For the past 44 years, a British poet named Christopher Logue has been engaged in one of the most peculiar and quixotic literary projects of our times. He has been rendering Homer's Iliad into English, issuing his efforts in a series of slim volumes, each representing two or three books of the original epic. In the process, he has modernized it without compunction, bringing to bear all the techniques of contemporary poetry—mixed line-length, tricks with typeface, fragmentation, allusions to the literature of the last century or so; and the kicker is: Logue can't read Ancient Greek, not a word of it. He fashions his Iliad by consulting pre-existing translations, getting a sense of what the thing is about, and then setting off to write his own version—inventing new episodes, ignoring others, renaming characters, and occasionally drifting off into a narrative entirely of his own making. Last month Farrar, Straus and Giroux published the latest installment, All Day Permanent Red, a slender volume recounting a single battle in the Trojan War.
So far as I know, Logue's project has no real equivalent in modern English-language poetry. Anne Carson has published a deliberately anachronistic rendition of lyrics by the Greek poet Stesichorus, but she's a bona fide classicist: No one doubts her mastery of the original. Ezra Pound once produced an English-language volume of the sayings of Confucius, though his knowledge of ancient Chinese was spotty, at best. But Pound didn't advertise as much, let alone make it the point of his work. Logue has granted himself far more leeway to go at the Iliad, and he makes no bones about what he's up to.
On the face of it, his is a task of monumental foolishness, and you can't help but smile at the very idea: It's like learning of a deaf man who prepared himself to conduct Stravinsky by watching Fantasia. So, is Logue a genius or a joke? Is his Iliad sheer hubris, humbug, or one of the Wonders of Modern Literature?
Certainly, Logue's résumé is piebald, at best. Among other things, he wrote the screenplay for Ken Russell's Savage Messiah, a biopic about the French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska; he is credited as playing the role of the "spaghetti-eating fanatic" in Terry Gilliam's Jabberwocky, and as recently as 2001, he had a bit part in The Affair of the Necklace, a historical drama starring Hilary Swank. Moreover, the flap copy on All Day Permanent Red (whose title comes from a Revlon lipstick ad) mentions the availability of a seven-CD set of Logue's work titled Audiologue, which on closer inspection proves to include 500 minutes of readings, some of them set in the late 1950s to jazz. For better or worse, this is not the sort of activity that helps establish someone as a Major Poet, and you might be excused for dismissing Logue as a dilettante—or, at least, a man whose eccentricities border on madness.
And yet. … He is an extraordinary writer, the books are brilliant, his poetry strong, witty, and intelligent. He is not a charlatan: not at all. To be sure, his Iliad rings in a different key than most contemporary poetry, which often seems dominated by, on the one hand, obscure and inward-looking lyrics, and on the other, by the self-indulgent, tin-eared efforts that emerge from poetry slams. Logue is something else; narrative and frank, but his Homer is as alive as any more modish author.
Homer's poetry is, above all else, specific and concrete: Emotion is yoked to action, the gods are persons, and their jealousies have consequences. There is little abstraction or speculation: Here are these men, here are the gods, and here is the war. After reading the Iliad, you needn't feel philosophically enlightened: Your muscles should be sore. And this is where Logue triumphs. His adventures in the cinema, which seem so silly on the book flap, have served him surprisingly well on the page. His style is relentlessly filmic: the lapses into present tense, the quick cuts, the reliance on montage, the emphasis on the visual. Here, for example, is Hector coming into battle:
See an East African lion
Nose tip to tail tuft ten, eleven feet
Slouching towards you
Swaying its head from side to side
Doubling its pace, its gold-black mane
That stretches down its belly to its groin
Catching the sunlight as it hits
Twice its own length a beat, then leaps
Great forepaws high great claws disclosed
The scarlet insides of its mouth
Parting a roar as loud as sail-sized flames
And lands, slam-scattering the herd.
"This is how Hector came on us."
Even Homer's epithets, which are rote mnemonic devices in the original, become occasions for vivid—and sometimes witty—descriptions. Hera, known as "white-armed" in most translations, is here "Heaven's creamy Queen." And runty Odysseus, almost invariably described in the original as "resourceful," gets tweaked for the ubiquity of the adjective, thus: "Odysseus (you know him), small but big."
The Iliad is, of course, a war poem, framed by Achilles' sulking refusal to fight and his fierce re-entry into battle when his favorite, Patroklos, is killed in his stead. But however revered and absorbing the book may be, the poetry itself can be tedious in more literal translation; made to be memorized and recited aloud, it is long-winded and repetitious. Logue makes it leap, twist, and revel in its sprays of blood. A battlefield prayer directed at the goddess of warfare receives the following answer:
Setting down her topaz saucer heaped with nectarine jelly
Emptying her blood-red mouth set in her ice-white face
Teenaged Athena jumped up and shrieked:
"Kill! Kill for me!
Better to die than to live without killing!"
Who says prayer does no good?