War Music, Christopher Logue’s adaptation of books sixteen to nineteen of Homer’s Iliad, was published in 1987 and immediately hailed as a masterpiece on both sides of the Atlantic. It was the culmination of a long, sustained effort that produced Patrocleia (book sixteen) and Pax (book nineteen) in 1962 and 1969 respectively. For the past three years he has been working on books one to four, the first two of which were published last year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in a single volume under the title Kings.
Logue’s account of the Iliad has been described as one of the major achievements of postwar English poetry, the most important translation since Ezra Pound’s “Homage to Sextus Propertius.” George Steiner has called it “a work of genius . . . the most magnificent act of translation going on in the English language at the moment,” while Louis MacNeice praised it as “not a translation but a remarkable achievement of empathy,” and Henry Miller exclaimed, “I’m crazy about it. Haven’t seen such poetry in ages.”
Christopher Logue was born in 1926 in Portsmouth, England and was educated at Prior Park College, Bath and Portsmouth Grammar School. At seventeen he volunteered for the Army, and in 1946 he was sent to Palestine, where he was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for the illegal possession of government property. On his release in 1948 he returned to England and lived with his parents on public assistance before moving to Paris in 1951.
His first book of poems, Wand and Quadrant, was published in 1953 by Collection Merlin in Paris. Three years later A. A. M. Stols of the Hague published Devil, Maggot and Son. He moved back to London in 1958, and in the years that followed he went on to produce poetry, translations of Villon and Neruda, plays, film scripts, songs, and sketches. He has been a contributor to the satirical magazine Private Eye since 1960, and has published two collections from his column “True Stories” in books of the same title.
He lives with his journalist wife, Rosemary Hill, in Camberwell Grove, South London, and works in a quiet office at the top of the house. It overlooks on the street side one of the finest rows of Georgian houses in London and on the garden side the church of St. Giles, whose elegant spire rises over the trees and the low garden wall. He speaks in a deep, distinctive voice with a clear, melodious diction.
A critic once remarked that your Iliad is the work of your genius, while your own poetry is the product of your talent. Let’s start with the latter. When did you become aware of your talent for poetry? What triggered it?
My elocution mistress, Miss Crowe. As a child I had a deep voice. People would comment. My mother wanted me to be a priest or an actor, but seeing that there wasn’t much chance of the priesthood, she plumped for acting and sent me for elocution lessons. Miss Crowe was an attractive woman. I used to sit on the floor and look up her skirt—and that’s how I became a poet. She taught me how to scan, and introduced me to many good poets: Browning, Tennyson, Bridges, Kipling. My next contact with poetry was when I went to Priory Park, a Catholic boarding school located in a beautiful Palladian house built by Ralph Allen, a friend of Alexander Pope. On its grounds was a grotto built by Allen for Pope. I used to go and play there, although it was by then a dank, derelict place. I had no idea who Pope was.
How about English? Were you good at it?
Yes. We did Shakespeare’s Henry V, and I loved it. I memorized chunks of it. People often say that their school put them off Shakespeare for life. That is nonsense. They had no taste for it and are ashamed of that, so they blame the school, the teacher, or the poet.
What made you decide to go into the army instead of art school or university?
It was 1944. I was seventeen and a half and I couldn’t see my way forward. I had no idea what to do with myself. I was always in trouble. I was a trouble to myself. I thought maybe I’ll be killed, that’s the best thing for me.
What kind of trouble did you get into?
Stealing. Money from my mother’s purse, or my father’s pockets, things from shops—semipornographic magazines, expensive toys, and sweets—and then I would be caught and punished. Once I was taken to a juvenile court. When the time came for me to appear, my father came with me with his retirement certificate—he was a civil servant, working in the post office for forty-five years—wrapped in brown paper under his arm. He unwrapped it and showed it to the magistrates. I felt incredibly proud of him, and terribly ashamed of myself. Thereafter I stopped stealing . . . except lines of poetry.
Anyway, the army took me in because there was a war and I was a volunteer. By the time I had finished my training, the war in Germany was over and my unit was sent to Palestine. We, the British, were trying to stop large-scale Jewish immigration into Palestine—this was 1946. I was there for three months before I went to jail.
How did that happen?
How is easy to tell, why is hard to know. I think now that I contrived a way of getting the army to punish me. It was an act of spiteful masochism. I had by chance, but illegally, obtained six army paybooks, which were also identity documents. I announced to everyone in my tent that I planned to sell them to the Jews. I knew no Jews. I hardly knew what the word Jew meant. But I identified with those my side was against. I imagined myself as a Jew. It was provocative. You must remember that at this time British soldiers were being shot by Israeli terrorists who might have used army paybooks to gain access to a camp. I took the paybooks with me into Haifa, but no sooner had I reached the town than one of the men to whom I had announced my plan arrived with an officer and arrested me. I pleaded guilty to the charges and I said, If I had had guns I would have sold them too. They gave me two years, with eight months remission, and I served sixteen months.
Where was the prison? What was it like being a prisoner?
It was Acre, now Akko, a Turkish fort built on the site of a castle taken by Richard the Lionheart during the Third Crusade. I was put in with the Jewish prisoners because they were “white”—which meant European—under what was called Special Treatment, which was lucky for me, because the Palestinians were very badly treated, not physically, but like second-rate people, heaped up in crowded cells.
The governor of the prison was also the hangman, and when Jewish terrorists were to be hanged, he would hang them, and then come and inspect us. The condemned cell was close to our tower; we knew what was going on. Ours was one of four towers around the courtyard. I was in a tiny cell of my own with a view of the sea. I had books.
Just the place for a budding poet. Did you have many books?
I used the prison library. I read continually but unsystematically. While under arrest before my trial, one of my fellow soldiers gave me the American edition of Auden’s Collected Poems. As well, I had a complete Shakespeare and the collected works of Oscar Wilde.
You once said you didn’t care for Auden.
Nothing disrespectful. Basically, he did not have a great influence on me. I didn’t really find my mark until I read Eliot. Then I thought, bloody great! That’s the stuff for me! And then I read Pound and I thought he was wonderful too. I have not changed my mind. Eliot is still the best for me and what happened after him is not as interesting, not as good. What Picasso did for painting, Eliot did for poetry in English. With new forms and fresh words he created a world within his work that represents very accurately the mood of the world we are still in. He sees the world, not a waste place, but a place in which it is difficult to live and to have hope. As this was true of the Greeks, it is true of us. But that is not what struck me then. What struck me then was the way he wrote. You read it, you clap your hands. His poetry thinks as it feels:
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
Pound, too, is a wonderful writer. He can teach you. His influence on me was very strong, particularly his “Homage to Sextus Propertius.” But intellectually, formally, Eliot is a much greater influence.
What about Yeats? His influence was quite noticeable in a poem you wrote deploring his lofty detachment from politics; a critic commented that while attacking Yeats you managed to be Yeatsian. Is it the Irish in you?
My paternal grandfather was Irish. The idea that the Irish make good poets is rubbish. Who was there between Swift and Yeats, Arthur O’Shaughnessy? A. E. [George Russell]? After Yeats, Kavanagh. There is no Irish MacDiarmid or Garioch. The Irish excel at drama: Congreve, Farquhar, Goldsmith, Sheridan, Wilde, Shaw, O’Casey, Synge, Beckett. No one can match that. I read Yeats as much as Eliot and Pound but I do not think he struck me so deeply. Still, some of his poems explode in your head like dynamite.
His love poetry?
No, I don’t think his love poetry is exceptional. A poem like “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz” draws a marvelous picture:
The light of evening, Lissadell,
Great windows open to the south,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle.
The fact that he was in love with one of the girls is irrelevant. For love poetry you read Donne, Shakespeare, the Caroline lyricists or “In Memoriam.” Yeats’s best poems are about what happens to people when there is a war, or about his dreams, or about him growing old.
You mean things like “Sailing to Byzantium?”
Marvelous stuff, based on a rubbishy theory. Shaw is champion on Yeats; Florence Farr once persuaded him to go to a reading of hers and Yeats’s. The letter he wrote to her afterwards is hilarious: Do not come on dressed in a toga. Do not carry a harp and strum it during the reading. Do not burn incense. Do not intone.
When did you write your first poem?
I can’t remember. Seventeen? Eighteen? But I’d told myself I was a poet for as long as I could remember. I thought that being a poet was what made people allow you to be irresponsible. You say you are a poet and you get away with murder! Eventually, I thought it was about time I wrote a poem. One’s background has a major effect. I’m English. For some reason the English are good at writing poetry. If I’d been French, I might well have become a painter. So, you look around and say, What is it my lot can do? Of course, you are not conscious of looking around, but there are examples under your nose, prestige attaches to them and you learn from them. You want to do as well. Yeats says:
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence
That is true. There is no other way.
What did you do after you left the Army?
I went on public assistance. I was determined not to get a job. I had a job—I was a poet. I had a notebook into which I used to copy the poems I liked. For my twenty-first birthday my father gave me twenty-one one-pound notes, a lot of money for him and my mother; they had saved it over the years. I bought a typewriter. I would type poems that I liked and learn them by heart. Then in 1951 I went to Paris, fell in love with a Brazilian girl, and started writing poems about the experience. They are not good love poems. They are about somebody who is in love, not about two people. But that is how I began.
Matthew Arnold, a marvelous poet, much neglected, writes extraordinary poems about love; but they are not love poems, they are about him being in love and having a terrible time:
I must not say that she was true,
Yet let me say that she was fair;
And they, that lovely face who view,
They should not ask if truth be there.
Truth—what is truth?
Two bleeding hearts,
Wounded by men, by fortune tried,
Outwearied with their lonely parts,
Vow to beat henceforth side by side.
That, from his “Euphrosyne,” is as good as anybody has done since.
There was a lively Anglo-American literary scene in Paris. Were you attracted by that, or just following in the footsteps of Joyce, Pound, Hemingway, and others?
Partly because of the writers you mention and partly because I knew that Paris was beautiful and had lots of good painting.
You started writing poems once you were in Paris. How did you get them published?
Wand & Quadrant, my first book, came out in Collection Merlin, the book-publishing side of the literary magazine Merlin, which was edited by my friend, Alexander Trocchi. I printed a subscription form and asked people to buy a copy in advance for a pound. An American girl, whose name I regret to say I have forgotten, gave me fifty pounds towards the publication. I learned how much money publishers make: For the a hundred and fifty pounds the book cost to print we got six hundred books. I had fifty subscribers which left me with five hundred and fifty copies. These I sold in cafés or to passersby. I paid off the fifty pound debt and soon moved into profit.
Is that how you earned your living?
I didn’t earn a living, I “got by.” A little teaching, some writing, and so forth.
The meeting place of the English-speaking expatriates on the Left Bank was the Café Tournon. George Plimpton and Bob Silvers went there, James Baldwin, William Gardiner Smith, and Richard Wright among others. Was there a particular reason you chose the Tournon?
The Tournon was cheaper than the Flore and the Deux Magots in St. Germain-des-Pres. It was spacious and had a beautiful location, opposite the Luxembourg Gardens.
Can you tell me about the Merlin crowd?
Dick Seaver, who shared the responsibility with Alex Trocchi and Austryn Wainhouse for getting the magazine out, was quick, tough, idealistic, serious. I didn’t see it then, but he really meant to be what in fact he became, a distinguished publisher. Dick found Samuel Beckett for us; Alex charmed him. Austryn was the more academic and politically minded. His father had spent his life as a senior U.S. Government official, something in the Foreign Service, and this background taught Austryn to analyze the policies of governments and to predict, often accurately, what would happen in the world. You have no idea, Christopher, what politicians are like, Austryn told me. As a boy I would be studying in my room, and down the landing my dad would be scrubbing John Foster Dulles’s back as he sat in our tub. I’d stand outside and eavesdrop: Wainhouse, the Secretary of State would say, What are we going to do with these goddamn Chinks?, J.F.D., my dad would reply—they had been at school together—Don’t act hastily. Wainhouse, I have no goddamn intention of acting at all if I can help it. Scrub up and let’s have some more hot water. When Austryn told me this I felt very cross with those two. Now I know better.
Austryn was, and is, very diligent. Translating de Sade, for example, he developed a sort of modern eighteenth-century prose. He was careful to read around the subject too and would talk at length about revolutionary France. He was—and is—extremely generous with his time and money, not that he has a lot, and what he has he has mostly worked for. There is something of the pioneer in him. Very American. He has built three houses, in France and the United States. He can do carpentry, masonry, wiring, and plumbing. He will actually take such a task on. Also with Merlin was Patrick Bowles, a poet, short-story writer, and Beckett’s translator. He was easygoing, patient, with a funny sort of half-laugh, starting low in his throat, then rising, slowly, up and up, to burst out of his nose in a loud crack. He was a difficult person to get on the move. Merlin publisher Jane Lougee said of him, Hello and good-bye is a good hour. Austryn once told me, I was going down St. Germain, and I saw Patrick talking to Iris [Iris Owens, the novelist] in the doorway of the apartment house next to the Deux Magots. Patrick was talking, Iris was listening. An hour later when I came back they were in exactly the same position, with Patrick talking and Iris listening, but now silent tears were falling down Iris’s cheeks.
Iris was very beautiful and knew a lot about painting. I went to her hotel room once and suddenly she bent down and dragged a huge Cy Twombly out from under the bed. I was terribly impressed. Everyone fell in love with Iris. Bowles did, Maurice Gerodias of the Olympia Press did, Trocchi did, but I didn’t. I lacked the courage. But I don’t think it would have come to anything. She had very high standards.
One night Iris, Trocchi, and a group of us went to the Salle Pleyel to hear Gerry Mulligan. Before we went, we smoked a lot of marijuana, and there we were in the best seats, in the balcony. The concert began. Wonderful. But towards the end of the first half, Iris jumped up and shouted out at the top of her voice—and she was a big girl—He is crucified! He is crucified! Everybody looked at us: Tais-toi. Sale étrangère. What could we do? “He is crucified!” Iris went on. This was the kind of situation in which Alex was good. Mes amis, he said to the neighboring seats, this is Miss Owens, the world-famous jazz critic—Iris knew nothing whatever about jazz—Iris has been in love with the great Gerry for many years and he has just been savaged by an ignorant English critic. With this we left.
It was Trocchi who arranged for me to read to Natalie Barney for four pounds an hour. She was one of the first American women publicly to declare herself a homosexual, which she did around 1926. She was very rich and lived in a house on the rue Jacob. The street door opened onto a little courtyard on the far side of which was the entrance, surrounded by wall flowers and vines. A maid let me in. The first room was very large and the blinds were drawn down. The maid showed me towards the French windows at the far end, and beyond them was a garden—a garden in the sixth arrondissement, all of your own!—with a statue of Pan and behind him a trellis overgrown with white roses.
Miss Barney was in a large chair with a footstool. She asked me if I was Logue. I said, Yes, ma’am. There was no doubt who was in charge. Miss Barney said that she had been told I read well and that I should read her some Pound.
I began to read from the Cantos. “With Usura . . .” Miss Barney told me to stop and asked why I pronounced Usura, Usura. I wish I had had the courage to give Johnson’s answer—pure ignorance, madam—but I said nothing and she told me to start again. This time I did it properly and rather well; I knew it by heart anyway. When I had finished she asked me if I believed all that rubbish about money. I had just received my first letter from Pound. He was an idol. I said something like, Not entirely, ma’am, but in fact I did not believe that a world in which money was not lent at interest would necessarily be a good world, but at the same time I didn’t want to let Ezra down.
Miss Barney understood my predicament and said that it was beautiful rubbish anyway and that Ezra had believed every word of it and that he was a completely honest fool.
She spoke with the same kind of accent as Austryn and George Plimpton. Before we parted she said something like, I hope that you are completely indifferent to politics. All politicians are liars with blood on their hands and they think about nothing else except other politicians, just like poets think about nothing except poets. As I went out the maid gave me my money. All told I went about half a dozen times. Sometimes Miss Barney would go to sleep soon after I started to read. Once she invited me to her famous salon and the rooms were jam packed with sixty to seventy year olds, all incredibly famous. But there were lots of delicious sandwiches and cakes; so I filled up and went away.
And The Paris Review crowd?
I got on well with George Plimpton from the start. I remember him saying that I wasn’t to be surprised if people crossed the road when we walked along together because he bore a strong resemblance to Alger Hiss. George wore hats and had lots of style and was not a bit upset by the Merlin crowd’s opinion that The Paris Review was a bit lightweight. He was very romantic. He fell in love with a girl who wasn’t having any part of him. George decided on a heroic gesture. Her hotel room had a balcony with French windows. George decided to ride a bicycle through the windows into the bedroom wearing a wicker bull’s head he had brought back from Spain.
My job was to hand up the bicycle when George had climbed onto the balcony. As I am not very strong the brake cables got caught around the iron urns on the balcony; then one of the pedals got wedged between the bottom rail and the balcony floor. When George, with a mighty heave, pulled the bicycle over the rail, the bell—one of those new battery-powered types—began to ring. He couldn’t turn it off. The girl came out, looking very nice in yellow and black pajamas, and I slunk away.
Bob Silvers and Peter Matthiessen were among the other founders of The Paris Review. How did you get on with them?
Bob Silvers was very agreeable and shy. Nobody guessed that he would become the most influential literary editor in the West. Matthiessen was glum but kind. I recall him sitting on the terrace of the Tournon while reading some verse of mine and buying me a drink. He offered me the postage money and the addresses of various U.S. magazines I was to send the poems to. I asked him if he thought they’d take them. He said no, but give it a shot. Much to my surprise a paperback-styled magazine called New Writing did take one of them, but in the issue that followed the editor apologized to his readers for my not being an American citizen.
How did you meet Samuel Beckett?
Beckett let Dick Seaver have the manuscript of Watt. Word spread that it was a work of genius and incredibly funny. One evening we all went to Dick’s room and we passed the manuscript around and read bits out loud and it was incredibly funny. Dick and Alex decided to publish it in Merlin and anything Beckett would give us. He was tall and very good looking. He wore a windcheater with a huge fur collar and looked like an eighteenth-century intellectual aristocrat. He was a rare phenomenon—a writer who was also quite saintly. He was extremely generous, always giving money away to everyone in need, including me. He had natural integrity and was not a bit vain in the worldly sense of the word, though he was very proud of his writing.
Let’s talk about your translation work, especially your Homer, which has been your main concern for the past decade or so and which some people consider best expresses your poetic gifts. I remember your translation of Villon’s “La Ballade des dames du temps jadis,” which was published as a poster in the sixties and sold thousands of copies. And before that you had done Neruda’s love poems. Then came the Iliad. Yet one can’t call them translations—to start with you don’t know the original languages. Is it what the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century poets called imitation?
This is a difficult question. Imitation in Dryden’s sense of the word meant an English version of a poem in Latin aimed at people who knew Latin—a sort of cover version. I use existing translations and commentaries and essays to tell me what’s going on; after that I’m on my own. That is why, when talking about War Music or Kings to myself, I call them my “Homer poems.” But in public I call them “an account,” a word I chose because it has a neutral, police-file air to it.
Which of the existing translations of the Iliad have inspired you most?
It is the idea of the poem that has inspired me. I always read Chapman and Pope, just to see what as poets they did. Pope was the last poet to translate the Iliad into English verse. I look at new translations as they come out, that of Professors Knox and Fagels, for example, which is a touch sharper than Professor Lattimore’s. However, these three professors may have been reading Homer all their lives, but he’s failed to teach them what verse is. They do not write verse. They write blank-verse prose, sired by E. V. Rieu, via Lang, Leaf, and Myers out of the King James Bible. It burbles along but it doesn’t scan. Still, such things make a bomb for the publishers. Those who aspire to poetical know-how usually buy Lattimore or a Rieu-type Homer. I have never seen any evidence that any of them get past the introductions. But the professors love it. They are the translation police. It is easy to see why: it keeps Homer in their hands. If they had to teach Homer via Chapman or Pope or even Logue, they would have to teach Chapman and Pope and Logue. And that is, quite frankly, just asking too much. Heterodidacts are like that. Critically-minded scholars, such as Jasper Griffin, M. S. Silk, Charles Beye, W. A. Camps and Malcolm Willcock tell me much more than such translators.
Why did you pick Homer?
I didn’t. Donald Carne-Ross picked me for Homer. I was one of the number of poets he commissioned to make a version of the Iliad for the BBC in 1959. After that, Kathleen Raine and Stephen Spender got me a Bollingen Foundation grant and I wrote Patrocleia, which later became part of War Music.
You have told me that you wanted to create scenes and confrontations that are not in the Iliad. What were you thinking of doing, and is it legitimate?
Raising questions of authenticity means that we must turn into amateur philosophers and be here until the cows come home. I respect translators. I have no doubt that many texts can be accurately and beautifully translated; but certain texts, like poetry and some kinds of prose, have special problems. Solving those problems is not my business.
I want to write a dramatic poem in English that is dependent on the Iliad, and yet that will revitalize narrative verse. As I said, I have learned what I think the Iliad is from translations and essays by scholars, historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists. I aim to make my Homer poem true to my idea of the Iliad. To this end I have written new scenes and introduced some new characters; I review some of Homer’s characters to get at what is there and to make explicit the thoughts present in Homer’s work. To make the work readable. This means the expansion of some scenes and the removal of others.
When all is said and done my Homer poem remains easily identifiable as a work dependent on the Iliad. There is no deception. How can there be? As Vergil said, it is easier to rob Hercules of his club than Homer of a single line. But I think I know how to make the Iliad’s voices come alive and how to keep the action on the move. It is a legitimate hope, though it may be in vain. To cheer myself up, I associate my work with parts of Chaucer’s, all of Tyndale’s—hoping to avoid his fate—and with some of Jonson’s, Pope’s, Dr. Johnson’s, Fitzgerald’s, Pound’s, Waley’s, and Garioch’s. With the exception of Tyndale, all these chaps composed poems in English dependent on poems in other languages. Sometimes they knew those languages, sometimes not.
Why has it taken you so long?
I haven’t worked at it consistently. Several years would pass between my efforts. I was not committed. Seven years ago I married, and my wife is a more serious and much better educated person than I am. One day when I was glowing with self-pity (a subject Homer knows a great deal about) she pointed out that Patrocleia had been in print and had been given three radio and four stage productions in fifteen years, plus being issued on disc in Britain and the U.S.A., whereas most books of verse do not see a second edition. That this had been done without much critical support made the case stronger.
It was not until then that I saw the job under my nose. Not long after that she introduced me to Craig Raine, in 1985 I think, and since then I have worked at the poem five days a week for between three and four hours a day, after which I am done in. I am a persnickety writer. If I were a film director, I would be a twenty-five-take man . . . driving the actors and the crew mad.
How do you work on it?
After learning the content of the section in hand from my reading, I make an outline: narrative, main scenes, subsidiary scenes—camp, plain, Troy, characters, new characters. Then I start on the verse. But as any writer will tell you, things change as they go along. What at first looked important is shown to be redundant. But “work on it” in my case does not end with the manuscript. For me, until I have heard it read aloud, the published text is incomplete. I made a lot of changes to the text of Kings after hearing the BBC Radio performance. There is nothing like a reading, a good reading, to show where overwriting, “poetical” writing, or lack of clarity occurs. A good reading makes it obvious where you have failed to emphasize the right thing. We can ignore the question of writing “for the eye” or “for the ear.” The alternative is false. Good poets write with both in mind, the emphasis will be slightly different, but not much. The maxim “look after the sense and sounds will look after themselves” is wrong. You have to manage both.
Poetry is not a silent art. The poem must perform, unaided, in its reader’s head. Educated readers give themselves a good performance. Educated listeners compare performance with text and with other performances. Good poets use the full resources of language.
One thing I learnt from writing verse at length is that you must study novelists. You have to keep your eye out for simple things like avoiding physical disparities, varying simple actions, using repetitions rather less lavishly than Homer does while aiming for a similar effect.
What sort of advice do you get, about the Iliad, if any, from scholars?
Carne-Ross is a scholar, and because of him I am at work on the Iliad, as I mentioned before. There are some wonderful modern scholars. Jasper Griffin’s book Homer on Life and Death is exceptionally good. Mark Edwards is sharp as a tack. So is Charles Beye. But these chaps know a lot about poetry as well as a lot about Greek. They are critics as well as scholars. Then there is Kirk who is leading a team of commentators. He is a brilliant analyst of Homer’s speeches and has a really wonderful understanding of character. Of course there are a lot of noddies about. As Eliot says, it is better to be spurred to acquire scholarship because you enjoy the poetry than to suppose you enjoy the poetry because you have acquired the scholarship.
Was it part of your original plan to use modern imagery in your Homer?
Homer is full of anachronisms, so it seemed the natural thing to do. As far as the long similes are concerned, they also came about in what I can only call a natural way. I saw that Homer used them and so when the opportunity arose I used one too. That they were not Homer’s similes seems irrelevant to me.
What is your ultimate plan for the Iliad?
I have a clearish idea now about my work on my Homer poem as a whole. When he was my editor at Faber & Faber, Craig Raine commissioned me to cover books one to four. Kings covers one and two. Now I’m in the middle of three and four, which will have their own title.
As soon as I began Kings, I realized that if I was going to continue the work I had begun I must have at least a solid, criticizable idea of what would follow. I have been able to make such a plan. But its completion depends to a quite large extent on whether or not I can find a way to finance it.
I know it sounds a bit pretentious to talk about financing a poem, yet in some ways it resembles a movie. I have a cast of fifty thousand: fifteen major characters, twenty-five subsidiary characters, and two superheroes. And this excludes Helen, who is the most beautiful woman who has ever lived and a consideration all of her own. But I have received considerable support and have saved enough to finish books three and four. Homer teaches you that it is a mistake to expect too much or to think too far ahead.
Can you comment on the relationship between your Homer poem and the main currents of poetry today?
There must be such a relationship, and it must be quite close. On the other hand, none of my contemporaries seem to be interested in the things that interest me, such as fast, clear, several-stranded narrative, action, character, violence. These things occur in a nonexistent world, set in the middle of a nonexistent event: a ten-year war fought over a woman.
Although I admire greatly some of its examples I am not close to the poetry of actual experience—Hardy, Kipling, Betjeman, Larkin. That “this” happened to this or that person does not make a strong appeal to me.
Do you use a rhyming dictionary?
I use all kinds of reference books. You can tell when you are getting old because your reference books are all out of date. I could spend a year reading Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, which of course I do not own. They’re really nutty those musicians. Somewhere in Boswell’s Life Johnson recommends collecting one kind of book, regardless. I thought I would collect Anglo-American rhyming dictionaries. I got a dozen before boredom set in. Rhymes can be a nuisance. Some days they seem to pester you. You have to recast several lines just to get rid of them.
Constantly. You have got to learn how to use it. Looking for the right word is the wrong way. The book rarely thinks for you. But it is very useful as a kick start; it can help you to change direction. Like other writers I have a card index of favorite words I would like to get in. Philtrum, the dimple in the upper lip, for example. I got it into Kings. I was very pleased with myself and pointed it out to my friend John Marquand. But he just grunted and changed the subject.
Are you constantly an observer, on the look-out for what may turn into a poem?
More of an Autolycus (Odysseus’s grandfather) really. Not on the lookout for a new poem, but for thoughts and phrases and images that seem likely to supply something I need for my Homer poem. Homer is full of noises. So, although I know it sounds a bit daft, I collect noises, the sound of steel keys hitting concrete perhaps, or a letter dropping into a half-filled post box. Lighting effects too. I found the opening sequence of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities quite useful . . . that dirty light he describes.
Another example: you notice how beautifully and economically Evelyn Waugh gets a character across the room and out of the door. You note it. You may use it. I have hundreds of such items. Most of them will never be used. But they are comforting.
Is there an overriding credo that you have in mind when you write?
Only a literary credo. [Logue takes out a notebook and reads.] “How many resolve that nothing shall leave the workshop which is not as perfectly finished as our talents allow? How many have simply given up the effort to plan and adorn a work of art?” That is Evelyn Waugh from an interview he gave to the Sunday Times in the early 1960s. I have published some bad stuff, but I hope I shall do no more of that.
So much of the poetry that is published and praised today seems to be the work of self-indulgent windbags, people who imagine that self-expression is a justification for writing. It is easier to become the president of the United States than a good poet. Any poet writing in English is expected to produce striking phrases, quotable lines, memorable passages, and just plainly beautiful things. And this the minimum.
Regarding larger issues: once I thought I understood the connections between morality and politics; I deceived myself. Thank heaven my political thoughts and words came to very little. I remain a lefty. I think that until we have worked out how to combine socialism and liberty we will never have a just world. My political position is dusty pink.
As anyone who knows me will tell you, I’m not fit for politics. I’m impatient and bossy. Apt to jump to conclusions of which I am subsequently ashamed. I really dislike power. A vote is all I am entitled to. I think I am patriotic, but in conversation with myself I always say, a universal patriotism or none. I know I have had a very lucky life.
Walking along the road the other day with my friend from the Paris days, Joshua Leslie, now a professor of mathematics at Howard University, we agreed that in the light of our cheek and our rudeness we are lucky to have survived.
What is the state of poetry in England?
“Nobody starves.” Well, that isn’t quite true. Ted Hughes found Harry Fainlight’s body lying outside a hovel in the Welsh hills surrounded by empty cans of baked beans. He had been dead for a week. He was partly eaten by rats. I don’t know what happened. He was a wild lad, not really Macmillan Foundation material.
I expect good things from Craig Raine, Carol Ann Duffy, Christopher Reid, Fleur Adcock, and Peter Reading. A chap called Simon Armitage looks as though he is going to be remembered.
Do many poets teach for a living?
Not as many as in America. Raine left Faber & Faber to teach at Oxford. Those who have him as their teacher are lucky.
I think the Irish have the best idea about supporting poets. Desmond O’Grady told me, We were all at school with Charlie [Charles Haughey], so when he became prime minister of Ireland, and we were having a drink in the Parliament bar, someone, it might have been me, said, Why doesn’t Charlie do something for all the poets? Now Charlie is no fool. He knows that without a good poet’s praise politicians are soon forgotten. The very next day he put fifty million pounds of the Irish Government’s money on deposit in a Swiss bank and the interest goes to the poets.
It sounds as though you should invoke your Irish grandfather and claim to be Irish.
I’m not good looking enough!
What is the difference between the literary worlds of London and Paris?
I suppose the nearest I have come to being part of a literary world was when we were together in Paris and we saw each other quite regularly and talked about books and ideas. I have never been part of the London literary scene. I know other writers but my time has been passed with painters, antique dealers, musicians, booksellers, journalists, actors, and film people. I find it natural to collaborate with others on such things as posters, songs, films, shows. This is unusual in literary London. I like a worky atmosphere, and now that I have a long task to get on with, London is an excellent place to be.
Can you say something on the difference between English and American poetry?
Sometimes I think that the variety present in the U.S. has made things difficult for its poets. In some ways American English is flat. It seems to me that the contrast between adjacent syllables has lessened and the result is an overreliance on enjambement. Now enjambement is a fine, intellectually strong aid, but like all such things it becomes tiresome and calls too much attention to itself. I was raised on modern U.S. poetry—Pound, Eliot, Williams. I cannot understand why it has gone flat. I find it irritating. August Kleinzahler is a favorite of mine, a child of William Carlos Williams, who writes subtle, witty poems, not flat at all. Perhaps it is me. Perhaps it has got something to do with being English, used to a set of clear contrasts. Mark you, we are thick with enjambement-only boys and girls. All no bloody good. All for the tip.
Though I must say Mr. John Ashbery is the Longfellow of his age, rather like our own Sir Richard Blackmore who, as Dryden said, composed book-length poems “to the rumbling of his coach’s wheels.”
O you dead poets who are living yet,
Immortal in your verse, tho’ life be fled,
To place us ever further in your debt,
Restrain those living poets who are dead
Is there a turf battle between English and American poetry, then?
Not that I know of. It might be a good thing though. The Scots are famously underrated. The truth is that much of the finest poetry in English in the twentieth century has been written by Scotsmen in one or other of the dialects they cast English into. Muir, MacDiarmid, MacCaig, Goodsir, Smith, W. S. Graham, Douglas Dunn, and the younger people like Tom Leonard, Liz Lochhead, Carol Ann Duffy. But they lack a U.S. wing—if you know what I mean.
You are not writing any of your own poetry now. Has the Iliad dried up your poetic spring?
I don’t think so. Let us finish with a short poem:
O come all ye faithful
Here is our cause:
All dreams are one dream,
All wars civil wars.
Lovers have never found
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.
Jim Carroll, Curtis's Charm
Ralph Lombreglia, Piltdown Man, Later Proved to Be a Hoax
Melissa Pritchard, The Good and Faithful Widow
Jim Shepard, Batting Against Castro
A. R. Ammons, Three Poems
David Bergman, Two Poems
Judith Berke, Two Poems
Stephen A. Canada, Two Poems
Nicholas Christopher, 5°
Nancy Eimers, Two Poems
Irving Feldman, Variations on a Theme by May Swenson
Caroline Finkelstein, Waiting for a Heart
Robert Hahn, Four Poems
Paul Kane, Three Poems
Cynthia Kraman, Four Poems
David Lehman, Five Poems
Sandra McPherson, Three Poems
Christopher Merrill, Two Poems
Lynn Powell, Two Poems
Burton Raffel, Six Poems
Lloyd Schwartz, Pornography
Shawn Sturgeon, Two Poems
May Swenson, Daffodildo
Erwin Pfrang, Circe Drawings
Peter Campus, Rupture
Roberto Juarez, Studies for Days of the Year
Gary Simmons, Blackboard Series