Letter to Pierre Garnier, 1963 Ian Hamilton Finlay, Scotland
I feel that the main use of theory may well be that of concentrating the attention in a certain area-of providing a context which is favourable to the actual work. I like G. Vantongerloo's remark: "Things must be approached through sensitivity rather than understanding . . ."; this being especially acceptable from Vantongerloo since he is far from being against understanding (it seems to me)-his "must" I take to mean "must" because the world is such and we are so.... An understanding (theoretical explanation) of concrete (in general) poetry is, for me, an attempt to find a non-concrete prose parallel to, or secular expression of, the kind of feeling, or even more basically, "being," which says, if one listens carefully to the time, and if one is not sequestered in society, that such-and-such a mode of using words-this kind of syntax, this sort of construction-is "honest" and "true." . . . One of the Cubists-I forget who-said that it was after all difficult for THEM to make cubism because they did not have, as we have, the example of cubism to help them. I wonder if we are not all a little in the dark, still as to the real significance of "concrete." . . . For myself I cannot derive from the poems I have written any "method" which can be applied to the writing of the next poem; it comes back, after each poem, to a level of "being," to an almost physical intuition of the time, or of a form . . . to which I try, with huge uncertainty, to be "true." Just so, "concrete" began for me with the extraordinary (since wholly unexpected) sense that the syntax I had been using, the movement of language in me, at a physical level, was no longer there-so it had to be replaced with something else, with a syntax and movement that would be true of the new feeling (which existed in only the vaguest way, since I had, then, no form for it . . .). So that I see the theory as a very essential (because we are people, and people think, or should think, or should TRY to think) part of our life and art; and yet I also feel that it is a construction, very haphazard, uncertain, and by no means as yet to be taken as definitive. And indeed, when people come together, for whatever purpose, the good is often a by-product . . . it comes as the unexpected thing. For myself, on the question of "naming," I call my poems "fauve" or "suprematist," this to indicate their relation to "reality" . . . (and you see, one of the difficulties of theory for me is that I find myself using a word like "reality" while knowing that if I was asked, "What do you mean by reality?," I would simply answer, "I don't know . . ."). I approve of Malevich's statement, "Man distinguished himself as a thinking being and removed himself from the perfection of God's creation. Having left the non-thinking state, he strives by means of his perfected objects, to be again embodied in the perfection of absolute, nonthinking life...." That is, this seems to me, to describe, approximately, my own need to make poems . . . though I don't know what is meant by "God." And it also raises the question that, though the objects might "make it," possibly, into a state of perfection, the poet and painter will not. I think any pilot-plan should distinguish, in its optimism, between what man can construct and what he actually is. I mean, new thought does not make a new man; in any photograph of an aircrash one can see how terribly far man stretches- from angel to animal; and one does not want a glittering perfection which forgets that the world is, after all, also to be made by man into his home. I should say -however hard I would find it to justify this in theory-that "concrete" by its very limitations offers a tangible image of goodness and sanity; it is very far from the now-fashionable poetry of anguish and self. . . . It is a model, of order, even if set in a space which is full of doubt. (Whereas non-concrete might be said to be set in society, rather than space, and its "satire," its "revolt," are only disguised symptoms of social dishonesty. This, I realise goes too far; I do not mean to say that society is "bad.") . . . I would like, if I could, to bring into this, somewhere the unfashionable notion of "Beauty," which I find compelling and immediate, however theoretically inadequate. I mean this in the simplest way-that if I was asked, "Why do you like concrete poetry?" I could truthfully answer "Because it is beautiful."