Abailart's Reviews > Radical Renfrew: Poetry from the French Revolution to World War I

Radical Renfrew by Tom Leonard
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Apr 06, 11

bookshelves: history, poetry

Last week I enjoyed the great privilege and even greater pleasure of meeting Tom Leonard at our writer's group's annual residential at the Welsh National Writing Centre, Ty Newydd. Tom spoke about the book and kindly gifted us a copy which I immediately purloined.

As writer in residence at Paisley Library, Tom discovered hundreds of largely out of print books and pamphlets containing the poetry of writers who lived in Renfrew during the period indicated in the title. he set about reading them all, and here he presents an anthology of them coupled to brief biographical notes of each poet. The book also includes reference numbers for those wishing to go to the publications, either in Paisley or at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. Also included is a thematic guide underthe headings of: Religion, Alcohol, Emigration, Employment, Unemployment, Trade Unions and Co-operatives, Anti-Ruling Class, Parliamentary Representation, Republican, Feminist, Soldiering and Police, Literature and Reputation, Town and City, Nature and the Country, Astronomy and Microscopy, Poetry Using Shape.

Tom's introduction is a gem, and should be read by anybody with an interest in literature, wherever they live. It is a passionate and masterly analysis of the elitist class strand that filters literature into the discarded and the acceptable 'canon', and which embodies codes which from high determine what does and does not constitute a proper poem. He examines how 'dictions' of the masses are sneered at, seen as degraded or worse, and how ruling ideology attempts to maintain a hegemony of culture that reflects itself as 'natural'. His most passionate claim is the equality of a human, of a human being the human that they are, and he elucidates what this may mean. The introduction is radical, of course: it begins with the line: Any society is a society in conflict, and any anthology of a society's poetry that does not reflect this is a lie.

The poems included here are indeed wonderful. Included are extracts from James Thomson's The City of Dreadful Night, and Tom spends some time in his introduction demonstrating its thematic relevance to our present lives. Indeed, the project as a whole is relevant to our lives. What a marvellous thing it would be to see it repeated in libraries up and down the 'kingdom'. These days especially when there are desperate attempts by some elitist university literature departments to cling on to their status by resurrecting that old lie of canonical literature's being a moral force to colonise and improve the groaning underbelly of society (that's about half of us, I reckon), it has never neen more important for us to resist such nonsense and assert our voices by right of being who we are.
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