Tom Leonard was born in Glasgow in 1944. He was educated at Lourdes Secondary School and at the University of Glasgow. Leonard was a member of Philip Hobsbaum’s Glasgow writers’ group which included, among others, Alasdair Gray and James Kelman.
Six Glasgow Poems was published in 1969. Since then Leonard has been active as a poet, scholar and polemicist. He has been writer in residence at the Universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde, at Bell College of Technology and at Renfrew District Libraries. Most recently, Leonard was appointed Professor of Creative Writing, along with Alasdair Gray and James Kelman, at Glasgow University.
Leonard’s work has attracted praise and controversy in roughly equal measure. His collection Intimate Voices: Selected Work 1965-1983 (1984) was banned from Central Region school libraries in the same year that it shared the Scottish Book of the Year Award.
As well as his poetry, which is often experimental in form and makes frequent use of Glaswegian vernacular speech, Leonard publishes essays, which appear alongside the poems in his volumes of collected work.
Whilst working as Writer in Residence at Renfrew District Libraries, Leonard edited Radical Renfrew: Poetry from the French Revolution to the First World War (1990), an anthology containing the work of local poets. He has also written a biography of James Thomson entitled Places of the Mind (1993).
Since much of Leonard’s poetry insists upon the politics of ‘langwij’, it is not surprising that he has published work in response to current political events. This work, much of it reprinted in Reports from the Present: Selected Work 1982-1994 (1995) includes Two Members’ Monologues & A Handy form for Use in Connection with the City of Culture (1990) and On the Mass Bombing of Iraq and Kuwait, commonly known as The Gulf War, with Leonard’s Shorter Catechism (1993). Another collection, Access to the Silence: Poetry 1984-2003 was published in 2004.
(Last updated in September 2004)
Tom Leonard is best known for his early poetry, much of it collected along with some short essays in Intimate Voices: Selected Work 1965-1983 (1984). This work, in both poetry and prose, is concerned perhaps above all with language and politics. Leonard argues that private education allows those with money to literally buy the language of the establishment, by eradicating regional dialect.
Leonard’s work modulates between English and Glaswegian, which he represents phonetically, insisting that Glasgow speech is as valid a medium for art as any of the languages normally associated with poetry or ‘Poughit. rih’. Six Glasgow Poems, reprinted in Intimate Voices, offers a series of Glaswegian scenes, some funny, some menacing, some tender. Leonard’s insistence on the voices of his speakers give these, and many of his other poems, much of their force.
His poetry is also concerned, however, with language as double-speak. Unrelated Incidents puns on the two meanings of ‘unrelated’ as ‘unconnected’ and ‘untold' to offer a way of reading between the lines for the messages that language, which is never neutral, sends out to its various listeners. In Unrelated Incidents (3), Leonard puts on paper the unspoken message that ‘BBC English’, as the voice of truth, sends to working class listeners.
Leonard’s essays in this collection deal, like the poetry, with the inseparable subjects of politics and culture. Leonard’s literary politics are deeply anti-institutional here, suspicious of schools and universities, which he accuses of turning culture into a commodity. For Leonard, the way literature is taught in a university arts faculty (and at school) propogates the myth that culture is a kind of property which can be collected by the student who expresses their appreciation of it in the approved language of the exam essay.
Elsewhere, in ‘Honest’, Leonard explores the process of writing itself, specifically diagnosing a problem in the distance between thought, spoken language and the written word.
The work represented in Reports from the Present: Selected Work 1982-1994 (1995) offers as much variety, in both form and content, as his first collection. The book begins with Situations Theoretical and Contemporary, a series of short pieces. This time, the language is more or less English, but the concerns will be familiar ones to readers of Leonard’s earlier work. Many of these pieces are characterised by a sense of distance between the worlds of art, culture and institutional politics and the stark realities which these come up against. While the poems in Intimate Voices were often concerned with the voice, these pieces are characterised by silence, often the silence which a confrontation with the material world can force upon the intellectual. These are followed by a series of essays and other prose pieces which consider the political implications of the way we think about literature, how it is read and how it is taught.
Nora’s Place is the longest sequence of poems in Reports from the Present. While much of the work in Leonard’s second collection plays with the registers of academia and political euphemism, in Nora’s Place Leonard presents a woman in her own words and the words of those around her. The sequence shows Leonard bringing the ‘non-poetic’ into poetry; the shopping lists and the daily realities and routines of domestic life.
The second section of Reports from the Present is entitled 'Antidotes Anecdotes and Accusations: Satirical, Personal and Political Pieces 1982-94'. Many of these pieces were written for performance and take the form of dramatic dialogues or monologues. Elsewhere, Leonard moves away from these character pieces to speak in his own voice, as in ‘How I Became a Sound Poet’. Leonard’s political engagement continues, particularly expressing disillusionment with parliamentary politics, and with the then ‘modernising’ British Labour Party. Some pieces deal with the Cold War’s threat of nuclear conflict, others with Glasgow’s re-branding as European City of Culture in 1990.
In Sourscenes from Scottish Literary Life Leonard returns briefly to the Glaswegian voice poetry of Intimate Voices before moving away from this in favour of terse, ironic poems in English. Some of the most savage satire in the whole collection is reserved for ‘The Moderate Member’s Monologue’. Here, a Scottish Labour MP stands accused of selling out on socialism and on the Scottish working class who continued to support the Labour Party during the 1980s. For Leonard’s ‘Moderate Member’, power has become more important than politics. The jargon of parliamentary politics stands out, in perfectly spelt English, from the working class voice which remains unrepresented, despite the Labour Party’s presence in Westminster.
(Last updated in September 2004)