Nick Thurston considers some unavoidable problems with reading Ian Hamilton Finlay, the Scottish poet-gardener, seriously as a poet.
In my view, all of my work, in all of its forms, from the simplest concrete poems to the war with Strathclyde Region, has been based on an aspiration for ordered simplicity. (In such a light do I see Saint-Just and Robespierre; in such a light, equally, do I decry Danton.)
—Letter to Francis Edeline, 2 October 1988
The off-center centerpiece in Tate Britain’s current Duveen Gallery display of works by Ian Hamilton Finlay is a 7.3m long text-only engraving across six bath stone panels, which reads: “THE WORLD HAS BEEN EMPTY SINCE THE ROMANS” (made with Nicholas Sloan, 1985). Suspended on chains from a scaffold rig set at the baseline of the barrel-vaulted ceiling on the towering inside wall of one of the two neoclassical gallery halls, these high hanging fragments are buttressed into sequence like an archaeological reconstruction looking down, imposingly, at anyone willing to read them literarily. This one declarative phrase is suspended in space and time and conviction, as if it had been written by and/or for some bygone society whose superiority the poet wished to restate or even resurrect. The modal intensity and literal breaking of classicism’s truth claim—that a certain virtuous civility is the social consciousness by which the human world could exercise, or at least realize, its full potential, so as to fulfill “being human” as a socio-virtuous project—keenly represents the three unavoidable problems with reading Finlay seriously as a poet.
Nick Thurston on how Kim Rosenfield’s Lividity and Steven Zultanski’s Agony both convert the long form poem into an act of hyper-objectification, and how both do so to brutally contemporary effect.
In an age of acceleration and over-production, wherein the very ontology of published language has been transformed by its reformation through and as principally-digital data, the most intelligent and imaginative poetic responses seem to have come from the field of so-called Conceptual writing. Basically this is because conceptualist approaches to cultural production demand that “makers” consider what they make in the context of their field or community at the level of social epistemology as well as that of the projective imaginary. That is, the maker-subject recognizes herself as just one producer within a specific community and history of possibilities that are united by some shared concerns (technical, political, economic, geographic, sexual, whatever), and which are in turn embedded in other communities and histories of production. Those maker-subjects re-imagine those shared concerns by holding them together, often in dispute, which means that they don’t have to agree on what those concerns “mean,” but that they do privilege them as a/the problematic(s) for their community of production. The job, then, is to develop that shared problematic(s).
Conceptual writers are writing beyond other communities of literary practice because they’ve taken the risk of advancing the problematic(s) of poetry, whereas other communities of poetic practice (at least the ones who are producing textual fields that we would currently recognize as “poetry”) are failing to even at least sufficiently develop the problematic(s) of poetry in our age. At present, the conceptualist approach to writing (which is something that expands before and beyond so-called Conceptual writing) seems to be exploring what it means for poetic writing to be “contemporary” in the most interesting way right now. And the contemporaneity at stake in this contemporary moment seems to be being shaped by the unprecedented tension between a pair of facts that are perfectly articulated in Kim Rosenfield’s doublet “THE BRUTE MATERIAL OF WORDS. THE BRUTAL MATERIAL OF WORLDS.” (Lividity, p. 165), partly because of what it says and partly because she makes no claim to having said it first.