by carl wilson

Death, Be Not Concrete

Ian Hamilton Finlay, Wave / Rock, 1970. From Aspen 7 at UbuWeb.

Is the beginning of Spring always like this? It's one of those mortality ridden weeks. There's been the aforementioned passing of Nikki Sudden; that of the heroic Polish-science-fiction dissident novelist Stanislaw Lem (best known for writing the only book ever adapted to film by both Tarkovsky and George Clooney) (and Lem didn't like either version of Solaris, by the way); and, in country music, those of the great Buck Owens, Merle Haggard's peer in producing the Bakersfield sound, and songwriter Cindy Walker - Willie Nelson's new tribute album of her tunes turned out to be all too timely.

Now I hear of the death of Ian Hamilton Finlay, the 80-year-old Scottish artist familiar to me mostly as a 1960s pioneer of concrete poetry (later, visual poetry), a peer of Canada's bp nichol and the few other true greats of the period. (Am I right to think of Toronto as a centre of '60s-'70s concrete poetry, by the way?) Until reading his obituaries today, I hadn't been aware that Finlay went on to combine his poetics with a kind of earthworks sensibility, creating a great number of sculptural and landscape works shaped into or inscribed with words. (Although he used neon too.) Perhaps I'm misusing the word earthworks here, since his creations were far more modest and "civilized" interventions in landscape than the monumental terraforming of Smithson et al. His latter phase was as an "avant gardener," fighting surprisingly militant battles with local authorities in Scotland over the autonomy of his "Little Sparta" poetic glade as a place of almost secular-pagan worship: "Certain gardens are described as retreats," he once said, "when they are really attacks." I also hadn't known that his neoclassical and "libertarian revolutionary" positions included gestures that led to accusations of some unsavoury sympathies. It seems to me these were misunderstandings, that his use of fascist imagery was in service of critique - an attack rather than a retreat. Though one has to wonder about his contacts with fellow neoclassicist Albert Speer.

In other words, I hadn't known much, except the great force of his poetic figurations of the 'sixties. It took his death to tell me what a broadly compelling and problematic figure he was.

(Further reading and links at the always stately and elegaic Wood S Lot. There's also an interesting 2001 interview to be found at Jacket magazine online, especially on concrete poetry, though it does not broach the more troubling topics.)

Ian Hamilton Finlay with Ian Gardner, They Returned Home Tired, But Happy, 1975-76, via UbuWeb.

| Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, March 28 at 06:44 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)



momus elaborates:

Posted by benstimpson on April 1, 2006 06:45 PM



Thanks for the Finlay links. I was in the boat you were in -- knew about the concrete stuff but nothing since.

Posted by john on March 30, 2006 12:53 AM



i am in love with the top poem. oh aspen, the gift that keeps on giving and giving and giving and giving...

Posted by Dave M. on March 29, 2006 11:18 AM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson