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
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
My would-be father, old
Did buy himself a kind of
-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
Blowing with love. I
remember how, home again,
He brewed wild tea on the
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
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