ma language is disgraceful
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.
After graduating, Leonard 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 wrote 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. Roderick Watson has called them ‘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 presumed structure. Jeffrey Robinson’s phrase, ‘a conjunction of political life and poetic choices’ is particularly apt (PN Review No. 199).
‘Voice’ is important. Leonard worked 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 (The Guardian, 3 October 2009) the poet Paul Batchelor discusses the poem ‘Moral Philosophy’, which begins:
‘whiji mean whiji mean
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 later poems did not use Glasgow speech as much, but there remains his typical directness of speech, of both anger and compassion. 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?’