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Set in a Landscape: Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Selections

By Harriet Staff

Ian Hamilton Finlay’s new book, Selections (UC Press 2012), edited with an introduction by Alec Finlay, has been reviewed over at Booktryst. Alastair Johnston writes of Finlay’s later-life recognition, noting that “[a]mong the most fatal accolades one can achieve is to be called ‘greatest living’ anything.” What follows is his poetic work in biographical context, down to the garden art (the post also includes great photos of Finlay’s early books and ephemera; and links to other concrete poets and related resources):

This new book compacts much of his writing into one volume. His early poems are mostly negligible, but the odd memorable line occurs (“The dancers inherit the party”– also the title of his first book of poems). Glasgow Beasts is a charming series of childlike verses written in broad Gleskae dialect. (Finlay’s early battles with the dole come off like an episode of Rab C Nesbit.)

In 1963, Finlay began to write concrete poems which are best seen in the original context: whether as an artwork or a small press book with clever typography. There is an attempt to illustrate one or two in the present book (in 2D and monochrome) which is not very successful, but the introduction, by Finlay’s son Alec, is a resumé of the poet’s career and quotes extensively from his correspondence to illuminate his ideas about poetics, morality, and his various struggles.

Finlay first discovered concrete poetry through Eugen Gomringer, then published the Brasilian De Campos brothers in his magazine, and even compiled an anthology of concrete poetry for Rothenberg (which has remained unpublished), including Kandinsky and Klee to show that there was a long tradition of using language abstractly. Finlay was excited by concrete poetry which existed objectively: he was “through with poems which are about, and instead wanted poems which just are” (from a letter to Gael Turnbull). He also began to envision his concrete poems sandblasted on glass, set in a landscape.

By 1967 he had contracted the local gravestone cutter to make an inscribed stone for him. In 1968 he collaborated with Hansjörg Mayer who would publish a series of influential books, most notably the work of Dieter Roth, the icelandic artist. Others (Ferdinand Kriwet in Germany, Robert Lax in the USA) were working on similar paths and in Britain there was Dom Sylvester Houédard who created kinetic outdoor sculptures out of words (Finlay dismissed him as “anti-culture” and “nonsense”). I have to add that my own discovery of Houédard’s wonderful work in the 60s made me rethink the possibilities of poetry as art. (A Benedictine monk, Houédard was also the literary editor of the Jerusalem Bible).

After his second marriage, Finlay’s in-laws gave him a small plot of land with a cottage on their estate and that is where he became the great artist, gradually turning the wind-chapped border landscape into Little Sparta, his own one-man nation standing against the might of empire. Other than the allusion to Ancient Greek wars, it should be borne in mind that nearby Edinburgh was called “the New Athens” in the time of Sir Walter Scott. His wife Sue planted the flowers; Ian dreamed up the site-specific texts. Thus his concrete poems were soon literally that, carved in stone or wood. Finlay carried his childhood delight in toy boats and war games into adulthood and it became a central aspect of his art. He built ponds to sail his toy boats and, though far from the ocean, put a sign next to an ash tree “Mare nostrum,” as the sound of the wind in the leaves reminded him of the sea. Gradually he took his place among classic British gardeners like Shenstone, and the successive designers of Stowe and Caversham.

For more–including details on the 1987 disaster formed from a commission for the French government, and Finlay becoming an internationally known artist–here.

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Posted in Poetry News on Wednesday, November 28th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.