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Set In Stone – Scottish Review of Books
by Brian McCabe

Set In Stone

November 16, 2012 | by Brian McCabe

It may seem strange that a book like this should not have been brought out by a Scottish publisher long before now, but it is perhaps fitting that it is published in America, as part of a series called ‘Poets for the Millennium’, featuring the work of such luminaries of the avant-garde as Andre Bréton, Paul Celan and Gertrude Stein. Though his work may not have much in common with theirs, Finlay belongs firmly in the context of the international avantgarde. Furthermore, it would be difficult to think of an artist more misunderstood – and many would argue, more undervalued – in his own country during his lifetime: vilified by older, more established poets such as MacDiarmid, threatened with court cases and poindings by local councils, Finlay was squeezed out of the mainstream to live a life of isolation and poverty.

Writing to Scottish Field in March 1962, in response to a letter by Hugh MacDiarmid dismissing most younger Scottish poets as ‘self-pitying jeunes refusés’, he states testily that he is ‘a Scottish poet who has never been published in any Scottish newspaper or periodical’ and goes on to outline his most notable publications abroad, adding for good measure that everyone he knows under the age of forty ‘is bored stiff by Mr. MacDiarmid and his anachronistic propaganda’. Curiously, as his son Alec Finlay points out in his introduction, the two men had quite a lot in common: both contrary, radical, idealistic and highly innovative in very different ways.

The alienation Finlay felt as an artist was exacerbated by his reclusiveness as a person who suffered from anxiety and acute agoraphobia. The seed of his isolation can be found in his ‘Autobiographical Sketch’ and in autobiographical references in his letters referred to in the introduction. As a boy he was evacuated from Glasgow to the village of Gartmore in 1939, ‘I was a wee boy with a label round his neck … No school, but pinewoods, wee burns, rabbits, trout, salmon, mountains … what happiness’. He was briefly a student at Glasgow School of Art, from which he was suspended in his first year as a punishment for organising a student strike. He was conscripted to the army but never saw active service, though he witnessed some arresting sights which would later become haunting images in his art: ‘the juxtaposition of rows of German tanks massed alongside an intact Neoclassical building’. After the war, he was married – ironically, in retrospect, his best man was MacDiarmid – to Marion Fletcher, and they moved to the Highlands where he worked as a shepherd, ‘but I had a dream of young men engaged in learned discourse while strolling on lawns’.

That may sound like Oxford or Cam-bridge, but Finlay had another sort of ‘university’ in mind, where artists – even Scottish artists – could discuss their ideas with peers from other countries, evolving together a contemporary art for the times – which is exactly what he went on to do in lengthy correspondences with contemporaries such as the American poet Robert Creeley. He gave up shepherding and tried to live off trout and stewed rabbits while reading philosophy and starting to write nature studies, short stories and plays. The ‘nervous anxiety’ which would recur throughout his life began at this time, and this made him more of an outsider.

In the Kafkaesque fable ‘The Money’, the one short story included here, an artist applies for Unemployment Benefit, because he has done some paid part-time work as an editor of a magazine and is now unemployed. But when the official concedes that he may be eligible for part-time Unemployment Benefit, he complicates things for himself by saying: ‘If you give me The Money, I’ll be able to work, I’ll be free to work’, the catch-22 of the situation being that if you are receiving Unemployment Benefit, you can’t work. ‘I can only work when I am not in a job!’ cries the artist. Eventually he is sent some weekly cheques as long as he fills out the relevant forms, but then the artist makes the mistake of honestly declaring earnings for the sale of a picture, and of course it is complicated, because he didn’t do the work in the week for which he is claiming benefit, but had done the painting a year before. Eventually the artist, disaffected by the bureaucracy of the process, resigns, to the relief of the official, saying ‘I don’t quite fit in’ and leaves the building ‘a free man’.

Finlay’s critique of societal attitudes to the artist is made clear here at the outset of his artistic career, as is his own stance as an artist essentially and by definition outside of a society which cannot accommodate the idea that Art is work, even if it doesn’t necessarily involve employment or remuneration. The story is a blueprint for Finlay’s often shoestring survival as an artist – in a letter to Edwin Morgan he describes one Christmas day as ‘a right disaster, with no cigarettes, and one tin of Heinz beans’ – but it explores the issue in a witty, playful way – a feature to become the hallmark of later work.

In The Dancers Inherit the Party, his first published book of poetry, reproduced here in full, that playfulness is developed into something that cuts deeper into the question of what poetry is, often confounding expectations and probing and playing with the very ways in which language is used in ordinary speech, though some are lyrical in a more conventional way. But it is in ‘GLASGOW BEASTS, AN A BURD, HAW, AN INSEKS, AN, AW, A FISH’ that speech becomes prominent, displaying a keen ear for the rhythms and cadences of working-class Glasgow speech which anticipates the work of Tom Leonard.

The poems use phonetic spelling and frequent line-breaks and one-word lines to capture the speech rhythm in the dialect and as a result the poems are also strikingly unusual in visual terms. Leonard would develop the use of Glasgow speech in his poetry and would invest the very act of writing in this way with a political charge; with Finlay it was the visual aspect of poetry which would take centre stage, but the poetry is no less political, firstly in the various forms of written concrete poetry he explored, then taking this further until the concrete poem becomes literally an object made, for example, of concrete, glass, wood, stone, slate, or metal, very often made in collaboration with craftsmen. Finally, the concrete is melded with the environment in Finlay’s ‘garden’ works – he refers to it as ‘avant-gardening’ – and part of the poem becomes its landscape setting, whether that be designed or wild.

‘Avant-garde’ is a military term, but whether the front line in question is involved in attack or defence depends on the battle. In Finlay’s work, it can mean both – an attack on the dominant poetics of the time and a defence of certain elements of the art of the past – and it means something quite other than purely experimental exploration of form: ‘I am not interested in “experiment” but in avant-garde work which can take the creative step backwards to join with the past.’ He abhorred any sort of introspective or confessional poetry, reclaiming from the art of the past the idea of classical order, purity and the pastoral idyll. However, he later attempted to marry this with something much darker and of our times. He foreshadows this in ‘SOME (SHORT) THOUGHTS ON NEO-CLASSICISM’: ‘Neo-classicism is classicism doing its military service’ and ‘The neo-classical colonnade conceals the door to the armoury’.

Considering his concrete poems for the page – they are things more to be taken in by the eye and contemplated than simply read – what is striking is the desire for pattern, order, rationality, proportion, symmetry, equilibrium, simplicity and lucidity, yet within this there is always a kind of serious play at work, a disarmingly childlike sense of wonder at the inherent musicality of a word, the chance and associative congruence between such unlikely partners as ‘curlew’ and ‘curfew’. ‘Concrete poetry is not a visual but a silent poetry’, Finlay says, somewhat mischievously, in ‘DETACHED SENTENCES ON CONCRETE POETRY’, but their conceptual and emotional power is achieved primarily through their visual impact. I think he was fully aware of this when he wrote to Creeley that it was time Concrete Poetry ‘came of age and had the same standards of production as any other art that has a visual element.’ He set about doing just that, presenting many of his concrete poems as posters or prints to be framed and hung on a wall rather than read in a book, and the production standards were indeed high. Many use a form of word-play, finding an echo of one word in another e.g. ‘Oiris’ and ‘osiers’, and some have a mimetic quality, echoing a natural phenomenon as in the poem ‘wave / rock’ in which the two words approach each other until they overlap and, when superimposed, make the word ‘wrack’.

Essentially, Concrete Poetry treats the word, and sometimes even the individual letter, as an object in itself as well as a referent or a small part of a language system, exploiting its ‘thingness’, its stubborn independence when set in isolation or among other words which are given equal weight. Thus such things as the names of fishing boats, or even their registration letters and numbers, can become the building blocks of a poem. In this way, Finlay’s concrete poems often invest the simplest of words with an air of mystery and gravity – the mystery and gravity, in fact, of the object, and one can see the logic in Finlay’s decision to take this a stage further and make the concrete poem into a literal object. We can feel his visionary excitement at the possibilities this offers in a letter to the artist and future collaborator Henry Clyne in 1966:

‘concrete poetry offers…a way of bringing that art right back into the very centre of society i.e. into architecture…the pure concrete poem is inexhaustible; it is not for reading but for contemplating….All this is quite new, and I think no one – not even the poets – has quite understood the possibilities. Far from concrete poetry being an end… it is really only a beginning….I think the

garden, and the church, and the side of the block of flats, are the places for poems – only, of course, such poems ought to be dignified, and formal, and austere.’

The garden at Stonypath, Finlay’s magnum opus, is where this vision becomes most fully realized. And it is here that the strange marriage of pastoral idyll and the weaponry of World War II is fused into an experiential reality. As I strolled through the garden on my first visit, lulled into a false sense of security by the trees, ponds, and beautiful sculptures, I was genuinely shocked to be ambushed by tanks, warships and fighter planes which invade this idyll of order and serenity, and then I appreciated the humour of it too: an air-craft carrier bird-bath! In a letter to his friend Stephen Bann, he says: ‘if war-galleys were a main subject of sculpture in Roman gardens, why should not stone aircraft carriers – representations of our modern Imperial Navies – be thought proper in ours?’

I believe it is that juxtaposition, that tank in a Poussin-like neo-classical landscape, which creates a frisson of something deeply disturbing to the sense of order and peace he creates in his work, and in so doing does most to make it truly original work, work of genius. It is time Finlay’s work was properly considered and assessed, and this selection of his writing makes a valuable contribution to that process.


Edited by Alec Finlay

UNI OF CALIFORNIA PRESS, PP334, £16.95, ISBN: 9780520270596

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