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Friday, December 16, 2005

The Elect by Tom Leonard

one of those with quiet, naturally restrained, insistently monotoned voices

with that little self-contained smile, always going on about respect for history and the sense of the traditional

who want all poets to have a sense of “basic form” and who are always quoting Yeats’s “Under Ben Bulben” about poets having to Learn Their Trade and not be All Out of Shape from Toe to Top

who think this has nothing to do with Yeats on eugenics and that it would be unfair to quote his contemporaneous “The Fascist countries know that civilisation has reached a crisis, and found their eloquence upon that knowledge, but from dread of attack or because they must feed their uneducatable masses, put quantity before quality... They offer bounties for the seventh, eighth or ninth baby, and accelerate degeneration”

who complain of people with voices yclept loud, varied, opinionated, up and down, showy, the insufferably “engaged”, the political johnnies, the performance crowd, the “disastrous influence of the sixties”

who hate poets who carry electrical appliances and have no evident respect for Aristotle’s dictum that a poet is a poet insofar as they have a command of metaphor

who do not want to know all this stuff about “the page as a field of semantic tension” or blethers about “the connection between lower case and democracy” or pontificatory nonsense about “the punctuation of spacing” and “the reader being present at the shared point of articulation”

one of them leant over and said to me quietly

do you know if the 44 bus still goes to Knightswood?

Born in Glasgow in 1944 Tom Leonard has been a vital part of the Scottish literary renaissance for the past forty years. He has revolutionised poetry, both in form and content, and ranks as one of our finest contemporary poets. With Alasdair Gray and James Kelman he has been appointed Professor of Creative Writing at Glasgow University.
Published in 1969 his Glasgow Poems kick-started a literary counterculture. Written in his native Glaswegian dialect the poems are confrontational, compassionate, proud and very, very funny and prove that the “langwij” of the working classes is not just as valid as the language of Oxford or Harvard but is, in fact, a more potent living force. The collection proves you don’t have to be part of the conservative, condescending literary elite to write or enjoy poetry, for these are poems by and for those on the apparent periphery, those who, in Leonard’s words, “live outside the narrative.”
All of Leonard’s work is informed and inspired by his socialist beliefs, which have at their core a deep humanism and empathy, corresponding with George Orwell’s definition of real socialism as simply “common human decency.”
In 1984 he released Intimate Voices, a selection of his work from 1965 onwards including poems and essays on William Carlos Williams and “the nature of hierarchical diction in Britain.” It shared the award for Scottish Book of the Year and yet was promptly banned from Central Region school libraries. Despite such censorship the collection received widespread acclaim. Peter Manson, in the Poetry Review, claimed the poems, “speak so precisely and with such a fierce, analytical wit that they transcend their status as poems and become part of the shared apparatus we use to think with. I don't know any other contemporary poetry of which that is so true.”
Whilst working as Writer in Residence at Renfrew District Libraries in 1990 Leonard compiled Radical Renfrew: Poetry from the French Revolution to the First World War, an anthology resurrecting the work of long forgotten poets from the West of Scotland and proving the “traditional,” fictitious belief that Scotland at that time was a cultural wasteland. T S Eliot, that beloved pretentious anti-Semite, once claimed, to the effect, that Scotland has no literary culture. Radical Renfrew not only exposes the ignorance of Eliot, and company, but also lays bare their motives in denying the existence of a native Scottish culture, denying Scottish people “the right to equality of dialogue with those in possession of Queen's English or "good" Scots.”
Three years later he released Places of the Mind the only 20th century biographical novel of the Scottish writer James Thomson. Best known for his epic poem The City Of The Dreadful Night Thomson’s life and works are captured by Leonard in a riveting study of poetry, alcoholism and freethinking.
His most overtly political work followed in 1995. Reports From The Present compiles work from 1982 to 1994 including political satires, collages, essays, “antidotes, anecdotes and accusations” ranging from explorations of the differences between poetry and prose to scathing attacks on the forces of power that corrupt culture for financial or political gain.
With Access to the Silence (2004) he has compiled his poetic works from 1984 to 2003, exploring the experimental and the surreal to a greater degree without losing any of his truthfulness or openness. The highlight of the book is perhaps nora's place, a remarkably compassionate and moving piece focusing on a simple domestic day in the life of “just a human being/totally representative/as anyone is/outside the self/(and in it).”
Perhaps his greatest achievement has been bringing honesty back into poetry. By mirroring and articulating the way we actually live, speak and think Leonard has undermined, and provided an alternative to, all that is stuck-up, pompous, cryptic and deceitful about modern poetry and journalism. In the process he has exposed the power, and class, structures that command language and which hide behind the veil of respectability. His work exists outside of institutionalised culture and is all the more vibrant and meaningful because of this. To say this is to capture nothing of the music, humour, rebelliousness and compassion in his work. To do that you can find his work at:

Copyright Tom Leonard 2005