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: WikipediaOf 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:
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