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Remembering Tom Leonard, Glaswegian poet and language pioneer

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To call Tom Leonard a Scots language poet is, on his own terms, a misnomer. He was primarily a poet of Glasgow and wrote in Glaswegian demotic; his quarrel was not with the English but with the alienating power structures of prescriptivism, which he battled passionately in prose and verse.

That folk can now write Scots as is sounds as opposed to meet deference to Robert Burns with his apologetic apostrophes is a testament to the influence of Leonard’s disregard for convention.

Tom Leonard in 2002. Image: Wikipedia

Of course, Leonard’s poetics did not just philosophise over language in the abstract; he was deeply invested in the material world and spoke with a defiant voice for Scotland’s working class. It was power finding expression in language that interested him, not the power of words alone. This power dynamic is expressed in his poem in the beginning was the word, where he exposes the dominant culture’s reverence for the linguistically represented idea over the more fundamental vibration of air; for Leonard, “in the beginning was the sound.

Leonard was deeply sceptical of education and the educated, condemning schooling whose chief purpose seemed to discourage critical thought instead of promoting it. In one of his later poems Skills, he is scathing about schemes involving endless “training/to apply for a job/and to be in a job/efficiently/co-operating with management/competing with colleagues/learning the ropes”.He was also dismayed by the official acknowledgement of Glasgow’s deprived areas that went unaccompanied with measures to redress this poverty in his sarcastic liaison coordinator whom he describes as “sumdy wia degree/in fuck knows whut/getn peyd fur no known/whut the fuck ti day way it”. Leonard’s directness, clothed in dialect, often takes work to decipher and so defies the unengaged skim-reading of the situation he laments.

He is often considered a political poet, and much, if not all of his work is political. This was not, by his own admission, something he consciously cultivated. Speaking in 1998, Leonard said, language itself in Britain is a political issue. It's not that politics is something that I take down from a shelf and do, politics is just part of the process of being.” He was keenly aware of the relationship between language and class, demonstrated in his oft-quoted poem Six O’clock News, which satirises the elitist use of BBC RP over regional voices where the speaker says (in his native Glaswegian) that he ‘widny wahnt […] ti talk/aboot thi trooth wia/voice lik/wanna you/scruff.’

Six Glasgow Poems was first published in 1969 and introduced Leonard’s biting wit to the world. His signature technique of contrasting standard English titles with heavily Glasgow-inflected content is put to use in one of his shortest poems, Cold isn’t it:

wirraw init thigither missyz

geezyir kross

For Leonard, “all livin language [was] sacred” and his life was a battle to recognise the value of dialect against opposition at every turn. This besieged tone characterises his ground-breaking 1984 collection, Intimate Voices, which attempts to deconstruct the dichotomy of the written and spoken in poetry and in life in general. He scorned the Scottish cringe and denounced Scots dictionaries’ attempts to put an authoritative stamp on that which is volatile and evolutionary in nature.

Spending the 1980s as writer in residence at Paisley Central Library, Leonard championed the voices of the 19th-century working class, whose poetry with the intended audience of the Glasgow workers had been lost to the ages before his work to promote and reinstate its value.  This archival digging resulted in the 1990 volume Radical Renfrew, which gathered the writings of ordinary people living in the West of Scotland up until the outbreak of the 1914-18 war. Although often derivative and didactic, these poems are always authentic in sentiment and garnered a positive response when broadcast on the BBC Scotland Forgotten Voices programme created to promote the collection.

Leonard was anti-authoritarian in the widest possible sense and this applied to his view of literature and literary criticism as well, which he regarded as largely unhelpful and discouraging of a personal relationship with texts – in-keeping with a Calvinist cultural tradition. His political satire was published in the anarchist press on both sides of the Atlantic. Opposing the Gulf War, then the Iraq war, he bitterly criticised the hypocrisy of Britain’s Scotland-based Trident nuclear missile programme’s existence in parallel with claims of the need to intervene on account of Sadam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction”.  

During the run-up to the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum, about which he was decidedly ambivalent, Leonard worked on an idiosyncratic translation of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children. This is a text that features extensive use of the playwright’s native Bavarian idiom and in his translation, the protagonist is reimagined as a Glaswegian working-class matriarch.

In his late politics, Leonard was a staunch defender of Jeremy Corbyn, describing his rise as a fluke of democracy in an undemocratic system. His disdain for the institution of Westminster was a specific manifestation of his disdain for institutions in general, which he accused of stultifying discourse. Although an advocate of Scots language, Leonard was no nationalist and did not see salvation in the Scottish nation-state. He was an ardent critic of the SNP.

Tom Leonard was a poet of Glasgow, but also a poet of the world. What he had to say about vernacular affects the discussion surrounding dialect to this day. His radical contribution was an orthography that didn’t project, nor did it invoke a tradition; he gave voice to a language lived, speaking for a working class excluded from history.

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