Book review – No compromise
Review of ‘Outside the Narrative’ by Tom Leonard: Etruscan Books/Word Power Books
I vividly recall the first time I read a Tom Leonard poem. It was Yon Night and it was yon man (my dad) who showed it to me. The poem tells of a bitter-sweet confluence of emotions: joy at seeing Celtic cuff Leeds at Hampden and the misery of unrequited love: “ana wuz thaht happy/ana wuz thaht fed up/ hoffa mi wuz greetnaboot Celtic/anhoffa mi wuz greetnabout hur”. It’s funny, poignant and has the pitch perfection that is Leonard’s hallmark, but what drew me to it was the langwij in which it was written. Reading it was like watching the first episode of Taggart. Glasgow flashed past and suddenly I saw: excitement (glamorous cop shows, modern poetry) wasn’t something that happened elsewhere. Excitement could be mine.
The days when printers refused to print Leonard’s poems and they were banned in schools are long gone, but he continues to rail against the dominant narrative and to poke fun
Outside the Narrative, a selection of poems from 1965 to 2009, is dedicated to all those excluded from the excitement. The title poem, a triptych that ends with a white rectangle obscuring the words, reads simply: for those of us who have to live outside the narrative. By putting it this way, the poet classes himself among the outsiders. The days when printers refused to print Leonard’s poems and they were banned in schools are long gone, but he continues to rail against the dominant narrative and to poke fun. He is often at his most potent when aping the voices of authority – the schoolmaster in Four of the Belt, the policeman in The Evidence – or when mixing languages, as in Ghostie Men (7), or Dripping with Nostalgia: “the ‘Dear Aul’ Glesca’ Poetry Prize/for the most heartwarming evocation/of communal poverty/was presented to the author of/‘The Day the Dug ate ma Ration Book’.”
Now 65, Leonard retired this year from Glasgow University where he was a professor of creative writing and English literature. Outside the Narrative is a journey through his life and thought. As befits a writer so concerned with the politics of language, there is relentless experimentation with form. Haikus, essays, cartoons, posters, subway maps: it’s all here. Sometimes form becomes subject as in the case for lower case; sometimes experiments lead us dangerously close to the dark waters of impenetrability (The Present Tense may defeat some, this reader included); and sometimes you can but laugh. Take the reference to mad cow disease in “Foodies” – 2: “rest assured/the cattle in our pies/were once/professors of psychiatry”.
By the end of the journey what stands out is what has stayed the same. There is no compromise in Leonard’s work. No fudging. No going soft. He constantly challenges both the reader and himself.
Like Samuel Beckett, Leonard takes no prisoners. His experiments with language are fearless. And he’s funny – much funnier than most funny poets
In An Ageing Writer, he writes of ‘an avuncular geniality’ that may replace ‘early angular anger’. However, he is as furiously engaged as when he wrote Six Glasgow Poems in 1969: witness The Underfunder’s Utopia or Litany: Blair’s Britain. In Leonard’s case, ‘avuncular geniality’ has translated into a passionate solidarity with his fellow human beings – including his own wife. One of the many compelling portraits in this book, exemplified in June the Second, is of that most endangered of species – the artist as happily married man: “and when I go back we lightly hold hands as we sometimes do/until the first to be falling asleep begins to twitch and tonight it’s Sonya”.
By the final poem in this collection, Three Types of Envoi, Leonard exhibits a passion to understand the human condition that is almost Beckettian: “Yet all that remained to be told was that he had been telling it./And all that remained was the need for the last understanding, the sign that/someone had heard the story, and the teller was no longer necessary.” Like Samuel Beckett, Leonard takes no prisoners. His experiments with language are fearless. And he’s funny – much funnier than most funny poets. Outside the Narrative is an amazing, powerful book. Omit to read it at your peril.