“He learned to read of an old dame, whom his poem of the ‘Schoolmistress’ has delivered to posterity; and soon received such delight from books, that he was always calling for fresh entertainment, and expected that, when any of the family went to market, a new book should be brought him, which, when it came, was in fondness carried to bed and laid by him. It is said, that, when his request had been neglected, his mother wrapped up a piece of wood of the same form, and pacified him for the night.”
(Samuel Johnson, Life of William Shenstone)
Late in life, Stéphane Mallarmé answered an interviewer’s question by saying that he was “profondément et scrupuleusement syntaxier” — profoundly and scrupulously a “syntaxer”. I’ve either spent too much, or not enough, of my life trying to look at the world, and at language, through Mallarmé’s eyes, but a syntaxer is what I would be too. Everything follows from syntax. It makes the rhythms of spoken language possible, it makes argument possible, and if you push hard enough at it, you realise it’s unstable. There tends to be more than one possible syntactic path through a given string of words, and the more you develop an ear for syntactic instability, the more the possibilities seem to snowball ahead of you. The ambient linguistic environment tends to explode into a hilarity of linguistic pratfalls, sentences which end up meaning something quite other than their authors intended. The act of reading poetry — especially out loud — becomes a vertiginous real-time set of decisions on how to collapse ambiguity into the specific syntactic and intonational choices of this particular reading, a performance never repeatable in quite the same way. I love complexity, and I love irreducibility — the feeling that there is a thing in the world which I can never claim to know completely, even if I made it myself. I love performance, the specificity of one person’s voice and accent bringing the whole of their personal and social history to bear on an object which they bring to life for others. I love the sound language makes, and I love not knowing what I mean by that, since the phonological structure of my accent is not the same as yours, and the pattern in sound made by the same poem in our two mouths will be quite different.
All of which is to say that I’m not really an identikit fan of concrete and minimal poetry. I’ve often felt it as an attempt to shut down possibility, to narrow the field of view to a scene where everything has its place and stands in controlled relation to everything else. There’s an element of the narcissism of small differences in this — I don’t find myself much exercised by the existence of wistfully anecdotal mainstream poetry, but when yet another generation of Scottish poets discovers the avant-garde, and it turns out to be the avant-garde of the 1950s, I want to cry. The presence in Scotland of two major innovators in concrete poetry, Ian Hamilton Finlay and Edwin Morgan, has made that art-form more visible here than it has been in most places, and more of an influence on younger poets. And so often, what gets produced here is either deliberate or unconscious pastiche of Finlay or Morgan, as if concrete poetry, at its origin the most internationalist movement in modern art, was simply another Scottish tradition.
It’s complicated. When Finlay produced his first concrete poems in the early 1960s, he had already been publishing stories, plays and poems in relatively traditional forms for several years. He hit a crisis, described in a well-known letter to Pierre Garnier:
‘Concrete’ began for me with the extraordinary (since wholly unexpected) sense that the syntax I had been using, the movement of language in me, at a physical level was no longer there — so it had to be replaced with something else, with a syntax and movement that would be true to the new feeling (which existed only in the vaguest way, since I had, then, no form for it…)
It’s a crisis that could have destroyed him completely, but instead he figured out how to continue writing poems, their mood and image-world and humour entirely of a piece with his earlier work, but silent, meant for the reader’s eye and intelligence. Finlay clearly never gave up on either syntactically-regular language or on loud sound — his finely-turned “Detached Sentences” show him to be as accomplished a syntaxer as Mallarmé, he once promised to play Edwin Morgan ‘a lovely Elvis Presley record’ if he came to visit, and the sound of flowing and falling water is a carefully-choreographed element of the experience of Little Sparta. There’s a pervasive equating of spoken language with noise, though, and of both with a threat arriving from the outside world. Finlay was born in the Bahamas, and sent abruptly to school in Helensburgh at the age of six, where his accent must have set him apart at once. In all his early workings with Scottish speech, especially Glasgow speech, Finlay operates at a weird remove. Glasgow Beasts, An A Burd Haw, An Inseks, An, Aw, a Fush is a pioneering book, and a lot of fun, but it’s as if the language is heard from outside, by a slightly cloth ear — its abiding associations for Finlay seem to be cartoon and music-hall, Bud Neill and Stanley Baxter (Finlay once thought of releasing a Wild Hawthorn Press record of Baxter reading his poems). And Finlay survived the terror of the Clydebank Blitz, hiding under the table. There’s a wonderful early letter to Stephen Bann (born 1943), where he writes
A certain rigidity in my quickstepping, once led me to dance very slowly and deliberately over a number of records, laid on the floor: that old waxen sort, which crack with a sound like remote mortar fire on a misty evening. (If you are familiar with that).
It’s the gentlest imaginable shot across the bow — to have believed you were about to be bombed, and then conscripted into the war that nearly killed you, is not something most of us, in Scotland today, are familiar with. It must have permanently altered Finlay’s relationship with, and ability to trust, the outside world.
And then there were the loud, angry poets: Hugh MacDiarmid’s charmless pamphlet The Ugly Birds Without Wings, attacking Finlay and his younger associates, seems an extraordinary over-reaction to the obvious gentleness and good humour of Glasgow Beasts and Poor.Old Tired.Horse. I wonder what it must have felt like to be the real person, Ian Hamilton Finlay, suffering real distress at the hands of the pseudonymic construct Hugh MacDiarmid, and knowing that there was no person there to be hurt in return. Finlay’s response was perfect: he created the rumour of a protest march and Zeppelin raid on Edinburgh, and the press and the authorities believed him.
I’ve had the chance of holding, paging through, and reading a lot of Finlay’s publications in the last few weeks, in the Mitchell Library and the Scottish Poetry library, and the experience has been extraordinary. I knew a lot of the work at second hand, through reproductions or selected works, but nothing quite prepares you for the absolute freshness of the original editions. The smallness of the objects, the single small gestures made entirely separately, out on their own in a context carefully chosen for the occasion, the endless fertility of the formal imagination, the constant re-thinking and re-framing of favourite motifs over decades of work, so that new meanings accrete. I don’t think I’d ever really seen Finlay’s work before: I needed to be slowed down to something like its own pace. Even the library isn’t slow enough, you have to imagine these things arriving in the post, at irregular intervals, when nothing like them existed in the world. The kinetic booklets of the 1960s are my favourites — Ocean Stripe Series 3 (1965), its minimal text ticking over from ark to arc, then a rainbow of blank, coloured pages at the end. Wave (1969), a tiny flicker-book implementation of a formal theme Finlay returned to again and again in various media — the transformation of one word into another, letter by letter, using the proof-reading symbol for the transposition of letters. I’m fascinated and impressed by Little Sparta, but it’s these tiny books which really move me. Little Sparta was above all a place where Finlay and his family could live, and the tone is much lower-key, as if the works in the garden were reminders — I imagine the poet taking a walk in his own garden to remind himself who he is, and that he is, and the alternate solace and challenge of having all that so close at hand, outside of his head. The printed work has such an immediate, fugitive vitality — there’s colour everywhere, and a kind of absolute unheaviness that disarms me completely. Things that I might pass over as one-liners in a collected edition turn into immensely well-crafted good jokes, and slowly you realise the energy and communal labour that went into making these objects. Almost all of them were made with the collaboration of visual artists or letterers, and simply to have got them printed so well, at a time when there wasn’t really anything you could point to as a template, is an amazing achievement, more like that of a film-maker in charge of a production crew than a poet. Everyone gets a credit.
It’s bittersweet to realise that research libraries will always be the only place most of us can get to see this work. Finlay did everything he could to make the work available and affordable when it was published — these things didn’t enter the world as fine art multiples, they were small-press poetry and they cost pennies or a few shillings at most, cheap enough to sometimes give away. But Finlay became known as a visual artist, and the most ephemeral of his early booklets is now a collector’s item. It’s possible to interact with most artworks without physically damaging them, but you need to handle a book to make it work, and every time someone touches one of Finlay’s books in a library, it deteriorates. It’s progressive, and inevitable, and fewer and fewer people will be allowed to make Finlay’s books work as the years pass. I’m really lucky to have had such free access to them at the SPL.
The Finlay books in the Mitchell and SPL are from Edwin Morgan’s collection, and one of the pleasures of browsing is noticing the evidences of friendship, and the small marks of Morgan’s interaction with the material. He would tick off publications from the publisher’s checklist, consciously building his collection; he would often sign the booklets, sometimes with his EM monogram (three horizontal lines, then three vertical ones); he would pencil in dates on undated publications, and would sometimes correct the typos in larger or less-limited editions. Here’s an early dedication from Finlay to Morgan, from the small, graceful concertina-fold booklet called Concertina, made in homage to Pat Quinn, a small, graceful reserve in the Scotland football team: