Sometimes, bits you happen to read slide into each other and coalesce as a question. In this case, if it doesn’t sound too pompous, the question is of poetry, history, reality and “commitment”, the focus being the early work of Christopher Logue, a figure met so far in these posts only as a drinking companion to Burns Singer.
Devil, Maggot & Son
Plenty of copies survive of Logue’s first collection, Wand & Quadrant (1953), but none at sane prices, so on that I can’t comment. But reading his second, Devil, Maggot and Son (1956, though all written in 1953), I was taken aback by the pure medievalism of his poetic theatre – all kings, queens, beggars and towers, and at first glance a world away from his subsequent, plainly spoken, bad-boy-politics register. To be fair, Logue’s playing card world is often darkened by bitterness, just as his Yeatsey lyricism is sometimes “modernised” by an intrusive knobbliness, but even so …
I’ll give a couple of examples below in case you’re interested. Early Logue is an acquired taste, but it can be acquired.
So what’s going on here? This is not the Poundian collocation of historical episodes, nor the sacramental antiquarianism of David Jones, nor Geoffrey Hill’s splicing of centuries. Did Logue, in the afterglow of ‘forties neo-romanticism, simply assume the medieval as the default fancy dress for an aspiring poet? Or was his vision of turrets and gallows intended for a mirror held to his and our times, in the same way that Henry Treece’s “warrior bards”, by his own account, stand for the very modern victims of the “God of Profit Production”? When Logue writes of “My Saxon tribe” does he mean the working class and assume that we understand that? Does he just expect us to get it?
X, Volume One
In a merciless review of Logue’s Songs (1959) in X magazine (excerpt below), Anthony Cronin picks up on the problematic medievalism, among much else. In the same issue, Brian Higgins’s poems include a laconically caustic “letter” to Logue (also below), slyly questioning the nature of his social commitment; here Higgins refers to the establishment, in Logue-speak, as “the Normans”. (Higgins, who died in 1965 aged just 35, is a poet worth attention, whose voice arrives in unexpected ways. In Michael Hamburger’s words: “He is wholly original, writing as though he were the first poet ever, just beginning to discover the world and language.”)
Pound embraced Mussolini, Treece turned Tory romantic, Hill was accused of nursing a Victorian nationalism … It all suggests that a committed leftist voice might do well to avoid entanglement in historical other-worlds, lest they turn into national myths, which are by definition conservative. A more fundamental danger of (con)fusing the present and the past must be the leap of implication that, since it was ever thus and still is, it always will be; if nothing has changed, everything changes nothing.
Medieval monarchs and ramparts slip easily enough into those of ancient Greece, which might trigger related questions about Logue’s life’s work, his acclaimed version of Homer’s Iliad, modern anachronisms and all. But that’s another discussion. Interesting though, that Logue was pushed to start the Homer by radio producer D S Carne-Ross, formerly co-editor of Peter Russell’s reactionary review Nine, for whose shenanigans over Homer and popularism see this post.
Poems and excerpts follow.
Christopher Logue in youth
From “Amateur Horoscope”
In the middle
of the four yellow candles
let the old King
lie in the halflight
In the middle
of four wetnurses
let the swaddling King
suck the udders of his kind;
for he is ignorant,
with hell before
or heaven behind,
according to the colour of your eyes,
or perhaps your back’s old rage.
Abel and Cain, here is the parable
to be ruled by a King or a Chairman?
Do both answers beg your question
Or is the question itself a beggar?
The King will learn to count,
but not his daily bread. And
they said of the old dead King,
‘He had a lazy heart.’
‘She had out of him
only coins and a bastard.’
‘The orchard he tended
had a gibbet in every sap.’
And the King heard all and wept
My son, son, from the tower
of his hangman’s mind.
A Suite for Jewels IV
I, diamond, brighter the new-day
on a thicket of drawn knives
newer than I, lie quiet in the dawn
a magnet to the flights of sun.
Plain, I split on my prism’s edge
white to incarnadine and again white
as the moonlight on Death’s finger.
Within my grasp the acorn and the forest
are chastised on a carbon anvil.
Flesh is my shame. A serf to gold
how often am I worn to idolise
making delight where there is no darling?
yet I in light outmatch my owner’s lust
my craftsman’s sight; my kingdom crowns
whatever King may be. I, illuminate,
only a ton can snuff my beam
or the hungry paws of a beggarmaid.
From Christopher Logue, Prince Charming: A Memoir, 1999
I assumed that Devil, Maggot and Son had died with Stols. Then a parcel arrived from Amsterdam containing twenty copies of the published book … Creamy paper, the text set in elegant Romulus. As I read them my heart sank. They were so arty. Who on earth could be interested in such stuff? They raised a recurring wish: that my head might somehow be attached to my neck by a sort of bayonet fixture, easily removable for a thorough clean and a good polish before being put back on …
… I said [to Peter Russell] my book no longer pleased me. In future my work would be politically committed. Those who did not work did not deserve to eat.
From Anthony Cronin, “The Notion of Commitment: An Aesthetic Inquiry,” in X 1:1, 1959
This resolute self-regard is the principal impression left by Mr Logue’s propagandist poems. They are glumly insistent that Mr Logue is the only one who cares:
Men of the future think of me
Living at a time when one by one
Our kings give way to businessmen,
Our poets wrote to make men bother less,
Our wisemen, fat with caution, spoke of death,
And most died twice from individuality,
In this time on earth given by men to me.
Apart from egotism, the passage displays only the threadbare nature of Mr Logue’s social thinking – the romantic cliché, worthy of Noel Coward, about kings giving way to businessmen, and the communist jargon about people dying twice from individuality – truer to say they are dead from mass-production …
… Many of the sentiments expressed in Mr Logue’s poems are undoubtedly admirable, if unoriginal; what is wearisome is the constant claiming of so much credit for possessing them. The language is a mixture of turgidity and old Georgian frivolity about kings and princesses with a few words like ‘turd’ and ‘shit’ thrown in, apparently in the hope of achieving an uncompromising modernity. The real modern world never appears; for all the indication the (mostly literary) imagery of the poems gives we might as well be living in the Middle Ages. We learn nothing from the poems about Mr Logue’s attitude to any of the difficult relations in life … The vivid lyrical gift which is supposed to provide the jam on the pill, the separable poetry, when not a fearsome misuse of Yeats (and some other very odd influences, including Dame Edith Sitwell), turns out to be a compound of all the sweepings of the Georgian anthologies. Here is Mr Logue in lyrical vein and the manner of Rupert Brooke:
For God’s sweet sake give me back part of that
I gave. Part of a part? One loving jot?
Child I am no Elizabethan hack
Spicing his dalliance in a sonnet’s pot …
… This remote moonshine, far removed from the sane speech of men ever or anywhere, presumably represents Mr Logue’s attempts to come to grips with what the apostles of commitment call, in a noticeable tone of self-congratulation, ‘reality’. Complacent, trivial and boring, it reflects nothing but an ultimate unconcern with life. Poetry as an expression of adult matters which involve other people is not Mr Logue’s concern.
Brian Higgins, “A Letter to Christopher Logue,” in X 1:1, 1959
‘More days than sausages’, you said.
Well, one day I had four
And some thousands of words;
Mainly advice on Theft.
Brian Higgins by Patrick Swift
Thank you, Christopher Logue
(You well known classical translator)
Because of you I have moved towards action
Which is robbing banks.
Each day something drops –
From posters, from our pockets and ourselves.
Those who care for such serious matters
Will replace the posters.
As for our pockets – in time we may be lucky,
And God, or whoever arranges such things,
Will replace us when we die.
Since that day I’ve wondered
If four sausages were too many
To take from the Poet of Need.
Also how much you like my verses,
Wondered how long I will live,
How long my money will last.
I have several times been drunk,
Written a play and songs to go with it.
I have done no mathematics
Received no money from the Government,
Bought what I need and sold nothing.
If you asked me, ‘What about the H-bomb?’
I would reply:
‘It will either burn us or bore us to death.’
If you asked me, ‘Are you for the rich or the poor?’
I would answer:
‘Those who are hungry are poorer than I am.
Let them find me, I will give them bread.
Those who are masters of employment
Know more than I do about riches.
If they pay wages they will grumble.’
I will say
‘I am for those who try to be artists,
Yet no doubt some who fail
And those who succeeded,
Did they cut their throats from over-excitement
Or go mad through a joyful effulgence?’
If I became rich it would be through a literary accident,
If I stay poor – in our profession that’s no proof of failure.
Lastly, Christopher, a piece of advice
(Having read your instructions and stopped drinking milk)
Remember the English do not shoot
Satirists and attackers of the official order,
But we have yet to meet with a dangerous Laureate.
If the Normans change their policy
Be sure they will pick one they know will attack.
(Unnecessary bibliographical appendix: according to Logue’s memoir Prince Charming, the first edition of Devil, Maggot and Son was published by A A M Stols in the Netherlands. Subsequently Peter Russell (poet, publisher and editor of Nine magazine) prevailed on Stols to print “a small English edition” on his behalf. However, my copy of the Stols version is inscribed “Second Printing” while my otherwise identical Russell version is not. Each claims to be limited to 250 copies and each has the same numbered page to that effect dated September 1956. Not that it matters a hoot. Mind you, Logue’s memoir also has Stols dying during the production of the book, but in fact he survived until 1973. So much for memories.)