Friday, October 05, 2012

A Shaded Path

Next month Tate Britain will feature a new display of its works by Ian Hamilton Finlay.  Meanwhile in Edinburgh there are still a few more weeks of 'Ian Hamilton Finlay: Twilight Remembers' at the Ingleby Gallery.  It is worth finding your way there (through the confusion of construction work in and around Edinburgh Waverley) if only to see Carrier Strike!, a short film in which a sea battle a fleet of irons and an ironing board aircraft carrier.  Climb the stairs and you encounter a line of bricks called A Shaded Path, each one stamped with the word 'Virgil' - a pastoral version of Carl Andre's Equivalent VIII. The room contains examples of Finlay's garden sculptures: Three Inscribed Stones bearing the names of Japanese war planes, a stile inspired by De Stijl, a pairs of benches Glade / Grove and a 'milestone' which says simply 'MAN / A PASSERBY'.  Downstairs there is a whole wall devoted to prints and postcards of Finlay's concrete and experimental poetry.  These poems can also be read, along with early verse and prose, later texts and 'detatched sentences', in Ian Hamilton Finlay: Selections, a new anthology edited by Alec Finlay.  I thought I would include here a few extracts from the Introduction that give a sense of Ian Hamilton Finlay's engagement with landscape over the years.

late 1940s: Finlay left Glasgow with his first wife for the Highlands, where they lived in a whitewashed cottage resembling his later home at Stonypath.  'Druim-na-Cille was "an extraordinary landscape of pines and mountains which I still owe many poems to," and "bittersweet, like a mixture of Heine and Trakl."  ... In these glens he had a dream of 'young men engaged in learned discourse', a vision that would eventually become the garden where the thought of Hegel, Schelling and Heidegger was actualised in herm, stile and wood-path.  ... The more one reflects on his biography the more clear it is that each new landscape of home became, in time, a created landscape, shaped by the memory of a lost idyll.'

mid 1950s: 'In a rite familiar to Scottish writers, Finlay found refuge on an island, Rousay, one of Orkney's smaller islands.  ... For all its wildness, Rousay has a platonic perfection, its constituent parts - loch, mill and farms; the single road, upon which he worked as a labourer; the rugged coast - were, "being on an island ... like a concrete poem, very particular, very realised."'

late 1960s: After some years in Edinburgh Finlay wrote to George Mackay Brown that he had found a new home with his partner Sue: "STONYPATH ('Of life' being understood in brackets, no doubt).  I am looking forward to the wildness very much." 'The area around the house was wild, except for an overgrown walled garden at the front, with lilac trees, currant bushes and an old ash - this last Finlay celebrated with a stone plaque 'MARE NOSTRUM' ('Our Sea'), after the Roman Mediterranean: "except on very calm days [...] the ash fills the garden with its sea-sound.  When people ask why so many poems refer to the sea, or comment that it is odd to find so many sea-references so far from the sea itself, I often point to the Ash Tree and say, That is our sea."'

1970s: The garden at Stonypath took shape. 'Year by year the composed landscape distinguished itself from the wild hillside and the broad waste of the moor.  Finlay extolled the 'slow excitement' of his new art.  His imaginative fancy conjured Stonypath as a belated episode in the English landscape garden tradition - those "quite extraordinary PURE SYMPHONIC creations', in which nature is poeticized, abstracted: pond as Pool, grass as Lawn, sundial gnomon dividing shadow into measure and order.'

1980s: By 1982 Finlay had renamed his garden 'Little Sparta' and transformed his gallery into a Garden Temple dedicated 'To Apollo: His Music, His Missiles, His Muses.' 'For Finlay, poetics now became secondary to the lightning flash of incitement, which found its apotheosis in Robespiere's protégé Saint-Just, a Spartan Rimbaud or Young Apollo, identified by his flute and blade. ... Balancing the insurrectionary mood are the poet's sober meditations, as the era of rebellion gradually gives way to an era of contemplation, and the garden itself matures to enclose the still shadows of a cypress grove.'

late 1990s: 'There unfolded a last long autumnal decade whose emblems were the wild flower and the fishing-boat, and whose ideal literary form was the proverb.  Sometimes Finlay expressed puzzlement that he had lost the energy for battles.  In truth his imagination had returned to the pastoral, in poems which recalled the early days at Stonypath, celebrating the moor, with its larks and bog-cotton, and the wild roses that grew by the burn.'

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