I was trying to remember the first book of poetry I bought. I don't have it anymore but it was a collection by the Glasgow poet, Tom Leonard. I bought it because it contained a lengthy poem with an equally lengthy title, 'A priest came on at Merkland Street: a very thoughtful poem, being a canonical penance for sufferers of psychosomatic asthma' (and being an asthma sufferer I was curious), but it really wasn't that particular poem that caught my interest, rather it was a set of poems called 'Six Glasgow Poems'.
What you have to remember is the poetry I had been exposed to up until this point. We'd probably just finished the British War Poets, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke (Owen was a definite early influence) and were about to get introduced to Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes, who, probably for that reason, I have always paired-up in my mind even though they were very different people and poets. I had never read or heard read anything that could be described as radical. And then I discovered this:
COLD, ISN’T IT
wirraw init thigithir missyz
I had never read anything like it. If I was to anglify it then it would read something like:
COLD, ISN’T IT
We're all in it together, missus.
Give me your cross.
(Glaswegians often use "us" to refer to themselves as an individual, a bit like the Royal "we", e.g. We are not amused.)
I imagine my reaction would have been analogous to people ten years earlier hearing the Beatles singing without affecting quasi-American accents. It was a defiant act. And so was this.
What gets me is that, another ten years down the line, when Leonard released his collection Intimate Voices: Writing 1965-1983 which shared the Scottish Book of the Year Award in 1984, it was at the same time banned from Scottish Central Region school libraries. Go figure. Nowadays his poem 'The Six O'Clock News' is required reading for at GCSE level. I'm sure the irony would not be lost on him.
In his introduction to Radical Renfrew Leonard defines a "real" poem:
- A "real" poem is one that an English teacher would approve for use in an English class.
- A "real" poem requires some explanation and guidance as to interpretation, by an English teacher.
- The best poems come to be set in the exams.
- The people best able to pass these exams will be the people best able to understand and to write poetry.
He follows this with: "The roots of all this pernicious nonsense about what a poem isn't and what it is can be traced back to the nineteenth century invention of Literature as a 'subject' in schools."
I know exactly where he is coming from. Every poem I had ever seen, nursery rhymes excepted, had needed to be explained to me. We got the poem and we got notes to go with the poem because we were incapable of getting it on our own. We were expected to be as thick as shit. It wasn't the teachers' fault per se. Our teachers fell into the rut of believing that nyaffs like us were nigh on incapable of comprehending the subtleties of English poetry without a guide and, lazy wee buggers that we all were, we were content to be hauled by our snotty wee noses towards whatever meanings the teachers decided were the right ones for us. We were following the natural law of the school system as it was in the nineteen-sixties and early seventies.
I fully accept that the education system has to draw lines. There is clearly some literature that shouldn't be put before impressionable young minds but, using the very same logic, because their minds are impressionable, that is the very time to open them to all sorts of possibilities. This doesn’t apply just to poetry. I studied Music and, granted we covered everything from Gregorian chant right through to Webern (I don't think we reached the minimalists) but what about all the rest?
The world is shrinking. It's far from speaking with one voice but the colours are merging, subtle shades are becoming unfashionable. Is that a bad thing? I think it is. Truth comes in all shades. This is the whole point of 'The Six O'Clock News'. Even today, but especially back then, the news was read in Standard English with a calm, reserved, educated accent. The BBC even had its radio announcers wear suits despite the fact the audience couldn't see them. It was a deliberate ploy by the company to establish them as bastions of the truth. Rubbish! To return to a musical example for a moment, what was it Bob Dylan wrote (and Jimi Hendrix sang), "All I’ve got is a red guitar, three chords and the truth"?
I'll leave you with the full text of the poem, jist incase inuvyu lazi buggrs oot ther cudnebe arsed lukin up thi linknat (No, that's not me be being offensive, that's how we talk here, and that’s the truth).
THE 6 O'CLOCK NEWS
this is thi
six a clock
man said n
a talk wia
iz coz yi
mi ti talk
lik wanna yoo
it wuz troo.
jist wanna yoo
way ti spell
ana right way
to tok it. this
is me tokn yir
right way a
is ma trooth.
yooz doant no
yi canny talk
right. this is
the six a clock
nyooz. belt up.