WHEN eventually you put down this exchange of letters you feel not only that you’ve got to know Ian Hamilton Finlay personally, but that you’ve actually slipped inside his mind, watched him think, and got as close as any outsider could to the deeply troubled personality out of which his creativity emerged. It is a vivid insight into the working processes of one of the most original artists of the latter half of the twentieth century.
The letters cover a crucial five year period during the artist’s early forties when he was struggling, with ‘a slow agony’, to find new forms of expression, transforming himself from a concrete poet into an artist of words and a creative gardener. Throughout this period, Finlay suffered from what he called his ‘nervous anxiety’, profoundly unpleasant, frequently recurring panic attacks which prevented him from travelling. All the letters were sent from just four locations: an Edinburgh flat, a rented cottage on a Highland estate and another in Fife, and finally Stonypath, in the Pentland Hills south of Edinburgh, where he took the first steps towards creating his famous garden.
Letters were Finlay’s main means of communicating with the outside world. A sense of his isolation hangs around his correspondence with Stephen Bann – an academic and aspiring poet – like a haar. Only the Finlay side of the exchange is included here, but it has required merely the briefest, very occasional, typically self-effacing note by Bann to make every meaning clear. Thus the book reads like a long, discursive monologue. Finlay needed a listener he could talk to about what interested him most: himself. And yet there was genuine warmth in the relationship. Though he begins by signing off ‘aye’, Finlay soon resorts to ‘love’.
William Blake’s epigram ‘a spider his web; man friendship’ is peculiarly apposite to Finlay. He returns to this subject repeatedly throughout this correspondence: ‘One imagines friendship as an abiding form, but it does seem that it’s not a form accepted by society in general, so that when people are unfriendly, they don’t at all realize that they are abusing a form. It has gone out, like the idea of chaperons (spelling?).’
Finlay needed Bann’s friendship in a general and specific way. He writes repeatedly about his desire for ‘the sense of a shared task, of discussion from common ground, of (even) friendly understanding… just so my heart can get a breath of delight (something it has not had for a long time).’ More specifically, he confesses: ‘Many a Finlay poem is due to the enthusiasm aroused by a Bann letter. Life can easily become a porridge of lethargy….Your letters are a good context for hope.’
Bann threw a lifeline to Finlay quite simply by being nice to him. Nice may not be a word one associates with Finlay, but it catches light through these letters like pleas for ease from pain. It is the first thing he says in his opening letter: ‘It was lovely meeting you…and good to remember, because nice people are quite rare (or perhaps not, but I think so).’ Why then, if he valued niceness, did Finlay so often turn vicious?
This correspondence contains many tales of eruptions. Finlay admits: ‘I simply should not fly off the handle as I do, but somehow that is my way of getting over things.’ These disputes weren’t solely personal – although the waspish, abusive tone with which he dismissed many of his friends and supporters is striking. MacDiarmid was ‘awful’ and ‘a stupid “Marxist”’; Edwin Morgan, who did his best to help him, had ‘the cottonwool of complacency in his ears’. And John Willett, the brilliant assistant editor of the Times Literary Supplement, who also supported him (though not uncritically), was ‘just silly’.
Finlay’s abusive sallies were sorties in the battle he was fighting to have his new art form accepted and understood. Concrete poetry continued to have its fair share of vituperative ridicule, but Finlay wanted to go one step further: to compose poems that wouldn’t just have a physical presence, but would be valued as works of visual art. His long-running row with ‘Mr Montgomery of the fucking Fulcrum Press’ stemmed not merely from the way the publisher had abused his trust but, more hurtfully and essentially, from its utter misunderstanding of and implied contempt for the visual aspect of Finlay’s art. ‘I don’t know if you know just how perturbed I am about the matter,’ he tells Bann. ‘It involves something basic to my whole conception of poetry – namely, that however imperfect we may be, we must still make the attempt to approach, with honourable objectivity and good will, the world of fact. Our associations cannot be based wholly on expediency or self interest. I see poetry as being precisely the manifestation of that good will, and for someone to use poetry as means to his own ends, is particularly (in my view) wicked.’ He explains a little more what he means by ‘fact’ in a later letter, quoting G.K. Chesterton: ‘Vanity is self getting in the way of fact.’
There are always disputes at borders, but Finlay’s frontiers were particularly problematic. He wasn’t an artist, yet he was venturing into an artistic domain. This meant that he had to use craftsmen to realize his ideas. A few of these creative relationships were harmonious, but others became fraught, especially when his collaborators claimed part-ownership of the work. These feuds came mainly at a later period, but several artists had the experience of being drawn by the silken threads of deeply-felt appreciation and praise into the web of this isolated artistic arachnid of the hills, only to be spat out with ferocious venom when they crossed his will.
Curiously, personal details are almost entirely absent in these letters. ‘Sue and I had a wee boy on Monday morning’ merits the briefest mention, between technical considerations of photography and perspex. Artistic integrity, which for Finlay equated with personal integrity, was something to live by and fight for. He revealed his true feelings to Bann: ‘I’m not sure I feel very keen on this idea of “involving” people in works of art… a coolness is nicer. Not a coldness but a respectful distance.’ This was a peculiarly isolationist stance for an artist who was entirely dependent on others for the realisation of his ideas. His solitary domain on the moors, which depended on the support of like-minded admirers, became a battleground. He renamed his garden Little Sparta, after the militaristic state of Ancient Greece, and placed an image of a machine gun to guard its entrance gate. His heartfelt plea – ‘if only I could believe that there was a good which did not depend on people’ – rises like a will o’ the wisp through the painfully submerged feelings embedded in many of these pages.
Initially, this seems to explain why he took to gardening: plants grow independently, and don’t talk back. But that was not the case. Gardening, like visual art, was not an easy or natural undertaking for him; he had no sympathy for, nor much interest in vegetation, and his wife Sue did much of the planting. ‘Till one starts a garden,’ he wrote, ‘one has NO idea of the amount of work and time involved – things have to be tackled in terms of “next year” or the year “after next”, and even then there is a feeling that one is rushing them… Also the uncontrollable nature of grass and so on, has to be experienced to be believed.’
Only the hesitant beginnings of the garden are recorded here, but from the first it appeared that Finlay wanted to make it a nice place, sheltered from the fierce winds by trees and shrubs, an isolated idyll of lawns, terraces, arbours and ponds, a friendly setting in which he could nurture his art. This art was in essence cerebral, not organic: it consisted of condensed poetic thoughts.
There are beautiful evocations in this book of ideas in gestation, which alone make worthwhile. For example, his thinking about an ‘autumn poem’:
This ‘arose from digging in the earth, which I always think is so beautiful when it is turned over – so much more promising than any crop it bears could possibly be, too. There is also the idea of digging the earth, while the earth, the world, turns over away from the sun into winter… plus a shadow of the French words for green and for winter.’
Many of his best works are unashamedly lyrical, musings in a pleasant lea. But the most abiding memory one takes away from a visit to Little Sparta is that of a brush with mortality. Before he went to live at Stonypath, Finlay had studied photos of Mahler’s tomb, and noted how ‘terribly impressed’ he was with the incised lettering. One of the first carvers he used was a local monumental mason, whom the poet had difficulty convincing no one had died. The effect of his inscribed poems, on slabs precisely placed among the garden’s growth, is of a slew of little gravestones, standing against trees or lying in the grass. Little Sparta now reads like an elegy for a country churchyard, for a departed age when death was an urgent, encompassing reality, and life a pleasant interlude to be shared and enjoyed with friends.
Midway: Letters from Ian Hamilton Finlay to Stephen Bann 1964-69
Edited by Stephen Bann
Wilmington Square Books, £25, ISBN 9781908524348, PP426pp