Tom Leonard should be the new Scots Makar, but for the right reasons. Leonard is in the unfortunate position of being stereotyped by all sides. His supporters expect him to act in certain ways and those who are inclined to oppose him fear that he will.
When I last heard Leonard read, the audience guffawed with laughter every time he swore, regardless of context. Recently, Scottish rapper Loki took to Twitter to say that Leonard should be Makar “because he will get everybody fuckin’ telt”. Well perhaps, but the real reason Leonard should be Makar is – in recruitment speak – because he is the best person for the job.
For all the welcome enthusiasm for his candidacy, Scottish critics haven’t paid that much attention to Leonard over the years; preferring to lock him behind a door marked 1969 or chain him up in Glasgow. I was recently privileged to read a PhD on his work authored by a Canadian. As far as I know, she is the only person to have examined his output holistically and it’s here that the real case for Leonard as Makar can be discovered.
His range is remarkable: Six Glasgow Poems and A Priest Came on at Merkland Street; the influence of William Carlos Williams; concrete and field poetry; text experimentation and left margin eschewal; a biography of James Thomson, Places of the Mind; an anthology of radical Renfrew poets; humanism and existentialism. The thesis also draws some interesting parallels between Leonard’s poetry sequence nora’s place and the writings of R.D. Laing. That sent me back to nora’s place and If there is more original, more affecting poem published in Scotland in the last forty years, I’m not sure what it would be.
If all that isn’t enough, Leonard can tick the Makar box marked “produce poems for occasions”. “Being a Human Being” was written for Mordechai Vanunu when he was named Glasgow University’s Rector in 2005. Leonard read it at the installation ceremony, made an impassioned speech and was subsequently telt by a university boss for “taking licence” with his comments.
Those who expect perpetual anger from Leonard will be disappointed by his dignified response to the idea that he should be the next Makar. He says that “the chance is not so much minimal as zero” but “it would be nice to think there is body that would like me to have official duties, asked by folk who knew and liked all my work or most of it.”
True, there are echoes of old battles in the rest of his statement including a reference to his attacks on “the Scots language crowd.” Leonard once landed a knockout punch with a poster poem that read: “Gran’ Meetin’ the Nicht Tae Decide The Spellin’ O’ This Poster.” The heavyweight opponent then was Hugh MacDiarmid who, according to Edwin Morgan, was seen as was seen as “obstructive to a new wave of writers.” Now the Scots language crowd are among the new wave of writers and it’s not the same fight.
There are no fewer than seven cultural bodies on the advisory group that draws up the five person short list. Leonard won’t get many marks for diversity, if that’s a consideration. But then who would apart from Jackie Kay who is disqualified by residency? Perhaps they will ask my shy Canadian friend to share what she knows and make a more sophisticated case for Leonard than I have been able to do here. Or perhaps, as Leonard himself is anticipating, they will pass his name around like a hot potato to a chorus of “over my dead bodies”.
The only thing that’s certain is that getting everybody fuckin’ telt is a very limited expectation for a man of Leonard’s talents. He’s the most original, inventive, progressive poet that Scotland has had in the last forty years and nora’s place is the best poem written by any Scottish poet in that time. If he is not on the shortlist, I hope someone will take the time to explain why that is.