Ian Hamilton Finlay
and Concrete Poetry
"Some questions require to be answered."
"You must ask me whatever you wish.
—Those things strung on the knotted string
You are staring at, are fish."
"Fish?—I thought they were socks."
He wrote me all down in his book.
As these lines from Ian Hamilton Finlay's early poem "O.H.M.S." indicate, his poetic vision is voluntarily metaphorical and mistrustful of ministerial rhetoric. 1 Finlay's mature work is equally resistant to the critic's compulsion to write it "all down" in their book; indeed, as Finlay himself has acknowledged, it is not his intention to be "an easy artist." 2
Finlay's poetry is not "easy," for a number of reasons.First, its very form—extralinear groupings of words, or words and images—takes the average reader by surprise. It is far easier to make naive jokes about the term concrete poetry than to trace this genre's artistic origins. Second, the fact that Finlay's explorations of this form span several media, such as the printed page, the card and poster, the folio of prints, the three-dimensional installation, and the allegorical garden, makes it difficult for one to place Finlay's work in familiar categories.Commenting upon "the small crisis of classification" brought about by the "bewildering variety of forms in which the work of Ian Hamilton Finlay has appeared," his fellow poet Thomas A. Clark notes how Finlay has variously been identified as "'the father of concrete poetry,' a gardener, a sculptor or (the current solution) simply an 'artist,' taking that word as a hold-all for any odd or unpredictable behavior."3