Where new writing finds its voice

The Forgotten Prince

Alan White

Alan White talks to one of Britain's most undervalued poets, Christopher Logue

In January this year Christopher Logue was described in the Guardian as the ‘shock’ winner of the Whitbread Poetry Award. Those familiar with Logue’s life and work would no doubt have been surprised by this description. After all, is he not Britain’s greatest living poet? The man whose 45-year project to rejuvenate The Iliad, with the poetic film script that is War Music, has seen him described as ‘the Alexander Pope of his day’ by AN Wilson? But then, Logue has always been an undercurrent in English literature.

Born in Portsmouth in 1926, Logue was a slow starter, displaying, both as a child and a young man, a curious mixture of defiant arrogance and heavy shyness which caused his very traditional parents no little concern.

In 1944, at the age of eighteen, he escaped home life to serve for an ignominious time in the Black Watch in Palestine during the Second World War. On his return, he worked for a while as a clerk in London and soon after, he attempted suicide. Following this bleak moment he moved home to Bournemouth and his parents’ house, forming a writers’ club with three friends which allowed him his first chance to share, and listen to criticism of, his ideas: ‘Books were our thing. Portable, durable, inexpensive – a marvel of technology needing no intermediates save spectacles.’

When his father died a few years later, he wrote his first great poem; perhaps one of the least appreciated elegies of the twentieth century. ‘For My Father’ opens in terrible, plodding iambs, and the opening invocation is a powerful blend of grief and artistic vulnerability, as Logue prays, like Tennyson, that a higher power might allow him to do his subject justice:

A year ago tonight my father died.
        Slow on the year, you bells,
        slow on the year…
And, Master Sun, as you have met your prime
        and sit
        high in the Lion’s house
and have no shadow in your courtyard,
some brief alliteration of your radiance
        to glint this work in words
        that speak of ghosts.

If the enjambments give us the sense that the poet is struggling to get his words out, they set us up for the comfort of his father’s certainty, as John Logue’s voice echoes in his mind:

Write what you like.
Do something to make other people laugh.
And if at nothing else – at you.
Your temper, boy, will get you thrashed
before you’re through.

This grappling with the subject, in life and now on the page, is a celebration. Logue is looking back with compassion – he needs to criticise in order to praise and in a few lines he has captured the inconsistency of familial love. His unflinching honesty makes the ending all the more painful, as the sun, yearned for in the opening, begins to set, and bathos gives way to catharsis:

Facts fail. The nave grows dim.
They buried him in rain.
It cost my mother £50.

Now we drink sherry
and recount his worth,
in this first dusk
I am alone on earth.

Following his father’s death, Logue decided to leave England and, like so many young writers, went to live in Paris where he stayed from 1951–56. There he co-edited Merlin, an influential literary magazine established by beat writer, and later notorious heroin addict, Alexander Trocchi and his American lover Jane Lougee. During its five year existence it published many of the last great names of modernism, including Genet, Sartre and Beckett. Sadly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, it wasn’t bringing anyone any money.

As a result many of the contributors earned their keep by writing pornography for a businessman called Maurice Girodias, who became Merlin’s publisher, thereby saving it from extinction. Logue recalls Girodias discussing his plans to publish explicit literature:

‘I expect,’ Maurice said, ‘to be prosecuted by the police. These prosecutions will be the mark of my success.’ […] Before leaving, Maurice explained there was a contribution to the Olympia Press he would like us to make. […] ‘Let me be candid,’ he said. ‘I require simple stories of a wholly pornographic kind. Character drawing, social context are of no importance. Disadvantages even. I want constant, heavy, serious fucking.’

Logue begrudgingly knocked out a novel, Lust, but on presenting it to Girodias, he came up with an idea, which it seemed might satisfy both men’s needs – an anthology of limericks:

Said the Nabob of Trincomalee
‘Young man, do you fart when you pee?’
I replied with some wit:
‘Do you belch when you shit?’
I think that was one up for me.

Maurice did not laugh. He took a sip of Perrier water, then said: ‘Are there any collections already on sale?’

Lust was released under the nom de plume Count Palmero Vicarion, and was followed in 1955 by Limericks, which was a small success. Two years later the Count released his Book of Bawdy Ballads.

Humour has always been of importance to Logue. In an interview with him in 2004, when I suggested that these bawdy works are rather important, he dismissed them with a wave of his hand – ‘Oh, they’re just a book of obscene rhymes.’ But despite Girodias’s professional commitment to eroticism, the poems are the first time Logue’s sense of humour really takes centre stage in his work. Ultimately, I said, I think that humour is one of the things that sustains his poetry – in fact, its role in his writing is more prominent than that of other artists. He nodded, and says of ‘To My Father’, ‘This is about my father. Not to have humour present in what you’re doing, even if what you’re doing is serious is, I think, a mistake. Otherwise you get lost – literary objectivity vanishes. This is going to be one of the strengths of the poetry of our period, the humour. You are serious. Literature is serious. But it’s only literature, and you are only you.’

In Paris Logue had flirted with Marxism, although the ideology had not infiltrated his poetry to any great extent. However, his return to London in the mid-fifties awakened a latent class-consciousness and he was soon caught up in the social and political unrest of the period.

The Royal Court Theatr, Sloane Square was a ‘source of energy’ for this, he tells me. It gave a start to the generation of Osborne and his fellow pioneers, then a second generation, those behind Beyond the Fringe and Private Eye. Look Back in Anger was an important event. The art that had gone before – the theatre of Coward and Rattigan, the poetry of Masefield, the writings of Priestly – seemed stale and all too comfortable. When I asked him who influenced him the most during this period, he doesn’t hesitate: ‘Certainly, Lindsay Anderson had a big effect on me. His confidence that you could do things that could be acceptable in public and worthwhile’. Logue wrote the lyrics for a hit musical at the Royal Court, The Lily White Boys, which Anderson directed.

The work Logue did with Anderson leads us to one of the distinctive features of his collaborative art: a certain dissolution of genre, which he feels resulted from the mood of the time. He reminds me, ‘Lindsay put me on to read poems between films at the National Film Theatre – 600 people. They hadn’t come to see me, true, they’d come to see the films, but nevertheless, when Lindsay put me on, everyone just thought it was completely normal.’

Logue’s experimentation with the aural aspects of poetry sets him apart from many of his poetic counterparts. One of his greatest successes is Red Bird (1958), in which poems he had adapted from Pablo Neruda’s Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desperada (1924) were set to the music of drummer/composer Tony Kinsey and pianist/composer Bill le Sarge. Commissioned by Douglas Carne-Ross at the BBC, it was later recorded by George Martin at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios. When I ask Logue about this splendid fusion of art forms he is characteristically equivocal: ‘Red Bird is good isn’t it? I didn’t realise how lucky I’d been. How much it is to do with outside things I don’t know, but the willingness of the BBC to take on such an improbable programme – as it recedes in time I rather like it.’

Along with many other prominent artists and writers of the time, Logue was involved in the antinuclear protests of the sixties. ‘To My Fellow Artists’, was one of the first poster poems to appear in cafes around London, and he spent time in jail for his involvement with Bertrand Russell’s Committee of 100. His work from this time is extremely exciting, shot through as it is with this almost revolutionary spirit. The left-wing publication Tribune asked writers to explain why they were going to vote Labour, and bored at his own idealistic wishes (redistribution of wealth, a reformed defence policy, etc.), Logue produced ‘I shall vote Labour’:

I shall vote Labour because if I do not vote Labour
        my balls will drop off […]
I shall vote Labour because
        there are too few cars on the road […]
I shall vote Labour because
        the Queen’s stamp collection is the best
        in the world
I shall vote Labour because
        deep in my heart
I am a Conservative.

This is a more serious poem than it might first appear, a critique of blind socialist idealism in the context of contemporary events. ‘True to their word, Tribune printed it,’ adds Logue in his memoirs.

Following the intense highs and lows of the fifties and sixties, the seventies were quiet for Logue. Despite his many volumes of published poetry, work on the radio and activity within the artistic and political scene in London, widespread recognition continued to evade him. It was only at the end of the century that his talent began to be appreciated. His 1999 memoir, Prince Charming, is an astoundingly honest account of his time in London and Paris. A fascinating portrait of the hedonism and intellectual energy of the period is a backdrop for frank accounts of his suicide attempts and sexual inhibition. But it is the story’s cast that make the book: Samuel Beckett, Peter Cook, Kenneth Tynan and others are all beautifully drawn in Logue’s trademark terse style.

Admittedly, his output has been slow, but he has led a remarkable life and produced a remarkable body of work, and with the Whitbread Prize, Logue’s work on Homer has finally achieved recognition.