Reviews

TOM LEONARD : SELECTED POEMS. A CD RECORDING MADE AT THE STUC CENTRE, APRIL 2011

Robert Noakes, himself a writer and performer of great distinction has done Scottish culture a decided service in so life-likely catching a toweringly talented poet at his considerable best. This really is a sort of non-commercial ‘greatest hits’ and demonstrates in every expertly delivered and recorded line, the searing singularity of one of Britain’s most lyrically innovative and politically unapologetic poets. In his own texts and in versions of Brecht songs, the sharp, idiosyncratically inflected voice, unforgettable and unignorable rings out, personal and polemical by turns and indeed often in the same poems. Slick or bland or cosy it is not. Even on CD, the atmosphere is a little tense. As it should be.

Tom Leonard readings are predictably unpredictable. Sometimes he will upbraid the person introducing him for being too gushy or not respectful enough. He has been known to survey the room and the people in it and not liking what he sees, simply to walk away. Audience members who tread too heavily on the eggshell-thin surface of a question and answer session can find themselves being scornfully monstered. School students are not excepted. He once got apoplectic denying he was angry! The ‘C’ word is liberally used in these vituperative takings-to-task.

If this exceptionally gifted and influential poet is angry, he has very good cause. Abused as a child, afflicted in adulthood by mental illness, humiliated by the authorities at Glasgow University, forever struggling to make a living freelance and never adequately published nor quite given the honoured place he deserved at the acme of Scottish letters, Leonard bit the hands that fed him, fiercely aware of his own extraordinary originality and brilliance. His excoriatingly left wing politics make him dissatisfied with the lies, greed and selfish inhumanity all around him. What he suffered in boyhood is unimaginably awful. He has begun in recent years to speak about it. Denied by a rival and inferior makar, on a jealous and condescending whim, the first class degree he so conspicuously deserved as a mature student, Tom Leonard went on to become an esteemed and important Professor at the very university which had disdained him. The devotion of his students and the admiration of his academic peers seemed to ‘mellow’ him, whatever institutional tensions remained. A proper, more or less collected poems did finally appear a couple of years ago and this CD makes a splendid companion piece. It is difficult to exaggerate the revolutionary – I use the word advisedly – significance of the breakthrough poems he produced in the late sixties and early seventies. Not that more recent work has been anything but high calibre.

His early artistic, linguistic and political innovation was modelled on the colloquial straightforwardness and seeming simplicity of William Carlos Williams’ exceptionally short and short-lined examples. By using a supple, unforced, wryly brusque Glaswegian street-Scots, Leonard made a case for working class, democratic poetry, *through such poetry. In demonstrating that all language is political and all communication about power, Tom Leonard proved himself to be a truly liberating and empowering figure. And a magnificent, genuinely world class, poet.

On this extremely well produced CD, Leonard’s huge capacities can be relished without the risk of unbalanced mood unbalancing the performance. A remarkable reader of his own very performative work, Tom Leonard *can be relied on for scathing wit, deep humanity, righteous dialectical indignation and, always, persistently, touchingly, love. That huge-heartedness can find expression in tender lyrics about his wife or in poems about solidarity and witness built on a nearly Burnsian scale. This is a writer capable of producing ‘accessible’ poems in everyday language about everyday life *and masterworks of the European avant-garde. Both approaches are well represented in these 54 mesmeric minutes. There are 24 tracks, every one a cracker. Of his tormentor at Glasgow University, little is now heard. Everything that older and lesser bard despised about his star student is vindicated here: a Scots still on ordinary people’s tongues and not just in scholars’ libraries, a politics too impassioned and impatient to be polite, an up to the minute modernity of aesthetic outlook, lessons learned from an America to be praised and reproached as appropriate. At the risk of sounding patronising, one might wish this tormented maestro serenity and ease.

Tom Leonard is a brave and brilliant man and a thoroughly first rate artist. The performances recorded here are certain to enthral.

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