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)
Tom Leonard -
Six O'Clock News
Tom Leonardwas born in Glasgow in 1944; he is proudly Scottish, and he is working class, and left-wing in his politics. This is a poem which conveys his anger that working class and Scottish people, because of the way they speak, are undervalued and dismissed as ‘second-rate’ by society.
The content of the poem imagines a BBC newsreader explaining that, if he read the news in Glaswegian dialect, people would not believe it. He says there is a right way to speak and spell, and that people who cannot do so clearly don’t know the truth and can’t be trusted. On the surface, therefore, the poem seems be criticising people who talk with a strong regional accent (i.e. this is what WE tend to feel when we meet someone who ‘does not talk proper’). However, although the poem says these bad things about Scottish dialect, it is written in Scottish dialect. The poem is therefore ironic – the message of the poem is exactly the opposite of what the ‘newsreader’ is actually saying.
The feelings of the poet are firstly and mainly anger. He is angry with the ‘toffs’ for dismissing his working class friends as thick, and he is angry with his working class friends for letting them! This is shown in the last line of the poem: ‘Belt up’ – which means ‘shut up’ (which is aggressive), but the word ‘belt’ carries the idea of being hit/punished and makes it very aggressive, even violent.
Leonard also feels class pride. He sees his regional working class dialect as a mark of his working class background, and he does not want to ‘talk posh’, which would be to ‘sell out’ to the establishment. You can see this in the poem when the newsreader says: ‘jist wanna yoo scruff tokn.’ The word ‘just’ is dismissive and shows how Leonard objects to ‘toffs’ calling his regional working class dialect ‘the language of the gutter’, to be ignored or used only for comic effect – his dialect, he believes, is fit for reading the news.
Leonard is sarcastic. He does not really dismiss the Glaswegian dialect as lies. The newsreader in the poem says: ‘this is ma trooth’ – but Leonard does not say so; truth is truth whatever accent you say it in. This shows that despite the humour of the poem, Leonard is angry.
For its structure, the poem is written as a single, unbroken verse, without any punctuation except a few full stops. This is to make it feel like an angry 'rant' (outburst).
The lines are short – including one two-word line: ‘thi trooth’ – to emphasise the key points, and to make the poem aggressive and 'direct'.
The lines are written as they would be on an autocue, which is a visual reference to TV newsreaders, but the fact that they are laid out in a long narrow line may also show that the poet feels that he is being limited and constricted by society because of the way he talks.
In its use of language, the poem is a phonetic version of Tom Leonard's own Glaswegian dialect. It says: ‘Yi widny wahnt’, not ‘you would not want’, and: ‘If a toktaboot’ instead of: ‘if I talked about’. This has the effect of making the poem very aggressive and ‘in your face’ with its message. It also reflects Leonard’s pride in his background and Scottish dialect.
In the poem, the poet does not say anything. All the poem is ‘reported speech’ – it is a BBC newsreader, not the poet, who is speaking. Leonard writes: ‘this is thi six a clock news thi man said. The effect of this is to put the emphasis, NOT on what Leonard the poet feels, but on the unacceptable prejudices that the stuck up BBC newsreader feels. This means that the reader can share Leonard’s outrage at the ‘stuck up’ attitude of a person who looks down on those who don’t ‘talk proper’.
Leonard uses slang and 'uncouth' words – ‘scruff’/ ‘widny’/ ‘thirza’/ ‘cawz’; the effect of this is to make the poem feel ‘rough’ and ‘common’. The word: ‘scruff’ is especially negative, and emphasises the poet’s claim that we ‘write off’ people with a dialect as ignorant.
The poem speaks directly to (even insults) the readers. ‘Belt up’, it finishes. The poem means to be aggressive with its message. This is how the poet challenges our prejudices, and gets across his underlying message that we are wrong to write off people because of their accent.
My feeling when I read this poem is firstly to be proud of my north-east accent. But I think that the difficulty of understanding this poem disproves Leonard’s point – I think that the news should be read in neutral ‘received pronunciation’ so that everybody can understand it equally.