Tom Leonard

Tom Leonard (b. 1944)
Photograph of Tom Leonard by Dominic Charlton
Tom Leonard © Dominic Charlton

Biography

Summary

Born in Glasgow, Tom Leonard is best known for poetry written in the urban speech of that city. This, and his seminal critical writings, have had a major impact on attitudes to language and writing in Scotland, and beyond.

Full Biography

‘right enuff
ma language is disgraceful
...
ach well
all livin language is sacred
fuck thi lohta thim’

 

Tom Leonard was born in Glasgow on 22 August 1944. His father was a train driver, born in Dublin, who had come to Scotland in 1916 to seek work; his mother, of Irish descent, came from Saltcoats – she worked in the Nobel dynamite factory in Ardeer before her marriage.
After school Leonard worked at various jobs, including bus conductor and university bookshop assistant. He went to night school and then to Glasgow University when he was 23 – while there he edited the university magazine – but left after two years. He went back later, in the 1970s, and finished his degree.

Since graduating, Leonard has made his living as a writer. He received a Scottish Arts Council Bursary in 1971 and 1978. While Writer in Residence at Renfrewshire Libraries he researched and compiled an anthology of local poets, Radical Renfrew (published in 1990). His poem on the Six O’Clock News (‘Unrelated Incidents 3’) is compulsory reading in the AQA English language GCSE course in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In 2001 he was appointed, with Alasdair Gray and James Kelman, joint Professor in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow, from which he retired in 2009.

Tom Leonard has written plays, sound poetry, political polemic and a biography of the 19th-century Scottish poet James ‘B.V.’ Thomson, Places of the Mind. He is best known for his poems in Glasgow speech, heralded by the epoch-making Six Glasgow Poems of 1969, highly compressed poems in a phonetic spelling (‘insane’ for ‘in saying’, for example, which adds another level of nuance). Roderick Watson has called these poems ‘a manifesto by example’: they are ‘a spell against complacency and a retaliatory act against what Leonard sees as the educational establishment’s intolerance of local...expression and experience’ (The Literature of Scotland: the twentieth century, 2007). They are much more, of course: a sustained attack on not just the educational establishment but pretty well all manner of oppressions. Tom Leonard’s is one of our great voices against. Jeffrey Robinson’s phrase, ‘a conjunction of political life and poetic choices’ is particularly apt (PN Review No.  199).

‘Voice’ is important. Leonard works mainly through voice; his poems are patterned by breath rather than metre, following the example of his hero, William Carlos Williams. As Robert Crawford says in Scotland’s Books (2007): ‘He treasures the grain of the speaking voice’. Or as Leonard himself said, ‘all livin language is sacred’ (Ghostie Men 14). In a sympathetic but sharp review of Outside the Narrative (in the Guardian, 3 October 2009) the poet Paul Batchelor discusses the poem ‘Moral Philosophy’, which begins:

‘whiji mean whiji mean

lissn
noo lissnty mi toknty yi’

The reader will probably respond to the comic charge of the poem’s incongruous title, and then to the immediacy of the writing: the speaker is made vividly present; we feel his breath on our face. Beyond that, the poem resonates because the relationship of the speaker to the implied  listener...could stand for any power relationship in literature or society in which a dialogue is refused. The poem seems at once stripped bare of the decorative complexities that make up many poets’ style, and fuller and more complex than most poetry.

Leonard’s more recent poems may not use Glasgow speech as much, but there is still his typical directness of speech, and both anger and compassion. And anyone who thinks his poems are only about ‘cowboyz’ and sweary words, should have a look at the number of perceptive, moving and funny poems about women, from ‘Tea Time’ to ‘nora’s place’, ‘in hospital’ and ‘An Ayrshire Mother’ (the last written, or rather spoken, in his mother’s voice). Batchelor concludes his review: ‘The demands and limitations that Leonard has placed on his poetry have resulted in a unique body of work: terse, funny, unyielding and necessary.’ It could be argued that Leonard has dedicated his life to answering W.S. Graham’s question, ‘What is the language using us for?’

Further Reading

Selected Bibliography

Six Glasgow Poems (Glasgow: The Other People, 1969)
A Priest Came on at Merkland Street (Glasgow: Midnight Publications, 1970)
Poems (Dublin: E. & T. O’Brien, 1973)
Bunnit Husslin (Glasgow: Third Eye Centre, 1975)
Three Glasgow Writers (Glasgow: Molendinar Press, 1976) [with Alex Hamilton and JamesKelman]
My Name is Tom (London: Good Elf Publications, 1978)
If Only Bunty Was Here: a drama sequence (Glasgow: Print Studio Press, 1979)
Ghostie Men (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Galloping Dog Press, 1980)
Intimate Voices: Selected Work 1965-1983 (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Galloping Dog Press, 1984)
Satires & Profanities (Glasgow: STUC, 1985)
Situations Theoretical and Contemporary (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Galloping Dog Press, 1986)
Two Members’ Monologues & A Handy Form for Artists (Glasgow: The Edward Polin Press, 1989)[prose]
Nora’s Place (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Galloping Dog Press, 1990)
On the Mass Bombing of Iraq and Kuwait, Commonly Known As ‘the Gulf War’ with Leonard’s Shorter Catechism (Stirling: AK Press, 1991) [prose]
Places of the Mind: The life and work of James Thomson (‘B.V.’) (London: Jonathan Cape, 1993)
Reports from the Present: selected work 1982-94 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1995)
Inside Looking In: 12 poems (Glasgow: Survivors’ Press, 2004) (daemon 1)
access to the silence: poems and posters 1984-2004 (Buckfastleigh: etruscan books, 2004)
Being a Human Being and other poems (Glasgow: Object Permanence, 2006)
outside the narrative: poems 1965-2009 (Exbourne/Edinburgh: etruscan books/Word Power Books, 2009)

As editor

Radical Renfrew: poetry from the French Revolution to the First World War (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1990)

Selected Biography and Criticism

Edwin Morgan, ‘Glasgow Speech in Recent Scottish Literature’, in J. Derrick McClure (ed.),  Scotland and the Lowland Tongue (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1983)

[Tom Leonard interviews and bibliography] Edinburgh Review 77 (May 1987)

Ronald K.S. Macauley, ‘Urbanity in an Urban Dialect’, Studies in Scottish Literature 23 (1988)

Interview with Tom Leonard by Ken Cockburn, Verse 8:2 (Summer 1991)

Roderick Watson, ‘Alien Voices from the Street: demotic Modernism in modern Scots writing’,Yearbook of English Studies 25, 1995

Colin Milton, ‘“Ma Language is Disgraceful”: Tom Leonard’s Glasgow dialect poems’, in
Edgar W. Schneider (ed.), Englishes Around the World, vol. 1 (Amsterdam: Benjamin, 1997)

Christopher Whyte, ‘The 1960s’ (Robert Garioch, Tom Leonard, Edwin Morgan)’ Modern Scottish Poetry (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004)

Colin Milton, ‘Dialects, orality and the poetry of Tom Leonard: in the beginning was the sound’ in Marco Fazzini (ed.), Alba Literaria: a history of Scottish literature (Venezia Mestre: Amos Edizioni, 2005)

Attila Dósa, ‘Tom Leonard: the sound of poetry’ in Beyond Identity: new horizons in modern Scottish poetry (Amsterdam &New York: Rodopi, 2009)

Other Useful Info

Manuscripts and Papers

Mitchell Library, Glasgow