Tom Leonard (poet)

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Tom Leonard
Born 1944
Glasgow, Scotland
Occupation Writer
Nationality Scottish
Alma mater University of Glasgow
Genre Scottish literature, poetry
Notable works Six Glasgow Poems, The Six O'Clock News

Tom Leonard (born 1944) is a Scottish poet, writer and critic. He is best known for his poems written in the Glaswegian dialect of Scots, particularly his Six Glasgow Poems and The Six O'Clock News. His work frequently deals with the relationship between language, class and culture.


Leonard was born in Glasgow in 1944. His father was a train-driver who had moved to Scotland from Dublin in 1916. His mother, also of Irish descent, came from Saltcoats and had previously worked at the Nobel dynamite factory in Ardeer.[1]

He began a degree at the University of Glasgow in 1967, but left after two years.[1] While there he met poets including Tom McGrath, Alan Spence, Aonghas MacNeacail and Philip Hobsbaum, and also edited the university magazine.[2] He returned to complete a degree in English and Scottish Literature in the 1970s.[3]

He joined a group of new and distinctive authors, including Philip Hobsbaum, Alasdair Gray, Liz Lochhead, James Kelman, Aonghas MacNeacail and Jeff Torrington, of whom Hobsbaum was the nucleus.[4] He has been part of the Scottish literary scene for the past forty years.

With Alasdair Gray and James Kelman, he was appointed Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow in 2001.[5] He retired from the position in 2009.[1]



Published in 1969, his Six Glasgow Poems has been called 'epoch-making'.[1] The poems were first published as an insert in Glasgow University Magazine.[6]

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 was banned from Central Region school libraries. 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."[7]

His poem "The Six O'Clock News" from Unrelated Incidents is compulsory study for an AQA English Language GCSE qualification in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

Access to the Silence (2004) compiles his poetic and poster works from 1984 to 2003, exploring the experimental and the surreal to a greater degree without losing any of his truthfulness or openness.

In 2009, Leonard released Outside the Narrative, a collection of his poetry from 1965 to 2009.

Literary criticism[edit]

Leonard has been highly critical of the effect of formal education on literature. In 'The Proof of the Mince Pie' he argues that literature exams in schools and universities reduce art to a kind of 'property' that is to be 'acquired', with exams being the venue in which students present evidence of their acquisition. The effect of this is to 'debase' attitudes to what is being studied, since it puts the 'worth' of the student ahead of the thing being studied. Furthermore, this means that the main thing people learn at school and university is how to be at school and university.[8]

In 'Poetry, Schools, Place' he argues that exams also have the effect of marginalising traditions of poetry for which a gradeable vocabulary of criticism has yet to be worked out. These are said to be traditions of poetry that have emerged since the first world war that do not see poems as 'treasure chests of valuables' that the student may remove one by one and display to the examiner.[9]

In his introduction to Radical Renfrew Leonard discusses the impact that formal education has had in creating a 'canon' of literature that excludes vast amounts of literature deemed inappropriate for teaching. He suggests that the teaching of poetry has the effect of installing in people's minds the idea that a 'real' poem is one that an English teacher would approve for use in a class and that requires explanation and guidance from such a teacher. The effect is view that the 'best' poems are those that come to be set in exams and that the people best able to pass these exams will be the people best able to understand and write poetry.[10]

Leonard traces these views back to the nineteenth-century invention of Literature as a 'subject' in schools. This involved the creation of a canon of 'set books', overseen by central authorities that ensure the canon embodies desirable social, moral and political values. Literature that is not considered to embody these values is excluded, along with works thought to belong to another 'subject' in the curriculum.[10]

Other writings[edit]

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 disproving the "traditional", fictitious belief that Scotland at that time was a cultural wasteland. T. S. Eliot once claimed, to the effect, that Scotland has no literary culture. Radical Renfrew shows that this is incorrect and also suggests that in denying the existence of a native Scottish culture, the Scottish people have been denied "the right to equality of dialogue with those in possession of Queen's English or "good" Scots."

In 1993 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 Dreadful Night, Thomson’s life and works are captured by Leonard in a 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.

He published Definite Articles (Prose 1973-2012) in 2013, gathering forty years of essays, articles, reviews and journal entries.

Political views and activism[edit]

Alongside his literary output, Leonard has been vocal on a number of political issues. In 1991 he published On the Mass Bombing of Iraq and Kuwait, Commonly Known as The Gulf War with Leonard's Shorter Catechism, in which he was highly critical of British and American involvement in Iraq and Kuwait.

Leonard has voiced his support for the cultural boycott of Israel in response to its policies towards Palestine. He co-signed a letter to the Glasgow Herald with writers including Liz Lochhead, AL Kennedy and Iain Banks criticising the inclusion of Israeli dance troupe Batsheva in the 2012 Edinburgh International Festival.[11]

He has previously voiced support for an 'independent Scottish Socialist Republic' although he did not take a position on the 2014 Independence referendum, criticising the referendum process on his journal.[2][12]

Selected bibliography[edit]

  • Six Glasgow Poems (1969)
  • A Priest Came on at Merkland Street (1970)
  • Poems (1973)
  • Bunnit Husslin (1975)
  • Three Glasgow Writers (1976), with James Kelman and Alex Hamilton.
  • Intimate Voices (1984)
  • Radical Renfrew: Poetry from the French Revolution to the First World War (1990)
  • On the Mass bombing of Iraq and Kuwait, commonly known as The Gulf War with Leonard's Shorter Catechism (1991)
  • Places of the Mind (1993)
  • Reports From The Present (1995)
  • Access to the Silence (2004)
  • Outside the Narrative (2009)
  • Definite Articles: Selected Prose 1973-2012 (2013)


  1. ^ a b c d "Profile of Leonard at the Scottish Poetry Library"
  2. ^ a b "Interview with Tom Leonard by Attila Dosa for Hungarian Literary Magazine" Archived 2013-02-25 at the Wayback Machine.
  3. ^ Leonard (1995) 'Literature, Dialogue and Democracy' in Reports from the Present, p.61.
  4. ^ "Biography of Philip Hobsbaum at the University of Glasgow"
  5. ^[permanent dead link]
  6. ^ "Inventory of Leonard's work at the National Library of Scotland, April 2010"
  7. ^ "Review of access to the silence by Peter Manson"
  8. ^ Leonard (1984) 'The Proof of the Mince Pie' in 'Intimate Voices' pp.67-68
  9. ^ Leonard (1995) 'Poetry, Schools Place' in 'Reports from the Present' p.23
  10. ^ a b Leonard (1990), Introduction to Radical Renfrew, p.xviii
  11. ^ "Feature in Herald newspaper discussing cultural boycott of Israel"
  12. ^ Leonard, Tom. "Journal". Retrieved 14 November 2014. 

External links[edit]