As a young man I rejoiced in the poems, which circulated among us, of Christopher Logue. We had his poster poem on our walls; we carried about his ‘Red Bird’ jazz-and-poetry disc (these were both firsts). As a schoolboy, I had invited him to the Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, but he would not come because we could not pay him. My poet-banker friend Jack Osbourn, who like Logue had read his own poems on 11th June 1965 at the Albert Hall, on the occasion of the International Poetry Incarnation, admired the chutzpah of Logue’s arrogance. My lovely CG went off and slept with him (Logue), as a sort of trophy. I met him once or twice amid the shouting din of Faber’s summer parties in the early 90s, when little in the way of communication was possible. What I did not know was that, amid the gathering success of Logue’s Homeric ‘versions’, Christopher Reid was editing a new Selected Poems of Logue.[1] These I have just now finished.

Christopher Logue (photo by Eric Hands)

There are one or two stand-alone poems which I would salvage for my Universal Anthology of Modern Poetry in English:

Later I discovered he had only one eye, and,

needless to say,

posh vets won’t have him in their surgeries.

What’s more, Madame won’t like him.

ּ

But what can you do? — he has moved in

and she hasn’t.[2]

and, after Villon, ‘Caption for a Photograph of Four Organised Criminals’:

Gas, gunshot, Alcatraz, the electric chair —

Only the best machinery could do

Justice to the sensational despair

You legal felt for us illegal few.[3]

And it has been a real pleasure to be reunited with some old friends ─ which I found I knew by heart:

O come all ye faithful

Here is our cause:

All dreams are one dream,

Christopher Logue by Colin Spencer, 1959

All wars civil wars.

ּ

Lovers have never found

Agony strange;

We who hate change survive

Only through change.

ּ

Those who are sure of love

Do not complain.

For sure of love is sure

Love comes again.[4]

Popular appeal is part of his popular appeal. But the real revelation of this revisiting is of the desolate salt wastes that surround the Cyclades of the Homeric versions. There is really nothing there. In spite of the technical prowess, all is fragmented, miscellaneous. Even some individual successes cannot redeem the impression that this man has nothing of his own to say. The tiger is caged by his own bleak vision. One cannot help but notice that he is no Walcott, Cavafy or Ken Smith:

Ask what song

Mother sang us all to sleep with. Speak again

as Lear spoke and the dead in Homer, called again

beyond the ditch’s lip to be an upright bag of blood.[5]

Many of Logue’s shorter, earlier poems embody a spirit of dissident radicalism eager to be mantled by his readers’ youthful empathy ─ but in favour of what? It is impossible to say. Now in his 80s, Logue seems to have been picked up in the 60s by the tide of hipsterism for which he had been waiting without knowing it. His shining lyrical virtues were suddenly recognised by a large, shaggy audience that asked no questions. For some reason ─ loyalty, perhaps ─ he still wishes to be associated with Alex Trocchi.

Logue seems to be very much more talented ─ in a way Ben Johnson would recognise ─ than similar vernacular poets of our time ─ Cohen, Ginsberg ─ but to have been unable to break out of a confining definition of the lyric poet. There is no doubt that his variations upon Homeric themes excite by their huge vernacular energy:

Flames ate the elms,

Sad-willow, clover, tamarisk and galingale [6] — the lot.

Rushes and the green, green lotus beds crinkled — wet dust,

The eels and the pike began to broil.

Last of all Scamander’s back writhed like a burning poultice,

Then, reared up, into a face on fire:

‘How can I fight you, Cripple? Flames in my throat,

My waters griddled by hot lacquer! Quit — and I’ll quit.[7]

Alex Trocchi, the “world’s second most famous junkie”

But a comparison with more orthodox ‘translations’ shows how much is left out. Logue really just freewheels, filling in the details in inspired ways, while omitting everything in Homer that might tell us what is going on. He carves the lyric out of the narrative.

Among the non-Homeric shorter poems, through which the hardy reader must navigate knot after irresolvable knot, he several times attempts an explicit narrative ─ ‘The Girls’, ‘Urbanal’ ─ but loses himself in recondite vocabulary,[8] syntactic ingenuities,

Is Thaïs still? Is Nell? And can

Stern Héloïse aurene, [9]

Whose so-by-love-enchanted man

Sooner would risk castration than

Abandon her, be seen?[10]

or:

A curse upon the law. Where did I kiss

My right to cut that scumbag down goodbye?[11]

and just plain obscurity:

This triple step’s best foot still must. Amen.[12]

Christopher Logue, 2002

or:

and then she hears his vicar’s sandal creak

and as she runs towards her friend

and as her friend’s well-bitten fingertips

dandle her frightened scents from bank to peak

triangles blind his lens

and laughter stripes his mind.

And as her friend unties

and as she hops the peak

and as they glide away, away, she stoops.

‘Goodbye to him.’[13]

or:

I talk too much; and when I talk

gesticulate too much; and slender booms

endlessly tending cinderbeds along the city’s cut

affect me deeply.[14]

But modern poetry should be difficult, shouldn’t it?

Christopher Logue

Nevertheless, an occasional classical neatness springs up, ever fresh, in anapaests and iambs, when you are least expecting it:

And we are on the point of leaving, when,

just for an instant something emerald flares

among the crosslights rising off the sea

and exits through the seamless curvature

of water mixed with sky and quiet stars.[15]

Or:

No clamour of a common weal or woe

summons the lesser clamour of my tongue

to give its resolution clarity.[16]

To an astonishing extent in one so ‘revolutionary,’ many of the poems are literary, in the sense that they arise from starting points in old books. However, no amount of footnoting will render interesting a poem that has already left you cold.


[1] Christopher Logue, Selected Poems, ed. Christopher Reid. London: Faber and Faber, 1996. Page references are to this edition unless otherwise noted.

[2] ‘ Cats are full of death’ p. 51.

[3] p. 53.

[4] ‘O come all ye faithful’, p. 133; a poem worthy of its resonance with Creeley’s ‘Love comes quietly,’ written about the same time.

[5] Ken Smith, closing lines of ‘Departure’s Speech’, final poem of Terra. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1986, p. 89.

[6] A word of Persian origin, meaning sedge.

[7] p. 141; from Book 21 of the Iliad,

[8] See galingale, above; I have also looked up hyoid (a U-shaped bone at the root of the human tongue), mucid (mouldy, musty) and snood (hairnet).

[9] Logue’s own note to this word is: “‘Aurene’ = shining gold; scans as in ‘serene’.“

[10] The awkwardness of this must, albeit reluctantly, reduce one’s enthusiasm for the spanking modern version, ‘Gone Ladies’, p. 81, of Villon’s ‘Where are the snows of yesteryear?’ Ballade.

[11] ‘Urbanal’, p. 131.

[12] ‘The Song of Autobiography,’ p. 9.

[13] ‘The Girls’, p. 120.

[14] ‘Fragment’, p. 89. What is the city’s cut? And how, along it, can booms tend cinderbeds?

[15] This mellifluous passage, in an iambic pentameter measure which has usurped, at the last minute, the steadfast narrative pulse of anapaests, ends (p. 127) the extended but very strange narrative poem, ‘The Girls.’

[16] ‘Fragment’, p. 90, a poem whose unevenness we have already noticed and in which these pentameters, knocked out as meanly as any by Robert Lowell, sit like duck’s eggs in a basket of stones.

The relationship of a writer to the spirit of the age, said Virginia Woolf (in Orlando), is always an uneasy one. Not so for Blake Morrison, who once told me in a poetry workshop that I needed to work out my strategy towards the reader.

 

I’ve been looking at As If, Morrison’s documentary prose account of the murder of James Bulger by Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, ten year old Merseyside boys, and their trial. (This, from the author of ‘The Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper.’) It was impossible not to feel how much better VS Naipaul does this sort of thing. Morrison, the son of two GPs, seemed out of his depth with the two murderers’ families: both mothers were single and had attempted suicide; Jon’s older and younger siblings had unspecified but severe special educational needs; Robert’s seven brothers spent their days, as their father had spent his, convulsed in violence. However Morrison simply does not have a very interesting mind. He elaborates. As a metropolitan literary journalist, he is paid by some American magazine to go to the north west for a month and cover the trial. He dines at restaurants and tells us about the folk at the other tables. He produces a vast, irrelevant opening chapter about the Children’s Crusades. But his method of reporting is to process every potential comment until only what is wholly obvious remains. This has the effect of making not only the author seem obvious, but the murder, the trial, the entire book and everyone in it.

 

Rather different is the 1964 book, Flowers For Hitler, which the Canadian poet, Leonard Cohen, said at the time moved him from being a boy of golden promise to “the dung-heap of the front line writer”. I just had my rare paperback first edition of this, along with Cocteau’s Opium (1957), rebound and have therefore, as befits old friends thus honoured, been renewing my acquaintance. The influence of Auden struck me for the first time (for instance in ‘On Hearing A Name Long Unspoken’). Now Auden is a remarkably cerebral poet, wrapped – that is – in the Cerebral Corset. Young Cohen experiments boldly and this is always engaging, always elicits admiration, but where the form is most experimental (‘Indictment Of The Blue Hole’) the content is most fugitive. Cohen seems to operate best closest to his ‘core’ poem: the quirky existential lyric, often about love (‘I Had It For A Moment’). Or the other affections – friendship, reverence (two of the best poems are for Canadian poets Irving Layton and EJ Pratt). Another impressive success is a sonnet, ‘For Anyone Dressed in Marble.’

 

So Cohen, scratching around on the dung-heap, is a self-conscious formalist, aware of territory, who writes out of emotional excitement. But what of his relationship to the age?

 

To the influence of Auden one must add that of Allen Ginsberg. Now Ginsberg, who inspires affection, may be said to have worked out his strategy towards the audience, as had Ray Charles, the model for Cohen’s singing. At his most confessional – an isolated middle-aged New York Jewish homosexual tinkling his Tibetan finger-cymbals – Ginsberg unerringly summons the tribe. The result is essentially journalism, but this is experienced at the level of language. The muse of language is kept pretty much bound and powerless – in Auden, in Ginsberg, in Cohen – in favour of bony metaphysics. This is not to deny these poets’ many virtues: Auden is often luckiest in his poems of love, Cohen’s subtext (‘the words you stretched / to call me out of dust’) can be rich, and Ginsberg, though he systematically debases language in the journalistic manner, forges a magnificent rhetorical instrument. Nor is it to set up a rule-based system: good poems have an instinctive, ambiguous linguistic body; bad poems shriek from the crow’s-nest of wit. This may not always be a relevant continuum and both extremes have validity. But (more generally) art must have a relationship with what is called the Unconscious and must resist the spirit of the age if it is to root deep into life and survive temporary, small concerns.

 

Last night David N. showed me his first, pamphlet edition of Auden’s ‘Spain’, a poem the author much revised and later suppressed. Proceeds of the pamphlet were to go to support the war effort in Spain. We agreed that we much preferred the original version (“…the way the poem works”, said David). Less interesting are the politics of the 1930s.

 

Virginia Woolf made her remark about the relationship of a writer to the spirit of the age in Orlando. She was visited regularly in the 1920s by Hugh Walpole, a prodigiously successful popular novelist who later received a knighthood.[1] This gave Woolf the opportunity to maintain the balancing act, which she did with protracted skill, of her own relationship to the spirit of the age. Towards Walpole she remained cordial but not encouraging. Walpole, on his side, frankly admired and envied Woolf her achievement as a literary artist. Woolf made no money and enjoyed little success beyond her succès d’estime, while Walpole was rewarded, fêted and eventually knighted. Nevertheless the longer perspective was clearly present in their encounters. Today, Walpole is no longer read or indeed remembered, while Woolf, in addition to being a staple of the academies, school syllabi and devotional societies, is both read and loved.


[1] He died in 1941, the same year as she did.

 

 

 

 

 

13th February 2000; revised 31st May 2008.