"Truly Traditional. and New, of Now": Ian Hamilton Finlay's Transition from Poemorama to Garden-Poem

Article excerpt

Standing on the edge of a heather moor where the Pentland Hills rise is a whinstone boulder with a single vein of quartz. This stone is a poem. Inscribed "CURFEW / curlew," it invites us to hear the bird's liquid call as it plies down to the valley below. The transition of letters--inward folded "f" for alert "l"--translates natural song into human alarm. Imaginatively we have entered Stonypath, Little Sparta, genius loci of Ian Hamilton Finlay. This poem conspectus belongs here because this is where poet first heard the curlew's oracular call. Carved, the words suggest permanence; but sun and shade, wind, birdsong--all the transitory effects of nature--are also integral to the garden poem. More than any other poet of the modern era, Finlay realized the potential of the poem as an object that belongs within an "environment"--though he would doubtlessly have preferred the term "garden," "grove," or "landscape."

This brief account, stitched around extracts from his letters, sketches how Finlay became an "AVANT-GARDEner," pioneering poems in glass, aluminum, and neon, and then installing permanent poem-objects in parks and landscapes throughout the world. This great adventure spanned four decades, culminating in Finlay and his wife Sue's celebrated garden, Stonypath--born of his youthful dream of young philosophers wandering through a classical landscape. Recent critical accounts make little or no acknowledgement of the collaboration with Sue; they conjure the garden as cynosure for a reclusive Neoclassical "genius," whereas, for the poet, its status was elusive: "I don't know what the garden is really--I don't know. In general the garden has proven its own alibi: it proved its own necessity." We can grasp the degree to which this poetry garden and world was a necessity when we understand the essence of the poet's experience of place: Stonypath was his fond home; it grew into the territory Little Sparta, his martial state, complete with stamps, medals, monuments, a flag, and Garden Temple.

Finlay was a "makar," revitalizing that ancient Scottish term. However, as his letters reveal, his ambitious and expansive poetics arose from a "homesickness" that was life defining. If readers wish, they can enter his poetic world, even touch the texts with their fingertips. Finlay belonged to that generation of innovators--many of them his correspondents and friends--who grasped a different means of poetic production, by insisting that each poem could be a thing; that each text has the potential to assume different guises through the careful choice of typeface, printed format, or material; that each word could be weighted or floated within its own space, its meaning inflected by color, light, or grain. This radical transformation of the poem arose from his realization that with the translation of the poem-object into the outdoor poem, there was an implicit requirement that these poems should, ideally, belong within a composed landscape--grove, vista, or, to use his preferred practical term, "area"--suited to this contemplative art.

The shifts of form that mark Finlay's output are vertiginous: from early plays, stories, and poems offering lyrical and quirky portraits of the Scottish Highlands and islands, to Concrete poems of the 1960s, and the evolution of these into the garden poems of the 1970s. His art is all the more challenging given that the reader has also to negotiate radical shifts in subject matter: from the toys, boats, and idylls of the early era to the poet-revolutionary embattled in his "armed" domain, Little Sparta, surrounded by stone warships, eulogizing Robespierre and Saint-Just. These shifts can best be grasped through some understanding of the personal drama of the poet's life. In this respect his remarkable letters--charming, wry, sometimes raging--convey the necessary details of biography. Correspondence was the primary means by which he collaborated--and collaboration was fundamental to Finlay's art. …