Friday 9 December 2011

Death, controversy and taking on the Iliad

Death and controversy seem to be what’s needed to get poetry into the news; or at least into its margins.  This time the dead poet is Christopher Logue, creator of War Music, his version of parts of Homer’s Iliad.  Graphic, brutal, humorous, terse, hugely energetic; of gods and men, with plenty of violence and some sex; mostly highly entertaining.  If you feel like reading some of it now, the whole of Cold Calls is on the Poetry International website.  And here’s the not-particularly-characteristic, rather Greek chorus-like passage from the end of The Husbands.    

   And when the armies met, they paused,
And then they swayed, and then they moved
Much like a forest making its way through a forest.
   And after ten years the war has scarcely begun,
And Apollo but breathes for the Greeks to be thrown
(As shingle is onto a road by the sea)
Back down the dip, swell, dip of the plain.
   And now it has passed us the sound of their war
Resembles the sound of Niagara
Heard from afar in the still of the night. 

Logue had no Greek but worked from a number of translations.  What I didn’t know was his other work.  There are poems plus some very good obituary-style stuff about Logue at a blog called That’s how the light gets in.  Which I found thanks to a link chez Ms Baroque who has an excellent piece on him.  Some of the poetry is political; ‘Know Thy Enemy’ apparently first appeared on posters in Paris in 1968.  It would work as an anthem for Occupy.  Here are the first two verses, copied straight from That’s how the light gets in, which has it all.  

Know thy enemy:
he does not care what colour you are
provided you work for him
and yet you do!

he does not care how much you earn
provided you earn more for him
and yet you do!

The controversy has a link with the Iliad: Alice Oswald’s withdrawal of her short-listed Memorial from the TS Eliot Prize.  This is a very different version of Homer, an extended elegy for the epic’s ordinary dead.  Here’s her explanation, on the inside cover: “The Iliad is a vocative poem.  Perhaps even (in common with lament) it is invocative, as if speaking directly to the dead, in the aftermath of the Trojan War: an attempt to remember people’s names and lives without the use of writing; a series of memories and similes laid side by side; an antiphonal account of man in his world.” 

Oswald is a classicist and it’s clear from a Guardian interview that she worked from the Greek text.  She said: "I've always felt, with The Iliad, a real frustration that it's read wrong.  That it's turned into this public school poem, which I don't think it is…  Every translation you pick up is so romantically involved with the main story that the ordinariness of Homer, which I love so much – the poem's amazing background of peculiar, real people, just being themselves – is almost invisible.” 

Some of the dead men’s names are just listed.  For others, Oswald takes us back into their home lives, the reactions of their families to their death, what they did before they left, why they went to war. The poem is full of extended Homeric similes which bring the natural, agricultural and domestic worlds into the middle of the fighting.  Here’s a passage:


Like bird families feeding by a river
Hundreds of geese and herons and long-necked swans
When an ember of eagle a red hot coal of hunger
Falls out of the sky and bursts into wings

Like bird families feeding by a river
Hundreds of geese and herons and long-necked swans
When an ember of eagle a red hot coal of hunger
Falls out of the sky and bursts into wings

KALETOR carrying a flaming bit of wood
About to fling it at the ships
He and the fire went out together

Most of the similes are repeated, once, as above.  Some people seem to like this, some don’t.  I liked it at first but as I read on, I felt as if my reading was being manipulated by the similes drawing attention to themselves.  Now, going back to Memorial, I like it again; they draw you in and out of the urgency of the main text.  The poem is beautiful, vivid, tough-minded and forceful as well as elegiac, and gains by continued reading - it never becomes the list it is. 

At the end, Hector’s death is described and then there are some one-to-a-page similes, here’s the first:

Like leaves who could write a history of leaves
The wind blows their ghosts to the ground
And the spring breathes new life into the woods
Thousands of names thousands of leaves
When you remember them remember this
Dead bodies are their lineage
Which matter no more than the leaves

Memorial reminds me of the artist Steve McQueen’s project to design a set of stamps, each of which would show the face of one of the British servicemen and women killed in the Iraq war.  The Post Office, in a display of institutional timidity, turned him (and many families of the dead, who supported the project) down.  So it’s an art work; very interesting but static - here. 

Alas, we can never now have what could have been an excellent literary encounter: Logue and Oswald discussing their versions.  One has to hope the audience wouldn’t be as partisan as Craig Raine, friend and editor of Logue, in the Guardian’s books of the year recommendations last week.  It’s possible to imagine a somewhat crass split along gender lines, which would do poor service to either work.  (Books of the year throw up anomalies; Fiona Sampson in the Independent lamented that 2011 was a “quiet year for women poets”, yet failed to mention Memorial.)   

As for the excitement over the TS Eliot Prize: lots has been written about it already (Ms Baroque again, among others).  What’s to add?  I admire Oswald for her decision, and John Kinsella who joined her in dropping out.  I’d be interested to know how much AO & JK researched Aurum, the hedge fund investment management company now sponsoring the PBS (though not the prize cash).  There have been patrons of the arts from Maecenas to the Medicis to.. er, Aurum; and who doesn’t want the private sector to love and support poetry?  But who wants to be associated with the greediest end of capitalism?      

In a sense, it’s a decision for the times.  If our over-favoured finance sector (and everyone else’s) hadn’t got us into this mess, the PBS might still be getting Arts Council support (though it might not).  And then: we elect, and pay, governments to deal with this stuff, and they fail miserably.  Incompetence and greed win out, and the same people are still in charge.  Today they’re messing up our long-term future in Durban too, failing to find even a road-map towards minimising climate change. 

I admire Oswald and Kinsella partly for more parochial reasons - I can’t help wondering whether the Aurum factor might have been the last straw, in our performing-dog poetry culture.  All the prize money that sloshes around and (occasionally) makes news could be better spent on the grass-roots, rather than on making top poets sit up and beg/sing for their supper.  Though I’ve already bought tickets for the TSE readings: so I’m joining in, now sorry that the two poets who’ve dropped out are the two I’d most have liked to hear read. 

Anyway, now I’m going to buy their books, Memorial and Armour; Memorial for the second time, who wouldn’t want it for Christmas?


  1. The website tells us that “Aurum Fund Management is a specialist asset manager that emphasises stable, long term investment performance.” As opposed to one which merely wants to get rich quick. Capital has to be allocated somehow – unless anyone has a serious alternative to capitalism – and Aurum presumably does its bit without the implicit subsidies that the banks enjoy. Is there any suggestion that Aurum acts unethically? That its keenness to promote poetry is a variety of money-laundering? That it deserves to be treated as untouchable?

    It’s not obvious that Alice Oswald’s decision is brave, rather than just sanctimonious or attention-seeking; or that John Kinsella’s is more than me-tooism. Ms Oswald believes (see her article published earlier this evening on The Guardian’s Comment is Free - that poets should be funded through taxation. But taxation comes from dubious sources, and has other uses (education, health, benefits, military excursions and so on); why, then, should hedge fund money be uniquely unacceptable? Ms Oswald’s claim that she is positioning herself with “[people who] are crying out for change… rather than with Aurum” begs a number of questions - Aurum is not the Assad regime, or Putin’s Russia, and Ms Oswald risks very little by declining to compete for a prize. Nor, for that matter, does Mr Kinsella. Their stand may well be a matter of pure principle; but it’s not clear how it can be distinguished from a satisfying emotional gesture, or indeed from a calculated career move.

    I suspect that even the directors of Aurum wish that capitalism had not got itself (and us) into the mess that we are in. But ostracising them will not help get us out of that mess; and will not advance the cause of poetry either.

    Incidentally my interest is disinterested and I have no connexion with any hedge fund.

  2. Thanks Richard. Quite a few other commentators elsewhere have either taken your line, or the opposite. I think it’s more complicated than that, as I’ve tried to show above.

    As for accusations of self-righteousness, they are easy to make and hard to refute; so an easy refuge for the cynics. They do not do justice to the thoughtfulness of Oswald’s article. Nor, crucially, do they take account of the wider context. As Oswald says: “I would simply reply that many practices that have gone on "for some time" are now being questioned by millions of people all over the world. My instinct, at a time when people are crying out for change, is to position myself with them rather than with Aurum.”