Ian Hamilton Finlay, Little Sparta and other matters


I got the Newsletter of the Little Sparta Trust recently and, among other interesting things, there was a link to applications for a Residency this year. I thought about it, indeed I drafted an ‘Expression of Interest’, but at the end of the day I decided against applying, for reasons I’ll explain later. But it got me thinking again about Ian Hamilton Finlay, his garden, his poetry, and his art.

I first came across him in my ‘Beat’ days in the early 1960s. I used to frequent Jim Haynes’ The Paperback bookshop in Charles Street, the one with the rhinoceros head above the door (and how incorrect is that these days). Jim brought me mugs of black coffee, and I browsed the shelves for modern poetry – mainly American and European, but some home-grown writing. In 1962 I attended the infamous Writers’ Conference in the MacEwan Hall, bought Donald Allen’s New American Poetry, 1945-1960, and several issues of a broadsheet called Poor. Old. Tired. Horse., produced by Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Wild Hawthorn Press. It caused a revolution in my head. It was here that I first came across Lorine Niedecker, Jerome Rothenberg, Larry Eigner, and Cid Corman, along with work by Edwin Morgan, Pete Brown and many others. I like to think this was where I developed my internationalist outlook, and my love of ‘free’ verse.

Later I became a ‘respectable’ figure in society, a librarian even, but I still have that anarchic, rebellious side to my nature, hence the tattoos, and the love of improvisation, whether through jazz or through words. Ian was developing a series of ambitious projects which may be loosely categorised as concrete poetry, and I saw several of his artworks, with variations on words incised into walls, in Livingston and elsewhere.

And of course Little Sparta was developing, set in the natural landscape around Stoneypath. It was here that he explored the concepts of setting art in nature, of the inevitable contrasts and links between the given and the made. In my own writing I was beginning to explore these themes too, although my botany and my geology came from my scientific training, rather from artistic or aesthetic considerations. A lot of my writing, since the 1990s, has been informed by my scientific background, as well as my love of the arts and of gardens.

Then, when I was on the Committee of the Scottish Poetry Library, Tessa Ransford and I visited Little Sparta, to commission Ian to design a tapestry for the new library building then taking shape in the Canongate.

My most tangible link to Ian, however, is my long-lasting friendship with his son Alec. He and I have worked together on a variety of projects, from renga platform days to writing essays on Scottish mountain flowers, to helping with the National Memorial for Tissue and Organ Donation, among many others.

My 2012 poetry collection, The Propriety of Weeding, has this quotation from Ian as its Foreword:

The dull necessity of weeding arises, because every healthy plant is a racist and an imperialist; every daisy (even) wishes to establish for itself an Empire on which the sun never sets.

Here, I think, is the essence of my dilemma. Most of the everyday landscapes we see around us have been created artificially, and are managed, weeded if you like. The remaining pockets of wild nature are rare and hard to find, but it’s here that my inspirations mainly come from these days; they appeal to my wild side.

So, although I love art and gardens, and I’ve written extensively about them, when I considered the Residency carefully, I came down on the side of preferring to write new things about new subjects, rather than go over old ground. And as I’m mainly writing short stories these days my favourite subject is people, in all their variety and their common humanity.

About sunnydunny

Poet, publisher, gardener
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