What I like most about Finlay is the way he manages to sidestep the decorative use of metaphor and simile, instead reinventing metaphor as something more like literal transformation. His first book of poems, The Dancers Inherit the Party, manages to be both plain-spoken and gently surreal — the strangeness is partly in the off-kilter negotiation of the often rhymed forms, partly in the precarious comic bleakness of the lives in it and the landscapes they have to make the best of. These are the poems that drew an immediate response from American poets like Robert Creeley, Lorine Niedecker and Louis Zukofsky — Niedecker at first thought he must have read some of her early poems. That’s how influence works, of course. You don’t start writing in a particular way because you’ve read somebody’s poetry, you find yourself reading and responding to that poetry because you’ve arrived at a point in your own writing where you’re able to understand how it works from inside. The Dancers is subtitled “Selected Poems by Ian Hamilton Finlay”. Not many first books of poetry come with the label “Selected Poems” — it’s a double signal, telling us he has significant history as a poet (there’s a poem in the UCP Selections dated 1948), but also that he’s drawing a line here, summing things up, and has already moved on to a different kind of writing.
Within a year, all hell breaks loose. Glasgow Beasts, an a Burd haw, an Inseks, an, aw, a Fush (1961) literalises the is of metaphor to follow the voice of a single me, reincarnated serially as a fox, a mouse, a bed-bug, a minnie, a zebra, a midgie, a heilan coo, a budgie, a clegg, a giraffe and a coal-horse:
The pressure of the wordplay pushes all the way out of the language and into the illustrations (papercuts by John Picking and Pete McGinn) — and it pretty much stayed there, language, visual context and material substrate interacting in variably-complex ways for the rest of Finlay’s life, and still at work for the rest of us. The tiny, exuberant Concertina, from 1962, literally a concertina-fold booklet, makes quite a visual din for such a small object (the pictures, again, are by John Picking):
The extreme landscape format of Canal Stripe Series 4 (1964) becomes the perfect place for a landscape poem in the Dutch manner:
It’s somehow more immediately there in the process of turning these pages than in its incarnation at Little Sparta, where one pair of inscribed drystone walls gives way to another, horizon after horizon, as you walk through, with an actual horizon for afters.
When a given poem exists both as a paper publication and a structure in the garden, it’s often the paper version that is the more self-contained object. Finlay often adds a line or two of contextualising information, at the end of the booklet or on the back of the card, some essential reference that makes the work jolt into meaning. You can’t really do that with a piece of sculpture in a garden, so part of the meaning of the works at Little Sparta has to be brought to them from outside, whether from the Visual Primer or by a friend in the know. There’s a kind of “Ah!” that you hear often at Little Sparta, the sound of someone suddenly getting the reference — I’ve emitted that sound, and I’ve caused a few other people to emit it in their turn, but I have awful problems with that “Ah!” It feels too much like the reaction to a punchline, too much like the moment when the physicality of the artwork evaporates and is replaced by an idea. It’s seductive to find yourself able to unlock a work of art for another person, but I also sometimes feel drawn into an uncomfortable complicity with the work. Finlay’s art invites explication, and clearly benefits from it, while most of the art and writing I love best is deeply resistant to explication, and tends to make the critical work that surrounds it look obviously inadequate or partial or forced. I suppose my basic working fantasy as a language artist is that I might be able to make a work of some complexity whose meaning would largely arise from the shared matter of the language, the meanings of words that we could all be expected to know and their patterned interaction as the poem, a thing to be sounded out time and again but never completely known, not replaceable by anyone’s idea of it. Maybe Little Sparta makes me uncomfortable because it knows that my working fantasy is a fantasy, and an self-isolating one at that. We bring an immense amount of culturally-specific knowledge to everything and everyone we interact with, and Finlay’s work is completely honest about that. Feeling the pressure to share what knowledge we have, and feeling pleasure in passing it on, is a mark of our being alive to our own enjoyment, not a sign that we’ve entered a clique. The missing data in Little Sparta mark the points where the garden becomes a social space, and those “Ah!”s are entirely convivial.