‘They don’t want you to be Scottish, they want you to have Scots.’
In September we welcomed Tom Leonard to the Scottish Writers’ Centre for the ‘In Process’ masterclass in which he discussed the institutionalisation of language.
Language is the greatest marker of our personal trajectory. Where were we raised? Where were our parents raised? With whom do we associate ourselves? In what time period were you born?
Yet what happens when language becomes institutionalised? This is the question that drives Tom Leonard. Because ‘Language’, as Leonard states with feverish zeal, ‘is a symptom of human existence.’
When an institution gives a person their language and cuts off their tongue, it becomes difficult for a person to communicate the very essence of their individual human existence. This frustration at language’s systematisation is what inspired Leonard’s poetry collection ‘Six Glasgow Poems’ in which the poems are not only written in Glaswegian dialect, but spelt out phonetically. Detached from all stylistic rules, Leonard manages to bring the focus back to language – and poetry – as pure music. The medium of poetry is particularly important to Leonard since, for him, poetry deals with the processes of language, whereas novels deal with language as speech.
he brings the focus back to language as pure music. Leonard valourises the medium of poetry since, for him, poetry deals with language’s processes; novels deal with language as speech.
As Leonard says, ‘Even if they’re from Glasgow, they put on a Glasgow accent’. Once language is institutionalised, it is manipulated and performed, and becomes a question of being versus having. We change our accents, our dialects, and perform speech like actors playing a simplified version of ourselves. The music of language is being lost in the pursuit of the idea of ‘literariness’, something that Leonard laments in his poem ‘Good Style’:
jiss try enny a yir fly patir wi me
stick thi bootnyi good style
so ah wull
Leonard concludes the masterclass with an anecdote that sums up the subject matter of his poems. He discusses his recent time spent in hospital and having to take medicine before bed. On the hazy cusp of consciousness and sleep, he recounts having heard two women talking near him ‘like music.’ He could hear their words with such clarity: the elocution of each stress, syllable and stutter. He could decipher that they liked each other and felt comfortable with each other. This is language as ‘being’. As Leonard poignantly concludes, it wasn’t ‘the essence of what they’re doing’ but rather the ‘essence itself’.
Words by Rebecca Gaff