Interview: Christopher Logue by Sam Leith
When and how did you first become involved in the idea of translation- and why Homer?
I am not a translator and War Music is not a translation. Why?-by chance. Pardon me if I do not explain. Those interested might look at the introduction to War Music or to my interview in the Paris Review 127, Summer 1993 (NY).
How important to you have other English translators of Homer been- the Augustans for example?
Pope's Iliad is a masterpiece. To be read as seriously as Paradise Lost. I rely on translations for my knowledge of Homer's material; they are very different from one another.
Is there anything that can't but be "lost in translation"?
Translation gives much higher returns than origination. Originality is as common as dirt, and worth as little. Poetry is written in verse. Verse is intelligible, anotal quasi-music. Music does not translate.
Is it important that Homer comes from an oral tradition, and has that knowledge shaped your use oflanguage; colloquialism or recitative forms, for example?
Nowadays, thanks to Homer, his translators and scholars, I write narrative, dramatic verse. It is a failure ifthis verse does not work as well on stage as on the page. Performances of War Music are not poetry readings. Poetry readings are uncritical events. The poets are there for literary reasons only. They are not auditioned, tested. I am interested in fast, clear, severalstranded narrative; in action, character; in warfare. My sense of narrative has not come from literary sources only. To tell the truth, I have not read any narrative poems published since The Prelude, (perhaps the Idylls of the King) that do more than drag themselves along. I know of no one who teaches narrative as a form of meaning. Nowadays it is supposed that Homer was a full-time professional poet wandering about from place to place in search of paying audiences, expected to get on with it: 'poet' meaning composer/performer, and as such, knowing if he had been a success. A professional performance is to be considered as a finished work, independent of text, or score; to be judged as such.
Your extravagant and highly theatrical treatment of violence is one of the most striking features of your versions. How important is that in setting the tone of the poem, and what does it do to the 'realism' or otherwise of the piece?
'Realism'- we share a difficulty. What we photograph? What we are not? 'Naturalism'? The sort of poems that came in after Wordsworth? As written by Crabbe, Hurnard, Hardy, Kipling, Betjeman, Larkin? 'Everyday', 'real life' , 'what you see about you' poems? I admire many of them. I am not influenced by them. The light in my poems is artificial light. My favourite painters are Picasso, the New York abstract expressionists, Chrico. I preferTura, Bronsino, della Francesca to Masaccio, Raphael, Titian. There is another strength to which I aspire. The warm, plain directness of feeling that John Ford invented in his greatest films. You see a similar quality in Brecht's early poems and of course in Bums. A sort of friendliness. I admire this quality. I envy those who capture it. Dryden has it- when he is not looking at himself. Chaucer, too. Poetry cannot be defined, only experienced. I once read various anthologies of war poetry to make an index to how others handled the subject of men killing each other in battle. I was surprised by how little of it (battle, warfare poetry) there was. Chapman's and Pope's Wads, essential to any survey of the matter, were absent. In the little on offer little was said about the normal, ancient, modem (I mean us, you, me) feelings aroused by battle: the joy, pride, relief, pleasure (including sexual pleasure) of killing one's enemies, as well as the courage, the calm self-sufficiency, self-sacrifice and comradeship. I am told I have gone too far in stressing the glamour of combat. Perhaps. As soon as you begin to study non-literary works - early African travellers, the anthropologists of Oceania, war diaries etc. the nature of warfare becomes clear. Maybe I have not gone far enough. I have not (yet) managed to capture the nature of our (industrialised) "impersonal", non-war ideological killings. You know what I mean. Doubtless it is vain for me to say so, but is itnot the first time, other than in translations, that these matters have appeared in verse, in English? There is some strong material in the Ballads, Byron, Macaulay, Whitman, J ames Dicky. I have not captured the pathos of such events. We shall see.
Is there a distinction usefully made between "translations" and (in Lowell's term) "imitations"?
As I understand it the term "imitation" describes poems "in which", Johnson says (Lives of the Poets, Pope) "the ancients are familiarised by adapting their sentiments to modem topics"; so the answer would appear to be "yes". I prefer to keep the term "translator" for those who translate. Greek scholars say that Homer's language is a literary language, formed from three dialects, many of its phrases literary inventions, made for aesthetic reasons, serving a limited, specialised purpose, much of it self-referring: nevertheless, intelligent readers understand that a reliable prose translation! translator assumes the above, committing to no more (and no less) than an accurate representation of Homer's contents in good English from which they will learn what the poem is about, how it works; which is all most readers, who have other fish to fry, require. Samuel Butler's is the best prose translation I have read.
Finally, I'm interested that you talk about "my Homer poem", not "poems". Do you see the various sections as part of a single poem, rather than structurally self-sufficient; and if so, do you envision its eventual completion?
There is a plan to publish the three volumes as one. I have recomposed eight and one eighth parts of twenty-four books. Keep your fingers crossed for me. The more good poetry I read, the further I learn I am behind. To have written one lyric - just one - as good as Jonson's 'Slow, slow, fresh fount...' That would be something.
frog pontificating plop
-Ian Hamilton Finlay / Little Sparta, 1988