Christopher Logue: Poet and playwright celebrated for his version of Homer's 'Iliad'

 

Christopher Logue – occasionally "Homer" Logue in recognition of his remarkable versions of the Iliad – first made his mark in the late 1950s. He invented the poster-poem and recorded Red Bird, the most successful British jazz/poetry disc, wrote lyrics for the singer Annie Ross at the Establishment Club and two scripts for the director Lindsay Anderson at the Royal Court Theatre. For Private Eye he edited "True Stories", which ran almost continuously for 30 years, and "Pseuds Corner". He also wrote the script for Ken Russell's Savage Messiah and acted in two of his films (including Cardinal Richelieu in The Devils).

Logue excelled when performing his own work. When he read his poetry in public – a practice he pioneered and recommended as the surest way of conveying meaning – his light, slightly rasping voice completely held the audience.

Christopher Logue was the only son of an underpromoted wages clerk in the Post Office. He went to Catholic boys boarding schools in his native Southsea and in Bath (Prior Park College, where the poet Peter Levi was a fellow pupil), and to Portsmouth Grammar School. This was evacuated at the outbreak of war to Southbourne, near Bournemouth. In 1944 he joined the 4th Battalion of the Black Watch and went with it to the Middle East, but in Palestine he got into trouble for purloining ration books and spent some months in a military prison.

After his father's death in 1951 Logue went to live cheaply in Paris andremained there for four years. Hebefriended Alexander Trocchi, the decadent poet, novelist and editor of theliterary quarterly Merlin (so named by Logue, at that time keen on medieval heraldry). Maurice Girodias of the Olympia Press commissioned from him a pornographic novel, Lust, written under the pseudonym Count Palmiro Vicarion.

Despondent in Rome, where he had applied for a non-existent job, he bumped into the Scottish poet WSGraham who advised him that a poet with no book is no poet at all. At Perpignan he sat down and wept but miraculously Trocchi turned up and, deflecting his thoughts from suicide, led him back to Paris. Logue's first book of poems, Wand and Quadrant, appeared under the imprint of the Olympia Press in 1953. He sent a copy to Ezra Pound who replied, "Not bad. I can read quite a bit of it."

Back in London he was to publish many small volumes of poetry, often printed by private presses and distributed by his friend Bernard Stone of the Turret Bookshop in Kensington before appearing in collections: Songs (1959), New Numbers (1969) and Ode to the Dodo (1981). Faber and Faber produced his Selected Poems (1996) and Prince Charming; a Memoir (1999) which is mercilessly honest about his own shortcomings and appreciative of his friends.

Recomposing other people's material suited Logue, who was happiest when he had a guide. He had succeeded with Pablo Neruda's Los Cantos d'Amores and with Brecht. He embarked on his versions of Homer as earlyas 1959, commissioned by Donald Carne-Ross of the BBC. Initially, not having any Greek, he studied Carne-Ross's literal renderings of the text of the Iliad along with some older translations. He memorised the story-line, selected the key episodes and produced his verse narrative.

The intention was to make theancient classic "immediate" forthe modern reader. Patrocleia appeared in 1962 to be followed by War Music, Cold Calls, Kings, The Husbandsand All Day Permanent Red. Vividincident, colour, linguistic assurance, energy and crispness are the keynotes. War Music (1981) won the first Wilfred Owen Award for poetry concerning warfare. Logue often performed his Homer with the actor Alan Howard and recorded the whole work with his Selected Poems in a stylish seven-CD set, Audiologue (2001).

Though he loved books – "portable, durable, inexpensive, a marvel of technology needing no intermediary save spectacles" – and was interested in every aspect of book- production, Logue delighted to see his work in other formats: on mugs, beer-mats, T-shirts, engraved on mirrors, or on the Tube. One of his most popular poems, "Come to the Edge", is set three-dimensionally in concrete in a garden visible to walkers in the Lake District. It was also watermarked into the silk lining of Mary McAleese's gown for her inauguration as President of the Republic of Ireland. More conspicuously his poems appeared on posters in the '60s and sold through the shop Gear of Carnaby Street. In one case the decisive moment for hesitant customers came when they reached the lines: "I shall vote Labour because if I do not vote Labour / my balls will drop off." Some 10,000 copies of this poster sold at 5/-.

Always an "engaged" poet, Logue carried a banner on the CND's Aldermaston march. In 1961, as one of Bertrand Russell's Committee of 100 who refused to be bound over to keep the peace (i.e. refrain from demonstrating), he was sentenced to two months in prison. He was often in a ferment about some world-political event. His father, tiring of his "wild political talk", used to tell him to shut up or go to his room.

Lindsay Anderson noticed that the force and clarity of Logue's speech (and equally his handwriting) were deceptive. At the end of his memoir Logue admitted: "I find my opinions about almost anything other than this or that piece of verse, my number one subject, not worth so much."

Five feet seven, just taller than Napoleon – about whom he once made a large collection of books – Logue had a slightly piratical look, having been blinded in the left eye by the branch of a sapling when he was on an exercise with the Black Watch. He strutted about, talked a lot (or lapsed into long silences) and laughed rumbustiously.

When Louis MacNeice, an admirer of War Music, wrote "I would have a poet able-bodied, fond of talking, a reader of the newspapers, capable of pity and laughter, informed in economics, appreciative of women, involved in personal relationships, actively interested in politics..." one inevitably thinks of MacNeice himself. But Christopher Logue was that sort of poet too.

John Christopher Logue, writer and actor: born Southsea, Hampshire 23 November 1926; married 1985 Rosemary Hill; died 2 December 2011.

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