Christopher Logue: between the raised stick and the cowering back

Christopher Logue (photo: Eric Hands)

I want my poems to come between
the raised stick and the cowering back,
I want my poems to become
a weapon in your trembling hands,
a sword whose blade both makes and mirrors change

Christopher Logue, who died on Friday, will most probably be remembered for his new English version of Homer’s Iliad – ‘the best translation of Homer since Pope’s’  according to the New York Review of Books.  But I will remember Logue for his sensual, radical poems of the sixties – poems that were published as agitprop or psychedelic poster poems, and, above all, poems that he pronounced at public readings in clubs, bars and smoky dives. I saw him read at the Liverpool Everyman and in the Student Union bar.

Logue, who had a posh voice but was the son of a post office worker, got in quite a few scrapes when he was young before escaping the drabness of post-war England for the freedoms and excitements of bohemian Paris.  That was where he started to write and publish poems as a member of the expatriate community which also included Samuel Beckett and Henry Miller. He then returned to London at the end of the 1950s and participated in the cultural revolution of the sixties, writing song lyrics, inventing the poster poem and appearing at literary happenings.

There was an experiment that combined jazz with beat poetry – Red Bird (1960) was commissioned by the BBC, recorded by Beatles producer George Martin for EMI and matched Logue’s weirdly posh delivery of his own poems and others by Pablo Neruda to jazz arrangements.

Lithe girl, brown girl
Sun that makes apples, stiffens the wheat
Made your body a joy
Tongue like a red bird dancing on ivory
To stretch your arm
Sun grabs at your hair
Like water was falling
Tantalize the sun if you dare
It will leave shadows that match you

Lithe girl, brown girl
Nothing draws me towards you
The heat within you beats me home
Like the sun at high noon
Knowing these things
Perhaps through
Knowing these things
I seek you out
Listening for your voice
For the brush of your arms against wheat
For your step among poppies grown underwater
Lithe girl, brown girl

But for radical students in the sixties, Logue slotted in alongside Adrian Mitchell and others as an outyspoken poet of protest – against injustice, repression, war and the bomb.  He had been on the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s first Aldermaston march in 1958, and was a member of Russell’s Committee of 100, along with Doris Lessing, John Berger, John Osborne and Lindsay Anderson. He was once jailed for a month for refusing to accept a court order to desist from demonstrating: ‘a political prisoner in all but name’, as he described the experience.

Later he collaborated with Arnold Wesker to bring art to the workers, giving poetry readings on factory floors – with limited success. More significant for the zeitgeist was the Royal Albert Hall poetry ‘happening’ in 1965 that captured the counter-cultural mood of the time.  The Poets’ Cooperative that was formed to promote the event  included, as well as  Christopher Logue, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Michael Horowitz, and Adrian Mitchell, who read ‘To Whom It May Concern (Tell Me Lies About Vietnam)‘.

Christopher Logue reading in 1982

In a 1993 interview, Logue was asked about his poetry readings: had he always retained a sense of poetry as public performance?  Logue responded:

You must be taught how to read; then you must be taught how to read and write verse.  It is not difficult.  A knack, that practice and analysis can raise to a skill.  The integrity of the musical side of verse – its movement, its sound – is as important as its sense.  The sound / sense distinction is false.  They are complementary elements.  A poem performs in your head.  Poor readers will give themselves poor performances. … in 1965 there came the extraordinary Albert Hall reading that popularised – perhaps that is too strong a word – the idea. …

The weakness is that poetry readings are not critical events.  Amateurish.  Unreviewed.  …  A series of short poems interspersed with autobiographical comments is not likely to produce concentration.  To tell you the truth, many poets let their work down through poor reading.  It is a modest skill, but quite important.  It might be worthwhile to study the audiences at these readings.  What are their expectations?  Can they judge well through their ears?  Whether silent or spoken, verse performs.  In the performance lies what we call “voice”.

One of his most celebrated poster poems, ‘Know Thy Enemy’ appeared on walls in Paris in May 1968:

Know thy enemy:
he does not care what colour you are
provided you work for him
and yet you do!

he does not care how much you earn
provided you earn more for him
and yet you do!

he does not care who lives in the room at the top
provided he owns the building
and yet you strive!

he will let you write against him
provided you do not act against him
and yet you write!

he sings the praises of humanity
but knows machines cost more than men.
Bargain with him, he laughs, and beats you at it;
challenge him, and he kills.

Sooner than lose the things he owns
he will destroy the world.

But as you hasten to be free
And build your commonwealth
Do not forget the enemy
Who lies within yourself.

Another example of Logue’s poster poems is ‘Come to the Edge’, that has gained a second life as an inspirational text on the Internet.  It was written for an exhibition of the work of Guillaume Apollinaire at the ICA in 1968. Logue once explained how it came about: ‘Michael Kustow curated and exhibition of Apollinaire’s work at the ICA and asked for a poem to go on a poster to advertise the show. I cannot say that the poem was the result of my reading Apollinaire, more by the idea of the man, his life, as much as his poetry. A daring figure’.

Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It’s too high!
And they came,
and he pushed,
and they flew.

Andrew Marr once suggested that ‘what helps separate Logue from most others is the public nature of his poetry. He is a political writer, interested in the events of the day and in power, in violence as well as natural beauty, a poet who has clearly grazed among newspapers and mulched news events all his adult life’. ‘I Shall Vote Labour’ (1966) is a good example, and might be thought somewhat prescient now:

I shall vote labour because
God votes labour
I shall vote labour to protect
the sacred institution of the family
I shall vote labour because
I am a dog
I shall vote labour because Labour tolerates
the traitor Ian Smith
I shall vote labour because
I am on a diet
I shall vote labour because Ringo votes labour
I shall vote labour because
upper class hoorays annoy me in expensive restaurants
I shall vote labour because if I don’t
somebody else will


I shall vote labour because if one person does it everybody else will be wanting to do it.
I shall vote labour because
my husband looks like Antony Wedgewood Benn
I shall vote labour because I am obedient
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
Mrs Wilson promised me five pounds if I did
I shall vote labour because I love
Look at Life films
I shall vote labour because
I am a hopeless drug addict
I shall vote labour because
I am a Wincarnis shareholder
I shall vote labour because
I failed to be a dollar millionaire aged three
I shall vote labour because labour will build
More maximum security prisons
I shall vote labour because I want to see
Nureyev and Fonteyn dance in Swansea Civic Centre
I shall vote labour because I want to shop
In a covered precinct stretching from Yeovil to Glasgow
I shall vote labour because I want to rape an air hostess
I shall vote labour because I am a hairdresser
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

In a further example of this stance, Christopher Logue wrote this Foreword to New Numbers, a volume of poems published in 1969:

This book was written in order to change the world
and published at 12/- (softback), 25/- (hardback) by Cape
of 30 Bedford Square, London, WCI
(a building formerly occupied by the Czarist Embassy)
in 1969.

It is generously scattered with dirty words
particularly on pages 9, 31, 17 and 45,
and was written by © Logue
a sexy young girl living among corrupted villagers
who keeps her innocence through love;

its weight is 7.926 oz,
its burning temperature is Fahrenheit 451,
and it was printed in Great Britain by
Butler & Tanner of London and Frome.

On the day of publication its price would buy
11 cut loaves,
3 yards of drip-dry nylon,
25 gallons of boiling dishwater,
5 rounds of MI carbine ammunition,
or a cheap critic:
what do you expect for 12/- Paradise Lost?

This book will offend a number of people,
some of them influential people;
its commercial potential is slight,
the working classes will ignore it,
the middle classes will not buy it,
the ruling class will bolt it with a smile,
for I am a Western Art Treasure!

What right do I have to complain?
Nobody asked me to write it, yet
be sure I will complain.

This book is dedicated to new men,
astronauts, meter maids Chinese Ambassadors
quizmasters disc-jockeys South Vietnamese
rocket-designers thalidomide babies
anchormen skindivers African Generals
Israelis and launderette manageresses
multi-lingual porpoises left-wing doctors
draft-dodgers brainwashers bingo-queens
crete poets pollsters commuters computer-
programmers panels of judges gas-chamber victims
abstract expressionist chimpanzees
surfies and self-made millionaire teenagers
skydivers aquanauts working-class playwrights
industrial spies with identikit smiles
intrusion specialists and four-minute milers
motivation researchers and systems analysts
noise abatement society members
collective farmers and war criminals
transplanted heart men and water-ski champions
the Misses World and those I love.

If this book doesn’t change you
give it no house space;
if having read it you
are the same person you
were before picking it up,
then throw it away.

Not enough for me
that my poems shine in your eye;
not enough for me
that they look from your walls
or lurk on your shelves;
I want my poems to be in your mind
so you can say them when you are in love
so you can say them when the plane takes off
and death comes near;
I want my poems to come between
the raised stick and the cowering back,
I want my poems to become
a weapon in your trembling hands,
a sword whose blade both makes and mirrors change;
but most of all I want my poems sung
unthinkingly between your lips like air.

In a poem from 1960, ‘The Chorus of the Secret Police’, Logue foreshadowed War Music, his adaptation of  The Iliad,with a re-imagining of the chorus in Sophocles’ Antigone:

(From a version of Antigone)
There are many wonders on earth,
But the greatest of these is man!
We have divided the green sides of the earth
Into nations, and we utilize the land to know
And to nourish ourselves. Likewise, we cross the sea
And the changing air as easily as any room,
Even in storms, even at night, for then
We make the white stars guide us through.
Indeed, for man, the dark is brilliant, too!  
Always the first among living things,
Fish, flesh, and fowl, the changing air
And mineral, we trick them into snares
Or mine them with our cunning hands until
Everything known is persuaded to obey.
So, in the evening, man sits by the fire
He has tamed, on the ground he makes fertile,
Outside, his creature, the horse that ran
Wild before he came. Oh, clever man!  
And men have grown inside themselves,
Minds that move further and faster than light
Or the changing air, and men invented speech
To trap the mind as it flew and so
To hand things down; and, above all, we have learnt
The intricate civilities of government,
How to make laws, how to avoid unhealthy places,
And how to escape from the rain and the wind
Into cities of jet and ivory.  
But even as he makes, whatever
He makes, and no matter how much he makes,
Man longs to destroy the thing he has made.
Finding no enemy, he becomes his own enemy;
As he traps the horse, so he traps other men,
But the others strike back, trap closing on trap;
Having eaten enough, man must next build a wall
Around whatever food is left, and other men
Must pull down that wall! So the roof gets split,
And the rain and the changing air wash away
Whatever is left of man and his cities,
When men have done with them.

In a 1994 interview for Thumbscrew poetry magazine, Logue made this comment about his politics:

The criminal politicians, German, Russian and their followers, who gained power in the first half of our century, have so damaged the ideas of freedom and justice developed by the first socialists – particularly the English socialists, Ruskin, Morris and co. – that it is almost impossible to discuss these ideas without becoming involved in irrelevant squabbling over the near past.  I remain a Unilateralist.  To me, the manufacture, possession and brandishing of weapons of mass destruction is immoral.  War is a traditional human activity that we have, to some extent, learnt how to manage, and that we might, as we learn more about ourselves, be able to quell.  Big bombs appeal to the stupid, the vindictive, and those who wish to commit suicide when faced with defeat.  Big bombs are inappropriate for the defence of our country.  ‘Alliance’ arguments do not impress me.  They had emotional power while there was one grand opponent.  I notice that the politicians who accept big bombs do not mention the need to issue fatal doses of morphine to their adult populations that they and their children may avoid excruciating deaths.  I go up and down about it, but I am not inclined to over-rate our chances of survival as a species.  Nor am I that sure we should survive.  It is we who are the pollution.  But we do have our funny side, our tragic side.

Another Christopher Logue memory from the sixties: Ken Loach’s  1967 film Poor Cow opens with ‘Be Not To Hard’, a Christopher Logue poem (originally entitled ‘September Song’) set to music by Donovan.  Joan Baez recorded a version for her 1967 album, Joan.

Be not too hard for life is short
And nothing is given to man
Be not too hard when he is sold and bought
For he must manage as best he can

Be not too hard when he gladly dies
Defending things he does not own
Be not too hard if he tells lies
And if his heart is sometimes like a stone

Be not too hard for soon he dies
Often no wiser than he began
Be not too hard for life is short
And nothing is given to man

Be not too hard for soon he dies
Often no wiser than he began
Be not too hard for life is short
And nothing is given to man

”Twas in another lifetime’, though: Logue’s reputation now rests on his major work, the retelling of Homer’s epic, the Iliad. Logue’s version was published in a series of small volumes including War Music which won the international Griffin Poetry Prize in 2002, and Cold Calls which won the 2006 Whitbread Poetry Award. He spent over 45 years on the project while writing plays for the screen and the theatre, translating Brecht, and editing Pseuds’ Corner in the satirical magazine Private Eye.

I want my poems to become
a weapon in your trembling hands,
a sword whose blade both makes and mirrors change;
but most of all I want my poems sung
unthinkingly between your lips like air.

See also

13 thoughts on “Christopher Logue: between the raised stick and the cowering back

    1. Thanks, Thomas. I’m pleased to have given you an opening to his work. My post probably differs from most of today’s tributes in placing the emphasis on his sixties poems, rather than the Homer sequence.

  1. I had not heard of Logue either which is strange since as a teenager I was into the “Liverpool” Poets, Adrian Henry, Roger McGough (remember “Frinck” and “Summer with Monica” anyone?) and Brian Patten. Also had a wonderful anthology entitled “Daughters of Albion” with cover illustration by William Blake…I wrote too in late sixties, early seventies but when my mother died and my father cleared out the house he burned them all (without permission) because they were “morbid”…What is wrong with morbid I ask you?!

  2. Tessa – I may have misleadingly given the impression that Logue was a Liverpool poet. He wasn’t, though in the times of which I wrote, he toured on the same stand-up poetry circuit as Henri, McGough, and Patten. He grew up in a different port city – Portsmouth.

  3. What a sad loss. His War Music made me understand how Keats felt on first looking into Chapman’s Homer: I understood it viscerally for the first time. What a thrill, and an education. His 60s poetry is so generous of spirit and is strong as undistracted people are. His poetry will continue to be spoken, and will gain wider currency and bring some space for wisdom in this benighted world as time passes, I’m sure. A beautiful spirit comes clearly and musically through his poetry, without distracting effects and such clarity is a gift to the world.

    Thanks for your post, which has opened up more of his work for me; my condolonces to his family and friends; his life was well lived.

  4. A huge thank you for this comprehensive and thoroughly entertaining post. I clicked on the link to the Red Bird performance and laughed out loud: sultry devil-may-care summery British cheek!
    I have just started to read Christopher Logue this afternoon, and this post has been a useful orientation.
    All best,

    1. Thanks, John; glad to be useful and entertaining. It’s good to be reminded of things I have already forgotten I wrote (but then, that’s why I started this thing). Logue was just one of the elements that made the sixties such an exciting time to be young and radical.

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