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Ian Hamilton Finlay's poem objects

Scottish poet and artist Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925–2006) often combined objects and text to explore a range of subjects from history and philosophy to nature and our relationship with it.

He became interested in the visual form of words in the early 1960s and began to write concrete poetry – a form of poetry in which the words are arranged in such a way that helps convey their effect and meaning.

He later took the idea of words having a physical presence to a new level by developing 'poem objects'. He carved his poems – which were sometimes short phrases or single words – into stone or onto plaques or made three-dimensional versions of words themselves so that they became objects, such as Drift (1968).

Drift

Drift 1968

Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925–2006)

Towner

The word drift suggests drifting at sea. By wrapping the text in a fishing net Ian Hamilton Finlay emphasises the maritime reference. But the net also seems to undermine the meaning of the word by implying that the text is somehow caught and is no longer able to drift.

Hamilton Finlay also added text to objects. By juxtaposing text with, often ordinary or unlikely, objects he makes us think about and question the meaning of the words as well as the function of the object and its relationship to the words.

Monument

Monument 1991

Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925–2006)

Tate

Art and landscape – Little Sparta

Ian Hamilton Finlay often placed his poem objects into landscape settings.

In 1966 he began to create a garden, called Little Sparta, at his home in the Pentland Hills in Southern Scotland. The garden combined his love of nature and his interest in giving visual form to ideas and words.

Find out more about Ian Hamilton Finlay and Little Sparta

This video made by Ingleby Gallery in Edinburgh takes us on a tour of Ian Hamilton Finlay's garden and shows us some of the poem objects he made for it.

Little Sparta – the Garden of Ian Hamilton Finlay (video)

  • Watch the video with your students
  • Can you spot the poem objects in the garden?
  • Do you think that seeing the artworks outside in a natural environment would be very different from seeing them in a gallery? Why?

 

Activity: explore Beehives

Beehives 2009 is an artwork that Ian Hamilton Finlay made for contemporary sculpture park Jupiter Artland in Scotland.

Beehives

Beehives 2009

Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925–2006)

Jupiter Artland

Five traditional beehives are carved with text. The text reads:

BEES; they lightly skim; and gently sip; the dimply river's brim; BOATS

Hamilton Finlay created the beehives in response to the pastoral atmosphere of Jupiter Artland's landscape, in particular the woodland and wildflower meadow.

Ask your students to look at these images of Beehives and discuss as a class their responses to the artwork. (Visit the artwork page on Art UK to see more views of it.)

Use the following questions as prompts if helpful.

  • What do you think the words on the beehives are about?
  • What do they make you think of, and feel?
  • Does adding the words to the beehives change how you see the hives?
  • Does splitting the text across the five beehives make you read it differently?
  • Would you respond to the words differently if you saw them on a page?
  • Why do you think Finlay has included the word BOAT on the last beehive?

Discussion thoughts

The words on the beehives suggest the movement and activity of the bees as they buzz around the wildflowers of the meadow sipping pollen. They also conjure up an image of summer days and the pastoral beauty of the landscape.

By adding the words to the beehives Hamilton Finlay changes the hives from being simply functional objects into something we contemplate. Splitting the words across the beehives perhaps echoes the flitting movement of the bees. It also makes us dwell on the words more as we read them strung out across the five surfaces.

If the words were on a page they would still be beautiful and suggest nature and the movement of the bees, but by placing the words within nature they become even more meaningful and evocative.

Hamilton Finlay often juxtaposed very different words or objects to make us think about words and their meaning. The word BOAT could be a continuous train of thought from the previous text that relates to the river. Finlay was also perhaps suggesting that the bees are like little boats picking up and dropping off their cargo of pollen. Or the word might refer to the beehives themselves, and their wooden structures appearing like boats among the sea of meadow grass surrounding them. Whatever the meaning, by adding BOAT to the end of the poem, Finlay makes us think about the word and what it might mean!

 

More poems in the landscape: the Corbenic Poetry Path

In the Perthshire countryside, there is a whole poetry path that has poem artworks placed along its route.

Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation 2015

Jon Plunkett (b.1975)

Corbenic Poetry Path

Use the links below to find out more about the Poetry Path and see images of the artworks.

See Corbenic Poetry Walk artworks on Art UK

Visit the Corbenic Poetry Path website

Watch a video of people exploring the Poetry Path

Activity: explore poem artworks

Explore the following artworks from the Corbenic Poetry Path with your students.

Encourage them to discuss their first impressions of the artworks and also to analyse the artworks more deeply, thinking about the materials and techniques the artists have used and how the landscape setting affects how the artworks appear.

Hope by Geza Sallai (b.1967)

Hope

Hope

Geza Sallai (b.1967)

Ask your students to describe the sculpture and to discuss their responses to it. Use these prompt questions if helpful:

  • What are your first impressions of the sculpture? Do you like it?
  • What would you feel or think if you saw it while out walking?
  • Do you think it is a positive sculpture?
  • Do the letters look fragile or strong?
  • What do you think the letters are made from?


Discussion thoughts

Hope is a positive word, but the letters look fragile, perhaps suggesting that hope needs to be looked after so it doesn't get broken.

The sculpture is made from bronze letters cast from tree bark. So although it looks fragile, the letters are strong.

The sculpture is manmade from metal, and we don't usually expect to see words in the countryside! But because the artist made the shapes of the letters from a natural material the organic shapes and textures blend into the environment.

 

Forest by Martin Reilly (b.1958) and Angus Martin (b.1952)

Here is another poem sculpture from The Corbenic Poetry walk. The artists have taken a very different approach to combining poetry and sculpture.

Look at the images showing the artwork and its details with your students.

A poem, conventionally written on a page, is suspended in a circular hole in a wall of logs. The paper that the poem is written on is waxed to protect it from the weather. A chair invites us to take a seat in front of the poem – similar to the way we might sit in a gallery and look at an artwork.

The poem is about a woodcutter and his relationship with wood. Here are three verses from the poem.

 

Since I lately came to live

in an old house with a fire in it

Wood has got into my vision

***

I am a Scottish wood-cutter

I belong to a great tradition

Of bleeding hands and thick coats

 

Wood accumulates about me;

I build it into piles

I bag it and I log it.

 

Artwork discussion thoughts

  • How would you interact with this artwork if you came across it on the Poetry Walk? Would you expect to see a poem written on paper? Would you sit in the chair? Would you go up close and read the poem?
  • Why do you think the artist has put the poem in this wall of logs?
  • Do you think that seeing the poem in the landscape surrounded by logs would make you understand the words and feelings of the poem more?

 

Activity: create poem objects for an outdoor setting

Task your students with creating a poem object for an outdoor setting. If your school is in a rural location, the setting could be nearby countryside. If your school is in an urban location, use a local park or the grounds around your school as your setting.

(You could even task your class with making a collaborative mini poetry walk.)

 

Step 1: starting points

You will need:

  • A notepad and pen or pencil
  • A camera or phone with a camera
  • A paper viewing frame (optional)

Go out outside into your chosen landscape, park or school grounds.

Spend a few moments looking at what you can see and experiencing the aspects of nature around you. Close your eyes and listen to what you can hear. Breathe deeply – what does the air smell and feel like?

Write down words that come into your head – these could be about the colours, the shapes or textures that you see, or the sounds you hear. You could also write about how the landscape makes you feel. These words don't have to be a poem and can be a random set of words or ideas.

It might help to focus on landscape details by making a viewing frame and looking at the landscape through this. Respond to what you see in the frame.

You could also sketch or photograph details that you want to remember.

Make a frame from paper to help you focus on a subject

Make a frame from paper to help you focus on a subject

 

Step 2: write your poem

Back in the classroom, use your words, sketches and photographs to create a poem.

The poem doesn't have to be long (and doesn't have to rhyme). It could be a haiku, a simple group of words (or even a single word if there is a particular word that you feel expresses your responses to the landscape).

Field Grass

Field Grass 2015

Martin Reilly (b.1958) and Jon Plunkett (b.1975)

Corbenic Poetry Path

 

Step 3: make your poem object

Inspired by the Corbenic Poetry Path artworks, think of different ways that you could make your poem into an object.

Explore more poem artworks from the poetry path

Here are some ideas:

  • Write the poem on paper and attach it to an object in the landscape. (Hang it from a tree, suspend it in the branches of a bush or attach it to a fence.) Photograph your artwork so that you have a record of it. (Don't forget to take it away once you have recorded the artwork or your mini exhibition is over so as not to litter the environment!)

Detail of 'After Hurricane Bawbag'

Detail of 'After Hurricane Bawbag'

Jon Plunkett (b.1975) and Martin Reilly (b.1958)

  • You could also paint or screenprint your text onto large sheets of paper or fabric and make banners or placards for your landscape setting.

Afterlight

Afterlight 2017

Martin Reilly (b.1958) and Gavin Clark (1969–2015)

Corbenic Poetry Path

  • If the poem is very short – or a single word – use twigs, leaves or other natural objects to shape the word. You could place your word(s) on the ground or bend twigs to form the words and bind them together with string. Or form words from tin foil and place these in the landscape. (Be sure to remove any non-biodegradable materials after you have photographed your artwork.)

Hope

Hope

Geza Sallai (b.1967)

  • Paint your words on pebbles, or use chalks to write them onto stones.

Detail of 'Craft Estate Bench*'

Detail of 'Craft Estate Bench*'

unknown artist

  • How about using your poem for a performance piece? Read the poems in the landscape and video the performances. How does the landscape setting change how you respond to the words?

 

Differentiation

Older students

If you are teaching older students and have access to woodworking or metalworking facilities you could consider creating a more permanent artwork with your students. The text could be shaped from metal or carved into wooden posts or plaques.

You could also plan a more ambitious installation incorporating other elements, as artists Martin Reilly and Angus Martin have done with Forest.

Protest poems

Ian Hamilton Finlay often referenced politics in his work.

In Revolution Politics Become Nature

In Revolution Politics Become Nature 1980

Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925–2006)

Manchester Art Gallery

Geza Sallai suggests a fragile sense of hope with the single word of her sculpture Hope formed from the curled shapes of bark.

Students could use their poem objects to address an issue such as ecology or climate change.

  • How is your local environment affected by pollution?
  • Imagine how your local environment might look in the future if the use of fossil fuels isn't restricted and climate change has an even bigger impact?
  • How can you use the power of poetry to effect change?

There is no border here

There is no border here (edition 3 of 5) 2006

Shilpa Gupta (b.1976)

Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives


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