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  • Models of Order: Form and Cosmos in the Poetry of Ian Hamilton Finlay and Ronald Johnson
  • Ross Hair

Pure poems are made by fools like me, But only Ron can type a tree.

—Ian Hamilton Finlay to Ronald Johnson (28 Oct. 1967)

Sailor of the small calms —the pure and unrippling planes—

may the winds all unwind, before you, to slow, sweet breeze.

—Ronald Johnson to Ian Hamilton Finlay (31 Oct. 1969)

Over a period of nine years, from approximately 1962 to 1971, the Scottish poet Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925–2006) and the American poet Ronald Johnson (1935–1998) enjoyed a friendship, sustained largely via their correspondence, which had significant implications for the work of both poets. Finlay and Johnson have earned themselves considerable reputations within the landscape of late twentieth-century poetry but their friendship was, in many ways, the meeting of two very different worlds. Ten years older than Johnson, by 1962 Finlay had already written and published a number of short stories and plays. These early writings primarily concern the rural environs that Finlay had experienced while living in various parts of the Scottish Highlands and islands, and follows in the vein of Scottish writers such as John Macnair Reid and Ian Macpherson as well as showing the influence of Russian writers, particularly Fyodor Sologub, Leonid Andreyev, and Anton Chekov (Abrioux 1). This early phase of Finlay’s writing followed on from his earlier abandoned efforts to be a painter, which, prompted by his discovery of cubism at the age of fourteen, led to a brief period studying at the Glasgow School of Art (Abrioux 1). These [End Page 181] painterly aspirations would later play an important role in the development of Finlay’s poetics and be a decisive element in his correspondence with Johnson.

By comparison, Johnson was a relative newcomer to poetry who had fallen under the spell of the American Black Mountain poets that his then-partner, the poet and publisher Jonathan Williams, had introduced him to. “Jonathan was not only a Black Mountain poet,” Johnson claims, “but [he] published, with Jargon Press, most of the early poets who mattered,” which included Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and Robert Creeley (“Up Till Now” 112). While Finlay shared Johnson’s enthusiasm for Creeley’s poetry, as well as Johnson’s regard for older American poets—particularly Lorine Niedecker and Louis Zukofsky—Finlay’s interests, as I discuss in this essay, were at considerable odds with the Black Mountain poetics underpinning much of Johnson’s work.

Despite these differences a connection between the two poets quickly formed when Johnson, with Williams, met Finlay for the first time in Edinburgh in 1962. As it was for many American poets, Finlay’s first booklet of poems, The Dancers Inherit the Party (1960), was Johnson’s initial introduction to the poet. “The book was great for putting me in touch with people overseas,” Finlay would later tell Williams: “I remember that Lorine Niedecker wrote, Robert Creeley and Cid Corman also. And you and Robert Duncan” (qtd. in Williams, “Paean for I. H. F.” n. pag.). In the summer of 1969, a later edition of the book would be at the center of Finlay’s legal dispute with Stuart Montgomery, publisher of the Fulcrum Press, London. This acrimonious dispute embroiled numerous poets on both sides of the Atlantic, including Johnson and, as I discuss below, was a major factor in the dissolution of his friendship with Finlay. Williams, who was one of the many poets to be caught in Montgomery and Finlay’s cross-fire, wryly notes that between them, the two men “managed to stir up more bad blood than Castle Dracula during a whole month of Sundays” (Letter to Rubinstein, Nash, and Co., 15 Oct. 1969).

Squares and Circles

Johnson dates his “first salvageable poems” to the time he met Finlay (“Up Till Now” 114). Finlay would publish some of these early efforts in Poor. Old. Tired. Horse., the seminal magazine, also known as POTH, that, with Jessie McGuffie, he launched in 1961.1 In the same year, Finlay and McGuffie also began Wild Hawthorn Press, which published a complete edition of Johnson’s translations of Erik Satie’s...


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