The Deep Minimalism of Ian Hamilton Finlay

Marjorie Perloff

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Parodies, transformations and fulfillments of a concrete poet

                    —The Concrete poets regarded language itself as rhetorical.
                    —That of which we cannot speak, we must construct.
                                      Ian Hamilton Finlay, Table Talk[i]

Wittgensteinian Word Play[*]

In 1965, Ian Hamilton Finlay wrote to the Austrian sound/concrete poet Ernst Jandl:

I can’t agree that just any poem defines itself as art. On the contrary, almost any Scottish poem of the present is offered to one as a comment on life, an aid, an extension, etc. . . . Hence we get inane critical remarks like: “X has something to say” (which actual means, X’s poems are crammed with jargon, about politics, hunger, Scotland, his love-life, or whatever). The notion that “something to say” is actually a modulation of the material scarcely enters anyone’s head.[ii]

Poetry as having “something to say,” as direct commentary on life: all his working life, the poet, short-story writer, visual artist, aphorist, and especially “avant-gardener,” as he himself referred to his role as creator of Little Sparta, his unique Scotland garden, objected to this notion of art. Rather than “cramming” his poems with “jargon,” Finlay was a confirmed believer in minimalism, in the notion that less equals more, provided the “less” is carefully chosen. In the same year that he sent Ernst Jandl the message above, the Scottish poet produced a folding card [Figure 1] with the title First Suprematist Standing Poem:[iii]:

[Figure 1, First Suprematist Standing Poem, 1965. Folding card: 22.5 x 9.5 cm.]

The seeming simplicity of this little concrete poem is wholly deceptive. Not only are the columns distinguished from one another by font color, not only do the exclamations in column 2 fail to answer the questions in column 1, but the adjectives themselves are hardly parallel. The question “How far?” demands a precise answer: say, 2.5 miles from here. “How small?” prompts a more relative response: if I say, “the small boy raised his hand,” one cannot conclude all the other boys are tall. As for “blue” and “white,” Ludwig Wittgenstein’s examples in the Philosophical Investigations are apropos here:

“Is this blue the same as the blue over there? Do you see any difference?”
“It’s turning fine, you can already see blue sky again.”
“Look what different effects these two blues have.”
“Do you see the blue book over there. Bring it here.”
“This blue signal-light means. . . .”
“What’s this blue called—Is it ‘indigo’?”[iv]

Finlay’s questions “how blue?” or “how white?” thus depend on the context in which they are posed. And “how sad” is even more subjective. How does one define one’s sadness? Or even trickier: how do I define your sadness? Are you just pretending to be sad? Or, conversely, putting on a good show of equanimity?

These are the basic questions posed in Finlay’s visual poetry, forcing us to realize that even the simplest monosyllabic adjectives defy any ready definition. The poem’s title, “First Suprematist Standing Poem,” moreover, adds to the mystery. Suprematism was Kasimir Malevich’s term for the non-objective paintings he first exhibited at the famous “O.10: Last Futurist Exhibition” in St. Petersburg in 1915 [Figure 2]. The thirty-nine Malevich paintings included were all geometric abstractions, the most prominent being the Black Square, hanging at the top of the corner at 45 degrees from each wall [Figure 3]. In his accompanying manifesto, Malevich declared that he had “transformed [himself] in the zero of form,” “destroyed the ring of the horizon and got out of the circle of objects.” No more representation of external nature, no portraiture or still-life—only geometric forms in seeming motion on a “painterly surface.”[v]

[Above, Figure 2. Below, Figures 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.]

In a much cited letter of 1963 to Pierre Garnier, Finlay declared that his own poems could be called “suprematist,” in that his own sense of concretism as a “model of order” owed a debt to Malevich’s creation of “perfected objects, to be again embodied in the perfection of absolute, non-thinking life.”[vi] And indeed Finlay’s concrete poem of the same year, Homage to Malevich, [Figure 4]—a word square made of two permutating words, black and block—graces the cover of issue #8 of Finlay’s journal Poor. Old. Tired. Horse—an issue dedicated to ten Russian avant-gardists from Natalia Goncharova to David Burliuk and including translations of Khlebnikov by Edwin Morgan and line drawings by Mayakovsky. The back cover of this issue of Poor. Old. Tired. Horse reproduces Mary Ellen Solt’s White Rose, whose subtitle is “Homage to Goncharova.”[vii] A second Finlay Homage to Malevich, this time a color print, appeared in a one-page booklet of 1974; the image has been reproduced in a number of sizes and colors [see figure 5].[viii]

But how “Suprematist” are these paintings and poems? Malevich, let’s remember, wanted his abstract forms to bring to mind the Fourth Dimension, as Ouspensky had defined it in the Tertium Organum; his geometric forms appear to float, adrift upon the white ground of the rectangular canvas. In Suprematism: Eight Red Rectangles [Figure 6], for example, the bright red opaque, thickly painted rectangles—all of them different sizes and on different axes and none of them fully rectangular—are designed to appear to be in flight, poised mysteriously to collide with one another. Again, the diagonal black and red cross of the later Suprematist Composition [Figure 7], whose opaque black horizontal plane hides the less dense vertical plane beneath it, seems to erupt mysteriously from the white ground of the painted canvas. In contrast, Finlay’s Homage to Malevich of 1974 [Figure 5] is presented as a poster; its flat surface creates none of the illusion of actual flight we find in Malevich, and indeed there is no Malevich composition precisely like this one. Whereas Malevich’s crosses present a dialectic of black and red forms, etched against a thickly painted and complexly colored “white” background, Finlay introduces his orange-red cross at a 45˚angle, calling to mind an airplane lifting off the ground and clearing the debris of small and narrow objects in its path. A small mirror-image of the red cross, this one navy blue, reappears on the lower right side canvas, flying in the opposite direction on the light-gray ground, this time with a “tail” of leaves and crossed branches in its wake. Not a mystical image of outer space, as in Malevich, but a signifying puzzle, the branch-leaf shape resembling the form of a rocket. “Which 20th Century Russian artist sometimes depicted himself as the Best Aeroplane?” Finlay asks in a 1977 booklet called The Wild Hawthorn Art Test (Abrioux 21), referring to Malevich’s fascination with flight. In the context of the visual poet’s later images of revolution and war, Homage to Malevich can be considered an image of aerial bombardment (see Abrioux 166).

But even if the branch-leaf motif were not designed to evoke rocketry, the introduction of vegetal representations into the stark, purified world of geometric abstraction would be entirely out of place in a Malevich. In Finlay, in other words, the natural world, banished from the Suprematist universe of “Zero.10,” reasserts itself. The homage to suprematism is, as Anne Moeglin-Delcroix points out, is ambiguous: Finlay’s square calls into question the “perfection of [Malevich’s] fine, regimented order.”[ix] Indeed, as in the case of the garden art of Little Sparta, Finlay’s minimalism and seeming penchant for “simple” abstraction has an ironic edge: the recycling of classical or avant-garde forms gives those forms a semiotic turn.

Take Finlay’s 1968 version of his concrete poem, Homage to Malevich [Figure 4], now assembled as a diagonally placed cross of identical word blocks, thus alluding to Malevich’s paintings of crosses [Figure 8]. Each block alternates the lines, “l a c k b l o c k b l a c k b.” An early essay on the original concrete poem by the poet Susan Howe called “The End of Art” (1982) provides us with a superb analysis of this text. The right hand column of b’s, Howe notes, “seems arbitrary. Is this to be read horizontally, vertically, or all at once?” And she notes:

The two words lack and lock look alike but mean opposite things. Modified by a variable (b) they form two new words, block and black.

The b at the end which at first seemed arbitrary now makes perfect sense. An extra that has created something else. Carry it over to the left and begin with black. The vertical letters l, k, and b, positioned as they are, make vertical lines that pull the eye up and down, and that pulls the o, a and c letters apart (the o’s and a’s are the only ones that vary). The round short letters give a horizontal tug, which prevents the poem from being read up and down. The black (figure) and block (ground) balances with lock (stability) against lack (instability). Something open verses something closed. Are lack and black one and the same image, or exactly opposite? Are block and lock alike? . . . . Do black and white open or close? Are they absence or presence? Sense or nonsense?[x]

Such semiotic relationships between letters and words represent a curious spin on Russian zaum. Malevich’s poet-friend Khlebnikov examined the magic of etymologies, finding roots of unlike words that produced surprising conjunctions, whereas Finlay is interested in reduction—in this case, in what happens when one consonant of a given monosyllable—here the “b” of “black” and “block”—is removed, creating the words “lack” and “lock.” In both cases, “The Word as Such,” as the Russian futurists called one of their major manifestos, is central, but Finlay’s is a cooler, cerebral version of Khlebnikov’s more mystical word play. Another way of putting this is that Finlay’s “translation” of zaum is more Wittgensteinian than Suprematist.

Consider The Blue and The Brown Poems of 1968. That year, Jonathan Williams of the Jargon Press published a large folio calendar, a long page with calendar of each month printed near the bottom and the upper part containing a lithograph of a concrete poem by Finlay.[xi] The verso of each page has a short commentary on the concrete poem in question by the critic Stephen Bann, printed as a small square. The publication, Williams tells us, was “conceived during a hike through the Great Smokies in July 1965 by Dan Haberman of Graphic Arts Typographers, New York, and myself.”[xii] On the first two-column page, the left has an introduction to the “Poetoypographer Ian Hamilton Finlay” by Williams, the right column a Foreword by the artist-critic Mike Weaver. Williams writes:

Finlay is not a “poet” in the narrow sense most of have reserved for the poor souls who have to practice this vestigial occupation. Finlay is a “maker,” a man who puts things together—which is the real definition of poet in the Greek, as Buckminster Fuller has reminded us.

He makes poems out of letters that have no sound in them, that function as objects to contemplate with the mind’s eye.

And Weaver adds, “Concrete poetry is a new metre. [Finlay’s] sense of form begins with words—no other way for a poet—and what he seeks is their relation to a new constructive principle of modulation, variation and repetition of constants, often a single word. . . . The poems stand in a precarious space, where art is, between the decorative and symbolic. A heart-breaking place to work.”


[Figure 9: The Blue and The Brown Poems, 1968.]

But why should the calendar in question, here represented horizontally in an exhibition at the Ingleby Gallery in Edinburgh [Figure 9] be called The Blue and the Brown Poems? Neither Williams nor Weaver comments on the title, but it clearly refers to Wittgenstein’s Blue and Brown Books, first published in 1958 as the “Preliminary Studies for the ‘Philosophical Investigations’.” In the Preface to that book, Rush Rhees tells us that “Wittgenstein dictated the ‘Blue Book’ (though he did not call it that) to his class in Cambridge during the university session 1933-34, and he had stenciled copies made. He dictated the ‘Brown Book’ to two of his pupils (Francis Skinner and Alice Ambrose) during 1934-35 . . . the first lot was bound in blue wrappers and the second in brown, and they were always spoken of that way.”[xiii] It was in these notes and drafts, that Wittgenstein first developed his important concept of language-games (see p. 17ff), and came to insist that the meaning of a word is its actual usein the language. Indeed, the Brown Book gives us the first version of Wittgenstein’s critique of Augustinian language theory—the theory that there is a direct correspondence between words and things. For most words, that is for pronouns, adverbs, prepositions, articles, and function words, Wittgenstein shows with great conviction, there is no such correspondence. How do we know what “as” or “that” mean?—and in fact we learn the meaning of even nouns and verbs within the context of the sentences in which they appear. The verb “read,” for example, used in the sentence, “Does your daughter know how to read yet?” is not equivalent to “Have you read X’s new book?” The complexities of meaning-making are enormous.

Finlay clearly had some familiarity with Wittgenstein’s teaching: the aphorism already cited, “That of which we cannot speak, we must construct,” for example, is a tongue-in-cheek response to the gnomic conclusion to the Tractatus: “Of what we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent.” I have already suggested that the poem “How blue?” alludes to Wittgenstein’s examination of the manifold contexts in which we ask such a question and how we accordingly answer them. But whereas Wittgenstein’s focus is on the difficulties of assigning meaning to such ordinary words as “length,” “read,” “pain,” and “light,” Finlay’s Blue and Brown Poems (which use blue sparingly and brown not at all) concentrate on the look of words—words we think we know and hence take for granted. Here is the Table of Contents:

[Figure 10]

The link between month and subject is intentionally arbitrary: Finlay’s is not a mimetic calendar—one that features pictures of little lambs for April or rainy skies for November. And the calendar begins with September rather than January, as if to say that, in a world of global communication, the seasons, so central to lyric poetry from Shakespeare’s sonnets to Keats’s Ode to Autumn, to Wallace Stevens’s The Auroras of Autumn, no longer have a discrete identity. Indeed, the twelve poems are interchangeable. Here is March :[xiv]

[Figure 11]

One’s immediate response to Finlay’s text is to read it as an Imagist nature poem: the four-three line stanzas invoke natural phenomena, from “Green Waters” and “Blue Spray” to “Moonlit Waters” and “Drift.” “Star,” furthermore, appears four times and “waters” twice. But who are “Anna T” and “Karen B,” much less “Netta Croan”? And how do these proper names relate to “Constant Star” and “Starwood”? The fact, as the use of capital letters throughout hints, is that Finlay’s poem is a catalogue or proper names. If we read it against related texts of the sixties, we soon see that these are indeed the names of particular fishing trawlers from Lowestoft, Aberdeen, and other ports. “These names,” Stephen Bann tells us in his commentary, “are a given material, derived intact from the real world. . . . [they] lose the inertness appropriate to their strictly functional role. The poem restores their intrinsic delicacy.” Or rather, from a Wittgensteinian perspective, one might say that the context transforms all the words and phrases, showing how variable the process of naming is, ranging as it does from proper names with initials like Karen B to names that pay homage to the watery world in which the trawlers live. One is even named Drift.

And further: note that the same combination of phonemes—arra or atta—recurs, that “spray” rhymes with “gray” and “day,” and that “drift” echoes the it sound of “starlit” and “moonlit.”

[Figures 12, 13, 14.]

Bann calls this poem a found text but the designation is not quite accurate. Finlay, after all, chooses his trawler names for their visual and sonic values and their semantic potential. The September poem ho / horizon / on, which takes the form of a pyramid [Figure 12] discovers new words within its title; in the May poem broken / heartbroken [Figure 13], the cliché of “heartbroken” is redeemed by the use of letters and spaces: we see the heart being “broken,” losing a letter one step at a time and emptied out into a mere “h&npsp; &npsp; t” space, with the h’s connoting breathing itself. But then the word “broken” is put back together and finally becomes a whole word again, defining the empty heart. Is a broken heart the same as being heartbroken? Or does it make a difference whether heart comes first or second?

In the July ring of waves [Figure 14], Finlay takes ten monosyllabic nouns, printed in green, and permutates the relationship of noun (in green type) to prepositional phrase, where “of” is always blue. The “ring” can be one of “waves” or of “nets” or, finally of “light,” the rhyming “string” is first a “string of lights,” then a “string of fish,” and so on. When “ring” is preceded by the consonants st to make “string,” “light” accommodates by becoming “lights” so that the st is mirrored by ts. One would expect the instances of “of” to form a vertical column, but they don’t because they modify words of different length. Yet everything in this seascape seems to cohere, or does it? Waves, nets, lights, fish, all in rings or rows or on strings: the design is coherent. But what are “roofs” doing in line six where, given the pattern of permutation, we would expect “waves”? It is a characteristically Finlayan clinamen, as is the placement of “of.” The “row of roofs” (no “ring” or “string” of these) reminds us that the harbor scene is circumscribed: from the boat itself (with waves now behind it), the eye turns back to the “row of roofs” on shore, where the “string of fish” will be taken in the “ring of nets.” Finlay’s little poem thus traces the move from sea to land, its “ring of light” welcoming the returning sailor.

“That of which we cannot speak, we must construct.” Finlay’s The Blue and the Brown Poems, each one unique in layout and word or letter play, are among the poet’s most engaging works, demanding the reader-viewer’s most careful attention. “The Muse of concrete poetry,” writes Finlay in Table Talk “reversed Mnemosyne’s gift; depriving the poet of song, she gave him sweet eyesight.” But as so often in Finlay’s subtle discourse, the distinction is ironic. The reader may well be “deprived” of “song,” but to read these poems aloud is to marvel at their delicate adjustment of sounds. Say “net” over and over again (“November”) and it begins to sound like et and then et-cet-era—a statement fulfilled in the December poem, which begins with net-cork. And then there is the boat named Netta Croan.

Finlayan Translation

[Figure 15, Homage to Walter Reekie’s Ring Netters, 1996]

“Concrete poetry,” as Finlay puts it in another aphorism for Table Talk, “was less a visual than a silent poetry.” The poet’s later booklets and card poems, so richly represented in the Reed College Archive, perform delightful riffs on proper names or spin variations on the lyric of other poets, often in translation. The 1996 Homage to Walter Reekie’s Ring Netters [Figure 15], for example, takes the names of ten Scottish sailing vessels—Stardust, Shepherd Lad, Enterprise, Arran Lad, Achates, Endeavor, Progress, Provider, Chrysolite, and Fragrant—and places them, each followed by a license number, in formation in a series of interlocking rings. The list is curiously heterogeneous, ranging from the Roman name Achates (Aeneas’s close friend in Virgil’s Aeneid) to the homely “Shepherd Lad” and “Arran Lad,” and with the names of substances (“stardust,” “chrysolite”) juxtaposed to nounof quality like “Enterprize,” “Endeavor,” and “Progress.” The formation of interlocking circles prompts us to relate “enterprise” to “endeavor,” contained within its circumference, to find a “provider” for “progress,” and to see “progress” as “fragrant,” all the while contrasting the suggestive names to the sober factual licensing of LH228 or BF136.

Or again, in “The Homeward Star” [Figure 16], Samuel Palmer’s translation of Virgil’s First Eclogue provides Finlay with the opening line for what become two minimalist couplets:

[Figure 16, “The Homeward Star”]

What makes this card striking is its mirror effect: the “homeward star” guides the “stitching sail” across the black oval sea, and, at the same time, the “homeward sail” responds to the star stitching the skies. An entire narrative is buried in the twelve words arranged in triads in this little poem.

Similarly, in “Hulls,” nine little words condense what is a subtle essay in phenomenology:

[Figure 17, “Hulls”]

The first line forces us to take the three words as a single hyphenated one: “bread-and-butter” means “ordinary,” “every day.” As such, the line contrasts with the second, “carvel or clinker.” According to the American Heritage Dictionary, “Clinker built (also known as lapstrake) is a method of boat building where the edges of hull planks overlap, called a land. In craft of any size planks are also joined end to end into a strake. The technique developed in northern Europe was successfully used by the Vikings and typical for the Hanseatic cog. A contrasting method, where plank edges are butted smoothly seam to seam, is known as carvel construction.” And carvel, as Wikipedia relates, was evidently typical of Portuguese schooners in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Bread and butter go together, carvel and clinker are alternatives, but both relate to boat building. What about “pan or plain”? Here the conjunction is purely lettristic—“plain” contains all the letters of “pan,” and the two words sound alike but otherwise have no necessary relationship. Both are primarily nouns, but “plain” is also an adjective, “pan” a verb. Finlay’s is thus an homage to difference. The first line gives us three-in-one to produce a common epithet. The second uses “or” to contrast two terms uses in the same radius of discourse—shipbuilding. And the third subordinates the semantic to sight and sound—“pan or plain” look and sound alike. And to heighten the difference between lines, Finlay gives his card an absolutely neutral, indeed bland appearance—“normal” black typeface on a blank page.

In the late work, translation and adaptation play a central role: far from being a special case, Finlay implies, he belongs squarely in the poetic tradition, whether Greek and Roman, German or English. In “Das gepflügte Land” [Figure 18], as in “Bread-and-Butter,” visual layout takes a back seat to punning and double-entendre:

[Figure 18, “Das gepflügte Land”]

“Das gepflügte Land” literally means “the ploughed land,” but Finlay uses sound cognates—“hügelig = undulating,” “flug = flight,” “flügel = wing”—to give the title a new twist: the plowed, undulating land, marked by what look like wings in flight, is seen as fluted. As Hölderlin had put it in his great poem Hyperion, such “fluting” is what “genius presages of higher regions in golden morning light.” The flute, furthermore, brings to mind the “milk of a better age” and “distant Greek sky” of the Schiller quotation.

Finlay’s Wild Hawthorn card (1998) is not “pretty”: it looks like an ordinary bibliographical entry, a library catalogue card, perhaps, with the title followed by definitions. The card has none of the visual charm of The Blue and Brown Poems. But the phonology and morphology of a seemingly neutral title like “das gepflügte Land” contains its own resonance: an ordinary ploughed field becomes, via the classical German poets like Schiller and Hölderlin, something rich and strange. One thinks of William Blake’s great line, “The worm forgives the plough.

Another card of the 1990s, this one sky-blue but otherwise again quite plain [Figure 19], transposes Goethe’s famous “Kennst du daß Land?” (Mignon’s song from the Bildungsroman called Wilhelm Meister’s Lehrjahre), with its longing for the flora and fauna of warm South, to an homage to ocean life:

[Figure 19]

Goethe’s first stanza is printed in smaller type on the bottom of the card:

Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn, / Im
dunkeln Laub die Gold-Orangen glühn, / Ein sanfter
Wind vom blauen Himmel weht, / Die Myrte still und
hoch der Lorbeer steht, / Kennst du es wohl? Dahin!
Dahin! / Möcht ich mit dir, o Mein Geliebter, ziehn.

The sonorities of Goethe’s lyric are notoriously difficult to translate: in this six-line iambic pentameter stanza, with its rhyming couplet, the forward drive created by pounding rhythm and the suspended syntax of question and answer cannot quite be reproduced in English. A literal translation, reproducing Goethe’s rhymes, goes like this:

Do you know the land where the lemons grow,
Where, in the dark trees the gold oranges glow,
A soft wind blows in the blue sky,
The myrtle silent and the laurel high,
Do you know it well? Down there! Down there
I would with you, oh my lover, repair!

Finlay is well aware of the translator’s dilemma: his version of “Kennst Du” [see figure 19] is a prose adaptation:

Do you know the sea where the lemon-shaped
fishing boats rock? Softly, in the shadowy stern,
the orange net-floats shine. A salt wind stirs
the sail, a silver fountain springs from the
vessel’s side. Beloved, did you know this sea?
Did you know it well?

Ironically, although Goethe’s lemon trees have become mere “lemon-shaped fishing boats,” Finlay’s is not just a parody. On the contrary, his seascape is presented as being as desirable as is Goethe’s Mediterranean landscape; it is soft, shadowy, shining: a salt wind stirs the sail, and the silver fountain nicely matches Goethe’s thick laurel growth. Finlay’s ending, however, is quite different: for the German lyric’s erotic charge—the lovers’ desire to fly “Dahin! Dahin!”—he substitutes knowledge: hence the abbreviated title “KENNST DU.” “Beloved did you know this sea? Did you know it well?” Did we, in other words, share this experience? Did you know what I know? It is a cooler, less idealistic form of longing, appropriate for Finlay’s late twentieth-century Scotland rather than Goethe’s Romantic Italy.[xv]

In “Kennst Du,” Finlay implies that poetic translation can never be duplication: indeed, it is best understood as transposition. We can see this in another brilliant Finlay adaptation, the little booklet A Variation on Heidegger:

[Figure 20]

Here the poet’s source is Heidegger’s book of poems Auf der Erfahrung des Denkens ("The Thinker as Poet"). A sample page, translated into English, looks like this:

When on a summer's day the butterfly settles
on the flower, and, wings closed, sways with it
in the meadow-breeze....

All our heart's courage is the echoing response
to the first call of Being which gathers
our thinking into the play of the world.

In thinking all things become solitary and slow.

Patience nurtures magnanimity.

He who thinks greatly must err greatly.

Heidegger’s rather precipitous jump from concretion—the close description of the butterfly’s movements—to philosophical abstraction is gently satirized in Finlay’s version:

When the floods weave grasses into
the fence and a tideline of twigs
is left at the bare wood's twisting
edge ...

we make the best of The Given.

When silence settles on the kitchen
and the oil-lamp stands like a
harvest stook on the cleared table ...

we are glad of The Ordinary.

When the field shines like a star
and the morning's hills are
faint in the last gold of the
afterglow ...

we are amazed by The Mystical.

For one thing, his descriptions are much more sharply observed, less pretty. The first stanza is met by the response “We make the best of The Given,” a down-to-earth pragmatism quite unlike Heidegger’s celebration of the “first call of Being.” The scene then moves indoors to the ordinariness of the oil lamp, compared to a shock of grain, the poet concluding that “We are glad of the ordinary,” and finally to fields bathed in the afterglow of the sun, which prompts the response, “We are amazed by The Mystical.” Such “amazement” is almost comical, very different in mood from Heidegger’s “Wer groß denkt, muß groß irren;” “He who thinks greatly must err greatly.” And the sober plainness of Finlay’s booklet reinforces the poet’s emphasis on what Wittgenstein called “the strangeness of the ordinary.”

[Above: Figure 21.
Below: Figure 22.]

Not all of Finlay’s “translations” are from foreign poetries. In his later years, he evidently enjoyed refiguring the work of his Modernist precursors, producing a kind of “writing-through” we associate with avant-gardists like John Cage. Consider, for example, Finlay’s response to Yeats’s famous “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” This poem, one of the few Yeats read—or, should I say, declaimed (with amazing histrionics) on BBC radio before his death in 1939—goes like this:

I will arise and go now to Innisfree
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

The high style of Yeats’s twelve stately hexameter lines, rhyming abab, and culminating in the famous foreshortened last line—“I hear it in the deep heart’s core”—is reduced, in Finlay’s minimalist version, placed inside a light green cover, bearing an image of abstracted foliage [Figure 21], to just sixteen words, taken almost entirely from lines 3-5 and arranged in five short lines:

Nine bean-rows in
a bee-loud glade by
a shore where peace comes
ping slow

No first-person speaker, announcing his intentions (“I shall arise and go now”), no contrast between past and present, between lake shore and “pavements grey,” no fanciful elaboration as in “midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow.” The key ideogram—“nine bean-rows in / a bee-loud glade”—is self-contained: Finlay has moved the word “shore” up from the last line and associated it with the “peace” that “comes/ drop-/ping slow.” A highly rhetorical early Modernist poem thus becomes a haiku-like Imagist one, with hyphenation (“drop- / ping”) visually creating the soft and slow “ping” of near-silence. A related set of poems, “4,” printed as one long column on an orange background [Figure 22], has as its fourth poem a minimalist lyric called “Two Lonelinesses,” whose lines allude to Yeats’s The Wind Among the Reeds:

Wind in
the wires,
wind in
the reeds.

The abbreviated syntax gives ambiguity to “wind,” which can here be an imperative verb.

Another remarkable reconfiguration comes from the Echoes Series, where Finlay transforms D. H. Lawrence’s “Autumn Rain” (in the sequence Look! We have Come Through! of 1917) into a calligramme on the model of Apoillinaire’s Il Pleut [Figure 23]. The latter is a famous early example of mimetic visual poetry: Apollinaire turns the words of “Il pleut” into raindrops coming down the page. Ironically, Finlay, like his fellow concrete poets, had reservations about the calligrammes, finding they were too obvious, too mimetic. On the other hand, he seems to have enjoyed the exercise of transforming a straightforward stanzaic poem like Lawrence’s “Autumn Rain” into a comparable configuration. Here is that poem:

The plane leaves
fall black and wet
on the lawn;

the cloud sheaves
in heaven’s fields set
droop and are drawn

in falling seeds of rain;
the seed of heaven
on my face

falling—I hear again
like echoes even
that softly pace

heaven’s muffled floor,
the winds that tread
out all the grain

of tears, the store
in the sheaves of pain

caught up aloft:
the sheaves of dead
men that are slain

now winnowed soft
on the floor of heaven;
manna invisible

of all the pain
here to us given;
finely divisible

falling as rain.[xvi]

Lawrence’s poem exploits the pathetic fallacy: the poet’s mood reflects the the dark landscape—a vale of sorrow as personified by the gently falling rain, rhyming with “pain,” “grain,” and even “slain,” the last word referring to World War I then at its height and very much on Lawrence’s mind.

[Figures 23 and 24]

In his calligrammic version [Figure 24], Finlay omits the first stanza and alters the wording throughout to suit his own purpose: the first vertical line reads “the cloud sheaves in heaven’s fields droop in falling seeds of rain.” The “dead / men” of Lawrence’s seventh stanza appear in the fourth wavy line, but here they are not the “slain” but rather “the sheaves of dead men on the floor of heaven winnowed soft.” Lawrence’s war poem becomes, in Finlay’s hands, a pastoral. Throughout, Finlay’s small adjustments produce a visual constellation where lines 1 and 5, culminating in “rain,” frame the long line 3, which ends with the word “in.” And where Lawrence’s tercets give the rainy landscape a fixed shape, Finlay’s raindrops fall quirkily and unevenly on the “ground” below. It is an intriguing exercise in intertexual transformation.

But for Finlay, there is always more than one variant. Let me conclude with another late poem, this time an indirect homage (or critique?) of Lawrence’s “Autumn Rain.” Here is “Clouds”:

[Figure 25]

On a flat gray background, uncompromising in its bareness and refusal to charm, “Clouds” in capital letters and “Rain” at the bottom, frame a column of white letters (one or two per line), spelling out the apostrophe, “CLOUDS, your incredible capitals crown the tall grey columns of RAIN.” Here, where every letter counts (but is not meant to look like a raindrop) we witness the cloudburst itself, coming down vertically in the form of rain, a minimalist version of Lawrence’s column poem. Such “translation”—from one poem or one medium to another testify to Finlay’s remarkable inventiveness, his understanding of Wittgenstein’s adage that the meaning of a word, or even a single letter, is its use in the language.



* This essay was given as a lecture at Yale Union in Portland, Oregon on November 9, 2013 in conjunction with an exhibition drawn from a collection of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s printed works at Reed College. The exhibition and lecture were arranged by Yale Union curators Robert Snowden and Hope Svenson as the last in a series of exhibitions about Ian Hamilton Finlay. Special thanks to Tim Johnson at the Marfa Book Co. and Robert Snowden and Hope Svenson at Yale Union.

Part 1 of this essay was published, in somewhat different form, in “From Suprematism to Language Game: The Blue and Brown Poems of Ian Hamilton Finlay, in the catalogue The Present Order: Writings on the Work of Ian Hamilton Finlay (Marfa Book Co, 2010, 85-103; abridged version in Vlak, ed. Louis Armand, I (October 2010), 16-22.   // back


  1. Ian Hamilton Finlay, Table Talk (Scotland: Barbarian Press, 1985), 4, 9.    // back
  2. Ian Hamilton Finlay, “Letters to Ernst Jandl,” Chapman 78-79: Ian Hamilton Finlay Issue (1994), ed. Alec Finlay, 10-16; see p. 12, Spaced dots are the editor’s.    // back
  3. See The Present Order: Writings on the Work of Ian Hamilton Finlay, Exhibition Catalogue, The Gallery (Marfa, Texas, 201),ed Caitlin Murray and Tim Johnson, frontispiece. For a slightly different version, see Yves Abrioux, Ian Hamilton Finlay: A Visual Primer (Cambridge: MA: MIT Press, 1992), 177.    // back
  4. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations 2d ed., trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1999), §33.    // back
  5. Kasimir Malevich, “From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism: The New Painterly Realism, 1915,” in Russian Art of the Avant-Garde: Theory and Criticism 1902-1934, ed. and trans. John E. Bowlt (New York: Viking, 1976), 116-35. “Suprematism” is a slippery term since the fact is that Malevich was the only Suprematist, and the movement to which he belonged was more broadly called Futurism, sometimes Cubo-Futurism.    // back
  6. Ian Hamilton Finlay, “Letter to Pierre Garnier, September 17 th, 1963,” in Mary Ellen Solt, Concrete Poetry: A World View, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971), 84.    // back
  7. The first issue of Poor. Old. Tired. Horse was published in offset printing by Wild Hawthorn Press in 1963; the journal went through twenty-five issues before its demise in 1968. The interest in the Russian avant-garde was probably prompted by Finlay’s poet-friend Edwin Morgan, whose translations of Mayakovsky, Khlebnikov, etc. are outstanding.    // back
  8. Ian Hamilton Finlay / Michael Harvey, Homage to Malevich (Wild Hawthorn Press, 1968). In this one, the cross is dark blue, the smaller rectangles red against a gray ground. In later versions, the cross is orange-red, the smaller rectangles black, against a yellow ground.    // back
  9. Anne Moeglin-Delcroix, “Poet or Artist?” Present Order, 37.    // back
  10. Susan Howe, “The End of Art,” Stereo Headphones, Number 8-9-10 (1982), ed. Nicholas Zurbrurgg, 40-43; see p. 43.    // back
  11. Many, but not all, of the individual poems had been published in earlier Finlay books or as cards.    // back
  12. The Blue and the Brown Poems calendar was published by Atlantic Richfield Company and Graphic Arts Typographers with the calendar design by Herbert M. Rosenthal (Aspen 1968). Each of the twelve lithographs measures c. 21 x 13 inches.    // back
  13. Rush Rhees, “Preface,” Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books, 2nd. ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1960), vii.    // back
  14. See Abrioux 86.    // back
  15.  In a letter to Yves Abrioux (March 1984), Finlay remarks, with reference to his “Rhymes for Lemons” series, that the German “homesickness” for the South-land of classical culture epitomized by Goethe’s poem, was hardly just an idealistic longing for flowering lemon trees; it was, Finlay suggests, coupled with the German Nationalism, born in this period: see Abrioux, 191-92. I personally think this is a misreading of Wilhelm Meister, where Mignon’s longing is qualified by the Wilhelm’s own realistic assessment of the situation.    // back
  16. D. H. Lawrence, The Poems, Vol. 1, ed. Christopher Pollnitz, The Cambridge Edition of the Works of D. H. Lawrence (Cambridge, 1913), 221.    // back


Before her retirement, MARJORIE PERLOFF was Sadie D. Patek Professor of Humanities at Stanford University. She is also Florence Scott Professor Emerita of English at the University of Southern California. She teaches courses and writes on twentieth—and now twenty-first—century poetry and poetics, both Anglo-American and from a Comparatist perspective, as well as on intermedia and the visual arts. Her first three books dealt with individual poets—Yeats, Robert Lowell, and Frank O'Hara; she then published The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage (1981), a book that has gone through a number of editions, and led to her extensive exploration of avant-garde art movements in The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant-Guerre, and the Language of Rupture (1986, new edition, 1994), and subsequent books (13 in all), the most recent of which is Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century (2011), which appeared in Portuguese translation in 2013. Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media (1992) has been used in classrooms studying the “new” digital poetics, and 21st Century Modernism (Blackwell 2002) is a manifesto of Modernist Survival. Wittgenstein's Ladder brought philosophy into the mix; it has recently been translated into Portuguese (Sao Paulo), Spanish (Mexico), and Slovenian and will be translated in France for 2014 publication. Perloff has published a cultural memoir The Vienna Paradox (2004), which has recently appeared in German translation in Vienna and will soon be published in Brazil. The Sound of Poetry / The Poetry of Sound, co-edited with Craig Dworkin was published by Chicago in 2009. A collection of interviews, Poetics in a New Key, will be published by University of Chicago in the fall of 2014. And Perloff is currently under contract with Chicago for a book called The Other Austrians, a study of the still largely misunderstood contribution of the late Hapsburg empire to the literature of Modernism. In this study, Perloff returns to her Viennese roots but also engages what is for her a new area—Modernist fiction, theatre, and memoir.