Iliad with sex, and a plucked chicken

December 21, 2001

In his 1999 autobiography, Prince Charming , Christopher Logue wrote of his discovery in 1959 of the joys of translating Homer: "The thing under my nose that I missed then, and for a long time afterwards, was that I am happiest when I have a guide. A text, a painting or a photograph to work from. I like recomposing." Prince Charming is full of such self-deprecation - at times nearer to masochism than modesty. But do not be deceived: Logue's Homer may be in some sense a "recomposition", but, as these recordings confirm, it is also original poetry of extraordinary power, which matches Logue's finest work and that of any other poet writing in the past 40 years.

Like many important encounters, Logue's introduction to Homer was largely accidental. Donald Carne-Ross, a critic and producer at the BBC's Third Programme , projected a radio version of the Iliad . He had broadcast some of Logue's poems a couple of years earlier, and at the bidding of a mutual friend asked Logue to contribute a translation of part of the epic. Logue's participation was intriguing - as his Homeric interest has always been - since he knows no ancient Greek. Carne-Ross did not think this mattered, and suggested he look at other people's translations. As Logue explained: "I read various translations, making an abstract of the sequence as I went, listing this or that turn of phrase, dropping or conflating this or that speech, these or those actions, until I had a clear storyline." The "various translations" included those by George Chapman (1611), Alexander Pope (1715-20), Lord Derby (1865), A. T. Murray (1924) and E. V. Rieu (1950).

In other words, Logue's approach to authenticity was fairly easy going. Textual fidelity was not a priority. He would leap back and forward in the text to insert sections from different parts of the Iliad as he required them, and sometimes would add things he had just read in the day's newspaper. It goes without saying that the results are better described as a version than a translation of Homer. Where Pope, for example, had "A rev'rend horror silenc'd all the sky" and Rieu the prosaic: "... and there was silence in his palace", Logue has written: "It was so quiet in Heaven you could hear/The north wind pluck a chicken in Australia." And where Rieu goes for "This cut Achilles to the quick" and Pope "Achilles heard, with grief and rage opprest,/His heart swell'd high, and labour'd in his breast", at the same point in the narrative Logue writes: "Achilles' face is like a chalkpit fringed with roaring wheat."

Elsewhere Logue's words have no obvious analogue in another translation. It is such examples as these - along with his anachronistic references to conflicts since Troy ("King Agamemnon's army stands, as in the sepias of Galipoli...", "Ajax, prim underneath his tan as Rommel after Alamein"), and the high degree of freedom that Logue grants his poetic imagination (as in the marvellous description of Paris's saviour: "waltzing... in oyster silk,/Running her tongue around her strawberry lips/While repositioning a spaghetti shoulder strap,/The Queen of Love, Our Lady Aphrodite") - that insist Logue does himself down by claiming he needs to crib. His Iliad is (almost) all his own, and is a remarkable poem of sustained force and beauty.

The bulk of Audiologue , a seven-CD set of Logue reading his own poems, consists of these versions of parts of the Iliad (known collectively as War Music ), sections of which have already been given the thespian treatment in recordings by Vanessa Redgrave and Alan Howard. Logue himself has experience as an actor - his Cardinal Richelieu in Ken Russell's The Devils was almost as memorable as the scenes of naked nuns taking part in orgies - and delivers his own lines with appropriate authority. His voice has been described by its owner as "pansy-posh strangulated", but let it speak for a minute and remarkable qualities emerge: a deep vein of sarcasm, a satirical wit that can switch in a moment to spitting disgust, and a passionate, raging fierceness that brings home vividly the intense savagery of much of the poetic matter. Any recording of poetry has obvious drawbacks. One cannot easily replay a line, or two or three lines, or a page; one may dissent from the narrator's interpretation (even if he did write the poem). But for this listener at least, the excitement of Logue's dramatic enactment easily outweighs the disadvantages. The book form of War Music has just been reissued by Faber, and the sensible thing would be to have it to hand.

Also included in this set are two of Logue's poetry/jazz forays. Red Bird was a 1959 recording of seven Logue poems based on Neruda accompanied by music composed by Tony Kinsey and Bill Le Sage of the Tony Kinsey Quintet; Loguerhythms - Logue-Kinsey cabaret songs written for Peter Cook's club The Establishment - were recorded by the Kinsey Quintet with Annie Ross in 1963. In both cases the jazz sounds slightly tame to modern ears, but is redeemed by Logue's spiky recitation and Ross's inimitable husky delivery.

Two CDs of Logue's Selected Poems complete the set. They all reward revisiting (or discovery) and offer a reminder of what a hugely gifted poet is still in our midst. With war exerting a stranglehold on every newspaper headline, Logue's reflections on the subject are more than ever worth considering. As his Iliad Book XIX has it: "Whatever caught and brought and kept them here,/Under Troy's ochre wall for ten burnt years,/Is lost: and for a while they join a terrible equality;/Are virtuous, self-sacrificing, free;/And so insidious is this liberty/That those surviving it will bear/An even greater servitude to its root:/Believing they were whole, while they were brave,/That they were rich, because their loot was great;/That war was meaningful, because they lost their friends."

Christopher Wood is a freelance journalist specialising in the arts.


Author - Christopher Logue
ISBN - Christopher Wood
Publisher - Unknown Public Ltd
Price - £49.50 unsigned, £55.00 signed (inc p&p inside UK)
Pages - 7-CDset, 500 minutes in total

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