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 "/" for alert "/"-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 poemobjects 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 te 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 Ufe. 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. The letters also capture the texture of his ideas. Reading them, it becomes clear the extent to which these early years contain the seeds of his later militant artworks. For all his rejection of psychologism and his disapproval of biography, Finlay self-dramatized his anomie to an extraordinary degree.
The natural place to begin this sketch of Finlay' s poetic evolution is in the cramped surroundings of his small bedsit in Fettes Row, in the Edinburgh New Town, in 1960, where he had returned after a brief but dear stay on the island of Rousay, Orkney. He was already the author of a small book of short stories, The Sea-Bed (1958), and one collection of lyrical poems, The Dancers Inherit the Party (I960)- the latter admired by international friends such as Cid Corman, Lorine Neidecker, Robert Creeley, Louis Zukofsky, Ronald Johnson, Jonathan Williams, and Jerome Rothenberg. Yet his work met with little interest at home and, at times, was subject to open hostility from the conservative Scottish poets of the day, who saw his playfulness as merely fey, lacking in seriousness.
A June 1961 letter to Lorine Niedecker, whom he never met, yet with whose folk sophistication he sympathized, sets the scene.
Now please forgive me for writing at some length but seeing your poems, Z[ukofsky]'s etc., has been very important to me. When I was in Orkney, I began to write poems (after having written stories and plays), and did not know how to do what I wanted, because for one thing I have far more sensibility than talent and the world is always being too much for me; and for another, about all the Scotch poets say, you must write like this and that [...] I knew what they were writing was wrong (for me) and wrong for life (as I saw it) and very wrong for poetry as it historically was. Anyway, I produced the poems you read, and except for a few people who saw them, all the poets thought them naive, etc. and technically bad. In fact, I was doing something else, an inner thing, and it is in the movement (not metre) and the implication- una well, I never know when it's right or not really and there's no one to ask. [...] But now, when I see your poems, and ? [ukofsky] 's, I see that you belong to the same world, you are using as yours the way of writing I dimly sensed and believed in- and it somehow belongs to all literature, it is different but the same. Truly traditional. And new, of now. So that is a very important thing to me: I can't explain more. And if we could keep in touch a little (I know you will be busy and all) I would be very pleased. About my life being "a mess," I have nervous trouble. Had a breakdown five years ago, and can't go in streets, etc. or I get in a state of terror. I'm not so bad in the country (I love fishing, and all that) but at present I can't get there, as I have no money, can't find a place etc.
Increasingly it was to his American friends that Finlay turned for emotional support and intelligent correspondence, as in this letter of May 1963 to Zukofsky:
Well now, I think the poem you sent is marvelous. To be honest, I think you are the finest poet of this time that I have read. You are the only poet I know who has made the new form, or whatever it is to be called- method perhaps- habitual in his work, as it is habitual, if I make myself clear, in painting, and as everyone assumes it is of course (how else7.) habitual... Now it seems to me that to do this once or twice, use the new way, is wonderful, but to reach a place where it is ingrained, is a miracle.
It would seem- I do not understand this, but I observe it, about art in general- that the refinement in your work (fine-ness) makes it difficult for people... This to me would be the central quality (most enjoyable one) of art, but it must be that most people get more from other less essential qualities, which they see as being the thing- while the thing is something quite else. That they fail to see. For myself, I would wish to be able to do, what you can do (I will never do it, though)- put the thing down without the other lesser things so that the poem works by pure beauty. Well, that is very wonderful. But hard to talk about. It seems to me that most criticism or poetry- talk, is only useful because it draws the attention to the area where fine-ness is; the actual fine-ness is not talked about. And in fact I think a lot of the pleasure one gets from criticism, is really the haunting through the discussion, of this other thing. But I may be wrong about that, or just talking about myself perhaps.
Despite his hesitations, the range of activities that Finlay pioneered in the early 1960s is remarkable: editing an innovative international magazine, Poor. Old. Tired. Horse., and publishing Wild Hawthorn Press;1 making toys and poem-objects; conceiving environmental poems in new materials; conducting theoretical and collaborative correspondences; as well as the odd flyting. Creatively these new "thing-poems" were achieved by various strategies of reduction, in the attempt to achieve the "pure" that he extolled in Zukofsky's poetry and prose:
. . . "It was". . .has given me much pleasure. When Gael Turnbull was over last spring he was saying how much he liked the actual "It was" piece itself- and indeed, it is lovely. It goes on its toes, which is the only kind of prose I can read now- I mean, it has Time or cadence. . . I don't know why, but the pure cadence aspect is what I become most aware of, and I divide writers absolutely into those who do it, or don t- surprisingly, for instance, Saroyan in his short stories does it always- and beautifully- (not a care he is usually granted) . . . And you know what is Sterne but cadence- the art of
1 / Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. (P.OT.H), 1961-1967, edited by Finlay with Paul Pond (nos. 1-2, Edinburgh), Jessie McGuffie (nos. 1-15, Edinburgh), and Sue Finlay (nos. 16-25, Gledfield, Coaltown of Callange, and Stonypath). Wild Hawthorn Press was cofounded by Finlay and Jessie McGuffie in 1961. Its first publication was Lorine Niedecker's My Friend Tree, illustrated with linocuts by Walter Miller (1961). Other early titles include Louis Zukofsky's 16 Once Published, illustrated with linocuts by James Gavin (1962), and Gael Turnbull' s A Very Particular Hill, illustrated with linocuts by Alexander McNeish (1963). A free sheet inserted in P.O.T.H 3 (1962) announces: "The Wild Hawthorn Press believes in BEAUTY TRADITION EXPERIMENT."
delay- and in a sense, what is S Beckett (spelling?) but Sterne in slow motion (which I don't recall anyone has noticed)... Anyway, It was, It is, a pleasure. Thank you.
Another letter to Zukofsky repeats the sense of gratitude that Finlay felt and, coincidentally, mentions Concrete poetry, which he had recently discovered and which offered him a series of reductive strategies to adopt and extend: "Almost any line of yours is, next to a clear stream, the best definition of lucidity that I know. [...] I've got very interested in concrete- 2 ways, one sort of fauve, or words-as-a-picture-game, and the other sort of constructivist, or classical, or whatever, which is more the real thing, but hard (for me) to do." Hard to do, but these innovations prompted him to discover the possibilities of the kinetic poem, the constructed poem-object, and, following on from these, the prepared landscape in which such objects would eventually belong.
As Finlay admitted to Niedecker, he endured uncertain health- the breakdown he refers to in his letter led to a severe form of agoraphobia, which affected him until the mid-1990s- and he survived in a state of constant poverty. The turn toward purity and formal reduction was accompanied by an immersion in the emotional world of childhood and toys. The Highland landscapes of bleak stone and leaning firs of his early short stories, poems, and plays of the 1950s feature a number of young boys- often accompanied by their kenspeckle fathers- who give voice to his yearning for the countryside. The play "The Estate Hunters, " for example, includes a heartfelt idyll of a lamp -lit cottage, which he describes in a letter to Zukofsky: "And of course there'll be a burn, too. And it'll never have been fished. Not once. And so the trout - they'll be so innocent ... All night they'll be rising like mad, and -. Oh, Daddy, Daddy, it will be so wonderful! We'll never - neither of us - sleep a wink all night - not a wink all night - for the rises - of the trout!!"
These early works bear obvious affinities with Robert Louis Stevenson, whose work Finlay loved. He was driven to dream his own "Land of Counterpane" into existence, whether in reminiscences of idyllic childhood scenes or, increasingly, in the more radical investiture of the toy as a "pure" object. Avant-garde and traditional influences now converged: the poet created a prototype "poemorama," a "sort of theatre of kinetic poems," as he puts it in a letter to Ann and Zeljko Kujunzic, modeling pinewoods and islands- his beloved fauve word-pictures- and projecting imagined voyages. Now, in a burst of creativity that would carry him to the still unforeseen poetry garden at Stonypath, he experimented with innovative sequential book works and colorful "poster-poems" employing diverse typographies. Works such as the Canal Stripes and Ocean Stripes series,2 and his first Concrete-influenced collection, Rapel (1963), unfold journeys that the poet could not make himself. Words-as-things and words-as-signs are tracked through time and space in the rhythm of pages turned: there is the canal with its jolly barge sailing slowly by; here is the port bustling with lemon-shaped fishing boats; this is that longed-for Highland burn in which the little fish can be seen leaping.
Another letter of 1963, to one of his closest correspondents, Jerome Rothenberg, describes these "testaments to happiness":
Now, ordinary syntax somehow connects with social reality; and that may be ok, but not for me, because it isn't any ground for that tree to stand on. I mean, I dont feel it truly as such. It flows forward, taking the nouns with it, and what I feel is that the nouns should stand still. In their own space. [...] It seems to me that one should (meaning I would wish to), if there has to be anguish, have the anguish of not making anguished poems. Rather, little testaments to happiness. Or even poems as games for the Vale of Tears. This doesn't seem to me to be superficial. Truly superficial poems often seem to me to be far more profound than many "deep" poems. By magic, perhaps, but still.
Finlay felt only distaste for the confessional mode of so many English poets of this era. Equally, his antipathy for the extremes of the avantgarde grew, as he explains to Rothenberg:
That's how I feel about "sick" art, and a lot of surreal- it's a sort of exploitation. Of the worst. God knows, it's true enough, but there is also this capacity to make, or try to make, a kind of order, and that is what I like, and why I find limits so exciting and romantic.
This reaction can partly be explained by his unhappy experience of psychoanalysis, which Finlay underwent in an attempt to relieve his agoraphobia. The notion of "limit" refers then not only to formal strategies, but also the pressing difficulties of daily Ufe that he was attempting to heal through art. As his letters make clear, the toys were emblems of a world the poet-carpenter was painfully sequestered from, at a time when his illness was so severe that he could not leave his room. The poem-toy and its successor poem-objects were magical because they offered an imaginative means to recover a grounded sense of belonging- a feeling that the city, with its harsh social reality, made impossible. Poem-toys were inseparable from the imaginative act of recuperation that defined their creation.
Finlay' s sensitive application of form and rhythm, space and its unfolding through time, was played out in a host of works on the theme of fishing boats during this period. These structures and models arose from intimate feelings, as he admits to Rothenberg:
It's so largely a question of feeling- I mean the wish to write concrete originates (in me) at some incoherent level, to do with feeling, and higher up, rhythm- how to get away from syntax, or, how to stop the forward momentum of the word, so it can be, stand... so the poem can be a thing outside, working like a sign. . .
Finally, this aesthetic revolution and the urge to voyage or return to the landscapes he loved found an equivalent sense of liberation in terms of his own affairs when the poet met Sue Swan, who would become his wife and primary collaborator. Their first meeting in the late summer of 1964 is described in a letter to the Scottish poet Crombie Saunders:
Circumstances got too much, and the help I looked for, from the psychiatric people, was far from forthcoming... I was just too alone, for someone who couldn't get out, to shop. Or anything [ . . . ] Meanwhile, things are difficult. I hope Sue and I can get a country place soon. I really need a wee rest. I sometimes don't know how it's all to be managed, but Sue is a right good wee soul. Her familytree goes back to Robert the Bruce, and she is so brave, I could well believe it really does.
The anticipatory delight of his poetic scenes, the toys, "poemorama," publications, and poem-objects foreshadowed his and Sue's future, and the garden that they would soon begin together.
As he had made so movingly clear, Finlay only truly felt secure in the country, and in 1965 he and Sue moved to Gledfield Farmhouse, on the Dornoch Firth, the first of his garden retreats. Here was a place in which the poem could become, in every sense, a "thing outside, working like a sign." In the letters he sent over that first summer, he describes how busy he is keeping, digging a pond to sail his new boat on, stitching the landscape together with that characteristic blend of experience and imagination. To Robert Creeley:
The landscape (as they call it) is not so bittersweet and touching as Perthshire [...] and not so concrete as Orkney (islands are land in concrete form): but it's ok. The farmhouse looks good, with a big wood at the back, going down to the river [...] In front there's a sort of wild garden and to one side a wee sluice on its stilts with flowing water, which is always a pleasure. It looks more French than Scotch, with that feeling of grubby once-white walls seen through trees, across fields. The Laird wears a kilt and there are lots of dogs which have the air of wearing kilts. There is also a perfect pond, with willow and wee blue boat. And another pond with a raft (forestalling my raft) on which is sitting the skull of a sheep, like something left over from a highland "happening" arranged by Dick McHiggins.
There were idylls to enjoy with Sue, as he describes to Ronald Johnson:
I have just finished cementing my second pond- already the first looks like an early one. But my new passion is kites- I made a little yellow one yesterday and Sue and I flew it in the field- it really was the loveliest thing I have ever seen- it was just the thinnest tissuepaper, and had a long tail, like a tadpole. . . or a dragonfly. And like a dragonfly, it lived only one afternoon- its body rent: but now we are making a frig one, with cloth- we spent the day dying it. It will be blue and black, with yellow spots on its wings.
Gardening became crucial to this mood of rapprochement, as he relates in a 1965 letter to his friend and most important critic, Stephen Bann: "Now I plan to start on a Japanese Sand Garden. Do you know anything helpful about them? (I think they were meant to be ponds but they couldn't find how to keep the water in)." Finlay also began to construct his first outdoor poem-objects with the help of Dick Sheeler, projecting "poster-poems" into relief, as he tells Creeley: "'ajar,' in a triple version, reaches right up the stairs and looks very classical and expensive."
Then came large-scale versions oí happy apple I pip and acrobats (see page 109) on a harled wall. "I put a sort of patch under each letter, and painted the whole white: then I added the letters (large, cork, painted), and the effect is quite fine [. . .] I see that wall-poems really do work, and given more elaborate means, could be absolutely super." Next the blue letters and yellow framework of "a 14 foot version of 'horizon of holland'" took shape in the garden, "looking half like a giraffe and half like a striped tree. . .and very gay." And then a three-dimensional ark I arc: "Architects really ought to get interested in the possibilities of concrete poetry, especially now that they can see the real thing here . . . The purer ones (the poems) really look quite the thing, and not eccentric in the least."3
The potential of the outdoor poem was immediately clear. Now he could realize his youthful dream of an ideal place where the word might be at home in the world, and where poetry might define that circumscribed world. The new means of siting poem-objects inevitably encouraged the creation of permanent settings, flowers, woodland groves, and, eventually, grottoes and temples; for, as he writes Mary Ellen Solt, "my point about poems in glass, actual concrete, stone, or whatever, is- simply- that the 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."
These new "garden-poems" combined the spatial and temporal possibilities of Finlay's poem-prints and bookworks with Sue's intuitive feeling for planting. Finlay's breakthroughs always preceded theorizing; he intuited the potential of the outdoor poem long before he became acquainted with the literature of the classical landscape tradition. As crucial as the ambience of antiquity would later become in terms of Little Sparta, Finlay proceeded as a poet guided by language and its oracular operations, uncovering hidden meanings and synchronous connections. The process is vivid in his letters to Bann, which report a busy time at Gledfield, cutting letters for an outdoor version of "little fields / long horizons" (1965). This poem perfectly encapsulates his relationship to place, that longing for the bounded, the terror of distance and the romance of new horizons: "It is really fascinating to work large, and astonishing how one's sense of scale changes. [...] 'Little fields'- if I ever got the wood and wall to finish it - would be 35 feet long. [...] It soon feels natural, and only when people pass the house do you remember that such activities must be considered eccentric. . . " This shift from Modernism toward classical idioms began when he had to ponder, as he tells Saunders,
a possible relationship between certain concrete poems and the kind of inscriptions that are carved on tombstones. [...] One could argue that the inscriptions are brief, and often set small in a large space, because each letter must be carved; but it would be equally true to note that the brevity is part- as the space is part- of some kind of implicit statement about life, death, and time.
In the summer of 1966 Finlay reports the news of another imminent move to the Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown:
We have got a new house. Alas, it's not in Orkney, and is even nearer Edinburgh, on Sue's father's estate. But there are good things about it, in that the country behind the house really is wild for a great distance- unfenced moorland, with rushes and thistles, and all uncultivated... Also, there are farm buildings all around the house that I can use for working in. This is a great help, as you'll understand. And there is light in the house, and water, which is useful too . . . STONYPATH ("Of life" being understood in brackets, no doubt). I am looking forward to the wildness very much. Also to the extra space.
The sense that hidden within Stonypath's "inland garden" were his memories of Orkney helps to explain the many "garden poems" on nautical themes. A new pond was quickly dug for Finlay' s wee boat, Sea Eck - named after myself, a recent arrival- and, as he reported to Ronald Johnson in 1967, she sailed well, even if the hull was so small that the poet had to sit with his knees bent, hunkered so that his Wellington boots came up almost to his chin.
The Sea Eck is repaired, and riding safely at anchor. I hoisted her blue sail, and we wooshed down the pond (pool or pond) at the speed of a Satie racing car (1920). She is really a marvelous boat. In the meanwhile, Sue and I have planted 50 wee trees- very wee trees; some have only one leaf (concrete trees, "windleaf '), but some promise to have as many as twenty. They will be a forest one day.
An ancient drove road passed alongside the house; the moor was dotted with sheep fanks, shooting-butts, and the remains of Neolithic houses, where Sue found a Stone Age axe-head. The water for the house, burns, and ponds flowed from a spring through an improvised filter- a cocoa tin pricked with nail holes. The area around the house was wild, except for an overgrown walled garden at the front, with lilac trees, currant bushes, and an old ash. Finlay would later celebrate this tree with a stone plaque inscribed "MARE NOSTRUM" ("Our Sea"), after the Roman Mediterranean, for, as he explained to Nicholas Sloan, who did the plaque's letter carving,
except on very calm days [. . .] the ash fills the garden with its seasound. When people ask why so many poems refer to the sea, or comment that it is odd to find so many sea-references so far from the sea itself, I often point to the Ash Tree and say, That is our sea. ... It would therefore be very appropriate to have a plaque which honours the Romans, our largest feature, and that dominant surge.
Finlay had designed his first poem-objects in glass as early as 1964, though there were frustrations and delays finding a reliable manufacturer. He writes to Ronald Johnson in 1965:
I am in a state of great excitement and urgent anxiety because six small copies of acrobats are being sandblasted on glass, and the blacksmith is making six small stands for them, from wrought-iron. I do not in the least know how they will turn out, but at some point one must just trust to luck. [ . . . ]
I have been wrestling with the printing press and have got in despair because of course my standards have gone up enormously since I began a few weeks ago and now nothing is good enough, and I have to wait for new rollers to see if they help. I worked 16 hours a day at the machine this last week, and got very absorbed- so absorbed that, at supper last night, I picked up what I somehow thought was a little china ornament, from the floor by the fire, to inspect it (I thought it was a little china shoe, nicely painted, and thought, rather vaguely, that that was quite odd), and it turned out to be a bit of red-hot wood: so I put [it] down and felt taken aback. Anyway I shall have renewed attempts at printing later. [ . . . ]
The wood is still full of wild winter cows that sound like tugs in the night, in foggy poets, I mean ports. The trees vary between German expressionist woodcuts and nice silvery etchings. It is positively the winteriest winter in living memory. And yet is somehow warmer than the autumn- perhaps because one is more used to the cold and there are nice big fires. And then, my tooth is out, or mostly out, and that probably helps.
Someone sent me from Nice a hairpin, in an envelope, with no name on it, and no note. . . That may be Nice but was not nice- can you explain such a thing?
To Creeley he writes that it is high time Concrete poetry "came of age and had the same standards of production as any other art that has a visual element. I feel that mixture of anguish and excitement about the glass-poems that denotes a good thing, if it is managed. " He summarizes his changing views of the ideal style and potential realization of outdoor poems in this letter to Henry Clyne, who constructed Finlay's early poem-objects in aluminum, including seiner/silver and Sailor's Cross:
Henry, one day will you give me your feelings about types of letter. I have deliberately asked the tombstone bloke, to use a serif face on the wee thing he's doing. That is ok because in this instance it is so much an inscription and not a concrete poem. But I find that my feelings have changed greatly in the last years. . . I used to be crazy about Bauhaus typography, and now I start to have worrying doubts. One reason is, of course, that so much lowercase concrete stuff has been shoddy by any standards. But beyond that, I start to feel a deliberate need for elegance- something simple, but elegant, exact but not stark. . . a little in the way that some American architects, like Philip Johnson for instance, seem to be returning to quite mannered styles. .. as in his "pavilion," do you know it? It is almost like Greek in steel and concrete. I wish I could clarify my feelings, and know what I wanted, exactly. [. ..] I think the thing is that I've partly grown-up a bit, and want everything to have the kind of prof, finish that your sculpture has... whereas before, the sheer amazingness of doing concrete poems was in z'iseZ/enough... As a wee matter of interest, I started doing concrete poems after I'd had the horrible time with LSD254- the stuff itself taught me nothing, but I was so battered, and felt I'd been quite brave to go on with the thing, that I sort of felt, now I don't care about any demands on me, I am going to do just what I like for a bit. . .and what I wanted to do was, to make very simple things that were just themselves and nothing else. So I made a wee sledge out of cardboard, and then a wooden one, with a borrowed fretsaw and a bent blade. . . And at the same time I got this very dear feeling about concrete poems and I started from there. But eventually one has to grow-up as regards ways of doingthings. . .and I think the glass poems are a first step in that. It's like saying that what one does must at least try to have standards as high as those of the past, and that sloppyness and ignorance, won't do. How much concrete poetry is sloppy and ignorant.
To Clyne he also outlines visionary ideas that "haunt me," of
formal, dignified structures, in which the poem is not eccentric or bizarre, but as natural as an inscription on a stone or on a memorial. [...] Concrete poetry offers- and even if no-one has yet understood it, it is still a fact- offers a way of bringing that art right back into the very centre of society- i.e. into architecture, and even of giving the carved letter a status it has never had before. There are all sorts of reasons for this, but it is sufficient if one notes that the pure concrete poem (as opposed to neo-dada, etc) is inexhaustible; it is not for reading but for contemplating (I do not mean just seeing but really, contemplating), and even more important, the poem can be composed in such a way that it sits on a surface, and does not contradict the surface. All this is quite new, and I think no one- not even the poets- has quite understood the possibilities. Far from concrete poetry in its purer forms being at an end (as some poets think), it is really only a beginning, because the proper means of realising the poems in material terms, is only starting to be understood. [. . .] I think that the garden, and the church, and the side of the block of flats, are the places for poems- only, of course, such poems ought to be dignified, and formal, and austere.
At Stonypath the exciting, if exhausting, process of experiment with new materials and design styles continued at an even greater rate given the potential of the five acres of wild hillside now available to them. Together the gardeners soon grasped the essence of a garden that would be, as Finlay described it to Ernst Jandl, "planned so the nearpart will be orderly, defining the further-off wilder part, where there will be scattered various points of interest, to make wee expeditions up to." Gradually paths would be made or mown, winding around various ponds, burns, and lochans. Sue's memoir "The Planting of a Hillside Garden,"5 recalls their absorption in the process.
Spring  came and I can see myself digging the borders, sod by slow sod, in the weak March sunshine, with the baby in the pram nearby. There was no wheelbarrow so I made a great heap of stone and weeds. [. . .] Ian by now had made the pond that in my faithless eye was to inundate the kitchen- it never did! He had by now dug another hole in the centre of the front garden. This time it was the makings of the sunken garden. I remember ordering the Spring Beauty Pinks that were to clothe its walls for many years to come. [. . . ] For a long time the garden at Stonypath consisted only in the area at the front of the house. For many years this area was a patch-work of cultivated beds, mown paths, and uncultivated wild places not yet tackled by fork or spade. Difficulties- Chiefly our relative poverty and my lack of time. The potential of "ground"- Ian s desire to make works for the "outdoors," for gardens. Our ignorance of gardening, of siting these works. The learning process. The love involved in this process. That loving absorption- the day to day tending of the poems. Their immediate surrounding areas, whether paved, grassy or covered with plants, always needed a lot of individual attention in the summer.
Their new pastime posed its own problems, for garden poems might "leak," as in Finlay's amusing lament to Guy Davenport:
A horrible mole quite deliberately bored a hole in my pond, to let the water out. I plugged it, but the area around the water-gate will need to be cemented. If it is not one thing, it is another. Every day a poem is blown down, or shows signs of cracking, or needs oiled, or withers, and what is needed is a full-time Poem-Engineer. Today I planted one-hundred Spring Beauty Pinks in my sunken garden; they were ordered last summer. I also planted the chamomile, and sunk the 2 engraved stones into the earth. Which all sounds fine, except that I don't mention the wilderness of nettles all around, waiting to be dealt with. To be honest, gardening bores me stiff, but I like the Idea one begins with, and sometimes even gets back to, if the thing ever gets finished.
The tub-poem (CLOUD) is doing well, and the waterlily seems to have settled in. But the bigUib, which hasn't a poem yet, has exuded what looks like blue sherry, from its pores into the water, and has pickled its lily. It smells like a pub.
I have just seen, in a magazine, a poem by a young poet, which was originally dedicated to me and is now dedicated to Robert Creeley. It is always good to see a poem that has gone up in the world.
By 1969 Finlay's experiences at Stonypath allowed him to make a foray into the world beyond, mounting the first exhibition of outdoor poems in Scotland, as he recounts in an amusing letter to Johnson:
I have some marvelous photos of my exhibition at Dumfermline, with my poems in great vistas oftall dark trees, or glimpsed, looming a little, through entangled rushes... over lilied water... or in great shadow-laden perspectives. It is fortunate that I have the photos. . . as I no longer have some of the poems. 3 arms were wrenched from the Signpost Poem (the Policeman called it a Statue and wrote down that it had "8 arms to begin with") (my famous Statue D'un Octopus, after Satie) . . . Where was I? And the Sundial lost its gnomon. ( Very serious, for a sundial). And my triumph: someone stole a. framed print of "acrobats" from the poem/print section. Can you imagine such popular success? (People always did prefer that print). And all the reviewing my first Scottish exhibition got, was, 2 wee stingy grudging paras, in The Scotsman- so I have had a Fest of Furious Letters, N, S, E and W, giving various folk short Shrift. I must say, given the right circumstances, and a good creative mood, I am not too bad at the Invective.
As well as his early adventures in gardening and garden poems, Finlay also continued to publish Wild Hawthorn Press and Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. The progress of his thinking about the outdoor poem had a vitalizing effect on his publishing practice- and vice versa- culminating in the sympathetic integration of text and image in a succession of collaborative issues of P.O.T.H.: Robert Lax and Emil Antonucci (no. 17, December 1965), Ronald Johnson and John FurnivaTs "io and the ox-eye daisy" (no. 19, September 1966), Ad Reinhardt and Bridget Riley (no. 18, c. January 1966), and Finlay's own, "the tug / the barge," illustrated by Peter Lyle (no. 20, October 1966).
The final issue of P.O. T.H. (no. 25, 1967) was published at Stonypath and featured another crucial innovation: the one-word poem. Finlay sent out innumerable letters to poets of all styles, patiently explaining the potential of the form in spatial terms: "Metaphorically speaking," the one word and title "are two straight Unes. Being somehow connected, they form a corner in language. . .a corner which is mysteriously open on all sides." One such invitation went to Mackay Brown:
The rules are, that the poems should have one word, plus a title of any length; and my hope is that many different kinds of poets will send poems of this one (wee!) kind, though each poet's poems will be his own kind, for it's a very adaptable form. I would be so pleased if you could send at least a dozen- or more, if you can. . . Here, just to show the idea, are a few examples of my own
THE BOAT'S BLUEPRINT
(that is, to understand water is to understand how The Boat should be made- plus associations arising from "blue"- etc)
("ave" short for Ave Maria, song of praise to the Virgin, who traditionally wears blue- the climbing wave, the mounting song, the ever- virginal waters). [. . . ] Well, you get the idea, but of course these are not meant as the best examples- just to explain the "genre"! Do try to send me some as I'd like you to be in it.
The one-word poem anticipated Finlay's concern with definition (he produced various dictionaries in the 1980s and 90s); for now though, it was the leafy "corners of language" that captured his imagination.
The productions of Wild Hawthorn gradually synchronized with the garden: cards were souvenirs for visitors, memories of summer visits, and the year was marked by Valentine's Day and Christmas cards.6 The kinds of "poem" that Finlay loved to make- folded cards and small books- were akin to gifts, blending private and public in the same way that Stonypath did. These publications and the garden itself were the crucial ways in which he defined his world.
As it matured, the garden offered a radically expanded sense of physical and sensual space, allowing him to juxtapose the toy or model with the monumental or epic. This garden-world was, as he became fond of saying, both a retreat and an attack. Having created this domain, Finlay finally lost patience with the avant-garde. As he put it in his poem "No Thank- You, I Can't Come" (1966), they are having a "nasty party" to which he is "not invited." His interest in the Concrete poetry movement was short-lived and he increasingly divorced himself from the plethora of experimental work that attached itself to the movement in the late 1960s. He gives his reasons in a letter to Solt:
Now, as regards concrete and all that, I suggest to you- and you are please to discuss this with Leo- that the thing is past ordering in the sensible way that you want- via discussion and words. All those people, gangs, mafias, are really no more to do with poetry than street gangs. What J think is, that one can usefully say (and feel) that there was a concrete movement, and that it was connected with the constructivist thing. This is the kind of equivalent of pure cubism, which only lasted for a few years too. All the rest is best considered as post-concrete- something else, just as what happened after cubism was something else, and even Braque and Gris (and so on) did not go on being part of & single movement. You are obviously in the kind of misery about it all, which I was in a few years ago, when I was horrified by the nonsense imported by Houédard and all that lot. . . Now I feel that they should just be swiped at when one takes the notion- there is no need to try to organise concrete shows & so on- what matters now is the work of- and shows of- the few talented individuals (not the gangs). Just give the silly ones a kick from time to time.
The garden itself became the primary context in which Finlay wished to pursue poetry. He was drawn to fond remnants of pastoral that the context of the garden brought alive as inscriptions, sundials, and other poem-objects. The method he and Sue pioneered was to create intimate "organized corners," or "areas," as he came to refer to them. Within these screened islands, these "diverse secrecies," the poem acted as a "joint," hinging "the work of artinto its surroundings." His texts and Sue's plantings mediated between "the imagination and the actual": Finlay, in a letter to David Harding, offers the example of "the 'real' sound of the wind in the 'real' trees, invoked in the inscription 'Wood-wind Song.'" (See facing page). As his earlier letters make clear, he saw the great gift of the concrete poem as its ability to still "the forward flow of language"; the garden, a "formal statue of Nature," shared this quality of restraint, all the while recovering the touching effects of shade and bloom. Like the one-word poem, that "corner in language," he describes the garden poem as "mysteriously open on all sides," but with the added nuance that this openness of meaning is rooted in a dear green space. Gradually, as the process of digging and reading unfolded hand-in -hand, the status of the poem was refined, for, if it was "only one element in a composition," it also took precedence as "a kind of presiding deity."
Finlay extolled the "slow excitement" of his new art. Year by year, the garden distinguished itself from the wild hillside. The dailiness of practical tasks soothed him, while his imaginative fancy would over the coming years conjure Stonypath as a belated episode in the English landscape garden tradition- those "quite extraordinary pure symphonic creations," in which nature is poeticized, abstracted: pond as Pool, grass as Lawn, sundial gnomon dividing shadow into measure and order. In the 1970s, history began to age Stonypath: the toy boat of childhood supplanted by sober Hellene columns; the charming domestic pensée refined into the mossy wit of the detached sentence. Homesickness- agoraphobia- was now defined as a state of being beyond the bounds of the self: it was a cultural phenomenon. The poet enacted his cure by making a radical withdrawal. In doing so he set in motion a wave of self-translation: a race of currents- philosophy, the masque of history, war, revolution - caught up in the surging undertow of poetics and myth.
CURFEW/ curlew (1971). A one-word poem, Stonypath. Ian Hamilton Finlay with Sue Finlay, lettercarving by Vincent Butler. Photograph by Robin Gillanders, 2002 (original in color).
This piece appears in a different version in Ian Hamilton Finlay: Selections, edited and with an introduction by Alec Finlay (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012). Luke Allan provided invaluable asssistance in the preparation of this version, which appears by permission of the author.
2/ These two series include kinetic poems, bookworks, photography, and references to found fishing boat names, avant-garde manifestos, and sound poetry. Canal Stripe Series 3 and Canal Stripe Series 4, Wild Hawthorn Press, 1964; Ocean Stripe Series 2 and Ocean Stripe Series 3, Wild Hawthorn Press, 1965; Ocean Stripe Series 5, Tarasque Press, Nottingham, England, 1967. The text of Canal Stripe Series 4 reads: "little fields / long horizons // little fields long / for horizons // horizons long / for little fields."
3/ These descriptions are taken from separate letters sent to Stephen Bann (July 24, 1965) and Robert Creeley (August 23, 1965).
4/ Administered as part of Finlay's treatment for agoraphobia.
5/ Sue Finlay, "The Planting of a Hillside Garden," New Arcadian Journal 61/62,(2007).
6/ Finlay's first Christmas publication was the bilingual poem, "letoile dans son étable de lumière," "The star in its stable of light" (Wild Hawthorn Press, 1964).
Alec Finlay is an acclaimed artist and poet based in Newcastle, England. His most recent project, the road north, is a collaborative web-based "word-map" documenting a journey across Scotland guided by Basho's Oku-no-hosomkhi (www.theroadnorth. co.uk). Recent and forthcoming publications include Mesostic Remedy (morning star, 2009), Mesostic Interleaved (morning star and University of Edinburgh Press, 2009), Ian Hamilton Finlay: Selections (University of California Press, 2012), Be My Reader (Shearsman, 2012), and Question your teaspoons (Calder Wood Press, 2012).…