Frederick Seidel’s long devotion to Savile Row suits, Cleverley shoes, Ducati motorcycles, and Patek Philippe watches—accoutrements of the one percent, or at worst the two percent—has made him seem, though he grew up among bobby soxers, a Beau Brummell past his sell-by date. If at eighty he’s finally aged into himself, he’s a man no less at odds with the world. Seidel lives in a bespoke suit of amused rage and disappointment.
The poems in Widening Income Inequality, a phrase much in the news (and a splendid name for a grunge band), display Seidel’s poems at their most fetid and triumphant, their subjects often nipped from the headlines, phrases strewn like salt on an open wound, with a strong dose of political incorrectness added.
And the woman spread out on my enormous Duce desk looks teeny.
The desk becomes an altar, sacred. The woman’s naked.
I call the woman teeny only because I need the rhyme.
The shock of naked looks huge on top of a desktop and the slime.
Duce! Duce! Duce! is what girls get wet with.
This one’s perhaps the wettest one’s ever met with.
It’s hard to shock readers these days. Though Seidel’s late poems court a blend of crassness and bad taste, wearing a boater and toting a bouquet, he’s still the little boy—a little boy of eighty—who’s learned a few bad words and wants to try them out. Short lines are followed by lines longer than the Lackawanna, syntax is pretzeled into shape; then there’s the embarrassing but delicious admission that “teeny” isn’t the right word at all—it’s there just to catch the rhyme.
Seidel decided in mid-career to channel Ogden Nash. (That might have bewildered Nash more than anyone.) Nash’s light verse, mostly forgotten now, often made the reader wait for a rhyme devised by some contortionist—sublime only because it was ridiculous. His “In the Vanities/ No one wears panities” compares favorably with Seidel’s “In my astronomy, I lick her cunt/ Until the nations say they can’t make war no more./ Her orgasm is violunt./ I get the maid to mop the floor.” Once or twice in this collection, Seidel becomes a latter-day Byron (who, after all, rhymed “intellectual” and “henpecked you all”), but mostly it’s Ogden Nash all the way down.
Seidel has invented a world—a world half Fellini, half fantasized by some creepy uncle with a taste for porn, overpriced haberdashery, and dirty jokes. In his lurid snapshots of the rich and shameless, Seidel has become a late-blooming Weegee, ready with his Speed Graphic and a pocketful of flashbulbs. The bon ton of Manhattan and elsewhere hasn’t had such an anatomist since Wharton.
Still, many of these poems are no more plotted than a train wreck: “Pussy Days” begins with contact lenses, followed by an odd moment in the Toyko subway, an incident in Bombay, tropical disease, a beautiful woman named Shireen, the Shah of Iran, the Shah’s cancer, a parenthetical remark about the boss of Fiat, back to the Shah, then to the surgeon Michael DeBakey, tropical disease again, Hemingway in Paris, A Farewell to Arms, French riot police in 1960, the Algerian War, and at last Newark Airport. Having dipped into the swamps of memory, the poems often dredge up a load of muck.
On occasion this method, if it amounts to method, makes me want to rethink everything I dislike about Seidel. He watches a model train in a Christmas display:
It circles the department store’s Christmas tree all day,
Into and out of a tunnel made of papier-mâché.
It’s a passenger train, but something queer,
A freight train caboose brings up the rear.
That’s not the only thing.
It’s a freight train with a yellow star,
And has a Michelin yellow-star dining car.
Sleeper compartments under sweeping-searchlight guard towers.
Hissing Zyklon B gas showers.
This dream vision, superimposing the Holocaust on children’s toys, is as brutal and terrifying as Anthony Hecht’s “ ‘More Light! More Light!’ ” or “The Book of Yolek.” It would be, that is, if not for the penultimate stanza, which shows Seidel’s compulsion to wreck what he creates:
In God’s department store at Christmastime are many choo-choos.
Chuff-chuffing to their death are many Jew-Jews.
And then there are the Hutus,
And Tutsis vastly murdering them, producing Hutu boo-hoos.
The descent into bathos is rarely so steep.
Seidel began as a follower of Lowell in Life Studies mode, an imitator so canny you couldn’t always tell them apart. He’s become the ultimate Peck’s Bad Boy, not by drinking or drugging or whoring too much, but by setting down what others think but wouldn’t dare express—or don’t think and are sorry someone does. His poems begin like car bombs (the real thing, not the Millennial drink), and he has a sense of discordia concors that would have shocked poor Sam Johnson. Seidel is perverse, ludicrous, exhibitionistic, goofy, and so delighted by schoolyard vulgarity he has made it an Olympic event. He’s a man who thinks it clever to rhyme “stool cards,” “prison guards,” “stool bards,” “drool hards,” and “school yards.” Byron wept! Yet if you don’t read him, for the rude fancy as well as the occasional flights of terror, you’ll have missed something crudely eccentric—no, carnivalesque—in contemporary poetry.
It’s hard to know what Maureen N. McLane’s Mz N: the serial wants to be, it tries so hard to be something. Next year with any luck we’ll have Mz N: the movie, then Mz N: the cookbook, and, if the sequels come hot and fast, eventually Mz N: for dummies. This breezy little book lives under the Falstaffian shadow of Berryman’s Dream Songs, though Mz N is just a scarecrow imitation of Henry. Many poets have tried to counterfeit Berryman’s crackpot sequence, three-fifths brilliant and two-fifths mere sludge. The results have shown how difficult it is to imitate the inimitable.
McLane’s ragged lines, often bobbed to a word or two, are only occasionally wrapped around a subject; really she’s happiest nattering on with no destination in sight. The titles are not much help—“Mz N Trans,” “Mz N Meadow,” “Mz N Monster,” “Mz N Thirteenth Floor,” and so through a clatter of identities to places even Rand McNally would have trouble finding. The titles are just hooks on which to hang a jazzy monologue (“Mz N Hermit” opens with a hermit thrush), and often the only grounding lies in literature. The poems are as chock-a-block with allusion as Eliot, but a poet whose lines are rarely more appealing than day-old oatmeal might be cautioned against throwing in, like a handful of raisins, the “Poet’s self-centred/ seclusion” (Shelley), “look into thy heart” (Sidney, sort of), “why not say what happened?” (Lowell), or “with how sad steps/ o moon” (a triple play, Sidney to Wordsworth to Larkin). The echoes offer a devastating criticism of the language in which the poems are cast.
In some ways these rags of poems are strung together, like T-shirts on a clothesline, by Wordsworth’s “growth of a poet’s mind,” as the second title of The Prelude had it. The great panjandrum of the Romantic era tried to write in the “real language of men”; and Mz N in plucky imitation offers a splash of Millennial slang here (“haters,” “why don’t you/ chill out”), comic obscenity there (“a hermit thrush/ says fuck all”), with scattered outbreaks of contemporary theory (“a classed grid/ a kind of massive erection of the self/ amidst the machinery/ of institutions”). I have trouble disliking a book that in a few lines goes from “Those that have the power/ to hurt and will do none” (Shakespeare, also misquoted) to “death metal.”
Mz N’s preferred mode is angsty free association, if association is ever free. She brings up Mary Shelley:
What should we do
Après le déluge
Victor left Geneva
Alien now alien in his natal home
The Monster would have left
for South America with his mate
but for her murder & his ice rage
Mary and Shelley left
for France with Claire
Then they left for Italy
It’s hard to see the point of what seems torn from a page of term-paper notes.
In Mz N, a lot of things get said, or “sd”: Hume, Arendt, Brecht, Gertrude Stein, even Beyoncé, among others, have things to say. Perhaps Robert Creeley can be blamed for “sd,” blamed as well for the frantic short lines, weary concentration on trivia, and prosaic blandness.Mz N might be arch satire on the aimlessness of contemporary verse, but that would give it too much credit. The intelligence beneath the lines is never in focus.
When her sister asks her to be a surrogate mother, Mz N’s response is curiously affectless:
This was intriguing
this was frightening
as there had been no babies
come thru her
& to have a baby
not her baby
seemed a strong hard thing
to split the body for.
(Then, more pungently, “Shitting/ a pumpkin/ is what a friend/ of Shulamith Firestone/ said in the late ’60s/ it was like.”) However much these poems talk about thinking, or think about talking, they’re almost immune to the life beneath.
The old resentments and flyweight anguish of these underdeveloped scenes (the subtitle’s subtitle is “A Poem-in-Episodes”) might have been better diagnosed than embodied. McLane is so quiveringly sensitive to poetry, as her autobiographical criticism in My Poets made plain, she might think that dumbing down her work makes it performance art; but Mz N lacks the bravado of exposure or bravura language of the Dream Songs. McLane is a knowing poetry critic and Romantics scholar with two earlier books of poems not so unprepossessing. Much as I like the frenzied sprezzatura of these poems, the desperation never quite followed up the rare flashes of description (“maples liquefy/ into a queer green flame”), in the end reading them is like being trapped in an elevator with a meth head.
Les Murray writes poems galumphing, a bit tone deaf, out at elbows and knees. Waiting for the Past sounds like, not verse post-Eliot, post-Lowell, but the lost poems of McGonagall. You can read pages of Murray and wonder if he’s a poet at all; then your eye lights on a passage so strange, so breaknecked and roughnecked, that you’d mistake a pile of broken glass for diamonds in the rough:
the steel houses it threw
all over Hindmarsh Island,
the barrages de richesse,
film culture, horseradish farms,
steamboats kneading heron-blue
lake, the river full again.
Upstream, the iron cattle bridges.
There have been very few poets who could turn pastoral description into encaustic, or think through landscape like Wordsworth—Murray makes Australia seem the next county over from the Lake District. The description is rarely ornament. It would be beneath him not to write with a purpose in mind.
Purpose, of course, is double edged. Murray’s books suffer from long stretches of rabid hectoring, poems like scripts from a reality show called Demagogues Go Wild. He has little time for the Outback bucko going walkabout with his billycan, while sharing his cocksure traits—a Ned Kelly rage over obscure grievances, distaste for culture with a capital C, and of course hatred of nobs and experts of all sorts.
Such rants spiral into the sheer blithering of “Persistence of the Reformation”:
four hundred years of ship-spread
jihad at first called
the Thirty Years War
buff coats and ships’ cannon
the Christian civil war
of worldwide estrangement
freemasons, side massacres
the nun-harem, Old Red Socks
wives “turning” for husbands
those forbidden their loves
bitter chews of an old plug
from Ireland and Britain.
A lot of history has been put into the op-ed trash compactor here. Old Red Socks was Ian Paisley’s name for the pope, but when a poet’s shouting in your ear you don’t want him to stop to explain. You just want him to stop.
There’s a kind of Murray garble-speak—sentences malformed, metaphors skew-jawed:
The oblique rudder lever mis-thumbed
against its chisel opposite
crimps awry, gets re-occluded
biting corners off middle dabs.
Give up? A nailclipper cutting toenails. The title spells it out, but that’s not always the case.
Some lines that seem mysterious, however, need only the twist of a pocket-watch key:
Cervantes. This one-strum pueblo
seen beyond acorn banksia
along a Benedictine surf—
never the Oz end of a cable, though.
How Spanish was the Indian Ocean?
This appears perfectly impenetrable unless you know that Cervantes is a small town north of Perth on the Indian Ocean. A ship named the Cervantes was wrecked close by. Acorn banksia (orange banksia) is a tree, or further north a shrub, with large orange flower spikes. For “one strum,” perhaps read “hick”; for Benedictine, “mostly silent.” The cable would presumably be transoceanic.
Murray shows a beautiful recklessness in his subjects. It’s not just that humani nihil a me alienum puto must be tattooed on his forearm, but that he writes about things few poets would bother with: a cargo plane full of horses, English as a second language, the expansion of universities, a Bollywood video in an Indian restaurant, a girl who lets a boy cut off her finger. Consider Murray’s titles: “Nuclear Family Bees,” “Tap Dogs Music,” “The Privacy of Typewriters,” “Diabetica,” “Big Rabbit at the Verandah,” “Eating from the Dictionary”—the capaciousness of his imagination is often a little eaten away by the trivia it prefers.
If Murray is a Demosthenes with pebbles still in his mouth, if the poems are too often factory-floor leavings swept up with a push broom, if he’s all too capable of overbearing images (chickens “crying in tin hell-ships/ warmed all night by shit-haloed bulbs”) or lines that need a cia codebook (“Balconious kung fu of Shanghai,” “all that axed splinter cookery”), that’s just Murray being Murray, though I sometimes wish he were Murray less often. He’s a non-pareil like Whitman—and about as much of a rough as that autodidact Brooklyn editor. Murray possesses many of the qualities of an extraordinary poet, but the talents are so frequently mismanaged you’re surprised he’s a poet at all. Non-pareils are like that.
Melissa Green published a gorgeous, flawed book in 1987, drenched in intoxicating description that concealed any intimations of damaged personality. Then she vanished. The Squanicook Eclogues should have been the beginning of a stunning career, but Green spent the following year in a mental ward. Apart from a memoir published in 1994 and a chapbook issued in a small edition almost a decade ago—I had to bribe a man with lunch to get a copy—she has lived on the margins of poetry, almost forgotten. When a writer disappears, unless he’s J. D. Salinger, no one goes looking.
Magpiety is the wretched refuse of a career cut short, or cut to pieces.The Squanicook Eclogues looks as gorgeous as it did thirty years ago, poems drifting along in deft alexandrines, surviving on the ghost of rhyme:
After a blustery, fretful March, the fields have yawned,
Tossing off their goosedown coverlets to thaw.
In airing upstairs farmhouse rooms, the sunlight paints
A sudden gold leaf on the dresser drawers and wall.
In his oldest jacket, I wade the oxen road,
And under my boots, a gingery leaf-fall breeds new growth.
In the midst of this Keatsian drowse, it’s easy to overlook the resourceful meter or the rhymes that go beyond even Wilfred Owen, letting a couple of consonants or a vowel compose the echo. However lovely the layers of impasto, the sequence is a fever dream that leaves no recollection of what was said. When you return to the poems a second time, a third, what seemed an argument is just a series of beguiling images, the traffic of sensibility without sense—or perhaps where sense lies locked away. What she borrowed from Derek Walcott is clearer now.
The early poems nose along in a mood, offering arpeggios and variations like a young Mozart. Here and there something harsher emerges, showing how much she needed a polemical angel like early Lowell, who planed away at the world, rarely able to resist a savage point for more than a line or two. She swallowed him, like other influences, without becoming him:
Does broken Carthage most resemble death,
or do those workmen on the roof who lift
a horizontal beam, stripped to the waist,
still forge the final crosspiece of the West?
That might have been an outtake from Lord Weary’s Castle, but the cautions of hope suggest how often her poems are a defensive withdrawal from her sources.
Green never lost the desire to write, however much circumstance conspired against her. The fragments of unpublished books collected here—poems mourning Joseph Brodsky or deriving from “Tom O’Bedlam’s Song,” a sequence about Heloise and Abélard, a clutch of poems she thought would be her last—reveal a mind dark with longing, driving toward extremities of expression, or language. This is Heloise:
They dolved my mother’s cophin when I was five.
But at Argenteuil, I had a hundred mothers.
The nuns nantled me with kisses, governed me
with love, fed me on sculsh and sugared flawns.
For these lines not to be precious is a triumph. She says of the sequence, “I nearly had to invent a language,” and at “nearly” the reader’s ears should twitch—the words are English, but antique: dolve, a variant of “delve” (here, “to put . . . into the ground by digging,” OED); cophin, coffin; nantle, to lift up; sculsh, rubbish; flawn, a custard or cheesecake.
Green often lets ideas run away with her. There’s scarcely a sequence here, however truncated, that would not have been better even shorter. These haunting, haunted poems, the lines often airy as feathers, are scarred by psychic damage, by a life not fully lived—the imagination never finds a way fully to integrate itself, and the poems remain postcards from the abyss. In their scattershot focus, their trawlings from manuscripts lying in drawers, they do not avoid the fraught condition of their writing (she once almost lost a foot to infection), particularly in the valedictory poems:
The reeds are writing their wills.
Wind has given up braiding the white wisps of the salt hay’s hair.
There’s no telling when the weather will turn. There’s [sic] isn’t a place
in the world where I’m allowed to say—I’m tired to death of life.
Magpiety is not a selected poems in the usual sense. Like some whimsy of Borges, these fractioned books may never be whole. I’d guessed that “magpiety” was a portmanteau, letting “magpie” draw too near “piety,” but not that it was first used by Thomas Hood in 1832. That catches her peculiar blend of chatty seriousness marked by touches of affectation, or affection. It’s almost as if Green had been on a desert island for the past thirty years, or perhaps two centuries, with palm leaves for paper and ink made of soot and fish blood. Now she’s back.
Marianne Moore is the most underrated of the great moderns. Frost, Pound, Eliot, Stevens, and Williams attracted critics galore, and each poet proved a major influence on the poetry of the next century. Pound was a maker of manifestos—but the poetry of the other men became manifestos of their own. Moore, whose ambitions were more cryptic, was such an unlikely poet, her subjects so absurd, her poems so off-kilter and difficult to grasp, she never had nearly such effect. Others attracted disciples by the hundred, Moore only a few—like Elizabeth Bishop—as singular as herself.
During the years of her greatest popularity, in the 1950s and ’60s, Moore was writing her weakest work, having become a poetry mascot dragged out whenever the public needed to be reminded how peculiar poets were. Though she was asked to write liner notes for a spoken-word album by Cassius Clay and to name Ford Motor Company’s latest showboat (eventually baptized the Edsel, through no fault of hers), such acceptance might as well be called refusal—these honors had nothing to do with her poems. Quirky poets rarely establish schools of poetry, at least not since Byzantium. Feeding her reputation for oddity was a way of denying how radical and original a poet she was.
Moore was thirty-three when friends in England secretly arranged to print her first book, Poems (1921). She had not been eager to publish and was appalled when the volume arrived in the mail unannounced. (Many reviews were unkind or uncomprehending.) Three years later, the editors of the Dial convinced her to publish a second book, incorporating most of the early poems. Moore’s work attracted conspirators—the editors promptly awarded the book, Observations, the annual Dial prize (given in 1922 to The Waste Land). That had been their plan all along. The reissue of the book now is an occasion to mark the work of a woman who, as great poets do, redefined the poetic.
Reading Moore’s poetry is like getting slapped in the face with a frozen haddock. Who else would begin a poem about roses,
You do not seem to realize that beauty is a liability rather than
an asset—that in view of the fact that spirit creates form we
are justified in supposingthat you must have brains,
or one titled (her titles sometimes stood as the first line) “England,”
with its baby rivers and little towns, each with its abbey or its
with voices—one voice perhaps, echoing through the transept—the
criterion of suitability and convenience,
or a poem called “The Labors of Hercules,” “To popularize the mule, its neat exterior/ expressing the principle of accommodation reduced to a minimum”? Often you have to read her lines two or three times to take in the subtleties. Her poems are a triumph of empirical passion.
This is the poetry of an actuary from the sub-basement of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company or some browbeaten minion crawling from the archives of Faber and Faber, a poet part Harvard professor, part safari guide, part fossil hunter. Poets are their influences; but Moore arrived full blown, possessing, like Whitman, only a scrappy relation to the poetry that came before. When you think of her precursors, you think, Darwin.
Moore never had a lyrical ear—she wrote in a thorny prose broken into the syllabics of intricate stanzas. Her rhymes, at first embarrassingly amateurish, later became far more daring, half-hidden like overgrown wayposts. Though her tightly bound family was fond of joky pet-names (Moore was usually Rat, but also Weaz, Pidge, and Fangs), her poems lacked warmth or sentiment. The modernists were more personal than critics once thought, but their tone (except for Frost and Williams) could be Arctic or bookish. Moore’s habit of dropping lines from books or newspaper articles into her poems may seem like Cubist collage; but her thinking was provoked by the stray trash of reading—like Pound, who wrote the Adams Cantos with The Works of John Adams propped open on his desk. She was at home among discards. Consider her abecedary of animals—chameleon, dock rat, jerboa, pangolin, paper nautilus, snail, wood weasel. One of her animals was a steam roller.
The animal kingdom offered Moore a realm from which human behavior could be observed without intimacy. A poet who revealed emotion by displacement, she knew herself perfectly well when she wrote, “ ‘The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;/ not in silence, but restraint.’ ” Almost inevitably, she attributed the lines to someone else. You learn about Moore from the way she observes: the “elephants with their fog-colored skin,” the mussel shell “opening and shutting itself like// an/ injured fan,” or, from what is possibly a self-portrait, “your cheeks, those rosettes/ of blood on the stone floors of French châteaux.” No one could have invented her; she had to invent herself.
Linda Leavell, who wrote a biography of the poet, has used the text of the second edition of Observations. The first had been produced quickly; after it sold out, Moore made one radical revision, one addition, and numerous small cuts and corrections, especially to punctuation. (She was an inveterate reviser whose fiddling bedevils critics even now.) The introduction, unfortunately, tries to drag Moore into the twenty-first century by the scruff of her neck, touting her as a poet who could “look beyond racial and national stereotypes,” a “socially engaged poet, whose views about multicultural tolerance, biodiversity, . . . and individual liberty we are only now beginning to appreciate.” Really? Moore would have laughed in her face—or scurried away, shaking her head. Had Aristotle somehow been transported to New York in the Coolidge years and happened across Observations, he would have said of this poetry always at right angles to itself, “There, there is poetry as I understand it.”
Christopher Logue died in 2011, his translation of the Iliad unfinished. War Music collects the shattered parts of the greatest modern translation of Homer, on which Logue labored in fits and starts for half a century. Though often true to the spirit of the poem, the translation radically revises the details, giving us an Iliad more vulgar, more brutish—and breathtakingly up to date. Pope, who reinvented Homer for the Augustans, looks like a piker in comparison.
Logue took a page from Pound, whose Cathay and Homage to Sextus Propertius gave poets license to alter an original wholesale. As Samuel Johnson remarked, “We must try its effect as an English poem; that is the way to judge of the merit of a translation.” Boswell, in the same passage from his life of Johnson, says about Pope’s Homer, “The truth is, it is impossible perfectly to translate poetry. In a different language it may be the same tune, but it has not the same tone. Homer plays it on a bassoon; Pope on a flagelet.” Logue plays Homer with a bullhorn.
War Music starts like a film treatment:
Picture the east Aegean sea by night,
And on a beach aslant its shimmering
Upwards of 50,000 men
Asleep like spoons beside their lethal Fleet.
Now look along that beach, and see
Between the keels hatching its western dunes
A ten-foot-high reed wall faced with black clay
Split by a double-doored gate;
Then through the gate a naked man
Run with what seems to break the speed of light
Across the dry, then damp, then sand invisible
Beneath inch-high waves that slide
Over each other’s luminescent panes;
Then kneel among those panes, burst into tears.
That’s Achilles. The characters are everywhere rich with subtle attention. In a later scene, Hera and Athena approach. The gods turn around to see “(Steadying her red-sepal hat with the russet-silk flutes)/ Creamy-armed Hera with teenaged Athene/ (Holding their scallop-edged parasol high)/ As they wobble their way down the dunes,/ Shouting.”
Donald Carne-Ross, the classicist and bbc producer who goaded Logue into tackling the poem, said in his foreword to Logue’s Patrocleia (1963) that the poet was “far less ‘civilized’ ” than Homer. Indeed, he’s scarcely civil at all—Logue’s gods are squabbling and vengeful ninnies; Agamemnon a high-handed tyrant, the Trump of his day; Achilles a petulant man-boy. No one comes off well, and the reader is reminded, despite the modern exaggerations, what a subtle psychologist Homer was.
Logue’s Iliad is both contracted and accelerated. He’s capable of metaphors soaked in finesse and penetration: “when the armies met, they paused,/ And then they swayed, and then they moved/ Much like a forest making its way through a forest”; Hector’s “spear’s tip flickers in the smoky light/ Like the head of a crested adder over fern.” Logue also delighted in grating anachronism. Still, it would be overly prissy to give up Ajax “grim underneath his tan as Rommel after ’Alamein”; Diomedes “brimming with homicidal joy”; or Achilles:
Observe his muscles as they move beneath his skin,
His fine, small-eared, investigative head,
His shoulders’ bridge, the deep sweep of his back
Down which (plaited with Irish gold)
His never-cut redcurrant-coloured hair
Hangs in a glossy cable till its tuft
Brushes the combat-belt gripping his rump.
The description, however out of place (Irish gold in ancient Greece?), is brutally effective.
When Logue writes, “It was so quiet in Heaven that you could hear/ The north wind pluck a chicken in Australia,” the reader might be forgiven for wondering how many chickens lived Down Under three thousand years ago. But who would want to miss seeing a deadly arrow “float on/ Over the strip for a beat, a beat; and then/ Carry a tunnel the width of a lipstick through Quist’s neck.” (Logue frequently had his way with Homeric names—Troy’s bit characters seem to have wandered in from the Klingon Empire.) An Uzi here, a fighter plane there, some bread trucks trundling along—all remind us of our distance from Homer, and oddly sometimes our nearness, too. Men still kill each other hand to hand.
Logue knew no Greek, like Pound and Lowell translating piggy-back on the translations of others. That may seem akin to using a glove box to handle radioactive isotopes, but the method offers great freedom in exchange for loss of fidelity. Whoever Homer was, if he was anyone at all, he inherited a poetic form and a hoard of phrases from what may have been half a millennium of bardic singers. The Iliad was the work of centuries, with a jumble of arms and armor never seen on a battlefield together. The epic was likely no closer to the original than Hamlet had an ancient society of Shakespeare fanatics preserved the play in public recitals, knowing only iambic pentameter, the major incidents, and phrases lodged in memory. Logue has given us piecemeal, from the burnt scrolls of Herculaneum or the rubbish dumps at Oxyrhynchus, an Iliad Homer would still have recognized as his own.
1Widening Income Inequality, by Frederick Seidel; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 118 pages, $24.
2Mz N: the serial: A Poem-in-Episodes, by Maureen N. McLane; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 116 pages, $24.
3Waiting for the Past, by Les Murray; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 81 pages, $24.
4Magpiety: New and Selected Poems, by Melissa Green; Arrowsmith, 144 pages, $20 (paper).
5Observations, by Marianne Moore, edited by Linda Leavell; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 119 pages, $16 (paper).
6War Music: An Account of Homer’s Iliad, by Christopher Logue; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 341 pages, $28.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 10, on page 59
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