Thinking Long and Hard

, Ian Hamilton Finlay (310pp, University of California Press)

Edited with an introduction by Alec Finlay, this volume is a very welcome selection of Ian Hamilton Finlay's work from across his career and covering the many genres of writing which he practised. Finlay is, of course, celebrated as a land artist, an 'avant-gardener', who created an extraordinary garden - Stonypath, Little Sparta - in which his poems appeared engraved and as site specific sculptures and works which worked with the environment. But the book also contains an early short story, a representative play, many one-word poems, proverbs, aphorisms, concrete poems and, of course, a generous selection of verse poems.

Alec Finlay's generous introduction provides detailed biographical details of the artist's life, and amplifies the personal contexts of Ian Hamilton Finlay's making, charting the artists' development, his many collaborations, the genesis and development of Stonypath, and the philosophic grounding of the artist's praxis. There are also detailed notes on the whole body of work. The introduction also sheds fascinating light on the artist's later obsession with the French Revolution, with the language of warfare and conflict and, of course, the spiritual role of culture, and the classical grounding so important to the artist's writings. Students and afficianados of his work will find the notes and introduction invaluable in understanding the artist's development.

As to the Selections
themselves, they are, as I have suggested, various and rich. 'The Money' is a strangely surreal short story that plays out the difference between 'work' and 'employment' in an artist's life, and pours mocking fun on the charitable sources of patronage available to artists in an Arts Council Age. It reminded me a little of Flann O'Brien crossed with Ivor Cutler, without the flamboyant surrealism - this is pared back work with an uncanny edge. The play included here, 'Walking Through Seaweed', if I am honest, did little for me, but shows the range of the writer's approaches to his themes and language. Much more interesting, for me, is the selection from the poet's first collection The Dancers Inherit the Party. Given the writer's later avant garde status, these poems are remarkably formal - neatly stanzaic, rhymed, and often metrical. There's something strange going on in them, however; an Ogden Nash-like taste for the absurd in the everyday; a Stevie Smith-like phrasing and idiosyncracy. 'Optimist' (in full here) is typical of these:

   My would-be father, old and slow,
   Did buy himself a kind of tin
   -Can for brewing proper, out-of-door tea in.
   The bloody fire, though, it wouldn't go.
   It was the bloody wet sticks, and everything.
   Alone he kneeled on the out-of-door grass,
   Blowing with love. I remember how, home again,
   He brewed wild tea on the domestic gas.

The phrasing is deliberately off-kilter, in a mock-antique way ('Did buy himself...'). The line break in 'tin / -Can' is idiosyncratic. The 'out-of-door grass' is strangely awkward, as is that hanging 'and everything'. 'Blowing with love' is brilliant, as is the repetition of that characterful 'bloody'. The short, neat stanzas approximate 'well-turned verse', but resist the simplicity of that. They offer it and take it away at the same time, just like the puzzling 'would-be father', whom we can presume is both attentive and inattentive to his role, not altogether up to the task of making fires, or fathering presumably?

There are many poems based in mainland Scotland, in Orkney, or written in Glasgow dialect, including the wonderfully ingenious 'Glasgow Beasts' (1961), in which the narrator shifts shapes through a number of lives as beasts, all narrated in a dialect which anticipates the late C20th Scots revival in poetry.

The later writings are represented by concrete poems, kinetic poems, and the many aphorisms and proverbs for which the writer is well-known. One fascinating prose poem simply presents readers with an alphabet and a series of questions asking whether (or not) the alphabet is a poem. Discuss.

It's a disservice to pluck from a body of work in which context is everything, but I've found myself thinking long and hard about many of the poet's gnomic aphorisms and sayings, such as:

   'A garden is not an object but a process'

   'Intellectual - a person with clever reasons for not doing the right thing'

   'In the proper categorising of things, the sundial is to be found with
   the statue and the urn, rather than with the clock'

   'Illness is a sort of exile from the everyday'

   'As the quiver contains the arrow, the arrow itself contains, invisibly,
   the lines of its flight'

   'Land and sea are the warp and woof of the world'

   'Arts Councils are the Insane Asylums of bureaucracy'

and many more. This is a very good-humoured, philosophically resonant body of individual work. Well worth engaging with.

     Andy Brown 2012