Christopher Logue, a “very great poet”
“We were interested in serious writing. Comic, not comical. Entertaining, not entertainment. … We agreed that poetry must be beautiful – to hear and to read – and witty, and interesting, and say useful, unusual things, and exhilarate. And that the work of poets who do not produce such effects would be forgotten.”
Christopher Logue, I hope, will not be forgotten. During his life, he was not often remembered. He is under-represented in anthologies and critical discussion of post-war British poetry and, partly it seems, it is his own fault. He never featured in the highly successful Penguin Modern Poets series because “I refused to share a volume … with two other poets, demanding one to myself.”
I came across a poem of his as a teenager in a book called Poem of the Sixties but by the time I finally plucked up the courage to invite him to perform at the events I was running, I was too late. I am pleased now to be able to host a tribute night for him and to have fans of his work such as John Hegley and Kate Tempest to be a part of it.
I do not want to argue that Logue was an original poet, but simply that he was a truly distinctive voice and that in time he will come to be recognised for it. At his best, Logue’s verse speaks directly and colloquially to its reader with a recognisable and individual voice, one that has already inspired some important imitators and admirers. It is inventive, and cinematically visual, composed with wit, a commitment to the public and the political and in a style, which although shaped by his intensive reading of other poets, he made very much his own.
And yet it is Logue’s own lines that might serve to represent critical opinion as it seems to stand now:
“often as not the things I wrote
were stolen from better writers than me,
though sometimes lesser men served just as well”
I was glad to see that Craig Raine also published an obituary, three days after Mark Espiner in The Guardian passed on the epitaph “magpie poet”. The poet’s War Music editor described him as “Ebullient, impatient, peremptory, candid, rude on occasion, opinionated, funny, surprising, widely loved. He was also a very great poet. His version of Homer’s Iliad is one of the glories of literature, a pacifist’s paean to a brutal warrior culture. The very taste of war is in his words, the flavour of carnage in all its fullness.”
It is the “very great poet” tag which I wish to discuss.
Alexander Pope’s 1715 translation of The Iliad begins:
Achilles’ wrath, to Greece the direful spring
Of woes unnumber’d, heavenly goddess, sing!
That wrath which hurl’d to Pluto’s gloomy reign
The souls of mighty chiefs untimely slain;
Whose limbs unburied on the naked shore,
Devouring dogs and hungry vultures tore.
Since great Achilles and Atrides strove,
Such was the sovereign doom, and such the will of Jove!
This baroque introduction re-renders Homer’s invocation of the muse in rhyming iambic couplets and is dense but memorable for its clashes of sound: “mighty chiefs untimely slain”; or the imagery of a transferred epithet: “unburied on the naked shore”. Logue begins his 1991 retelling of Book 1 thus:
Picture the east Aegean sea by night,
And on a beach aslant its shimmering
Upwards of 50,000 men
Asleep like spoons beside their lethal Fleet.
Undoubtedly, Logue’s understanding of cinema, and the experience he gained as actor and screenwriter for Ken Russell informs this choice of opening. There is no doubt that Pope’s translation is great poetry but equally there is no doubt which one the modern reader would choose. In 1962, after the publication of the first volume of Logue’s retelling, Henry Miller wrote to Lawrence Durrell, “Just stumbled on Chris Logue’s extraordinary rendition of Book 16 of the Iliad. I can’t get over it. If only Homer were anywhere near as good.”
Cinema began as a circus trick, a form of magic theatre that astonished its audiences by presenting the moving picture; something so realistic it seemed almost living in itself. Now, it speaks to us more than any other narrative art form and Logue uses this for his retelling and for much of his other narrative poetry.
Logue’s collected Iliad poems, sadly unfinished, were published under the name War Music and are not intended as a translation. They work by recreating for us the feelings Homer’s contemporaries, or later Greeks, might have experienced when hearing in their own language “15,000 lines representing an age as remote from its own as it is from ours”. To do this Logue must use references, language and methods of telling a story that appeal to us as a modern audience.
Instead of Pope’s lament for the fallen in heroic couplets, we are told to ‘picture the east Aegean sea by night’, the poet’s hand working like a camera, giving us a series of shots (the sea, the sleeping men) that eventually lead us to the “lethal fleet”. We want shock, unexpected juxtapositions, realism: not wordy explanations of what the poet’s going to say next. Logue either uses explicit film language (‘cut to the fleet’) or sometimes just film’s techniques of creating a rapid succession of different scenes and short close-ups of images that work as symbolism to provide a narrative:
“…And over there
(Beyond the columns, looking down)
Notice the stairs that wind
Onto a balcony where Helen stands
“They want to send me back.”
And (taking a pastry snail from a plate
Inlaid with tortoise-shell) Paris, who caused the war, replies:
“Heaven sent you here. Let Heaven send you back.”
While in his sleep King Priam shouts:
“You are too faithful to your gods!”
Cut to the flat-topped rock’s west side, and see
Andromache touch Hector’s shoulder …”
As the opening prepositional phrases wind us down the stairs to Helen, it is as if the poet’s hand is the arm of the camera, moving into close-up. There, the winding-helix motif of the balcony stairs is repeated in the “pastry snail” that a languid Paris is eating: a symbol of fate, perhaps, which, thinks Paris, is on his side. Except, Logue now ‘cuts’ to wise Priam in his troubled sleep shouting a lightening flash of warning against this kind of laissez-faire: two short scenes which set up the long dialogue of Andromache (“a different school of beauty”) and Hector, as she tries to persuade her stubborn warrior-husband to seize the “chance for peace.”
Non-didactic, political, ‘naturalistic’ imagery: “If there is imagery, it must be part of the movement. Keep your distance.”
With Logue’s discovery of Bertolt Brecht’s poetry, there arises a new commitment to the political in his work. This is not to say that Brecht is the “source” of his political work but simply that from the publication of his fourth collection, Logue begins to take on board the message that he attributes to Lindsay Anderson, namely that: “The critic or artist who claimed to provide non-partisan, aesthetic judgments, or ‘pure’ artworks, was a fraud”. Logue’s first published work, the Poundian Wand and Quadrant, is a little guilty of such fraud.
“In Paris [in 1951] … it was a matter of creating watertight philosophical-political systems on which to act, in London [in 1955] of confrontation, rejection and satire.”
And satire is what we get with the 1959 collection entitled Songs. He avoids didacticism and brings in parable and allegory, folk rhythms, colloquial language. The message is subtle and the telling expertly crafted.
In the Song of the Dead Soldier, for example, the seventeen year old narrator is called up to “earn / the modern shilling I was worth” and, after being transported to serve on the island “where the Queen of Love was born”:
“Next day, sky high, stud bright, the sun
between our thicket bayonets clicked
and china-white our faces shone”
It is imagery that creates Logue’s meaning. The militarisation of the natural world creates its sinister power: the sun like a polished “stud” over a “thicket” of bayonets. The fragility of life in the deadliness of war, is their faces: “china” to be smashed. The repeated motif of the round shilling, which is all the soldiers are, is there again in the stud-sun and the chinaplate-face. We hear also the racial content of modern wars – those faces are white under a seemingly tropical sun while we have light described in synaesthesic sound – clicking in a thicket of bayonets.
Even in the earlier love songs of Red Bird, the re-composition of some of Pablo Neruda’s work, we have Loguean craft. Poem II begins: “Steep gloom among pine trees” – announcing mood and place concisely, balancing long vowels and slow consonants. Logue, quite naturally, makes the “gloom” rather than the pine trees “steep” and it is the focus of the scene. In other poets’ hands, the creative use of language might well sound forced or too consciously and purposelessly ‘innovative’.
The comic, satirical, simple The Ass’s Song or Professor Tuholsky’s Facts, tell us that it is the pressure of performance that have refined out the obscurity, the archaisms, the subject-less poetry of Wand and Quadrant. They must be understood and enjoyed in a live setting. He says that, “Poetry and the spoken performance of it were never separated in my mind” and once he becomes involved in performance and brings in jazz rhythm and political message, his art is immediate, direct and yet still subtle and not didactic.
Moving between perspective
One typical technique, and a political stance in itself, is Logue’s frequent play with perspective. Small and large are relative concepts.
The protagonist of his early poem, A Matter of Prophecy, turns in his sleep:
“Heaves, crushing a thousand dewpods
With his head, and sleeps again; like Plato
On the beach at Syracuse, a radium in lead.”
It is not a great poem, nor have I yet managed to fathom the relevance of Plato in Syracuse, but it is a memorably visual image and hints at what is to come later. The one stand-out poem from his first collection is For My Father, although it takes the re-edit of his collected works: ode to the dodo to make it a great poem. In its more concise, later version, he asks with quiet pathos, one year on from the death of his father:
from the spire of that grassblade,
can you see larger absences than his?”
Again the message is: The level on which we live life is not the only level there is. This technique is greatly perfected by the time of War Music, where, playfully he tells us how Apollo punishes the Greek army for mistreating his Trojan priest:
“Taking a corner of the sky
Between his finger and his thumb,
Out of its blue, as boys do towels, he cracked
Then zephyr-ferried in among the hulls
A generation of infected mice.”
I know of no modern poet who is as mesmerically visual as Christopher Logue. Much of his power comes from well-used synecdoche. In Urbanal, after the anger and frustration at his rich neighbour’s arrogance, he slows the poetry down:
“Dusk. The blind man’s holiday. Blurred moonshine in the dewy slate”. It is the concise fragmentary sentences and the close-up focus on a small part of a scene to give us the whole.
Not long before the death of the two title characters of the long, narrative, The Girls, they row along a summer river:
“Blade water light beneath blade’s metal tip
Water evolving dark whorls in their wake.
Oars easily buried, length bent by the light,
pulled through the water’s continual door
by her body’s soft lever”
There is death all over the image. Blade water and oar blade. The wake. The buried oar. They are caught for the moment, soft and fragile.
With jazz and performance and a commitment to the political, comes a common, colloquial voice, speaking to the common humanity. In his retelling of Brecht’s poem, To My Fellow Artists, Logue speaks to his contemporaries and his own voice leaps out of the Brechtian translation. It is perhaps the poem’s most memorable part:
Logue grinds his axe again. He’s red –
or cashing in … And you are right
I have an axe to grind. Compared to you,
I’m red – and short of cash. So what?
I think, am weak, need help, must live,
and will – with your permission – live.”
Similar thoughts are found at the opening of New Numbers:
“This book will offend a number of people;
some of them influential people.
Its commercial potential is slight;
the working classes will ignore it,
the middle classes will not buy it,
the ruling class will bolt it with a smile –
for I am a Western Art Treasure.
What right do I have to complain?
Nobody asked me to write it. Yet,
you may be sure I will complain”
He speaks to us directly, concisely, enigmatically. Yet it is also poetry, with the falling away bathos at the end of both excerpts.
 Prince Charming, A Memoir; Faber and Faber, 2001; p91-92
 ibid. 278-279
 Fragment (New Numbers 1969); from ode to the dodo: poems from 1953 to 1978; Faber and Faber 1981
 HYPERLINK “%20http:/www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/dec/06/christopher-logue-poetry” http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/dec/06/christopher-logue-poetry
 Kings, an account of books 1 and 2 of Homer’s Iliad; Farrar Straus Giroux; 1991
 Author’s Note, War Music, Faber and Faber, 2001, viii
 Prince Charming, 207
 Prince Charming, 124
 ode to the dodo, 136
 ibid. 54
 ibid. 93