How flippant should Agamemnon sound? In a review of Anne Carson’s new translation of the Orestia, Brad Leithauser contrasts the “plainspoken delivery” of Carson’s dialogue with the “combination of metrical mellifluousness and clunkiness” of Richmond Lattimore and finds a middle ground in the “clipped yet graceful, brisk cadences” of Robert Lowell. Leithauser’s review is interesting, but it feels incomplete without a mention of Christopher Logue, the one modern poet who has found his calling in making the ancient world shamelessly colloquial.
An activist, autodidact, and occasional actor, Logue has spent nearly half a century using 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—includes scenes that aren’t in the Iliad; at one point, he even cribs a passage from Milton. Sensitive to the distinction between scholarship and artistry, Logue calls what he’s doing an “account,” not a translation—and if that makes classicists cringe, they’re probably missing the point.
Known for his gleeful use of anachronisms—like his description of Ajax, often cited by reviewers, as “[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 also crafts 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.”
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.
Logue’s poetry may be campy, but it also moves, and thrills, and entertains. By making translation look like a blast, he disguises his real accomplishment: mastering a style that suits his particular genius, all to turn quirks into genuine art.