ENGLISH 685:002 / SUSAN TICHY / FALL 2005
WEEK 11: NOV 10: IAN HAMILTON
“…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.
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
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.
INTRODUCTORY REMARKS 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
very self-consciously anti-puritan (that is, fashionable) but they have
wit or humour, and they do not understand modern poetry at all. …They
to think they are thinkers, full of very serious thoughts about serious
matters…but ‘thought’ is not intelligence, and one image against
create something more subtle than thought. 
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
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
readily, and in an undogmatic way, call poetic.
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
fruit; this is the principle of dazzle camouflage.’ Shimmer, glitter,
dazzle – it is worth risking a generalization and suggesting that the
ground linking natural and verbal aura in Finlay’s work may be
in terms of a quality of light. Just as light, however immediate its
implies distance as a non-objectal phenomenon, so a single word with
eddies of connotations is never simply there, never just a descralized
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
judicious reference to collage with regard to Finlay's aphoristic
which itself teems with free associations. Let us not forget that
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
anthology (A VISUAL PRIMER, 1985), valuable as it is to art lover and
alike, can nonetheless appear to be the very negation of a poetic
which increasingly has rejected the absolutist tendencies of the book.
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'
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
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
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