All Day Permanent Red

by Christopher Logue

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2126

In 1962, issue number 28 of The Paris Review published Christopher Logue’s initial translation of Homer’s Iliad (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1616), described in the headnote as “from a new English version of Book Sixteen.” In the “Notes on Contributors,” Logue mentioned that he would “like it to be known that his knowledge of Homeric Greek is negligible,” as much a defiant assertion as an apology for a deficiency, and expressed his gratitude for the “cribs” prepared by two distinguished British scholars. The magazine also contained an interview with Ezra Pound by the American poet Donald Hall, an appropriate complement to Logue’s work, as Pound’s translations and commentaries in the early decades of the twentieth century were instrumental in opening the field to include a much more imaginative approach to translation than had previously been the practice of scholars of the original language.

As scholar Bruce Weibe points out, “It is a commonplace of Homer studies that each age translates the poem befitting current taste.” Alexander Pope (1688-1744), for instance, created anIliad of heroic couplets rather than trying to approximate Homer’s dactylic hexameters. A great poet such as Pope was effectively given a personal pass, but the prevalent attitude persisted that a proper translation was the provenance of the serious scholar and that a thorough knowledge of the original language was essential.

The justifiably lauded Penguin Classics series in the middle of the twentieth century acknowledged the irrelevance of the “Biblical or Tennysonian English” of earlier translations and claimed that a translation by Philip Vellicat of Aeschylus’s plays “employs a simple and poetic English in modern idiom.” Nonetheless, its 1950 edition of The Iliad by E. V. Rieu (which Logue termed “mid-Windsor steady”) was a version in prose whose introductory chapter emphasized narrative, historical context, and character development but did not discuss the crucial decision to discard completely Homer’s poetic structure. This is as significant a choice as Pound made when he published his “translations” of poems such as “The Seafarer,” but because it was in accord with accepted academic practice, it did not arouse much controversy in contemporary journals.

Consequently, Richmond Lattimore’s admired and still very respected translation of the Iliad in 1951 was praised by William Arrowsmith as “the finest translation of Homer ever made into the English language” because Lattimore had accomplished the feat of accurately conveying the rhythms of the Greek hexameter in what he called “my own ‘poetical language,’ which is mostly the plain English of today.”

Robert Fitzgerald, whose 1961 version of Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1616) revolutionized the public’s perception of that work, claimed that Lattimore’s book was “so decisive that it is reasonable to foresee a century or so in which nobody will try again to put theIliad in English verse.” What he did not foresee was that the revolution in poetry on both shores of the Atlantic occasioned by the emergence of the New American Poetry was enlarging the conception of poetic possibility in ways that effectively broke down the boundaries which had restricted the art of translation more than most people realized.

Although some classically trained scholars had considerable reservations about Logue’s initial effort, Robert J. Forman noted that “the popular success of this version was so great . . . that Logue subsequently expanded this work” in War Music: an Account of Books 16-19 of Homer’s “Iliad” (1981), then Kings: An Account of Books 1 and 2 of Homer’s “Iliad” (1991) and The Husbands: An Account of Books 3 and 4 of Homer’s “Iliad” (1994).

Now Logue has moved beyond any semblance of...

(This entire section contains 2126 words.)

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a translation to a bold rewriting of the initial clash of forces of the Trojan War. His guiding strategy has been reduction, compaction, and reinvention, and his goals—as they have been from the start—are to reinvigorate the performative aspects of the epic and to compel an acknowledgment of the timelessness of the ancient struggle. In books following the Patrocleia (The Glory of Patroclus), Logue concentrated on the qualities of a hero for a postmodern world which has grown jaded to the point that individual heroism seems like an anachronism or has debased the “hero” into a mere “celebrity.” At the same time, he invested heroic warriors like Achilles with human tendencies that deepened their characters beyond the legendary near-caricatures that centuries of repetition had established. Logue’s vivid portrayal of battle scenes was designed to approximate a type of cinematic conception of reality, with rapid shifts in point of view from heroes to subsidiary characters to an omniscient narrator.

In All Day Permanent Red, Logue has followed Pound’s dictum “All history all the time” to conflate epochs so that the warring armies on the plains of Ilium are seen as fighting simultaneously with sixteenth century English soldiers at the Battle of Edgehill, American youths in the Civil War, Russian infantry resisting the invasion of Adolf Hitler’s army, and (as the title suggests) the wars raging across the globe in the twenty-first century. The title has at least a twofold meaning, recalling the color-coded hierarchy (red is highest) of terror alerts listed in the Homeland Security Advisory System of the United States government and the blood-soaked battlegrounds of any conflict. The color is also emblematic of the invocation at the beginning of the Iliad, in which the poet/singer calls upon the goddess for power to proclaim the passionate “Rage” of Achilles. Logue mentions that he took the title from a lipstick add he saw on a wall, and he may be consciously echoing the title of John Berger’s first collection of essays, Permanent Red: Essays in Seeing(1960).

The cover design depicts a European policewoman crouching behind a “Polis” van, pistol in hand, her gaze wary and rapt with anticipation. The photo appears to be a part of a strip of film, a freeze-frame arresting the action, as the poet does with the interposition of heightened language reflecting the intensity of the moment.

To try to match passages from Logue’s poem to the Homeric original is a pointless exercise, as Logue has not only introduced matter that does not exist in any form in the Greek manuscript but has also assembled his account from various parts of books 5 and 6, flavored the text with the references that he identifies in the notes, and embellished the action with the thoughts of characters that he has created.

The principle of reduction is reflected by the absence of the kind of memorable dramatic utterance that is so significant in the Iliad, notably in Logue’s vivid rendering of the dialogue between Patroclus and Hector at the conclusion of book 16. Logue has also removed the long catalogues of names and family lineages that occur frequently in the original, where they functioned as a sort of public record of a community akin to the registers in local municipalities. The aesthetic of compaction drives the tempo of the poem, forging a poetic style built on a vigorous, aggressive version of vernacular speech, elevated when appropriate by images of a cosmos beyond the warring men crafted with a more elegant but still forceful diction. This mode is employed to begin the book, where Logue describes the land between the Greek encampment on the shore and the walls of Troy: “Slope. Strip. Slope/ Right. Centre. Left./ Road. Track. Cross./ Ridge. Plain. Sea.”

The entire enterprise is informed by Logue’s reinvention of what is generally familiar to an audience that has read the Iliad at some time but which has only a general recollection of what is taking place. This is an English Iliad in a quite distinct sense, in that the attitudes of the characters, as well as that of the narrator, are built on a discernible British sensibility and express aspects of a postcolonial Britain. Lord Pandar (Logue’s take on Pandarus, whose arrow broke an uneasy truce) speaks to “his admirer Biblock” with the arrogance and surety of English nobility: “Biblock, my father manufactures chariots./ I have a dozen. Lovely things./ I cannot bear to lose my horses in this war./ No mind. My motto is: Start the day well. An early kill./ It gets one in the mood./ You know it was my shot that saved the war?”

This smug declaration, reeking with self-regard, is not unthinkable for an ancient Greek but is redolent of centuries of an island empire’s assumption of superiority. In contrast, the narrative tone shifts toward the gravitas of an English essayist such as John Ruskin (1819-1900) to suggest a meditative perspective with some distance from the action, as:

From time to time
Here on the agricultural
And poppy-dotted districts of the right-hand slope
Aeneas’ thousands occupy, his lords
Lighting each other’s pipes beside their wheels
Reckon the battle has as battles do
Found its own voice, that, presently far off
Blends with the sound of clear bright water as it falls
Over their covert’s mossy heights;
A peaceful dust-free place circled by poplar trees,
Good cover and green shade.

The aim of Logue’s revisioning is not only to make the work a commentary on human nature, war, and wrath but also to act in accordance with the intentions of an antique culture that depended on the verbal performance of its singers to assemble and sustain its historical memory. As Stanley Lombardo points out in the translator’s preface to his superb rendition of the Iliad (1997), the first written versions of the aural accumulations were “performance scripts,” and his task as a “scholar, translator and performer” is to bring the work “to life again.” He insists that “Performance is the beginning and end point of the Iliad,” while adding that “it is also a performance on the page for the silent reader.” Although he and Logue have produced radically different poems, they have both been keenly responsive to the need for a poem that does not seem dated or dust-covered. Logue even includes on the copyright page the injunction, “All performing rights in the work are fully protected and permission to perform it in whole or part must be obtained.” Whether this is in the spirit of the Greek bards is debatable, but it is an indication that poetry still has some value beyond the purely artistic.

While Logue fervently believes in the powers of language, he has a twenty-first century reader or listener in mind when he uses distinctly modern terminology. In a passage that effectively conveys the qualities of the Homeric simile, Logue writes:

Think of the moment when far from the land
Molested by a mile-a-minute wind
The ocean starts to roll, then rear, then roar
Over itself in rank on rank of waves
Their sides so steep their smoky crests so high
300,000 plunging tons of aircraft carrier
Dare not sport its beam.

Logue uses an excerpt from John Erickson’s The Road to Berlin: Stalin’s War with Germany(1983), in which the Greek epic and the epic struggle of World War II are fused or conflated in an eternal expression of martial valour:

King Ivan Kursk, 22:30 hours,
July 4th to 14th ’43, 7000 tanks engaged,
“ . . . he clambered up and pushed a stable-bolt
Into that Tiger-tank’s red-hot-machine-gun’s
And bent the bastard up. Woweee!”
Where would we be if he had lost?
Achilles? Let him sulk.

The endless war that Logue describes, already under way before the book begins (as Logue follows Horace’s advice to start in medias res) and only momentarily pausing at its close, is directly in the tradition of the Iliad, where book 18 characteristically continues, “The fight went on. . . . ” This is the “All Day” of his title, and in spite its vivid evocation of strife, it is ultimately a part of the human world linked to but separate from the sphere of the gods. When asked in an interview if war is a proper subject for poetry, Logue said, “It’s the way humans live. It’s what we do.” As a commentary on this proclivity for battle, he proclaims beyond the blood-drenched plain, a realm where nature’s grandeur—a modern equivalent perhaps for the Greek deities— remains untouched or removed:

cyclorama peaks
Whose snow became before the fire before the wheel, the
Below whose estuaries beneath an endless sky,
Sand bars and sabre grass, salt flats and travelling
Lead west, until, green in their shallow sea
That falls away into the Atlantic deeps
He sees the Islands of the West.
He who? Why, God, of course.
Who sighs before He looks
Back to the ridge that is, save for a million
Empty now.

Review Sources

Booklist 99, no. 15 (April 1, 2003): 1370.

National Review 55, no. 21 (November 10, 2003): 50-51.

The New Yorker 79, no. 15 (June 9, 2003): 103.

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 16 (April 21, 2003): 57.

The Virginia Quarterly Review 79, no. 4 (Autumn, 2003): 130.