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"I don't think my life and my works are really connected, except that they both happened to me"

Christopher Logue remembered.

In the winter of 2004, I spent two frosty mornings in Christopher Logue's study. I was an English teacher at one of his old schools, and had been asked to write a monograph about his life and work. I was nervous. I'd been told he was a difficult, rude man.

I thought we'd talk about War Music first - the modernist translation of the Iliad which many feel is his masterpiece. How, I asked, could he write so powerfully about war given his own time in the army was, in his words, "outstandingly inglorious" (he ended up in a military prison after boasting about selling Army paybooks)?

He fixed me with a penetrating gaze - the result of his blindness in one eye - and answered in the clipped, beautifully enunciated tone I'd heard on so many of his recordings: "I don't think my life and my works are really connected, except that they both happened to me."

It wasn't a great start for someone hoping to write an all-encompassing study of an artist. It sounded more defensive than true - and it was. As time went by I established a rapport with him. He realised how enamoured I was by his work, and little-by-little we began to unpick his initial response.

In terms of his art, Logue's story began when he returned to England from serving in the Second World War. By his standards, little happened at first. He worked as a clerk in London, and half-heartedly attempted suicide. Then his father died, and he wrote one of the greatest and least-appreciated elegies of the Twentieth Century.

"For My Father" opens in terrible, plodding iambs, and the opening invocation is a powerful combination of grief and artistic vulnerability, as he prays, like Tennyson, that a higher power might allow him to do his subject justice.

A year ago tonight my father died.
Slow on the year, you bells;
slow on the year
and, Master Sun....
Bequeath
some brief alliteration of your radiance to glint this work in words
that speak of ghosts.

It's pure lyricism, retrospectively coloured by the way he brings in reality. If the enjambments suggest Logue's struggling to get his words out, they only set us up for the comfort of his father's certainty:

Write what you like,
Do something to make other people laugh.
And if at nothing else - at you.

As a poet, Logue's job is to be 'truthless' - to embellish, to expand experience - but it's the unflinching honesty that makes the poem so moving. It makes the end all the more painful, as the sun he yearned for at the start sets, and bathos gives way to catharsis.

Facts fail. The nave grows dim.
They buried him in rain.
It cost my mother £50...
In this first dusk
I am alone on earth.

The death of Logue's father persuaded him to move to Paris. The city at that time would have been thrilling to a middle-class Catholic boy from the sticks - in his memoirs he writes of the "shops full of good things - the girls inventing rough chic". With the Scottish novelist Alexander Trocchi, Logue would be involved in one of the most fascinating and important post-war literary publications: Merlin magazine.

The publication has gained retrospective significance - it published many of the last great names of modernism, among them Genet, Sartre and Beckett. The magazine brought in little money and was saved from extinction by a publisher named Maurice Girodias. In return he required a favour of Merlin's writers. From Logue's memoirs: "'Let me be candid,' he said. 'I require simple stories of a wholly pornographic kind...I want constant, heavy, serious fucking.'" Logue struggled with his novel, but his collection of bawdy poems, under the nom de plume of Count Palmero Vicarion, was a small success. It was full of lines like this:

Said the Nabob of Trincomalee
"Young man, do you far when you pee?"
I replied with some wit:
"Do you belch when you shit?"
I think that was one up for me.

I told Logue I thought these poems were important. "Just a book of obscene rhymes," he said. But they're the first time your humour takes centre stage, I replied: and ultimately humour is the thing that sustains your poetry. He liked this. "It's about my father. Not to have humour present in what you're doing, even if what you're doing is serious is, I think, a mistake. Otherwise literary objectivity vanishes. You are serious. Literature is serious. But it's only literature, and you are only you."

While the other Merlinites were subscribing wholeheartedly to Alexander Trocchi's dictum that there must be "a moral stance from which the reader sees... and perhaps, becomes converted to your coherent reasons," Logue was far more uncertain about the power of art, and even less so by 1953, when Merlin published two extracts from a declaration made by Dr Miklos Nyiszli, a Hungarian doctor, which explained in detail what happened in the Nazi death camps. They may have been the first versions published in English. Logue would later respond:

Beauty indeed it was
yet truthless beauty seemed,
after the oven door
closed on the worth in war [...]

Take Rudy Kipling's If:
think of its being read aloud to buoy the hearts of those
the ovens fed.

What were his thoughts on this issue now? War Music is a beautiful poem..."Yeah, maybe that's all it is. No. I don't think that. I think there's always a difference between what's happening on the page and what's going on between the reader's ears. Good art is always going to lead you back into people's lives, it's going to give you a framework that will make you think, make you act."

Logue's first collection of poems was poor and sold badly. Depression lead to a breakdown. He travelled to Perpignan and resolved to swallow some Tuinal capsules, having rowed a boat away from the shore. Trocchi hastily boarded a train and managed to stop him in the act. From Logue's memoirs: "The food on the SNCF's grandes lignes was cooked and served with style. Alex ordered fine wine...As we ate the tears ran down my cheeks. The food was so delicious, the movement of the train so comforting...I wished this moment would last forever."

Merlin died a natural death, and Logue moved to London in 1956. (In 2003 a novel Alexander Trocchi had "dirtied up" for Girodias, Young Adam (1954), was made into a film starring Ewan McGregor.)

Back in Britain, Logue soon became a friend of Kenneth Tynan - together they went to see Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court Theatre. He would later write: "It was extraordinary that in a theatrical world...where teas were served during matinee intervals and the national anthem was played...a loud-mouthed boor should be allowed to appear at all, let alone to rant about class, money and sex...The acceptance of poverty, class obedience, unquestioning loyalty to Crown and Church, the power of blind, bad patriotism...had been changed, for ever."

In Paris, Logue had flirted with Marxism, but it had not infiltrated his poetry. Now his class consciousness was awakening. It's his wilfulness and commitment to artistic objectivity in spite of this that makes his work during this time so exciting. Take his response when the left-wing magazine Tribune asked writers to explain why they were going to vote Labour. Bored with his own idealism, Logue produced "I shall vote Labour", which contains the famous lines "I shall vote Labour because if I do not vote Labour/my balls will drop off... I shall vote Labour because/there are too few cars on the road... I shall vote Labour because/deep in my heart/I am a Conservative."

A silly poem, I suggested to him, but serious - a critique of socialist idealism - given its historical context. "True to their word, Tribune printed it," he adds in his memoirs. Perhaps his grounding came from his personal life - he told me his neighbours and friends were London traders who did well for themselves in the post-war years. "Not right wing by political conviction...right wing by nature. Deeply small 'c' conservative. They weren't interested in the altruism of a white middle-class boy."

This is why their presence lends such beauty to his memoirs - just as art can transcend class, so the friendship between Logue and his neighbours extends beyond ideology. When the poet's left-wing tendencies land him in jail, they are quick to support him: "If your feet went in Burma, you fucking died. I look after my feet. You look after yours. Right?" At the very end of his memoirs we hear that one of his friends has died having buried his walking boots at his favourite spot in the Lake District. His last word is on how people behave: not their beliefs.

Yet at the same time, Logue was working with the likes of theatre director Lindsay Anderson on art which merged genres. He and his contemporaries genuinely began to feel their work could create a free and classless society. He told me: "Anderson had the biggest effect - his confidence that you could do things that could be acceptable in public. He put me on to read poems between films at the National Film Theatre - 600 people. They hadn't come to see me, but when Lindsay put me on they just thought it was normal."

One of his greatest successes at this time was Red Bird (1958), in which translations of Pablo Neruda's poems were set to the music of drummer/composer Tony Kinsey and pianist/composer Bill le Sarge. "Red Bird is good, isn't it?" he said. "I didn't realise how lucky I'd been."

It's more than good. Any literary analysis is hard-pressed to capture the understated, captivating effect brought to the poetry by a slow four-beat rhythm on a cymbal, a lumbering bass line and a mournful, wailing trumpet. Then Logue's weary voice over the top, painstakingly in time to the beat:

Love's not so brief that I forget her
thus. Nevertheless, I shall forget her, and,
alas, as if by accident, a day will pass in which
I shall not think about her even more.

On the sleeve of one his collections of recordings, Logue writes, "Being read to is one of life's pleasures." I pointed out that it was true, as long as he was doing the reading. He responded: "You've got to be able to read well, and so many poets pay no attention. They think they can just get up and do it, but they can't. I really think this is quite important - if you can't read verse well, then why bother with the verse?"

He did similar work for Peter Cook's satirical nightclub The Establishment, writing lyrics for songs delivered by Annie Ross. "A year's a long time for a nightclub show," he told me. "But just for a while there was that sort of energy of the eighteenth century coffee shop." And in 1969 Logue perhaps took his willingness to transcend form to its extremes, reading to 100,000 rock fans at the Isle of Wight Festival.

But Red Bird wasn't necessarily Logue's finest piece of writing. He was a member of Betrand Russell's "Committee of 100" who marched to Aldermaston. "To my Fellow Artists" is a poem about nuclear war but is also art as social action (it was printed and distributed on posters). Again, he returns to the impotence of the artist in the face of their subject matter:

Consider, my fellows,
how all the posh goodies inside our museums,
stones, books, things we have stolen,
think of them turned to instant dust
one dusk between six and six ten.

To the humanist we march through time, picking up things we have discarded, recycling and progressing as a result. The idea of a nuclear weapon is nightmarish. And so syntax is twisted, as is the abstract notion of patriotism into the specific, murderous and misogynistic.

Think desolation
and create desolation because of it,
is called mad.

Thus the Ripper and Christie
Thought of whores.
Thus they think of our country.

Today it might sound a little hysterical. But in 1961 Logue, with 32 others (including the elderly Russell), was given a month in jail as a "Civil" prisoner, for being in CND. In court, Russell said: "Your worship, I came here to save your life. But having heard what you have to say, I do not think that the end justifies the means."

During a discussion about War Music, I mentioned Logue's use of modern martial metaphors, such as Napoleon, Rommel and the bomb, to describe the action between the Greeks and Romans - at which point he interjected: "It's funny that you group those three together. Napoleon and Rommel, perhaps, but not the bomb." Why? "Because the bomb is strangely outside military things. It is the military who detonate these things, but it passes much more into the realm of politics."

In the 1960s, Logue was still years away from finding acclaim with War Music. He spent much of the next decade depressed - as he writes: "Then things improved. I met Rosemary Hill. She had a most beautiful smile. Open, friendly, sceptical." Without realising, he let slip a charming aside during our discussion on humour in literature: "Sometimes Rosemary reads Dickens to me - you just find yourself bursting with laughter. The description of music halls, of people struggling for the best seats - it's just wonderful."

I stayed in touch with Logue for a while after our meeting. I received a couple of beautiful hand-written cards and spoke on the phone a few times, but I got the impression he was already bored of me. Then one afternoon a postman knocked at my door with a large brown tube. I opened it and inside was one of Logue's poster poems from the 1960s, with a note of thanks inside.

That was Christopher Logue. Prickly, certainly. Highly impatient - by his own admission. And beneath all that, a kind and sympathetic man. It made him the artist he was.

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National & TLS. He lives in London and tweets @aljwhite.

Tags:poetry