ENGLISH 685:002  /  SUSAN TICHY  /  FALL 2005



“…to give the reader a shock not of recognition but of cognition, which is much harder and much more valuable.”  -- Scottish poet Edwin Morgan on Finlay

 Ian Hamilton Finlay is a unique poet and conceptual artist for whom conflict in all its forms is a central motivating idea. In class we will look at additional images of Finlay's work, discuss his responses to WWII (especially the Batle of Midway), and discuss his work in the context of war and the pastoral as laid down by Paul Fussell.

This week's work is light, but it is required. Think of a trip to the Reserve Desk as a little holiday from work on your paper.


Bookstore Photocopies:

Sheeler: Conflict (this is the text only)

At the Reserve Desk

Jessie Sheeler: Little Sparta: The Garden of Ian Hamilton Finlay:
Plan of the Garden  8
Hyperborean Apollo  62
Conflict  80

The text is introductory but insightful. Please spend time with the images, make notes, formulate questions, think about comparisons. You may want to choose one or two of Finlay's works to "explicate" by following out implications of its form, material, placement, text, historical and literary contexts and allusions.

Before you go, please begin with the introductory remarks below, excerpted from various critical sources on Finlay.


...offered as an aid to "reading" this unique artist. Bear in mind throughout this week's meditations that Finlay himself has always described himself as a poet.

I am not considered to be a poet here… mostly, Scotch poets are very self-consciously anti-puritan (that is, fashionable) but they have no wit or humour, and they do not understand modern poetry at all. …They like to think they are thinkers, full of very serious thoughts about serious matters…but ‘thought’ is not intelligence, and one image against another, can create something more subtle than thought. [1965]

Ian Hamilton Finlay. “Letters to Ernst Jandl.” Chapman 78-79 (Oct 1994) p11. This was a special double issue devoted to Finlay.  
My point about poems in glass, actual concrete, stone or whatever is simply that new means of constructing a poem aesthetically, ought to lead to consideration of new materials. If these poems are for ‘contemplating’, let them be made with that intention, and let them be sited where they can be contemplated.
Ian Hamilton Finlay, cited in M.E. Solt: Concrete Poetry: A World View. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1968.

THE old problem of the relation between form and content in works of art is made more obscure in a time when the two are becoming increasingly estranged, when a work is often either all form or else given up to an insight or message or to what amounts to, however benign the intention, propaganda of one sort or another. The questions arise: can art open out onto the world without sacrificing its proper self presence; need the urge to form necessarily exclude or demote any larger concern? Perhaps one solution can be found in poetry and in the work of a few artists who come close to poetry in their use of language. If some resolution of the problem is managed within this area then it might also pertain to those works that are not literary but that we would readily, and in an undogmatic way, call poetic.

Among the early works which Ian Hamilton Finlay has recently realized in sand blasted glass is the following poem:

how blue?     how blue!
how sad?      how sad!
how small?    how sad!
how white?   how small!
how far?       how white!

Utilizing only the difference between two typographic signs, this poem is about distance, the distance between two tones of voice, between a question and an exclamation, between uncertainty and wonder. In the sand blasted version, the two parts of the poem are incised into different sheets of glass, one behind the other, making this distance tangible, while the slightly misted quality of the glass is like a veil drawn across an immediate exploration of the intervening space, preventing an overhasty reading of the poem. The title of this work, on its first appearance in 1965 as a Wild Hawthorn Press card, was FIRST SUPREMATIST STANDING POEM. This draws attention to the poem's severity of structure, to the simple blocks of language with which it is composed. But Suprematism is not the same thing as Constructivism, and the poem's reductive nature, rather than its final aim, is still an enticement to the unspecified ghosts that hover around it. The different order of the words in the two parts of the poem suggests the remnant of a narrative and reinforces the impression of a subject that is both present and withheld. What is being enquired about here, what is being exclaimed over?

Perhaps nothing more, perhaps, nothing less, than whatever is beyond language and cannot be constituted within language, How blue is it? How far it is! Such questions and exclamations are only indicators of a subject that retreats before them but the glimpsing of which raises Finlay's text above an academic exercise.

If the words of this poem are cleanly cut while the matter they refer to remains transparent, insufficiently opaque, this reverses the relation we expect to exist between language and things. In the normal transactions of prose, we look through the words that we hear or read at a more or less substantial set of objects and ideas that the words bring before us. Poetry refuses so swift a transition from words to things. It insists on its own physicality, on its cultural provenance, clouding the glass of language, Yet this is not a denial, only a delay. If prose confuses itself with the world, poetry acknowledges itself as fashioned language and this acknowledgement is sobering. We are forced to recognize a break between language and all that is not language. We have a pause in which to remember the self sufficiency of things. Poetry does not deny a beyond but allows it its proper distance. The respect it demands for its own substance it extends to other substances. Following the grain of languages, poetry draws attention to itself and in so doing foils the casual appropriation of prose.

I want to preserve this double nature of poetry, its insistence on its own fabrication and the promise of something beyond, because I think that poetry is as far from a purely constructive art as it is from unselfconscious prose. It holds to the middle way between transparency and opacity, between the window and the wall. Where the visual arts have liberated themselves from reference and illusion, this is only marginally possible for poetry because of the intrinsically referential nature of the medium in which it works. But poetry's fetters may turn out to be its laurels. The surfaces of poems are the more interesting for the faults and lacunae that occur in whatever limited autonomy poetry manages and the most ambitious poems, the most dense and cluttered, are often those which stand in awe of, which recognize their failings before, an external order. This is also the case with those paintings and sculptures that we identify as 'Poetic'. It is not simply that they are figurative or illusionistic, not only that they are referential, but perhaps that they are reverential, that their end is transcendent. They articulate a surface, observe a physical decorum, which is dedicated to something larger.

Thomas A. Clark: “Poetry and the Space Beyond.” Poiesis: Aspects of Contemporary Poetic Activity, ed. Ken Cockburn. Edinburgh: The Fruit Market Gallery, 1992. (37-38)
‘Words, too, have an aura of their own,’, Walter Benjamin declares, quoting Karl Kraus to the effect that ‘the closer the look one takes at a word, the greater the distance from which it looks back’; and Stephen Bann suggests that concrete poetry provides specific occasions for ‘fathoming’ words. Aura intervenes here, not as a theme, but rather as an essential aspect of poetics. In Finlay’s case, one comes across a striking manifestation of this phenomenon in a series of concrete poems whose visual aspect is not directly representational.

. . . .

Finlay explains in his Detached Sentences on Camouflage that ‘The domestic strawberry disguises certain of its leaves as the ripe fruit; this is the principle of dazzle camouflage.’ Shimmer, glitter, dazzle – it is worth risking a generalization and suggesting that the common ground linking natural and verbal aura in Finlay’s work may be understood in terms of a quality of light. Just as light, however immediate its impact, implies distance as a non-objectal phenomenon, so a single word with its eddies of connotations is never simply there, never just a descralized tool.

Alternatively, the aura of a word can emerge from stone and – seemingly at least – from the distant past…. Such a work seeks to gauge how the modern artist’s ‘epic quality’ stands up to the ancient context, and then – in so far as the quality of the execution forces the viewer to assent to the assimilation – to imply that the ‘secret’ reaching a great distance across the ages is both formal and hermeneutic: a hieroglyphic force.

Yves Abrioux, “The Word,” Ian Hamilton Finlay: A Visual Primer. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992. 

As with any poet whose thinking goes beyond received forms and his or her immediate surroundings, the question of meaning, of its nature and origins, is central here. With regard to the early works, Stephen Bann has underlined the extended metaphor of seafishing, where drift nets gather bright little glints, which equally are particles of meaning. Now with Finlay this meaning is aptly communicated as glints: the poet elaborates no grand designs but feeds on fragments (those of Anaximander or Heraclitus), and prefers to write 'Detached Sentences' (on gardening or camouflage... ). The German critic Günther Metken has made judicious reference to collage with regard to Finlay's aphoristic poetry, which itself teems with free associations. Let us not forget that Finlay has never undertaken collage as such, but that in any case it assumes a prior act of cutting, thus of fragmentation. His printed work is also in fragments: postcards, folding cards, silk screen prints, portfolios, each differing in technique and format. Fragmentation occurs to such an extent that the publication of Yves Abrioux's and Stephen Bann's large anthology (A VISUAL PRIMER, 1985), valuable as it is to art lover and critic alike, can nonetheless appear to be the very negation of a poetic undertaking which increasingly has rejected the absolutist tendencies of the book.

So it is hardly surprising if Finlay's signs are always fragile. They are scrambled, sometimes deliberately, by the  savage forces of nature or history. Their vulnerability constantly appeals to our vigilance. One powerful and privileged force of erosion is the wave, from which printers seem to have taken the sign for their permutations: ∫. Finlay uses this cutting device in numerous poems (such as U ∫ NDA), but also more directly in one of his first glass works, 'Wave/Rock' (1966), where the beating of the wave eventually wears away the rock (the word 'rock’). The transparent, blue tinted poem is designed to be placed outdoors, or fitted into a window. In this way the external world with its real wind and real waves intervenes dynamically in the effect of the poem.

The whole series of sanded glass works yields the intriguing premise that the production technique participates in the meaning. This is summed up by the word sandblasting'. The glass is made of sand, and sand then wears it down as waves wear down rock. Perhaps this is, the essential meaning of a work such as 'Wind, Wind'

But it should not be forgotten that if these poems are inscribed on glass, this is also to enable us to see through them, to see a shifting fragment of landscape. Like many of Finlay's works (such as the sundials and stiles), these poems on glass are ‘cosmic shifters'. They place the text in an environment which is usually mobile, and give the reader a crucial role fixing the angle of view. Likewise light passes through them and the text creates a shadow, a visible but negative trace, in some ways taking literally Gomringer’s beautiful phrase, ‘worte sind schatten’ (words are shadows).

Conversely, and more subtly, the text can act as a screen to prevent the world being seen: the sign obliterates and hides the referent.

Francis Edeline. “Flowers and Fragments: On Ian Hamilton Finlay and Mary Ellen Solt,” translated by Ken Cockburn. Poiesis: Aspects of Contemporary Poetic Activity, ed. Ken Cockburn. Edinburgh: The Fruit Market Gallery, 1992.

In sharp contrast to most of the British poets of his generation, Finlay has in the three decades since his break with MacDiarmid [the leading Scottish Modernist] pursued a complex and both aesthetically and ethically difficult course, navigating between the realms of poetry, the plastic arts, gardening, and cultural criticism. Since his turn from strictly verbal to more concrete modes of poetry, he has created "poems" in a variety of media: stone, plaster, bronze, neon, embroidery, and, most ambitiously, the medium of a full-scale garden, his Little Sparta, in progress since 1967. These poems, especially to the extent that they situate the semantic properties of their words within a visual and conceptual field, thereby displacing the purely verbal, simultaneously return poetry to its etymological roots as poeisis -- "making" -- and propose a radical redefinition of the relationship of reader to poem, a radical renegotiation of the meaning-making contract implied in the poetic act: the act of reading a poem is no longer a matter of making sense of a given string of verbal signifiers, but now includes more importantly the puzzling out of the relationship among a given set of words (sometimes, a single word), the medium in which it is instantiated, and the surroundings that form its context.

One key to the complex balance of verbal and extraverbal elements that makes up Finlay's work, and perhaps an indication of why MacDiarmid rejected that work so vehemently, lies in the notion of the textual fragment, both as it is originally theorized by the Romantics, and as it is appropriated and altered by the high modernists. Without monolithizing either of these disparate groups, I would like to compare Finlay's use of ostensibly fragmentary, linguistic structures with what I see as representative uses and theorizations of the fragment by poets before him. The continuities and contrasts cast light upon Finlay's overall project and upon the relationship of that project -- critical, destructive, and simultaneously retrospective -- to the cultural projects of earlier eras and artists. The fragment, that is, so often fetishized and nearly glorified in Romantic and Modernist practice, becomes a crucial index of the distance between Finlay's postmodernism/neo-classicism and the cultural moments upon which his praxis is built.

Mark Scroggins. "The Piety of Terror: Ian Hamilton Finlay, the Modernist Fragment, and the Neo-Classical Sublime," from Flashpoint Web Issue 1 (Spr 1997).  Full article

Optional Reading: External Links:

On Concrete Poetry: from a letter from Finlay to Pierre Garnier

More Finlay on Line & a bibliography