Organizers of the pain Olympics. / Geoffrey Chandler
Daniel Moattar,  January 22, 2016

The People’s Republic of Troy

Organizers of the pain Olympics. / Geoffrey Chandler
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Christopher Logue called his politics “dusty pink”: committed pacifist, rebellious ex-soldier, and former petty thief, the poet harbored a lifelong loathing for authority. His formal education included a stint at the notoriously abusive Christian Brothers schools; it ground to a halt at seventeen, when a miserable Logue enlisted in the Black Watch—the only army regiment he knew by name.

His antiwar attitudes still unformed, Logue had joined the service vaguely hoping to get killed. Posted to British Palestine, Logue contrived to smuggle six army pay-books, expecting to be discharged. He spent the next sixteen months in prison near Haifa. For company, Corporal Logue had Wilde, Auden, and the complete works of Shakespeare. The experience left him “properly interested in poetry.”

Thirteen years later, the classicist and BBC producer Donald Carne-Ross commissioned Logue’s first work on the Iliad, angling for a radio reading in Logue’s distinctive voice. By then a Paris-based bohemian, Logue felt Homer was a yawn, irrelevant to his poetry and his antiwar politics. 

In the decades that followed, though, Homer would become “the very heart” of Logue’s work. Without a scrap of Greek at the outset, Logue began War Music, his “account” of the Iliad—cadging catholically from existing translations, Japanese war poems, daily papers, and, once, a Revlon ad (“All Day Permanent Red”). In his rendering, the Greek kings’ fireside powwows resemble the War Room of Dr. Strangelove; the kings serve a passel of infighting gods who, The Guardian writes, “disport themselves like celebrities from Hello! magazine.” 

The Times of London gave a typical summary in Logue’s 2011 obituary, calling War Music “terse, bloody, glorious.” Since the publication of its first volume in 1962, reviewers have billed the poem as an Iliad with helicopters, ignoring or sidelining Logue’s pacifist views. Most highlight War Music’s violence:

Blurred bronze. Blood? Blood like a car-wash ( . . . )

Each time Greece drew its breath and smashed,

And smash they came and smash they came and smashed and smashed

But Logue’s explosive, lucent vision of Homer is like a firework set off uncomfortably close: what’s depicted as glory in the Iliad is experienced here as heat and pain. War Music doesn’t revel in the chaos at Troy; it upends the Iliad’s moral framework to attack war’s underlying inequities. Its brutal, vain kings and gods are crippled by obsessions with control and status—reclaiming what’s theirs, establishing dominance, seeing the world remade in their image.

Even as current political poetry critiques the police, or colonialism, or corrosive masculinity, it has proven strangely digestible, even talismanic, to the young and white and liberal.

War Music’s unfinished final volume, partly reconstructed in this new edition, got its name from Logue’s wry definition of tragedy: Big Men Falling a Long WayWar Music’s targets are individual shortfalls: spite, cruelty, and the lust for control, signs of “the hatred human animals / Monotonously bear towards themselves.” They come up in every corner, cloaked as the exercise of God-given liberties and rights. So readily, in securing ours, we’re liable to seize those of others: their lands, families, possessions, nations. We take for granted that some rights have a worth measured in lives; that the ownership of Helen is just an absurd example. Logue asks what kind of liberty is worth killing for—above all in the context of war, when power and liberty are often one and the same. His Aphrodite calls beauty “Free. And unfair. And strong. A godlike thing.”

War Music suggests that power inflicts “miraculous atrocities” wherever it concentrates; that certain kinds of freedom simply can’t be preserved by force. It highlights those atrocities by giving a narrative role to the victims of force—Greek and Trojan women, footsoldiers, the lumpen—who the Iliad sidelines in its celebration of righteous, heroic power:

 Your life at every instant up for –

Gone.

      And, candidly, who gives a toss?

 

War Music is, remarkably, not a tendentious poem. Logue doesn’t present its world as a grand political problem, but as one like our own: inescapably strange and brutal and sad. Homeric violence happens: it sits outside an easy right and wrong.

This vision of mass violence—as capricious and petty, outside the scope of conventional justice, inextricable from life—contrasts with political contemporary poetry, which situates violence in narratives of trauma and individual pain.

Current political poetry—take Juliana Spahr’s “Turnt,” on her days in an Occupy Oakland black bloc, Patricia Lockwood’s “Government Spending” on axed art grants (Lockwood’s “right on top of politics,” says her editor), Franny Choi’s “To the Man Who Shouted ‘I Like Pork Fried Rice’ at Me on the Street,” Claudia Rankine’s rich and moving Citizen—often presents violence as a synonym for injustice, mostly violence from the state against the individual. These poems, even as they critique the police, or colonialism, or corrosive masculinity, have proven strangely digestible, even talismanic, to the young and white and liberal.

It’s the poetics of a condemnation machine: there are bad people; their violence signals evil. The violence tells us nothing about ourselves—while the writing is confrontational and can be humbling, it’s reluctant to engage with power as inherently problematic, going no further than asking who ought to have it, but doesn’t. We, the right-minded readers, are better people for having read. “My art can’t / be supported,” said Eileen Myles drily, without “confirming / the audience’s feeling… That they alone / are good.”

“Know Thy Enemy,” Logue wrote, in 1968:

But as you hasten to be free

And build your commonwealth

Do not forget the enemy

Who lies within yourself.

 

Are modern people less self-involved, less exploitative, less obsessed with power than the warrior-kings at Troy? Logue isn’t having it: Homer’s icons of virtue wreak their harm on a grand scale, but they’re uncomfortably familiar in their cruelties and failures.

We have, as they did, nativism (“For Troy . . . greatest city in the world!”), bloodlust (“Squeeze nickel through that rush of Greekoid scum!”), cynicism (“Peace, home, friendship, stuff like that,” as Athena says to Hera, wryly). We have oceans of “lewd pain . . . a weeping pain, your smash-hit / High-reliability fast-forward pain.” And in Logue’s world, as in ours, the “less” march in perpetual bondage, governed by people who loathe them: 

But we who are under the shields know

Our enemy marches at the head of the column . . .

And he who is forever talking about enemies

Is himself the enemy!

Logue’s pacifism, inverting Homer, is crisply anti-authoritarian and written for our time. “I want my poems to come between / the raised stick and the cowering back,” he wrote, in his 1969 collection New Numbers. When Diomedes nicks Aphrodite’s wrist with his sword in a killing frenzy, she bursts in on Zeus in conniptions: “Human strikes god! Communism! The end of everything!” It’s not hard to imagine Logue, whose creed was “socialism and liberty,” grinning wide.

This new edition of War Music encompasses just over half of the Iliad, lacking scenes that should be vital—but it’s hard to feel anything is missing. The existing chapters and new additions are interwoven beautifully by Logue’s friend and editor Christopher Reid. Logue published sixty years’ worth of antiwar poetry, but it was War Music, despite its incompleteness, that the poet considered his deepest statement against the killing fields:

Whatever caught and brought and kept them here

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.

Daniel Moattar (@danielmoattar) is a journalist based in New York. He has written and reported for The Nation.

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