Getting to know… Ian Hamilton Finlay

July 19, 2010

We called these pieces about significant poets ‘Getting to know…’ because sometimes it feels as if a writer’s body of work is too rich  or too varied or just too imposing to find a way in.

But though reading more widely and deeply will of course repay all your efforts, something small like a single poem or a letter can suddenly have you hooked.

The body of work left by Ian Hamilton Finlay when he died in 2006 is imposing in its size and scope. His approach still stretches definitions of reading, asking you to read and respond to his Little Sparta garden, his sculptures and collaborative pieces, his large prints and tiny cards. But while his art explores violence and injustice, political subterfuge or the enervating weight of depression, it also recognises that we need enduring toys to help us play and create and spark new ideas, just as small children do.

‘We need enduring toys to help us play and create and spark new ideas, just as small children do’

Here are some of the things that will hook you into Finlay’s world: early poems: the garden at Little Sparta; letters and papers in the National Library of Scotland; his early stories about fishing; his small cards and postcards, produced in collaboration with artists and designers; photographs of Finlay, particularly the 1965 image of him on a doorstep by Jonathan Williams, and the arresting portraits of him as an older man by Robin Gillanders. You can easily start to explore them through the Scottish Poetry Library’s collections, the National Library of Scotland’s manuscript collections, and the continuing work of the Little Sparta Trust and the Wild Hawthorn Press (websites below).

These lured me in as I helped out with research for Ken Cockburn’s selection of Finlay’s earlier writing, Dancers Inherit the Party: Early Stories, Plays and Poems (Polygon, 2004). The book, compiled with Ian Hamilton Finlay’s approval, is a good starting place to explore his earlier writing, and a salutary reminder of the way in which his work was never restricted to one genre, even as a young man. Start with Ken’s introduction for a clear sense of Finlay’s earlier life and work – and savour the foreword by the American poet Robert Creeley, reprinted from Polygon’s publication of the poems in The Dancers Inherit the Party and Glasgow Beasts, an a Burd, in 1996. And if you prefer not to start with introductions but like to dive into poems first and make up your own mind, then try, for example, p223. If you don’t instantly hear a voice bursting with feral, foxy energy and a love of the hunt, then just feel thankful you’ve never overheard the chat-up lines of a particularly predatory kind of lad just before last orders are called.

‘Life sparks from the wartime envelopes marked with his rank and number; scraps of paper used to test out colour pastels; a PS asking for the return of a typed manuscript, when each copy meant typists’ invoices in pounds and shillings’

Poems like these drew me in, but I was also captivated by the little personal, terribly ordinary things that are a reminder of the life that goes on outside the art. Sure, they are just the clay moulds round the work, with no artistic value in themselves. But they are a reminder of what has shaped the work, the restrictions and spurs of health or love affairs or irregular income or homesickness or the cost of paint. Life sparks from the wartime envelopes marked with his rank and number; scraps of paper used to test out colour pastels; a PS asking for the return of a typed manuscript, when each copy meant typists’ invoices in pounds and shillings, not a click of the print button.

Story after story about fishing and water and sea made me feel I was diving for pieces of Finlay’s life scattered on the sea-bed. And at the same time I knew from the NLS papers and Ken’s research that The Scottish Angler was edited by a supportive poet called Crombie Saunders, and for a while The Scottish Angler could use anything Finlay sent them as long as it was about fishing, and pay well too. Does that mean stories like ‘The Sea-Bed’ or ‘The Blue-coated Fishermen’, or even the bitingly funny ‘Advice from the Author’, are any less powerful because they owe their existence to the need to make a living?

When we contacted Robert Creeley to ask about reprinting his foreword, I was disconcerted to hear one of the fathers of American post-war poetry over a crackly phoneline, talking politely about proofing corrections and email. I get the same kind of electric jolt from Finlay’s humanity, weaving together of fishing boats and Greek gods, neo-classicism and beehives, stony studies of fascism and voices for animals and toy boats all tangled up in the same world. Below are just a few ways in to his work. Take them off our shelves. Start to play.

Lilias Fraser

Where to start

The Dancers Inherit the Party: Early stories, plays and poems, edited by Ken Cockburn (Polygon, 2004)

Yves Abrioux, Ian Hamilton Finlay: A visual primer (Reaktion Books, 1985)

Jessie Sheeler with photographs by Andrew Wilson, Little Sparta: The garden of Ian Hamilton Finlay (Frances Lincoln, 2003)

The Blue Sail, edited by Thomas A Clark (WAX 366, 2002)

Ian Hamilton Finlay (DVD; Illumination, 2005)

Further sources

Wild Hawthorn Press

Little Sparta Trust & website

Ingleby Gallery

This piece first appeared in our Poetry Reader issue 3

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