Poet Leonard Irving

by Nat Frothingham

Here’s a toast to the life, voice, laughter, ear for language, and understanding of the human heart of poet Leonard Irving. Today at 83, Irving divides his time between a farm in Plainfield, Vermont and a rented room and the streets of San Francisco, California.

Irving, with his ruddy face, white hair, rough good looks, and friendly inviting eyes, is never happier than when reading a good book, telling a story, singing poetry, or out on the land, feeding the animals, hacking away at the grass, swinging an axe, or cutting and burning brush.

Irving was born in Village Dundrennan, Scotland, in 1924. His father was a gardener who worked on country estates, and the family was always on the move following the work, from Dundrennan to Castle Douglas and a number of other places. Even during his childhood, as Irving remembers it, the country estates in Scotland were already breaking up because of taxes and because people didn’t live in big houses anymore.

Times were hard in Scotland during the 1920s and 30s and many families found it a struggle to put food on the table. As a gardener on a country estate, you could scrape by. You had a cottage on the premises. You could have a little garden and because you worked on the estate, you got milk, eggs, and maybe a little coal in winter.

How did poetry first enter young Leonard’s life? “I picked up Burns at school, I’m sure,” meaning Robert Burns, the famous Scottish national poet. As a boy, Irving held fast to his love of poetry. “Boys that liked poetry were sissies. It was OK for girls. I liked it and I knew I liked it and I knew I wasn’t going to have it usurped by a slew of other boys.”

Speaking about Robert Burns today, Irving said, “I once could recite a lot of his poetry. I like Burns anywhere.” In Irving’s view, “Burns appeals to people on a primitive level. If you want to be a poet, you write a poem about your knife and fork, or your begging bowl, or the grain on the table that’s worn away with usage. You write about the horse that’s hauling your cart home.”

In one of his own poems written in the Scots border vernacular known as Lallans (Lowlands), Irving writes about himself and two other boys who are looking for smooth stones to skip across Carlinwark Loch.


Me an Billy Purdy an Scaldy Kane
rinnin over the rough fields
aroon Castle Dooglas,
oor een searchin the grun
fur wee flat stanes
tae breck oor ain records
(wuz it seven?
or wuz it echt?)
o the number o skitters
afore the stane drooned itsell.
Racin yin anither
across the grun
tae the edge o
Calinwark Loch
Tae skite flat stanes
ower the tap o the watter
but wadin ower the burn
Scaldy saw a wee troot
so skitiing on the loch
got the ‘Go Bye’
that day.

When Irving was 13, his father got a gardening job at Banwell Castle in Somerset and the family left Scotland for southwest England. At 14, Irving quit school and went to work delivering bread. Meanwhile, in 1939 Leonard’s father—who had served in World War I and was in the Reserve—got called up into the Army. Young Leonard was not far behind him.

About his dreams of youth, Irving said, “I always wanted to go to sea. I always wanted to go around both capes and through both canals. I wanted to go on sailing ships. I was reckless. I wanted to experience adventure.”

Well, adventure was waiting for him. Britain was in mortal combat with Nazi Germany and young Len Irving left Somerset and took off for the next large town— Bristol.

“I went to Bristol to enlist in the British Navy,” Irving said. He was 17 years old. “But I advanced my age by one year and I enlisted in the Royal Marines.”

It was August 1941. The Royal Marines issued Irving a railway voucher and he was ordered to report for duty at the port city of Plymouth, England.

In a small book about his life entitled Beyond Hadrian’s Wall, Irving wrote about his childhood

“Me mither raised me. Me mither praised me.” Then he adds a forbidding line. “Me mither hated me, methought, for being one more bread-snapper in breadless times.”

He goes on. “She snapped, she furied, she wept. Did my father wonder when her laughter died? Once she must have skipped and sung, danced to fiddlers’ tunes, dreamed of long-haired horizons and running through fields of meadowsweet. And he with wild sea dreams, ranching on the pampas. Ploughbound, housebound now, locked unhappily together.” Irving remembers his mother as “a difficult woman. There was no pleasing her,” he said. “It seems I could never do anything right for her.”

“Thrawn,” Irving said, searching for a word to describe his mother. He was referring to a work written by Robert Lewis Stevenson called Thrawn Jennie. Thrawn is variously defined on the Internet as “twisted, obstinate, perverse.” Returning again to his mother, Irving said, “She was rough and she was tough.”

Attempting to frame the situation between his mother and father, he likens his housebound father to a doomed creature. “A salmon fights the hook. A chained bull snorts and hoofs the ground,” he writes.

Then remarking on his mother’s life, he said, “I know little of women and that little suspect, but she was surely doubly wounded through helplessly watching his destruction.” Then follows a telling, painful detail, “She must hurry for his wages else find him roadside drunk.”

If Irving’s memory of his mother is of a cold and bitter woman he could never please as a child, then his memory of his father is of a man whose feelings he could not reach.

Long Ago Regret

When Mother died
the bells all foiled
Ding-Dong. Boom-boom.
The firehouse siren wailed.
Passing the zoo the lion roared.
Noise… Noise…
Even the drip of the kitchen faucet
sounded louder.

When Father died
not a sound was heard.
Yet, within the silence,
I came to realize
I had loved him
more than anyone.

Still seeking his silent, occluded father, at age 66 he wrote this poem about the father he loved and never knew. He revised the same poem when he was 77.


Still seeking my Father’s attention.
The infectious smile I never knew
or true note of false praise.
No game playing to mellow the evenings,
nor even grimace of derision.
Were his embraces all exhausted
hauling barrels or hugging women?
Never was I a compliment kissed.

Poverty rotted his soul.
Hardships hardened his arteries,
Drink drowned his kindness.
Frustration silenced his language.

To this day, in certain moods,
a ravage of tumult raging inside
attempts to claw its savage way free.
Drives me abroad
to walk expectant streets,
sure in my fury of knowing
that around the next corner
a man labouring,
a truck driver unloading goods
some barker outside a store,
salesman having his shoes shined,
will be He.

After our eyes meet
we will hurry towards each other
to hug and love. And,
after regaining our composure
we will attempt to greet each other
for the first time.

Irving was with the Royal Marines in World War II and served for five years until 1946. “I couldn’t get out,” he said. “Because of my youth I had to wait for demobilization. The war was over but they didn’t let everyone out right away.” In the Royal Marines, Irving got the adventure he was looking for and the meaningless boredom and officer class arrogance he was not looking for.

Irving never deserted in the face of the enemy. But he deserted twice “out of boredom, high spirits, and throttled exuberance.” Indeed, the monotonous and demeaning life of taking and giving orders—the general monotony—that’s how he describes most of what he experienced in the Royal Marines. “I found life in the armed forces repugnant,” he says today. For his two acts of desertion, Irving got 56 days detention the first time and 90 days the second.

But Irving was gallant under fire. Shortly after D-Day on June 6, 1944, Irving was on a landing craft headed for a Normandy beach. When his craft was blown up, he was sleeping on deck. “I couldn’t swim,” he said and he found himself in the water hanging onto a cork raft that had broke loose.

There were almost 100 men on that landing craft. Only 19 survived. But the memories stick. Said Irving: “There was a guy who drowned. His name was Sandford. He had black curly hair. He had a big, broad chest. He was a lady’s man. He threw his arms up and the he went down and that was the end of it. Things were going on. You know you’re breathing. That’s all you need to know. There were guys around. Some were helping each other. Some were helping themselves. But we got ashore. They shipped us back to Southampton. They sent us home on leave.”

After the war, Irving knocked around and worked all over England in Nottingham, Bristol, and Coventry. He shipped out on the Merchant Marine and was an unskilled laborer, mason, carpenter’s helper. He even got a job on the Falkland Islands off Argentina in the South Atlantic, building a freezer. There he was a construction worker in 1950. The job was from one December to another December. The pay was good, there were no taxes, and he saved money.

It was the money he saved from work on the Falkland Islands that enabled him to emigrate to the United States in January 1953. “I liked the thought of the United States. It was big and I thought I could wander around. I never thought of making money. But you need money to pay your rent, get drunk, chase women, write poetry, and move around,” he said.

So Irving came to America and pursued adventure. He was a carpenter and a railway brakeman. He worked an elevator in a department store. He hitchhiked across the country eight or nine times just for something to do. “I didn’t want to be married and have children. I had that migratory thing in my system,” he said.

He was also a house painter. He worked on the docks, loading and unloading. He installed hardware for interior decorators.

While he was living in New York City and building a closet in a private house, he met a woman whose name was Francesca Maria Agatha Amato.

“I always read a great deal and in conversation I can put on an air of intellectuality,” he said. “And I tried that with her. But she could see through me. My horseshit wasn’t paying off. You’re pulling the bell cord but it’s not ringing the bell,” he said.

Amato was a smart, educated woman who had won the French Gold Medal in high school. “We tuned into each other,” Irving said. “And we stayed together for a long time.”

Irving’s encounter with Francesca gave him his writing start. “She encouraged me to write. We inherited a typewriter. I began to write on that typewriter. I started writing poetry. I wrote a novel. I wrote many short stories. My writing career started there. I got an agent there,” he said. That was from 1954 to 1967 or 1968.

Irving spent far less time talking about himself than he spent talking about the books and writers and poets he loves. “I don’t self-examine,” he said. “I take a great deal of my life for granted. I was a voracious reader, and I’ve always had a great desire to write.”

As Irving talked, he acknowledged one writer after another whose ideas and ways of putting things seized on his imagination. Robert Burns, of course, James Joyce, James Stevens, who wrote The Crock of Gold, Sean O’Casey, the Irish playwright, and the Irish poet William Butler Yeats.

“Singing is close to poetry,” Irving says. “My poetry is musical. I feel the tie-in with music. Some people accompany poetry with music. But I like to hear the pure word alone.”

“I have written 300 poems, maybe,” Irving said. “Marianne Moore—I have a book of her poetry and I love her technique. She’s hugely imaginative with language. And then there’s Dylan Thomas, Patrick Kavanagh, Hugh McDermitt, a Scotsman.”

Irving will be going down his list of poets and writers. And then he’ll break and declaim a line or two, as this from Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas.

Now, as I was young and easy under the apple boughs

Or another Dylan Thomas fragment.

If I were tickled by the rub of love

“Robert Frost has some great poems,” Irving volunteered, “‘Apple Picking,’ ‘Hired Man,’ ‘Birches.’ His voice is unmistakable.”

“Poetry,” Irving said, “it’s always been there. Like music has always been there. It’s a great solace-maker. It’s a great medium for expressing grief and joy.”

In a 2006 book entitled The Poetry of Leonard Irving, he wrote a few lines about a fellow who lived in a single room along the same hallway in the same modest hotel in San Francisco where Irving lives in the time he spends there.

The Guy in 401

The guy in 401
Talk about a louse
A dead beat.
A real pain.
A self-pronounced deer poacher.
Played his TV full blast
at all hours.
Thought nothing of banging on
your door in the middle of the night
to bum a cigarette or a drink.
His one claim to fame,
a trained mouse.
“Trained to do what?
Sing grand opera?” I once asked.
He merely glared.
A liar. A thief.
A petty swindler.
Pilferer. Shoplifter.
Mouse exploiter.
Shit that he was,
He up and died last week.
Who would believe the corridor
is lonely without him.

Many of Irving’s published books include drawings by Elinor Randall. A number of Irving’s poems and a number of his books are dedicated to her—to Randy.

On the acknowledgments page of his most recent book, Irving wrote:

For many years, I pursued a poet’s path, passionate and unsung, without even knowing I was a poet. In Scotland, inside a tiny rural schoolhouse, I memorized “Daffodils,” “The Brook,” “A Wet Sheet and a Flowing Sea,” and Robbie Burns “Tae a Mouse.” Poems I knew no one I knew would listen to so I recited them to myself . . .

I never acquired any great skills toward making a living so my life lies somewhere inside my poems. There were two significant women in my life and I loved both of them truly. Francesca gave me Under Milkwood by Dylan Thomas and Randy is an ongoing inspiration.

I seemed to have accomplished many of the things expected of someone of my background. Served in the Royal Marines during World War II. Merchant seaman. Longshoreman. Railroad brakeman. Emigrated. Traveled. Hitchhiked across America many times, cursed the system and welcomed the dawn.

Now, at 83, am I about to have more infamy thrust upon me? What more to say? Here’s wishing you a long life and sweet dreams. Bravo to poetry. Bravo to life.

The above story originally appeared in The Montpelier Bridge, issue of June 15, 2007, and is reposted at this site with the permission of the author, Nat Frothingham