selected letters 1991 - 1992
March 21st 1991
Actually I hate interviews, they alway seem such a pig's arse when I see them on the page, and I never feel comfortable during them. Often I turn them down but as you are in contact with the different aspects of my work and we've got on ok before then alright I'll give it a bash. As you know I like to deal with ideas in my work which is a very different thing from dealing with them in an interview. My syntax always seems to end up looking inchoate and because I speak with a mixture of register and accent often used for ironic or emphatic purpose, then in order to get what I've said interviewers usually resort in the end to attempts to depict my accent, with dire results. However I will embark on this in a spirit of trust and cooperation, as the politicians say.
Do you have all my stuff as listed on the facing title page of Radical Renfrew? If you've not you can borrow from me or at least let me know. Beyond that there's the essays in Edinburgh Review, a series of review-essays I did for the Glasgow Herald before the turn of the year (the ones on Browning and Clare are I think the best) and an essay on "Teaching Poetry in Schools" I did for a teachers' magazine that's really the kind of half-way house that was needed between the Edinburgh Review essays and the introduction to Radical Renfrew, when I got down to it. There's also a thing, a kind of sequence-collage that throws out a number of ideas about existentialism and Stuff called "The Present Tense" which is shortly to appear in the Hull magazine Bete Noire. Also I'm going to be having another pamphlet brought out in the next month, it's a series of questions and answers on the Gulf business I managed to write. I'm just finishing an introduction to it; the questions were called "Leonard's Shorter Catechism, or "And Now would you please welcome St Augustine of Hippo, who's come along this evening to talk about The Concept of the Just Fuel-Air-Explosive Bomb". The whole with introduction will be called "On the Mass Bombing of Iraq and Kuwait, commonly known as The Gulf War". I'd like very much to talk about that in the interview, as it's been what's absolutely screwing me up this past few months, and it's still continuing. So I could put words to my mouth on that rather more easily than on The Language Question etc.
I mention these things not as I expect you to take a three month course on my work but as you are one of the few people I know who actually is interested in its different parts seeing the ideas then I'm just letting you know I'll be happy enough to send you copies of especially the recent work that you don't have, since that is part of the development still I hope. I was pleased to see you wanted to review nora's place. It's been an odd thing getting that out; I have been gratified by the response to it from some fellow-writers and others (the respect of those you intellectually admire, as Mr Gide once put it) but it's a work which I told the publisher it would be a waste of time sending to the poetry magazines (Verse would not even have been considered here) as none of them from what I could see used reviewers who would know what the fuck it was about. I didn't, nor do I, feel any rancour over this either, I just see it as a statement of how the position is, and my non-relation to that position. I think he would be sending it to a couple of English or American magazines that had heard of Black Mountain and Language poets etc but that too is just a sliver of it as far as I'm concerned. Anyway, when you ring me you can let me know if you want anything.
July 7th 1991
Enclosed a copy of the booklet now that it's out. Has the magazine with the interview appeared? I've a feeling somebody said to me they had seen it, though I may have misheard. Tessa sent me the Lines Review issue in which your nora review appeared. I think that's the only review it's had so far as I know, so it will be of help. Thanks for addressing the book seriously, and in public, by thunder.
Regarding this existential/ historic point, and the union of the two. Actually in making that point with relation to Reznikoff I was aware that I have never seen the point made about any writer anywhere before, in those terms: the critical observation had come a long road in my head from Kierkegaard's division between the aesthetic and the ethical (& on to the religious) in Either/Or. I hope your remark doesn't become one of those infectious handy off-the-pegs that people then bung on to my work as if using a critical given rather than a tool I had to shape myself. The fact is that on the level at which I address the matter I can't think of a living poet who solves the antithesis so postulated. In recent times MacDiarmid was too much of a Stalinist to recognise the problem let alone solve it; Williams tried in Paterson, and, more fundamentally, in his triadic foot; Pound tried to inject the stasis of the moment into narrative discourse with his Chinese ideograms. Most of what would be considered the mainstream of current British poetry is so unexistential that the postulates are not even recognised, or are presumed soluble within plain old lexis-centred narrative. The latter breeds "large structures" quite comfortably, but the problem has not been solved, it simply isn't even known to be there.
W.S. Graham I think came nearest of late, taking a personal history as range from the persona who would address the reader in the moment. I'm not saying that MacDiarmid is not major, or that when I look at Williams I see a botch. They are both more linguistically interesting than Reznikoff, whose pieces towards the larger whole are totally consistent, but the transcriptions into plain description of what was reported in lawsuits or Nuremberg trials do not in themselves I think generate much formal energy. It's all to do with the aggregate of collocation, for Reznikoff the "large structure" with sublevel cross-references would be as alien as using nouns like switchboards for connecting differing sets of reference.
In my own way maybe what I'm trying to say is that some of the "large structures" you indicate I have difficulty handling are the ones I feel I have quite legimitately had to work very hard to avoid. This has bearing on my Thomson book: I will not tell a story with "Jimmy" as the hero. The form has to be reinvented each time, for me. I'm not saying that's something heroic, or right, or wrong. But it's the way it has to be. The "large structure" of Intimate Voices was Intimate Voices itself. Nora I see as having got back at last to picking up on A Priest Came on at Merkland Street, using techniques and arguments, and specific philosophical - for want of a better word - questions that have occurred in work in between.
I agree that in the Glasgow sequences the poems can be more easily used independently; but I have a number of times refused people their use that way as I prefer to see them as sequences. One reason is that each sequence as sequence makes clear that the author has the same voice as the described. This lessens the chance of their being seen in naturalistic "a man at a bus-stop etc" terms. Nora like the Glasgow poems will I think tend to suffer at the hands of people seeing it as purely a naturalistic portrait, not noticing the shifts from first to third person that go on. Who is actually speaking? In "here she comes" etc for instance, is this the "narrator", or "nora" so alienated from herself that she begins to describe herself in the third person? If a narrator, why has this narrator got the same speech rhythms as "nora" - and so on. Where are these speech things happening anyway - in nora's head? Where then would be the best location for a "performance" if so desired.
An actor-producer friend reminded me a couple of nights ago in the pub that he had once asked me if he could use the thing with music added at which I had muttered something about Zefferelli productions. On the other hand I told him he can use it with his students any time he wants. I hope this aint pompous, I don't usually discuss my work at all with other people, but you have addressed it seriously and I reply in kind with thanks. I'll be in Edinburgh a couple of times at the festival - Bookfest August 16th, St Cecilians August 30th - if you feel like a crack. All the best.
August 7th 1991
Am just back - a few days - from a holiday in Exeter, much enjoyed. Days out to Dartmoor, Sidmouth etc, and the cathedral a surprise. What a surprise: a great humanist statement on the front of a great medieval structure - albeit the facade of 70 human figures include many of spiritual iconography.
About your letter, for which many thanks for sending, and opening up your honest thoughts. I do think you've misunderstood a lot of the speculative thinking of which the introduction [to Radical Renfrew] comprises: that needless to say is not necessarily your fault, if anyone's. For a start the essay is about how content has been used as a marker of exclusion: it's got nothing to do with certain content being necessary. As to form, the lettrist typographical poem of 1853 I thought would have destroyed all stereotypes in that quarter. Writing lettrist typographical poems is not what the sweaty sinew school of verse is supposed to do, let alone in 1853.
I see the intro myself as among other matters putting forward a point of view which not only reclaims the verse of the people who follow, but their democratic anti-clerical point of view, in the sense of clerisy of governmental blockers of direct mediacy. It therefore accords with nineteenth century encounterist (here MacLeod Campbell would not be irrelevant) religious thinking - and anti-clerical - as much as to Paine. Your opening remark that the first sentence would be more appropriately discussed elsewhere (in the room with "Society" on the door, I mutter) puts as a given that which the introduction says is the problem. Neither in the introduction nor here do I intend listing criteria, other than the criteria normally assumed of exclusion.
Read my essay in the current Cencrastus for another word on this if you want. To my mind this fundamental misconception leads to a statement such as "He contrasts Community with High Art". I not only do nothing of the kind, but I write that such contrasts are bogus. As for the individual responses to the works, the idea that this anthology is putting forward some idea that content is more important than awareness of language or form I find extraordinary, and defensive. Of course though the anthology is a record of what the subject Leonard encountered as authentic language clusters indicating a specific: the leather bound "town poets" for which Paisley was known were to a man - and it was a man - largely completely moribund, off-the-shelf suits of dead language for classicalised pastoralese, wholly "competent forms", wholly unrealised as language containing any energy whatever.
You admire the MacLeod entry for instance as a "competent poet". To me his verse is an example of someone who had swallowed whole the Tennyson whom his father had met. I actually include his poem solely for the last line, which came alive to me as a remarkable surprise ending, containing a personal grief and a kind of glancing reference to a history of a people, in one. That's not because that's an "approved thought" that "got my ok" or some nonsense. It's because it came alive. In this, as in ALL the poems, my connection had to be something that was experienced primarily. Your letter gets close to that old stuff that the "non-political" always accuse the "political" of, i.e. of having a kind of pair of specs that are put on to see if the correct attitudes are shown up. As for Semple and Daniel King. Semple is an example of the "Temperance Song" sung at meetings, and quite competent too: King on the other hand has got damn-all to do with humour: it's one of the bitterest poems about alcoholism I know, and as I think you would know if you ever heard me read it.
Do you have a cassette machine which can dub cassettes? If so I can send you the three cassettes with the six radio programmes I made based on the book; or I can give you them anyway so long as I get them back reasonably soon as I regularly get people wanting to tape them. Anyway the contrast between Semple and King as I see it is precisely that very important contrast I mention between the Temperance song genre and the poem about alcoholism - both neglected, censored from people's historical consciousness. For goodness sake --- what are you trying to protect? You sound like a censor. Do you really think I am someone who doesn't care about language? Or are you worrying about folk if not wholly like me trying to clear you off the stage if you're not explicit about certain subjects? I'm trying to enlarge Literature, not narrow it. Or rather, I'm pointing out that it has been shrunk to a governable narrowness by those more interested in the power of governing than the cognition of an equality of human existence. Or rather, I'm not trying to point anything out at all: I compiled a chronological sequence of those human language products classified as poetry that I encountered in a certain period pertinent to a certain place; the result showed me that my inspiration had been a visit to Knossos, another defined area subject to speculative excavation by another person some time ago.
I leave the definitions that are not necessary to those for whom they are necessary. Or, that's all very well, but is it a novel? etc. etc. etc. I really do wish people weren't brought up to see Art as a cue for the establishment of a hierarchy of value-categories - "mere" verse "versus" poetry etc. The only interesting way of approaching that subject, and that in a spare moment, would be to examine how the words function as distinct from what they are supposed to mean. That, again, has been my approach to the supposed "given"s of the word poetry. File under yellow tab. File society under red. All this said by the way seeing your own poetry as having nothing whatever to do with what I am arguing against in your letter. If I am arguing: sorry if my response seems crude, I am doing this in a one-off. Am still editing down B.V. and I wish it was finished, as I work far too slowly. My last word about Radical Renfrew. It is a shape, as well as an area of encounter. I'll probably be having a day in Edinburgh in the next 10 days at the National Library. I may do that the day I'm to be at the Bookfest, or maybe another day. Do you fancy having a lunch somewhere or a pint? I seem to remember you don't like the latter, though maybe I'm wrong.
August 29th 1991
Dear Mrs C
Thanks for your letter. I haven't written any more about the situation in Iraq, I doubt if I could. The whole business was giving me a headache every day when the bombing was on, it was the first time in my life I found for a couple of weeks I couldn't look at the tv or read a paper as I couldn't handle the feelings that it provoked. But always with a lot of people in conversation there would be this sense of this country's Dark Secret in the background, apart from the Rambo types. It certainly sorted out those who were prepared to line up behind the guns in any circumstances; made it seem quite ironic the way it's presented as if during the Second World War the Germans must have been very unBritish people to have let the Holocaust happen. This seemed all so matter of fact, "common sense" after all - just like that.
I've been heartened when reading the Catechism at readings - I have insisted on reading it at every reading I've done since I wrote it - there's usually been at least one person afterwards who has thanked me. That makes me feel less isolated and glad if it's helped to make somebody else feel less isolated as well. The silence about Iraq now, apart from the odd Why Saddam Is a Beast topping-up item in the news, can make you feel as if it's you that has the guilt of knowledge, not the government which has the unacknowledged guilt of the action itself. It's quite amazing, the way the news controls people to just forget or accept what is actually happening. Now the Russians have qualified to be human beings maybe we'll get a beaming Jeffrey Archer organising another rock concert.
We have a son of 18. When he was 3 we used to share the business turn about of taking him to the local nursery with an Iraqi couple who also had a 3-year-old. After the father had finished the degree he was doing in Glasgow the family went back to Basra. So now the chances of their being alive, especially the boy's, aren't great. I was watching John Simpson on the BBC in his one report from Basra a couple of months ago doing the solemn pointing-out stuff at some shellmarks in a building, the work of Hussein's forces, Simpson said. Perhaps he was right. The poor Shi'ites. Of course what he forgot to mention, which the French Medical Team's report did, was that Basra was carpet-bombed by B-52 Bombers, the ones that flew from Gloucestershire. But now John Simpson has his CBE, and never was it more richly deserved.
The truth will out though, I do believe that. People like John Pilger surely will blow the gaff really some day, though how much it will be reported is another matter. Very convenient how as soon as the last report spoke of the generation of Iraqi infants unlike to last the year out, we were suddenly swamped with biological warfare and supergun stories again. That took care of the Public Sympathy angle. But the truth will out some day, they can't keep this one covered up. Thanks a lot for writing, sorry if I'm a bit gloomy in the reply, not that you'd expect something lighthearted in this.
Sunday May 24th 1992
Here's the stuff you wanted to see, I got to the university photocopier with it at last. You could maybe give Norman McLeod a copy if he's likely to be interested. I imagine I'll be putting these things into the anthology that Cape are bringing out next year supposedly as a follow-up to Intimate Voices. The Thomson book has taken so long though I think I'll suggest to them that they make it a sort of Collected So Far and I'll bung in satire and criticism and various odd things as well as the poetry. That's the way I'd like to do it now anyway. Places of the Mind continues to drive me up the wall in terms of its still being not totally completed. I've got an editor who's already done her editing of all but the last chapter (her parcel remains unopened, as I don't want to get involved in that just yet), I've been given the dosh I was due on handing it in, it's in the catalogue for October and I've nearly all the notes - but I'm still trying to get the last chapter the way I want it. The phone is removed from the wall most days, though that's more difficult when the family's here. I've had to point out to Stephen, my younger one, that "He's out" sounds less convincing when you ask who it is first.
Where the book has taken me continues to provide little surprises. The first chapter goes fairly thoroughly into the whole gift-of-tongues business around the Port Glasgow-Gareloch area. I don't know if you know anything about that, one of the things associated with it was the publication of a memoir of Isabella Campbell who died at Fernicarry on the Gareloch in 1827, her memoir sold in thousands and as one book put it if Scotland had been a Catholic country she would probably have been seen as a saint. I'd never been around the Roseneath place where she would be buried, so last Sunday being a fine day Sonya and I went up that way, I wanted to see the grave and if possible the site of where her farmhouse had been. At first we found various people had never heard of Fernicarry, but then a local told us it was still there. The site of where the original farmhouse was has of course recently been bought by the Ministry of Defence who else, but it turns out that near the present now derelict farm on the hillside there is a little walled-in area beside a burn at the point where it turns, and makes a waterfall over some boulders. There's a plaque on the wall with "Here Isabella Campbell Used to Pray.”
The woman who directed us to it said that her daughter had come running in one day saying she'd found this place on the hill, the woman described it as a "really sort of magical place". She didn't know anything about Isabella Campbell other than as she put it she was supposed to be someone who thought she could walk on water and got drowned, or something like that. Complete nonsense. However in this last chapter the waterfall on the burn is definitely making an appearance. Glass eyes will be dabbed or I won't be doing my job. If I don't see you before it I'll get an invitation sent for when the book's coming out. I know Cape want to do various things to do with its launch as they hope for Scottish Book Fortnight, and Edinburgh will no doubt figure in that. All the best.