Thursday, 23 August 2012

Ian Hamilton Finlay

You can read my review of the brilliant Ian Hamilton Finlay exhibition at the Ingleby Gallery at The List. It's on for a while yet, so do try to catch it. 

As a bonus beat, here's my essay on Finlay's little magazine, Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. This was done for Prawn's Pee, a daily paper published from the Old Hairdressers during this year's Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art. It's based on a journal article I did around 18th months ago and since then I've done further research and have refined my arguments, so it's by no means definitive, but I hope it gives a decent overview of this fantastic magazine, which can be read in full at Ubuweb.

Incidentally, the Prawn's Pee folk are curating a room in the CCA's current exhibition on its previous incarnation, The Third Eye Centre. With archival material, including photographs and tapes, of Glasgow performances by Derek Bailey, Brotherhood of Breath, Allen Ginsberg, Tom Leonard, Ted Berrigan, Jerome Rothenberg, Henri Chopin and many others, it couldn't be more up my street. 

The Poet's Blueprint: Ian Hamilton Finlay's Poor.Old.Tired.Horse. and 1960s Scotland.

The 1960s were a transitional period in Scottish culture, as the dominance of the Scottish Renaissance movement, led by Hugh MacDiarmid, was challenged by a new generation of writers. MacDiarmid was Scotland's great modernist poet, but by the late 1950s he and his followers had become reactionary and defensive, clinging to a vision of a national culture which looked increasingly narrow and outdated. In his 1962 essay, 'The Beatnik In The Kailyard', Edwin Morgan spoke for many younger writers when he argued that ‘the Scottish Renascence has begun to loosen its hold on life… (resulting in) a gap between the literary and the public experience which is surprising and indeed shocking in a country as small as Scotland’. He was dismayed that established writers took ‘almost no interest… in the important postwar literary developments in America and on the continent’ and bemoaned 'a desperate unwillingness to move out into the world with which every Scottish child now at school is becoming familiar – the world of television and sputniks, automation and LPs, electronic music and multistorey flats...'
Morgan's essay articulated the frustration felt in certain quarters that new and experimental voices were being stifled by the old guard. Excluded from newspapers, mainstream literary magazines and anthologies, younger writers were forced to seek alternative outlets, or even create their own. This is the story of one such outlet, Ian Hamilton Finlay's magazine Poor.Old.Tired.Horse. which brought Scottish writers into contact with international avant-garde communities and stands as important contributions to the 'mimeograph revolution' in which small presses and little magazines helped transform the post-war poetic landscape.
Finlay and Morgan received their first international breaks through Gael Turnbull's transatlantic magazine Migrant, which ran for eight issues between 1960 and 1961. Produced on a second-hand duplicator in Turnbull's spider-infested Californian garage, Migrant was a truly DIY affair; printed on cheap yellow paper, with functional layout and typesetting, the magazine rejected traditional standards of 'quality' publishing. The point was to get the work out there, as cheaply and efficiently as possible. While some copies did make it into bookshops, Migrant was conceived as a semi-private enterprise, principally distributed amongst poets, although any one who was interested could subscribe. Turnbull and his Worcester based co-editor Michael Shayer, liked the magazine to 'theatre in rehearsal [rather] than the presented performance'. It was a laboratory where poets could experiment and discuss their ideas.
Having achieved only limited success as a writer of short stories and radio plays, Finlay was struggling to have his poems published. Undeterred by an initial rejection from Shayer, Finlay persevered, and sure enough, his next batch of poems were duly published in Migrant, alongside an excerpt from a letter in which he expressed his alienation from the Scottish scene. Through Migrant, Finlay became aware of the 'New American Poetry', particularly that associated with Cid Corman's seminal magazine Origin and the Black Mountain school of Charles Olson and Robert Creeley. Finlay soon recognised a kinship, writing to Turnbull in 1961: 'Your new American poets, Creeley, Dorn, etc – I feel they are my brothers'.
It is certainly possible to draw parallels between Finlay and Creeley: the everyday language and subject matter, the short verse forms, and an outlook which can be both playful and bleak. Most significantly, he shares with Creeley and his fellow post-imagists an interest in the poem as an object. Finlay would draw the name of his own magazine from Creeley's 'Please', a poem which draws attention to the fact it is a 'made thing', as his contemporary Robert Duncan put it: 'This is a poem about a horse that got tired/Poor.Old.Tired.Horse... This is a poem that tells the story/which is the story'.
Migrant the magazine closed in September 1960, Turnbull and Shayer feeling that it had made its point. An identity had been established, and the press would now concentrate on producing pamphlets by the roster of writers who had come through the magazine. Finlay's The Dancers Inherit The Party, published at the end of 1960, proved to be a great success, quickly selling out its first edition. Morgan's brilliant collection of Eastern Bloc translations, Sovpoems, followed in 1961.
Migrant provided Finlay with the model – and the contacts - to found his own Wild Hawthorn Press with his partner Jessie McGuffie in 1961 (from 1964, he would be assisted by his second wife Sue). Finlay readily acknowledged McGuffie’s role in running the day to day business of the Press, and her earnings as a teacher helped subsidise their activities. In a letter to Turnbull, Finlay explained that the 'idea is to publish human poetry, small books, well done, with good lineocuts'. Early Wild Hawthorn publications included collections by the Americans Louis Zukovsky and Lorine Niedecker, as well as Finlay's own Glasgow Beasts, an A Burd (1961), which caused great controversy for its use of Glasgwegian dialect. To MacDiarmid, this was not the kind of Scots in which high poetry could be written and he dismissed Finlay and his associates, somewhat ludicrously, as 'Teddyboy Poetasters'.
Finlay and Morgan, together with the poet and folklorist Hamish Henderson, formed what Alec Finlay describes as an 'oddly homely' avant-garde, 'less a programmatic movement than a fey shoulder pressed against the wheel of the moribund Scottish Renaissance'. In contrast to the culturally elitist Scottish Renaissance, this informal alliance embraced popular culture, the folk revival, new technology and the spoken language. A Scottish identity was important to Finlay, but he wanted to define a new aesthetic, rejecting the high-art elitism of MacDiarmid and his followers. 'I believe at heart, that people can really enjoy poetry—not just poets', he told Turnbull.
This plural vision of Scottish culture can be seen as part of the 'thaw' that Finlay alluded to in the title of a planned Wild Hawthorn anthology. The Thaw was not just a Scottish, but an 'international phenomenon', wrote Finlay in a letter to Morgan, who was to edit the book. The emergent culture of the early 1960s represented hope to both poets. 'Us, The Beats, CND etc etc are all symptoms of something else, something good, not as yet defined', he wrote. The anthology, he hoped, would articulate 'the warm, new, we're for life thing, you know what I mean'. The Thaw went unrealised, but Finlay's tentative efforts to gather material would help shape the direction of his magazine Poor.Old.Tired.Horse.
There were also plans for an anthology of 'sound, Dada, etc poems' entitled Cool Ossian. The nod to James MacPherson's disputed reconstructions of ancient Gaelic poetry was a cheeky acknowledgement of the constructed nature of national traditions, while the 'cool' brought an ironic Beat sophistication to the project. Finlay was fond of Scottish kitsch, and he planned to give Cool Ossian a tartan cover, illustrated 'with little blocks of highland cottages'. Describing the project to Morgan, he wrote, 'I am “wicked” as you once said, but I believe that nothing will preserve a tradition so much as kidding it'. Cool Ossian ultimately went unrealised, but its concept is another winning example of Finlay's playfully imaginative approach to tradition, where new hybrid forms emerge from the fusion of local folk and international avant-garde.
In January 1962, Finlay wrote to Turnbull to say that McGuffie and a friend from the folk circuit, Paul Pond (aka Paul Jones of Manfred Mann), were starting 'a monthly poetry sheet' called Poor.Old.Tired.Horse. While the magazine never included any editorial comment, an insert from POTH 3 (1962) declared that 'The Wild Hawthorn Press believes in BEAUTY TRADITION EXPERIMENT'. As Alec Finlay writes, Ian Hamilton Finlay had 'no interest in experiment for its own sake... there was no poetic party line; rather, [POTH] extolled his timeless themes, the sea and domestic life'. POTH would come to be associated with concrete poetry, but this was only one aspect of the magazine, which, as Alec Finlay notes, served as Finlay's apprenticeship, not only as an experimental poet but as a designer and publisher.
Early issues saw Finlay explore the idea of an alternative Scottish tradition, championing overlooked lyric poets such as Hamish McLaren and embracing the popular culture disdained by MacDiarmid and 'the posh ones'. Hence the playful but pointed inclusion of a poem and cartoon by the popular Glaswegian cartoonist Bud Neill, and the celebration of William McGonagall, who Finlay described as 'the first stream-of-consciousness writer' and 'a cubist'. Finlay also published poets who used forms of Scots that were closer to the spoken language than the dictionary derived synthetic Scots or Lallans of the Scottish Renaissance. Among them were the Edinburgh poet Robert Garioch and the Shetlandic poet Veng.
Several of the contemporary Scottish poets featured in POTH shared Finlay’s interest with island life and rural communities, including the Orcadian George Mackay Brown and the Hebridean Ian Crichton Smith. To define POTH purely in terms of its 'Scottishness', however, is limiting. An interest in the rural and domestic is not exclusive to Scottish poets, after all, and POTH highlighted such commonality with themed issues such as Teapoth (POTH 23m 1967) and Boats Shores Tides Fish (POTH 15, 1964). While the magazine helped reinvigorate Scottish literature, this was not its sole aim. POTH belonged to the world.
POTH sampled widely from a range of modern European poets, placing figures from the first half of the century (Apollinaire, Mayakovsky, Trakl), alongside contemporary voices such as Gunter Grass and Hans Arp. Anselm Hollo, a London-based Finnish poet who had been a major contributor to Migrant, submitted his own work, as well as translations of Finnish and German poetry. A key figure was Morgan, whose interest in the Eastern Bloc saw him bring translations of Russian Futurists such as Mayakovsky and Pankratov to early issues of POTH, as well as the contemporary Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky.
Americans such as Jerome Rothenberg, Dave Ball, and Cid Corman further extended the scope of work in translation, from the contemporary avant-garde to medieval Japan. The New American Poetry was heavily represented too, with Jonathan Williams, Lorine Niedecker, Robert Creeley, Theodore Enslin and Ronald Johnson among the many prominent voices. South American and African poetry were also included. This rich mix shows POTH’s commitment to opening Scotland up to different international voices, reclaiming the internationalism of the early Scottish Renaissance for a new generation. It also maps an idiosyncratic path through modernist poetry, locating POTH, and its roster of emergent poet-translators, within the avant-garde continuum.
POTH’s most significant engagement with the international avant-garde, however, was to come with its promotion of concrete poetry. While concrete was not as dominant a feature of POTH as some may think - most of Finlay’s own concrete poetry appeared elsewhere - its presence was nonetheless significant, not least for being the first Scottish publication to feature the form. Furthermore, concrete informed the magazine’s approach in a number of ways, encouraging Finlay to experiment with the visual presentation of poems, and poetic form itself.
In 1963 Finlay told Turnbull, 'I feel that I have come - at least for the moment - to the end of poems that are about, and want to do poems that just are'. Concentration and simplicity was, as the leading European concrete poet Eugen Gomringer wrote, 'the very essence of poetry', and, as Finlay wrote in a much-quoted letter to Pierre Garnier, concrete poetry was classically beautiful, offering 'a model, of order, even if set in a space which is full of doubt'.
Concrete poetry made its Scottish debut in POTH 6 (March 1963), its back page featuring three poems by the Brazilian Noigandres school. While the rest of the magazine is printed in a traditional serif typeface, the three concrete poems are printed in the original sans serif font. The concrete poem is designed as an object for contemplation, and the openness of the form allows the reader to bring their own associations and interpretations. Finlay understood that the concrete movement had many aspects and possibilities, and subsequent issues reflected this diversity. POTH 10 (October 1963), the first fully concrete number, presents historical examples of the form by Gomringer and Augusto de Campos, alongside innovations such as the typewriter poems of Dom Sylvester Houedard and the abstractions of Robert Lax.
Finlay published one of his first concrete poems in POTH 8 (1963), a number that pays tribute to the Russian futurists. In 'Homage To Malevich' Finlay draws explicit connections between the constructivism and concrete poetry, referencing the Russian's 'Black Square' paintings by presenting a grid of text consisting of permuations of 'black' and 'block'1. Finlay referred to these 'abstract word compositions' as his 'suprematist' poems, as opposed his 'fauve' poems, which, Alec Finlay notes, recreated 'sensed experience'. The latter are more epigrammatic in form and use colour to produce different effects. The two approaches are featured in Finlay’s first concrete book, Rapel, from Autumn 1963.
His contribution to POTH 14 (1965) is, on one level, a play on colour-object associations. The 'correct' pairings - 'blue sky', 'red roof', 'green field - are systematically rearranged so we have 'blue field', 'green roof' and so on. The mismatched colours have a long, spear-like dash through them, while the 'correct' pairs are left intact. Yet how incorrect are these alternative pairings? A 'red sky' is familiar enough, and it is possible to imagine a 'blue field' of flowers, or even a 'green roof' of verdigris. And if we think like Finlay’s beloved fauvists, then all manner of colour-object associations become possible. The reader is therefore invited to contemplate the poem on a visual and semiotic level. This extends to the poem’s form, which, in its unconventional arrangement of the text, recalls the open-field poetics of Black Mountain. In a mimetic concrete poem, we might expect to see the 'sky' at the top of the page, with the 'roof' and 'field' below, so as to represent a picturesque landscape. Indeed, Finlay does just that, placing 'red sky' on the first line and so on. However, he confuses matters by, for example, placing 'red roof' on the fifth line, with 'green sky' to its right on the line below. As a result, the poem becomes a cubist landscape, its features seen from multiple angles. What at first appears to be an inscrutable arrangement of words and dashes is revealed to be a highly sophisticated play on linguistic and visual signs in poetry and art.
In parallel to POTH, Finlay produced a number of innovative poem-objects for Wild Hawthorn Press, from postcard and poster poems, to kinetic books and fold-out standing poems. He would take these poem-objects a step further, however, with the outdoor works he produced with a number of collaborators. In 1967, the Finlays moved to Stonypath, where he would begin work on the garden which later became Little Sparta. It seems appropriate then that the final POTH (number 25, 1967) was devoted to the kind of epigrammatic one-word poems Finlay would later inscribe on stone, wood and metal. This sub-genre of the short poem was a Finlay invention, a zen-like distillation of the monostich, or one line poem. They are also related to concrete, their shape and layout contributing to their overall effect. The title of the poem could be of any length, but they were to be set out in a particular way. Their form, as we see below, is very much a model of order:
The Boat’s Blueprint
Placed in the centre of the page, surrounded by negative space, the form achieves the openness Finlay talks of. Like his concrete poems, Finlay’s one-word poems are an invitation. The test of these poems was, for Finlay, whether they were memorable and resonant. This example certainly achieves such an aim. As Finlay explained himself, 'the shape of the boat is determined by the nature of water, or he who understands water may calculate the appearance of the boat; further, water is blue, water is blue print (on white stones), water is clear and has lines on it, like a blueprint...'
As Finlay commented in a letter to Ernst Jandl, one of several poets he invited to contribute to the one-word POTH, the form has 'haiku-brevity, without reading like a pseudo-Japanese poem. Or in another way, it is very close to the classical Latin epitaph or epigram'. Or, indeed, the Poundian epigram, or William Carlos Williams short poem. It should come as no surprise, then, that American poets responded enthusiastically to Finlay’s request, with Ronald Johnson, Jerome Rothenberg, Jonathan Williams and Aram Saroyan among the contributors. Concrete poets, from Britain to Brazil, also submitted, as well as poets known for more traditional forms such as the Scots George Mackay Brown and Douglas Young. It seems appropriate that Gael Turnbull, who played such a pivotal role in Finlay’s development, is also among the contributors to the final POTH.
Concrete influenced Finlay’s approach to the visual presentation of poetry in a number of ways, and the later issues of POTH 'became the epitome' of the magazine, as Alec Finlay writes, 'each a unified design'. These numbers might not have achieved the total integration of meaning, form and design that Finlay’s innovative kinetic and sequential poem-books did, but they do represent a move away from the miscellany of the magazine, towards the unified form of the artists’ book.
Unlike Migrant, POTH did adhere to basic standards of quality publishing. Until issue 15, POTH used the same basic layout, with a typeset masthead and minimal use of illustrations or colour. It was only with the advent of photo-offset printing technology that Finlay could fully experiment with modern design styles and illustrations. The range of design styles in those later issues is dazzling, from austere neues typographie to the graceful line-drawings and calligraphy of the Scottish painter Margot Sandeman. The English artist John Furnival was an important collaborator, lending his versatile talents to some of the most richly illustrated issues. POTH 18 (1966) is a collaboration between the American poet and artist Ad Reinhardt and the optical artist Bridget Riley, and each page shows his beautifully handwritten text wrapped around her large, stylised zeros.
POTH's eclecticism should not be confused with a lack of direction or discrimination. Finlay did have strong connections with particular schools, but, as Alec Finlay writes the 'generous principles' of the small press revolution 'had a more lasting impact than any particular variant of the avant-garde'. POTH played a crucial role in his development as a poet and artist, as he absorbed new forms, experimented with the visual presentation of poetry, and developed his particular blend of the pastoral, the classical and the avant-garde. Rural imagery and folk forms became a vehicle for innovation, while concrete poetry lead Finlay off the page and into the environmental art of Little Sparta. In its own playful, discursive manner, Poor.Old.Tired.Horse. was both a manifesto and a laboratory. Or, as a one-word poem might have it (with apologies to IHF):
The Poet’s Blueprint

Selected bibliography and further reading
The full run of Poor.Old.Tired.Horse. is available on Ubuweb.

Abrioux, Yves. Ian Hamilton Finlay, A Visual Primer. Reaktion Books, 1994.

Cockburn, Ken with Finlay, Alec. The Order of Things: An Anthology of Scottish sound, pattern and concrete poems. Pocketbooks, 2001.

Finlay, Ian Hamilton. The Dancers Inherit the Party: Early Poems, Stories and Plays. Ed. Ken Cockburn. Polygon, 2004.

Finlay, Ian Hamilton Finlay. Selections. Ed. Alec Finlay. University of California Press, 2012.

McGonigal, James. Beyond The Last Dragon: A Life of Edwin Morgan. Sandstone Press, 2010.

Morgan, Edwin. Essays. Carcanet, 1975.

Price, Richard. “Migrant the Magnificent.” PN Review 33.4 (March-April 2007). <>.

1 For an excellent analysis of this poem, and concrete poetry in general, see Susan Howe's essay 'The End of Art'.

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