approaching Finlay’s work for the first time or anyone who wants to take him seriously as a conceptualist. The examples, or samples, have been selected from across Finlay’s literary modes, and the volume includes short stories, a radio-play script, postcard poems, detached sentences, detached paragraphs, verse-form poems, list poems, and some reconstructions from the strictly concrete vispoems. This whole selection is organized into two periods—“early” and “later”—but within each of those categories chronology gives way to thematic or stylistic clustering.

The short, aphoristic poems that form the bulk of this book give the collection a speed and intensity that befits Finlay’s attitude toward poetry. (For him, by the early to mid-’60s, poetry was all about movement, and reading the cadence at which a poet’s poetry worked was important—Louis Zukofsky and Ernst Jandl being two of his favorites by that measure.) His lust for compositional order, artistically and politically, is put into practice by the arrangement of Selections, which the editor tells us follows the poet’s preference for standardization—as was the case with Honey by the Water (1972) and The Blue Sail (2002)—almost despite what is most interesting for us, his readers. It should be thanked that each poem has not been foreclosed on the page with an explanation disguised as a process note. That mistake has so often been the case with this kind of historical re-claiming or even structuralist readings of Finaly’s work generally, the latter of which tries to explain away his eccentricity by claiming or diagnosing that there’s a hermeneutic consistency to his references.

In contrast, the concision and breathing space typeset into the arrangement of A Model of Order does much to allow us a different experience of the poet’s approach to poetry. That difference gravitates around this collection’s taxonomic principle, which is firmly edited by Finlay’s long-term correspondent and fellow poet Thomas A Clark. Ian Hamilton Finlay was amongst the finest letter writers of 20th-century British poetry, spurred on in no small part by his dependency on fabricators and critics to actually make and position his work, and by the curse of his severe agoraphobia. Clark’s selection comes entirely from the poet’s personal letters written to correspondents all over Europe and the United States, and is organized chronologically from c.1960 to 1998, with periods of intense coverage like 1961–67 and periods of silence like 1981–87.

One thing that both books demonstrate is that Finlay was good at getting people to do what he wanted them to do. Unlike Alec Finlay’s eloquent introduction—which is unabashedly an essay of biographical criticism that largely focuses on the long period of his life after he rejected prose as a secular form—Clark’s selection intentionally makes no effort to deal with the specific interpersonal relationships between correspondents. Rather, in reading excerpts of Finlay, we listen in to a charming and attentive reader in conversations plural, which was no doubt one important side of a reputedly difficult man’s working method. As such, A Model of Order has the rigor of an archive managed by an expert and sympathizer, and gives us Finlay at his best, page after page throughout its short 54 page span. Here we have so much more in so much less that I have no hesitation in praising this book as a hugely important and paradoxically generous contribution to poetics—to how we think collectively about the doing of doing poetry and what is done when poetry is done, historically and speculatively.

The three unavoidable problems hinted at above are insisted, at different times and in different intensities, by Finlay’s work from his early short stories onward. Each problem is a consequence (is indeed just a matter of) a complex of unfashionable and ideological commitments on Finlay’s part, which he inscribed in his approach to writing. Firstly, and least difficult of all, is his turn to concretism at the start of the ’60s. This was always more than stylistic. It was a way “to make something unambiguous”1 , to focus on “nouns, and structure—to do away with the forward pull of syntax”2 because, as he told Gael Turnbull in two letters of spring 1963, he felt that he had come “to the end of poems that are about, and want[ed] to do poems that just are.” These “thing poems” would be “simple objects, gay or sad, and no more complex than potatoes.” When his poetry stalled at the limits of this quasi-objective formalism he fully matured as a post-concrete poet. This latter approach was no less reviled by the Scottish realists (who followed McDairmid’s tradition) than the former style, and was presumably even more aestethically alien to the tiresome mainstream English lyricists (for whom pastoralism was the preserve of well-behaved poetries only).

What is concretist about the poet’s post-concrete work is the absolute importance of space, literarily and literally-speaking: “To me, language is both part of us and strange to us. Writing is an unnatural act. The world is exciting, facts are exciting; but reality can only be put down in ‘detached sentences’ . . . . which acknowledge that they have spaces between them.” The problem this causes for readers of Finlay as a poet is that you have to see the poems, and so they conceptually refuse being represented in the kind of transferable manuscript that the literary economy depends upon and Selections forces them into. This is all the more important to the post-concrete work because therein the reasons for specific decisions about spatialities and forms are not reflexively pronounced in the way that a strictly concrete work overtly describes its own presence. What is, in part, post- about post-concrete poetry is the return of some kind of reference or outside—what Finlay had previously described as ambiguity.

The second least important problem is that Finlay was always a pastoralist even before he was a writer, when he worked as shepherd on the Isle of Rouen. For him, the cosmopolitan, metropolitan, modern liberal city life alienated humankind from nature, or nature’s “commonsense” simple order, and the consequent mainstream poetries were emblematic of all that misdirected social energy. But unlike the classically Romantic pastoralists, Finlay did not just want to retreat into quiet rural life. Instead he wrote poetry to prescribe the right to live and defend a pastoralist way of life, as a matter of moral urgency. This prescriptive insistence was at the root of his wars, his temple, and his spiritualist’s sense of conviction. The truth claim of pastoralism had never faced as complicated and complicating an ideological enemy as the turbulent utopian-dystopian politics of the late-20th century Western world, and Finlay was, in a sense, the most eloquent resistance writer.

That sense of urgency brings to the fore the third problem: morality, or polemical moralizing which problematizes the moral anxiety in the psyche of late-modern poetics. By this I do not mean that to read Finlay you have to agree with him morally, but I do mean that you do have to determine a stance in relation to him morally. I would propose that you cannot read “later” Finlay seriously as a poet and be indifferent to his moral positioning, even though “determination,” “morality,” and “stances” are exactly what make postmoderns anxious. This is by far the most pressing challenge to reading his post-concrete work and it created a pressure that tested even his staunchest supporters when foregrounded by his use of idioms like the SS symbol in his artist’s book FS (with George Thompson, 1978) or his controversial 1982 exhibition of proposals entitled The Third Reich Revisited. Reading Finlay’s poetry seriously means entering into a moralized relationship with a disarming series of motifs. In a tension with its subversively quaint decorativeness, the poet’s work will not allow you the illusory trans-ethical pleasure of more fashionable contemporaneous aesthetics like abstract expressionist painting or minimalist sculpture. He resuscitated idioms like the emblamata as a way of allying himself with the moral drive of a different kind of civil war—a war that characterizes our historiological notion of antiquity, one that was about the moral totality of virtuousness, practiced as civility, in classically reverend harmony with so-called nature.

What Finlay’s correspondence reveals is that, although he was consistently passionate about certain themes, he was a reactionary. This tendency to be fearsomely reactive seems to keep his artistry dynamic but quickly and clearly makes his moralizing politically incoherent, at least up until he found the one really appropriate architecture or site onto which he could project his idyllic fantasy: the walled garden. As Alec Finlay notes, the poet understood the landscape as the spatial figuring of nature, and so applied himself to writing in the landscape because he believed that nature offered the only space left for the artistic imaginary—the landscape was that last space for the artist’s imagination, and that space had to be defended as a spiritual reservation, hence the territorialism and the Garden Temple. Ian Hamilton Finlay was at his best as a poet-gardener (or, as he preferred it, an AVANT-GARDEner3) as his finest remaining public work attests, Stonypath (1966), which was renamed as the political territory Little Sparta in 1979.

That this most extraordinary work of poesis struggles financially year-on-year to stay active—an immersive work that explores site-specificity better than any other artwork of the 20th-century on the British isles, dancing as it does with the Pentland Hills, teasing the bounds of Edinburgh’s juridico-legal edge—is a mark of shame on the British cultural industries, and is maybe symptomatic of the difficulty that the British cultural establishment seems to have in coping with the legacies of singularly difficult British artists. In an age of huge mid-career retrospectives for easy-read, faux-difficult artists of the YBA sort, where are we to experience work that will allow us to think and act differently in the context of national cultural history (a status that is made to still mean something by the nationalistic institutional structure of British cultural organizations regardless of any opinion that some of us might have about the credibility of understanding contemporary culture in outmoded nationalistic terms), like that of Finlay or even Paul Ettienne Lincoln?

Thank goodness for astute small-press publishing.

1 Letter to Maurice Lindsay, 23 April c.1964: AMOO p.26

2 Letter to Louis Zukofsky, 27 July 1963

3 Letter to Jandl, 1967, AMOO p.42

Nick Thurston’s bio info can be found here and his next book, Of The Subcontract, will be published in late spring 2013.

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