Tom Leonard died yesterday, the Winter Solstice. It’s impossible to discuss him without using superlatives; he was one of the greatest Scottish poets of the last hundred years, and one of the most important political thinkers, and his impact on the language is equalled only by that of Fergusson, Burns and MacDiarmid.
Although I lived a few minutes walk from his place in Glasgow’s West End in the mid-1980s, I never met him during that time, though I was as affected by his work as every other Scottish poet of my generation. In the early 1990s, when I was living in Edinburgh, I applied for a writer in residence job at Bell College in Hamilton. When I showed up for the interview, and saw that he was one of the other applicants, I knew I had no chance. As we walked from the college to the train station, he asked if I wanted to go for some pints. I forget which Glasgow pub we ended up in, but we stayed late. There’s a saying that you should never meet your heroes, but I found the man as impressive as his work, a feeling that seems to be the consensus among those who knew him.
I moved to the U.S. in 1995, and we lost touch. I moved back to Glasgow in early 2017. One night soon after, I had a discussion with Daishin Stephenson, and my niece, and my sister, about the Scots language, particularly about how my niece felt that the Scots she speaks was inferior, or, as she called it, “talking rough.” I pulled a book off my shelf and read her this by Tom Leonard:
A couple days later, the four of us were hanging out at Coffee Pod in Woodlands Road. Sitting on a couch near our table, breathing with the help of an oxygen tank as he wrote in a notebook, was Tom Leonard. He told me had COPD, then laughed and said, “When I tell people, they usually say, ‘I knew somebody who had that.’ It’s always had, never has.” There was no self-pity in him. We talked about the poetry of our mutual friend Gerry Loose, and about how right wing the Scottish Labour Party had become, and he was as warm, acerbic and brilliant as ever. We emailed each other poems and essays after that, but didn’t meet up again.
Rest in Poetry.
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