No 1 - Winter 1994-5
Interview with Christopher Logue
Christopher Logue was born in 1926. He was educated at Prior Park College, Bath, and at Portsmouth Grammar School. He served as a private in the Black Watch and spent sixteen months in an army prison. His publications include several volumes of poetry and a pornographic novel. He lives in Camberwell with his wife, the critic, Rosemary Hill.
The following interview with Tim Kendall took place by post during July 1994.
TK: Was yours a literary family?
CL: Not really. There was a respect for books. Some knowledge of verse.
TK: Did writing always seem a possible career?
CL: My career? Checkered. Poorly disciplined. Perhaps I was unable to face up to the demands of steady, regular work, but I decided that it was preferable to be without it in order to spend my time reading, in art galleries, or just loafing. I was not drawn to the marriage, children, houses, car style of life. After about six years people who had confidence in me began to help me. I have been fortunate. I am grateful. More so each day.
TK: Who were the early influences on your work?
CL: I was born with a deep voice and a tendency to show off. In her anxiety to do her best for her son my mother sent me for extra lessons to an elocution mistress called Miss Crowe. As material, Miss Crowe gave me fine poems to learn by heart: “The Pied Piper”, “The Lady of Shalott”, “London Snow”, “The Walrus and the Carpenter”, “Gunga Din”. I was eight. Without knowing it I had been given very high literary standards as well as the knowledge that a poem’s text is a sort of score as well as a text. Thereafter I lost contact with verse until 1946, since when I have been reading and writing it. Influences: at first, early English poems, popular songs, Shakespeare, anthologies - the Oxford Books of 16th, 17th, and 19th Century Verse, of Ballads, Wavell’s Other Men’s Flowers, Untermeyer’s Collins Albatross Book of English Verse, Robbins’ Secular Lyrics of the XIVth and XVth Centuries, Gray’s Scottish Poetry from Barbour to James I (wonderful), Auden and Garrett’s The Poet’s Tongue (important) plus various Collected Works. At 22 - at the same time as I discovered Cubism, Surrealism, non-figurative painting - I discovered Eliot, Pound and Yeats. These discoveries changed everything for me. Pound became my teacher. Eliot, well, he was simply the best, the mark. Either you did as well as Eliot, or forget it. Become a film star, a world leader.
TK: A poem like ‘To my Fellow Artists’ suggests that there was often a conflict between your admiration for the works of others - Eliot, Auden and so on - and your distaste for their religious and political beliefs. Was it a conflict you managed to resolve, or did you find it enabling?
CL: In their differing ways Eliot and Betjeman were born monotheists of the Right. I am a Catholic atheist of the Left, current hue Dusty Pink, hoping to regain Teenage Cerise before I die, doubtful I can restrain my misanthropy. For much too long I failed to see that good artists, when men, are not always good men. When I discovered that Eliot was tainted by anti-Semitism and Pound was up to his neck in it (people like yourself and, perhaps, your readers are among the few who should scan the text of the latter’s radio broadcasts) I reacted like an outraged child. I regret this. I should have made something worthwhile out of it. It did not stop me admiring their work. Art is autonomous, but artists have the same responsibilities as everyone else.
TK: Edward Lucie-Smith’s anthology British Poetry Since 1945 groups you and Adrian Mitchell as “Dissenters”. Has dissent always been the impulse behind your poetry?
CL: Literary dissent means the successful alteration of existing form; I take it you mean political dissent. The criminal politicians, German, Russian and their followers, who gained power in the first half of our century, have so damaged the ideas of freedom and justice developed by the first socialists - particularly the English socialists, Ruskin, Morris and co. - that it is almost impossible to discuss these ideas without becoming involved in irrelevant squabbling over the near past. I remain a Unilateralist. To me, the manufacture, possession and brandishing of weapons of mass destruction is immoral. War is a traditional human activity that we have, to some extent, learnt how to manage, and that we might, as we learn more about ourselves, be able to quell. Big bombs appeal to the stupid, the vindictive, and those who wish to commit suicide when faced with defeat. Big bombs are inappropriate for the defence of our country. ‘Alliance’ arguments do not impress me. They had emotional power while there was one grand opponent. I notice that the politicians who accept big bombs do not mention the need to issue fatal doses of morphine to their adult populations that they and their children may avoid excruciating deaths. I go up and down about it, but I am not inclined to over-rate our chances of survival as a species. Nor am I that sure we should survive. It is we who are the pollution. But we do have our funny side, our tragic side.
TK: New Numbers begins “This book was written in order to change the world”. Does that irony reflect any disillusionment with the belief I detect in your earlier work, that poetry can make something happen?
CL: You mean it’s not a cure for cancer? That Palgrave’s Golden Treasury cannot be blamed for the annihilation of the first Tasmans? That “The song that nerves a nation’s heart/ Is” not “itself a deed.”? This is baby talk. If Auden (who, I take it, you are echoing) had wanted his words to result in actions the declaration of his own sexuality and a challenge to those who threaten that sexuality would have soon planted weevils in his salt. A high literary standard protects a statement - any statement. Writers are attendants. Novelists have done better than poets, when it comes to confronting wrong:
“How can I help the revolution?”
“What do you do?”
“I am a poet.”
“I understand. I used to be a poet, too.”
TK: You have become very well known for your poetry readings. Have you always retained a sense of poetry as public performance?
CL: You must be taught how to read; then you must be taught how to read and write verse. It is not difficult. A knack, that practice and analysis can raise to a skill. The integrity of the musical side of verse - its movement, its sound - is as important as its sense. The sound / sense distinction is false. They are complementary elements. A poem performs in your head. Poor readers will give themselves poor performances.
In 1958 (I think) the late Lindsay Anderson put me on at the old National Film Theatre to read to the Free Cinema audience. This was my first public reading. Thereafter invitations to read to local literary societies and at schools drifted in, Arnold Wesker organised the factory / workplace readings of Centre Fortytwo, and in 1965 there came the extraordinary Albert Hall reading that popularised - perhaps that is too strong a word - the idea. The literary establishment followed through with their - to my mind, rather dull - Poetry Internationals. From these events our present ways developed. The weakness is that poetry readings are not critical events. Amateurish. Unreviewed. Surely poets who offer themselves as readers should be auditioned in the usual way? I, too, would pay to hear Beethoven play his own music - as a sentimental occasion. Reasonably enough, poets treat readings as sales points for their books. The temperature seldom rises. A series of short poems interspersed with autobiographical comments is not likely to produce concentration. To tell you the truth, many poets let their work down through poor reading. It is a modest skill, but quite important. It might be worthwhile to study the audiences at these readings. What are their expectations? Can they judge well through their ears?
Whether silent or spoken, verse performs. In the performance lies what we call “voice”. A voice that was no-voice, a silent poem? Difficult, but worth a shot.
TK: You began translating the Iliad as early as the 1950’s. Has its appeal for you changed? Why Homer rather than, say, Vergil? And why the Iliad rather than the Odyssey?
CL: The Iliad is now my subject. I would not like to be a writer whose only subject is themselves. You need something else. I started on the Iliad by chance. Forgive me if I do not explain it here - those interested might look at the introduction to War Music or to my interview with Shusha Guppy (Paris Review 127, summer 1993). The Iliad’s material has imposed demands on me. I have been obliged to look outside literary art for formal sources. If you are writing an extended work and there is no recent model that you find useful (to me, though I love them, the Cantos do not cohere - as the poet would say) you will have to look elsewhere. Also, I am at the “science-fiction” end of English verse. I like, but I am not influenced by, the Hardy, Kipling, Betjeman, Larkin “everyday” “real-life” “what you see about you” sort of poetry. The light in my poems is artificial light. See - well, see almost anyone before Wordsworth, Crabbe and Hurnard.
TK: Early in your career you translated Neruda, and a chorus from Antigone. Are you still ever tempted to try something other than Homer?
CL: My Homer stuff is not a translation in the normal sense of that word. It is hybrid. It comes from the same bag as Troilus and Criseyde, Fitzgerald’s Omar, Pound’s ‘Propertius’ - there are many such poems in English.
A few years ago I translated - in the true sense of the word - Brecht’s text for his and Weil’s Seven Deadly Sins, but Stefan Brecht and his musical agents refuse to licence its performance, so audiences are stuck with the Auden/ Kallmann version which is lousy.
TK: You’ve approvingly quoted Boswell quoting Johnson: “We must try its effect as an English poem; that is the way to judge of the merit of a translation.” As translator you freely add and cut sections, but do you still feel some duty to be as faithful to the original as possible?
CL: I want to write an English poem that is dependant on the Iliad. As the work lengthens I move further away from Homer’s actual text. I don’t think we know very much about the “original” - other than its text. I have an idea about ourselves and about the Iliad. The scholars whose views I trust - Griffin, Padel, Carne-Ross - know a lot about themselves and ourselves, as well as about the ancient text. So close to us - and yet so far away! But not all that far. Greece had civility for 40,000 years before Homer.
TK: You’ve claimed that the “Homerniks” who keep The Iliad alive are “mad”. Is the obsession as great as ever, or do you think you’ll ever be cured?
|CL:||This immortality’s the horse|
I’ll put my shirt on, please.
Some think his chest is weak, of course,
And some don't like his knees.
But there’s pots to gain, as you’re aware.
If he wins, accordin’ to plan,
And there’s naught to lose, for we shan’t be there
If he proves an Also Ran.
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