I haven’t had a chance to see Ken Burns’ new take on World War II, but I was intrigued by a review in Monday’s New York Times that suggests the limitations of The War as a documentary:
The intention, apparently, was to see the war anew, to see it not from the vistas of generals’ maps and geopolitics, not from the perspective given by the doctrines of nations and the lures of ideologies, not even from the war’s context in history. The intention was to view it from the experiences of those who fought in it and those who knew them. If war happens “inside a man,” Mr. Burns wants to bring it home.
Yet for all the particularity, these are the generic facts of war, not very different from those chronicled by Homer almost 3,000 years ago. They tell us nothing about why this fighting was going on; they give us little information to judge or understand it.
The article mentions that Burns hoped to make an “epic poem,” an ambition I find odd. Ken Burns is good at being a filmmaker who records history from below, a thoughtful, perceptive soul who would gladly bypass Beowulf to squint instead at the peasants in the Luttrell Psalter. It’s comical to imagine him taking up the gusle or praising royalty with soaring tales of “fierce warres and faithfull loves”; his desire to shrink an epic event to human scale is an oddly anti-Homeric endeavor.
It’s also not a thing unattempted yet in prose or rhyme. In fact, Christopher Logue beat him to it.
Who is Christopher Logue? He’s an activist, autodidact, occasional actor—but he’s also the guy who for nearly half a century has used all the gimmicks of modern poetry to craft a loose, idiomatic version of Homer’s Iliad.
Literally irreverent, Logue frees himself from the tyranny of his source material through one curious disadvantage: he’s ignorant of ancient Greek. As a result, his Homer—currently collected in three separate volumes—easily comes into its own as a fresh modern poem. Recent additions include scenes that aren’t in the Iliad; at one point, Logue even cribs a passage from Milton. Sensitive to the distinction between scholarship and artistry, the poet calls what he’s doing an “account,” not a translation—and if that makes classicists cringe, they may be missing the point.
Known for his gleeful use of anachronisms—like his description, often cited by reviewers, of Ajax “[g]rim underneath his tan as Rommel after ‘Alamein”—Logue deploys evocative modern language to create quick, crisp snapshots. Here’s his description of Agamemnon’s champions in “All Day Permanent Red”:
Nestor, his evening star.
Ajax, his silent fortress. Good—even on soft sand.
Odysseus (you know him), small but big.
Fourth—grizzled and hook-tap nosed—the king of Crete,
Would sign a five-war-contract on the nod.
Logue’s Homer resounds with the diction of war, but he can also craft domestic scenes with a deftness that other poets should envy. In “The Husbands,” an exchange between Zeus and a petulant Athena neatly reveals the condescension that defines their relationship:
The armies wait. “Dearest Pa-pa, the oath said one should die.
The Trojan was about to die. He did not die.
Nobody died. Therefore the oath is dead.
Killed by a Trojan. Therefore Troy goes down.”
Drivers conducting underbody maintenance.
“Father, You must act.
Side with the Trojans, Greece will say,
Were we fools to believe in His thunder?
Why serve a God who will not serve His own?”
And giving her a kiss, He said:
“Child, I am God,
Please do not bother me with practicalities.”
Ah, but when battle calls, Logue can craft a passage as thrilling as anything in 300, combining heroic deeds with colloquial diction while never undercutting the tone, as in this passage from “Patrocleia”:
The air near Ajax was so thick with arrows, that,
As they came, their shanks tickered against each other;
And under them the Trojans swarmed so thick
Ajax outspread his arms, turned his spear flat,
And simply pushed. Yet they came clamouring back until
So many Trojans had a go at him
The iron chaps of Ajax’ helmet slapped his cheeks
To soft red pulp, and his head reached back and forth
Like a clapper inside a bell made out of sword blades.
Maybe, even with no breath left,
Big Ajax might have stood it yet; yet
Big and all as he was, Prince Hector meant to burn that ship:
And God was pleased to let him.
Is this campy, even ironic? You bet. But this is also poetry that moves, and thrills, and entertains. It makes you feel just a little queasy for reveling in verse about war, but it also makes the timeless colloquial without impugning the dignity of its ancient source.
Why did Logue, a self-described pacifist, decide to take on Homer? Unlike many of his contemporaries, Logue deliberately sought out a vast external subject for his work. “I would not like to be a writer whose only subject is themselves,” he told an interviewer in 1994. “You need something else.” For Logue, that “something else” is war—not merely the Trojan War, but the capacity for war and violence at the core of human nature. Fortunately, Logue is under no pressure to put that experience in context, unlike Ken Burns. Logue is also unencumbered by public familiarity with his own artistic tics—again, unlike Burns, whose reverent pacing and signature quirks have lately become the stuff of parody.
Burns and Logue have similar purposes. Both use epic material to craft lengthy narratives about love, loss, anger, envy, family, patriotism, loyalty, and power. But Logue is clever enough not to try crafting a epic in the proper sense of the term. To show how war happens “inside a man,” he’s exploited his sources, developed a style, and mastered a medium that suits his particular genius; at 80, he has yet to exhaust himself.
As for Ken Burns—well, reviews of The War make me wonder if he’s attempting something that, while not beyond his intellect, may exceed the limitations of documentary, even if the film is successful by other standards. Having mastered the conventions of a genre that can easily stifle the loftiest intentions, Ken Burns could learn a few things from Christopher Logue, who, by sprinkling his verse with references to camera angles, points out the difference between documenting human nature and interpreting human nature in art. Burns is ambitious—“What in me is dark, illumine,” he seems to be praying, “what is low raise and support”—but his premise undercuts his purpose. A documentary surely may be art, but it’s just no way to write an epic poem.