About Tom Leonard
Direct, impassioned and rooted in the everyday language of his native Glasgow, Tom Leonard’s poems remind us that politics is everywhere: in the words we speak, the streets we live, the way we treat each other.
There is an authenticity and a rawness to his poetry that stems from its frequent eschewal of conventional punctuation, grammar and poetic meter; Leonard’s style favours the phonetic immediacy of the spoken gesture, language as we speak, breathe and experience it. As one critic has noted, ‘he is one of our great poets against’, and anger and rebellion in the face of the delimiting, often prejudicial effects of mainstream forces both cultural and political are central to his work.
His first sequence of poetry, published in a student magazine in the late 60s, squares up to the establishment from the off: ‘helluva hard tay read theez init / stull / if yi canny unnirston thim jiss clear aff then / gawn / get tay fuck ootma road’. As the poet and critic Paul Batchelor suggests in The Guardian, ‘Leonard knows that in a society where economic class determines an individual's pronunciation, language is already political’. The result is a fiercely intelligent and spare poetry, that seems ‘at once stripped bare of the decorative complexities that make up many poets’ style, and fuller and more complex’.
Born in Glasgow in 1944, Leonard worked at various jobs in his youth – bus conductor and bookseller among them – studying at night school before completing a degree at the city’s university. Since then, he has made a living as a writer, scholar and commentator, and was appointed to the post of Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow in 2001. He is perhaps best known to two generations of British readers as the author of ‘Unrelated Incidents 3’, a poem that ironically interrogates the language of privilege and authority in sending up the 6 O’Clock News: ‘thi reason / a talk wia / BBC accent’, needles the poem’s speaker, ‘iz coz yi / widny wahnt / mi ti talk / aboot thi / trooth wia / voice lik / wanna yoo / scruff’. Listening to this Archive recording, the poem embodies much of what is distinctive and memorable about Leonard’s writing: arresting, uncomfortable, provocative and comic, it entertains just as it makes us aware of own complicity in prejudice, attitude, preconception and assumption.
Elsewhere in this recording, Leonard’s range is amply on show, be it ‘The Fair Cop’, a disturbing narrative poem about the dangers of being truthful, the metaphorical push and pull of our human attachments in ‘Placenta’, or directly political pieces that loose arrows at the hypocrisies of governments, as in ‘Blair’s Britain’, a place where ‘to question the news / is to foment terrorism’. Throughout, Tom Leonard’s delivery – no-nonsense, animated, conversational – announces a voice that is utterly present, as if the speaker were talking to us over pints in the pub, or having a word in our ear.
Tom Leonard’s recording was made on 14th November 2016 at The Tun, Edinburgh, and was produced by Paul Sumerling.