“The modulation of the material”: Language and materiality in Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Concrete poetry

By Charlie Jarvis

This blog post considers the work of the poet, Ian Hamilton Finlay, in relation to “literary geography”, an interdisciplinary field that studies the places within literary works and the placing of these works within geographical milieux. In raising the question of the materiality of words – as sensible, physical beings in time and space – Finlay’s work problematises the tendencies that literary geographies often betray. These tendencies I identify as the general failure to consider words as things themselves, rather than just transparent representations of things, as well as the field’s continual emphasis on the exclusively human agents at work in literary production. Finlay’s poetry, as I show here, rather points toward the formal and substantial reality of words, and to the ineluctable influence of non-human phenomena – matter, space, climate – within the production and reception of literary works.

The sub-discipline of “literary geography” became formalised in the mid-twentieth century as a “humanistic” antidote to the positivist orthodoxy of the academic geography of the period (Pocock, 1988: 88). Conventionally, it took interest in literature’s “felicitous regional description” (ibid.), as well as its provision of a transparent, “powerful lens” through which to read subjective impressions of place, power, and identity (Johnston, 2004: 91). Perhaps legitimately, literature was taken less as a thing to be studied in itself, and more as a representational tool with which to observe more accurately or authentically something more important, or more immediately geographical: a space, a social phenomenon, or a personal experience of either.
With the advent of non-representational theory at the turn of the twenty-first century the emphasis within literary geography changed, with critics considering less the places represented in literary texts than the placement of the text within a material, social, and geographical environment. Theories that are representative of this new approach, such as Sheila Hones’s (2011) and Jon Anderson’s (2015), figure the text as a spatial event through which different agents in different spatio-temporal localities converge. However, the risk here is that an attention to the embodied practices of, and the relations between, author, reader, publisher, editor, and the whole host of other human agents involved in the production of the literary “event” overshadow the specificity of the literary object – as a primarily verbal or linguistic thing. Hones’s paper on Henry James’s novel The Portrait of a Lady (2011), for example, indicatively fails to quote even once from the text itself.
Consequently, the purpose of this blog post is to reassert, following the poet W.S. Graham, that “a poem”, and indeed all literature, “is made of words, not the expanding heart, the overflowing soul, or the sensitive observer” (my emphasis; 2000: 118): I want to consider words as things – material things – that exist and have a geographical import, before they represent something else. That which is known as “Concrete” poetry allows us to explore precisely this problematic, as – in the words of the “Concrete” poet, visual artist and “avant-gardener”, Ian Hamilton Finlay – these are less “poems that are about” than “poems that just are” (2009: 16). They do not so much refer the reader immediately to something outside of them, but they rather deserve attention in their own existence as linguistic things.

‘Acrobats’ by Ian Hamilton Finlay, 1966

“Concrete” poetry began, in the 1950s, as a movement that insisted upon the materiality of the literary work – specifically not just the book but the actual words themselves – by drawing attention to the non-verbal elements of language: rather than just semantic objects, “Concrete” poetry emphasised the visual, sonorous, and haptic – or what was referred to as the “verbivocovisual” (H. de Campos et al, 2007: 218) – form of words. In this sense, Concrete poetry enrolled graphic space – the materiality of the page – as a “structural agent” within the development of the sense of the poem (ibid.), as Finlay’s “Acrobats” shows [above]. Here, one does not merely follow lines of words that offer meaning transparently, but one is rather confronted with the non-verbal form, shape, and sound of linguistic units, in spatial arrangement, which produce meaning in excess of the word’s semantic content. By demanding a “constellatory” or “acrobatic” style of reading – in which one would always “see things in the middle” rather than as fully formed or unfolding sequentially (Deleuze and Guattari, 2015: 24) – one could draw attention to the often unnoticed relation between materiality and linguistic meaning. By presenting linguistic elements as material “word-things in space-time” (H. de Campos et al, 2007: 18), “Concrete” poetry could instigate a dynamic reading experience which could not take for granted the easily representational nature of words.


Andrew Lawson, “The Present Order”, The Little Sparta Trust: The Garden of Ian Hamilton Finlay.

Considering this movement within the context of literary theory allows us to see what it has to offer for the discipline of “literary geography”. I suggest that we can see “Concrete” poetry as a subversion of the notion of the autonomy of the aesthetic object, which, since Kant, has referred to art as the site of a disinterested contemplation that disdains utility or social relation and that serenely considers a transcendent “aesthetic idea” (Altieri, 2012: 106-9). In the language of the “Concretists”, on the other hand, poetry “renounc[es] the struggle for the ‘absolute’” and “remains in the magnetic field of perennial relativity” (H. de Campos et al, 2007: 218): rather than a detached, representational form, the poem becomes a “functional”, “useful”, or “dynamic object” within the world (ibid.). Finlay’s poetry thus demonstrates what has been called a “social materiality” (Bernstein, 2016: 103) – it is not merely an inert thing, enclosed within the pages of a book and at the whim of whatever human agent takes it up, as for Anderson and Hones, but a force which affects and effectuates something in the reader. As the poet Charles Bernstein would write elsewhere, for Finlay, “it’s not a matter of what [the poem] says but of what it is; or, better, it is not a matter of what it is but of what it does (2016: 103).

As the movement’s manifestos show, Concrete poetry takes as its concern not static, ideal being, but verbal dynamism, relation, and the transformative potential of materiality. Finlay’s “garden-poems” dramatise precisely this “rhythm: relational force” in language (H. de Campos et al, 2007: 218) through the placement of material words within landscapes. Carved in stone, glass, or moulded in cork and affixed to walls, words become less ideally representational than materially relational: they are affected, touched, and damaged by the weather and by visitors to the gardens. Thus emplaced, they fulfil their potential as “words-things in space-time”, and demand to be read in an environment whose unfolding through time undermines the possibility of disinterestedness. As Finlay notes, in his Detached Sentences on Gardening, “one visitor will abbreviate the garden, another enlarge it. To one, it is the entertainment of ten minutes, to another the meditation of a day” (2012: 183). There is no one poem to be read in its ideal unity, but an infinity of different poems that change with the propensities of the visitor, or the effect of the unpredictable flux of the weather. Language is not immune to this change. As Claire Colebrook notes,

a repeated word may look the same; but it is not sameness that produces repetition so much as difference. Each repetition of a word is always a different inauguration of that word, transforming the word’s history and any context (2002: 120).

Each word, depending on context, environment, viewer, or material support, renews itself, not just at the moment of its written or spoken enunciation, but when read or observed. As Colebrook observes, language itself becomes a “living force”, not just a “static, determining grid” (2008: 64). For a literary geography at risk of losing sight of the linguistic being of literature, a renewed attention to the materiality of language might prove indispensable.


 Altieri, Charles (2012), “Autonomy”, in Roland Greene, Stephen Cushman, Clare Cavanagh, Jahan Ramazani, and Paul Rouzer (eds.), The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Fourth Edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press), pp. 106-109
 Anderson, Jon (2015), “Towards an Assemblage Approach to Literary Geography”, Literary Geography 1.2, pp. 120-137
 Bernstein, Charles (2016), Pitch of Poetry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)
 Colebrook, Claire (2008), “On Not Becoming Man: The Materialist Politics of Unactualized Potential”, in Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman (eds.), Material Feminisms (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press), pp. 52-84
 (2002), Gilles Deleuze (London: Routledge)
 de Campos, Augusto (2007), “Concrete Poetry: A Manifesto”, in Louis Armand (ed.), Contemporary Poetics (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press), pp. 213-5
 de Campos, Haroldo, Augusto de Campos, and Decio Pignatari (2007), “Pilot Plan for Concrete Poetry”, in Haroldo de Campos, Novas: Selected Writings (Evanston: Northwestern University), pp. 217-219
 Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari (2015), A Thousand Plateaus (London: Bloomsbury Academic)
 Finlay, Ian Hamilton (2012), Selections, ed. by Alec Finlay (London: University of California Press)
 (2009), A Model of Order: Selected Letters on Poetry and Making, ed. by Thomas A. Clark (Glasgow: WAX366)
 Graham, W.S. (2000), “Notes on a Poetry of Release”, in W.N. Herbert and Matthew Hollis (eds.), Strong Words: Modern Poets on Modern Poetry (Highgreen: Bloodaxe), pp. 117-121
 Hones, Sheila (2011), “Literary geography: The novel as a spatial event”, in Stephen Daniels, Dydia DeLyser, J. Nicholas Entrikin, and Douglas Richardson (eds.), Envisioning Landscapes, Making Worlds (London: Routledge), pp. 247-255
 Johnson, Nuala C. (2004), “Fictional journeys: paper landscapes, tourist trails and Dublin’s literary texts”, Social and Cultural Geography 5.1, pp. 91-107
 Pocock, Douglas C.D. (1988), “Geography and literature”, Progress in Human Geography


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