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

To be brought up in Scotland is to have mixed feelings towards Robert Burns. Eating beige haggis and floury tatties, while listening to Jeananne Lamont from Primary 3b performing ‘My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose’, on the recorder. Listening to the headmaster talking of the National Barred who liked rodents. Having the evening completed by the ironically titled spectacle of ‘social dance’: a morass of trodden feet and attempts to dodge the necessity of holding hands with Gareth Sneddon.

And yet, despite the often traumatic experiences of our early Burns-life, we are fiercely proud of him: a persistent elder brother about whom we frequently moan but other people criticise at their peril.

For public examples we need look no further than August this year when Jeremy Paxman condemned the writing of Burns as ‘sentimental doggerel’ in the foreword to the Scottish-based Chambers Dictionary. Later in the autumn, the Burns Culters regained the high-ground when Bob Dylan named ‘My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose’ as the lyric which had the biggest effect on his life. You may be something of a cult figure, Mr Paxman, but in a kudos battle, Dylan gets it every time.

And so, with the opinions of Paxman and Dylan ringing in our ears, we enter Scotland’s ‘Year of Homecoming’ in 2009, the 250th anniversary of Burns’s birth. Theirs are not, however, the only voices that come to mind when we think of Burns. They are added to two centuries of cacophony, most of which echoes the sentiments of Dylan rather than Paxman.

However, it is not as simple as a Hampden roar trouncing lone shouts of criticism. Burns enthusiasts do not speak with a single voice. If the voices were played end-to-end, there would be years’ worth of ‘Immortal Memories’ framing ‘Rabbie’ as a family man (the author of ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’), months of him as a fornicator and drunkard (father of numberless children), weeks as a courtly lover (Clarinda’s Sylvander), weeks as a political radical, weeks as a Jacobite, weeks as ‘heaven taught ploughman’, weeks as Enlightenment educated. With a Memory that confused, why, oh, why, is it so immortal?

The confusion of praise might be accounted for by another cacophony, the many voices of Burns’s own poetry and letters. As tempting as it is to believe otherwise, it is not ‘Robert’ who speaks in ‘Tae a Moose’ or in ‘Tam O Shanter’. We struggle to extricate Burns-the-man and Burns-the-legend from Burns-the-oeuvre.

I am not suggesting that we must kill Burns to allow for the life of his work. Rather that we don’t make the mistake of feeling that because we know his life story we don’t have to read the poems.


There’s a line in the film Sliding Doors, where a character claims that we are all born knowing the Beatles lyrics, and that they should really be called the ‘foetals’. But the works of Burns, like the songs of the Beatles, do not actually come to us with our mother’s milk. We have to read them, listen to them, learn them. We can’t just skip the poetry bit.

I would like to present, for your consideration, a classic version of this laissez faire attitude to Burns – myself. How often do I sit down and read a Burns poem I have never read before? I have based my enthusiasm on a lochan of works from a sea-sized collection.

I decided to take my first step on the road to improvement by spending some time with ‘The Lea-Rig’, which was classified in my mind’s Burns-database under ‘can pretend I know it’. On socialising with the poem, I find it gives me goosebumps. This is not the prim and prissy landscape of nineteenth-century painting, where beautiful scenes feature happy workers stealing moments of love while neglected livestock rampage about them. There is real exhaustion here; the listlessness of the word ‘dowf’ and the use of ‘weary’ for both oxen and humans. The longed-for tryst cannot take place before the day’s exhausting work is over. And when that moment does come, it is not in the warm glow of a summer’s evening, but the chilled and dew-hung ‘gloaming grey’.

So, I challenge you. In the year-long Immortal Memory that will be 2009, learn by heart a Burns poem you have never previously paid any attention to. Be careful. Learning a poem by heart is a big step. You are bedding it down in your own cells, so choose wisely. Have a read through a collection, trying to shut out as much as you can of the voices of Dylan and Paxman and their like, and instead, in your own voice, start reading them out loud and pick one to learn. Maybe the voice of the poem will tell you something new about Burns – man, work or legend.

Ishbel McFarlane is an actor, learn poetry by hearter and concrete poetry fan. You can listen to her talk about Burns some more on our podcast, ‘Inside the SPL‘ (highly recommended!).

This piece first appeared in our Poetry Reader Issue 4.

Read more about Robert Burns on the new (2012) Scottish Poetry Library website – www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk

When a poet does one thing, and does it well, then he or she may well be assured of Being remembered. When a poet does two, or more, then larger status may be what time grants. With his first collection, Death of a Naturalist, in 1966, Heaney looked set to become a poet of Irish ruralism, an agrarian poet with an undercurrent of political ominousness.  A single book, perhaps just one poem, can make a reputation at least among those who care for poetry.  Poets and readers, though, prefer growth and amplitude.

Metropolitan critics often distrust poets who have, or have had, mud on their boots.  Or else they adore the loamy atmosphere, the straw-in-the-hair, fence-leaning sort of thing.  It’s that softly pastoral affection in the English sensibility, and it’s resulted in fine works of art, music, and literature, although it doesn’t explain much of Heaney or his achievement.  Book after book, poem after poem (and he’s now seventy), his work demonstrates an imagination that is simultaneously autonomous and yet attached to recognisable realities.  Increasingly, his imagination and powers of perception have become visionary, even mystical; but he also balances the colloquial with the ceremonial, an agreeable speaking voice with the hieratic and elevated, the topical with the eternal, the grievous with the celebratory.

Neither modernist, nor post-modernist, Heaney, like some other poets of his generation, has created an individual poetic space with room enough to accommodate the social and the spiritual, facts and mysteries, the quotidian and what can be perceived to be beyond it, the national and the international, the personal and the public, the creative and the critical.  These antitheses all go into a mix that makes Heaney’s poetic identity so distinctive and valorous.  His poetry is accessible and accepted.

He’s a full-throated poet who doesn’t shout at you.  He’s not an aggressive poet; but nor is he a yielding one. In ‘The Harvest Bow’ (in Scotland, it’s called a ‘hairst maiden’) he writes of  “a knowable corona of straw” — a broad legato melody, with a wonderful resonance of vowels that lifts off the page like a rhapsodic tune off a musical score.  I know critics who suspect that kind of effect in poetry.  They see it as too close to artifice, an over-fondled phrase.  They miss the point.  Such moments in Heaney’s poetry represent potential didacticism or covert ideology dissolving in pure poetic utterance.

Poetry emerges from a coincidence of experience with knowledge, imagination, and pre-rehearsed or available artistry.  I call that coincidence inspiration.  From ‘Markings’:

All these things entered you
As if they were both the door and what came through it.
They marked the spot, marked time and held it open.
A mower parted the bronze sea of corn.
A windlass hauled the centre out of water.
Two men with a cross-cut kept it swimming
Into a felled beech backwards and forwards
So that they seemed to row the steady earth.

Here, artistry controls the steady rhythm, but is also embodied in the exactness of words used.  Neither ‘windlass’ nor ‘cross-cut’ is part of everyday vocabulary.  How often do we use these terms?  We know what they mean, but it’s as if we’re being reminded of them.  And, too, what they’re being used for, probably instinctively — a sensuous, alliance of water, wood and earth, an interplay of senses characteristic of his best work.  Also, ‘you’ where ‘I’ might have been anticipated indicates a phenomenon many younger poets are slow to learn, but of which Heaney is a master — artistry in poetry depends on syntax, on a surprising way of saying, which is an equivalent of imagination as a surprising way of seeing.

There abides in Heaney’s poetry a sense of an earlier society.  It’s more than the wonder-world of his Irish country childhood.  He’s been drawn to the heroic and epic, and hence to the Homeric, to Sophocles, to Virgil, Beowulf, Dante, and now Robert Henryson.  Having read Henryson many times I fancy I don’t need much, if anything, in the way of glosses.  That affable, melodic, tenderly wise voice re-cycled was likely to turn out a bit of a disappointment, or so I thought.  I was wrong.  If poetry is translating one’s own language into itself (and I’m committing the sin of quoting a line of my own) then Heaney’s translation, or “writing by proxy”, has resulted in a virtuosic equivalent of a great original masterpiece.

Those of us who spent much of our childhoods hanging around byres, barns, stables and horses, sly collies, crops, cattle, dairies, and imbibing the seasons of the 1940s and ‘50s, are perhaps most susceptible to Heaney’s poetry, although his deserved popularity suggests that his work is simply canonical in its own time.  Just as there’s a ‘lost’ Ireland, there’s a ‘lost’ Scotland, although neither is as ‘lost’ as all that, nor are they forlorn.  Convenient technologies and change have a lot to be said for them; and poetry finds it hard to say it.

The pull isn’t necessarily to the past or to backwardness.  Poetry takes its stand in the eternal, in the continuous, in a benevolent vision; and that, clearly, is at the heart of what he does, which is why I admire Heaney the poet, the critic, and the man.

Douglas Dunn

Douglas Dunn’s latest publication is A Line in the Water, 15 new poems with etchings by landscape artist Norman Ackroyd (Royal Academy of Arts, London, £60).

This piece first appeared in our Poetry Reader Issue 5

A sonnet (literally, ‘little song’) is one of the oldest surviving poetic forms.

This is partially explained by its origin in the love-lyric (in the thirteenth century Italian love-lyrics of Piero delle Vigne and Giacomo da Lentini, to be more precise). However, it’s more complex than that. Dante and Petrarch would have considered love as tied up with creative prowess, the beloved as muse, etc. Implicit in the sonnet’s origin as love-lyric is the idea of contrariness, a pull and push between love and reason, unity and disunity, tension and release. Say no more.

It’s as if, unsatisfied with
the harmony of an even-split,
the form has to be more
deeply split.

The sonnet has endured because it reflects the contrariness at the heart of human nature and is, to quote Don Paterson, ‘perfectly fitted to the shape of human thought’. John Donne’s ‘Holy Sonnet XIX’ (‘Oh, to vex me, contraries meet in one’) brilliantly grapples with contradiction and contrariness: ‘I change in vowes, and in devotione. / As humourous as is my contritione /As my prophane Love’. And ‘Holy Sonnet XIV’ leaves us with that memorable paradox, ‘for I/ Except you‘enthrall mee, never shall be free, /Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee’.

Aside from subject matter, a deeper contradiction embodied by the sonnet is that, traditionally, it is asymmetrical. It’s as if, unsatisfied with the harmony of an even-split, the form has to be more deeply split. Traditional sonnets consist of two stanzas, an octave (eight lines) and a sestet (six lines). The Shakespearean sonnet dispenses with this and instead is marked by its final clinching couplet (although still adhering to the same unravelling of philosophical reflection which the sonnet is so enduringly disposed towards). Another traditional characteristic is the volta, or ‘turn’, which comes between the octave and sestet. Phillis Levin remarks that it ‘introduces into the poem a possibility for transformation, like a moment of grace…we could say that for the sonnet, the volta is the seat of its soul. And the reader’s experience of this turn reconfigures the experience of all the lines that both precede and follow it’. The volta cuts into the preceding argument like a flash of insight.

Don Paterson points out that for all the various traditional rules for sonnet writing – the fourteen lines, the rhyme scheme either Petrarchan or Shakespearean, the octave/sestet division, the volta between line 8 and 9, etc, – ‘A great sonnet … will often surprise you by doing at least one thing it’s not supposed to do. Though we should remember that the poet had to learn the “rules” before they could deliberately break one of them’.

A great sonnet will often
surprise you by doing at
least one thing it’s not
supposed to do

Now for a quick history. One of the reasons why Shakespeare had such an impact on the sonnet, besides adapting it to the difficulties posed by a lack of rhymes in the English language, is that he took a risk thematically, reclaiming the figure of the beloved from tedious overpoeticisation through an attitude of increased realism. He fused tradition with innovation to produce the brilliant line we all know: ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun….’

In the early seventeenth century there was a movement in theme from Shakespeare’s earthly sentiment back towards the sacred. Yet this sacred, as we can see in Donne, has been re-envisaged. The sonnet becomes a means of direct address to the divine, whereas previously, by and large, a lover or beloved, or muse, had been addressed. Wordsworth revitalised the sonnet in the nineteenth century, as Shakespeare did in the sixteenth. We see a move from constraint towards expansiveness. This is partly achieved by a shift of emphasis from sonnet as rarefied pressure chamber, to sonnet as capable of speaking the language of the common man. Wordsworth’s approach would have come as a refreshing change, contributing to the sonnet’s longevity and granting enough stability to the form for poets such as Shelley and Keats to deconstruct his agenda. And indeed they did.

Enter the Victorian poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, with sonnets such as, ‘A Sonnet is a moment’s monument’. Wordsworth’s visionary gleam comes up against the stark reality of time. In ‘A Moment’s Monument’, Jennifer Ann Wagner tells us that ‘Rossetti understands the sonnet to be a kind of death in life, a formalized stasis. The isolation of the moment holds no revelatory vision, because revelation for Rossetti is obscured by temporality and therefore by thought, memory, and artistic form itself.’ The Victorians, however, did much to sentimentalise the form.

The contemporary poet is in the unique, though quite confusing, position of being able to scan back over the centuries and weigh up differences of approach, thematic and structural. However, to overlook the essential spirit of the sonnet would be clumsy, if not an infidelity. Problem is, no one can agree on what that is. One precept we can stick to is that writing a good sonnet should be hard work because it demands a kind of thought that whilst being highly compacted is also clearly articulated, just as a diamond results from the intensive compression of coal. The general consensus is that any subject matter is fitting, as long as it is subjected to this kind of process. Seamus Heaney’s ‘The Skylight’, for example, is proof that the profound exists in the ordinary, that the sonnet is a little quest to unearth that profundity, a means by which we can dig deeper into the richness of our everyday experience.

From all this we might conclude, strangely enough, that the very themes embodied in the sonnet are displayed at large in its evolution over time: the struggle between tradition and innovation, between structure and content, and between reason and love. This comes very close to suggesting that the sonnet is not simply a poetic form (nor for that matter is any form), but has a kind of multi-dimensional inner life of its own in which the sonneteer, past and present, participates.

Rachael Boast has recently completed her PhD at St Andrews University. Her poems have appeared in Addicted to Brightness, Markings, Poetry Wales and The Yellow Nib. She is working on a first collection, and a study of contemporary poetry in relation to the Book of Job. This piece first appeared in our Poetry Reader, Issue 6.