A howl of disapproval
Harold Pinter Faber & Faber, 24pp, £5
Just over ten years ago, not long after the first Gulf war, I started working for the free-speech magazine Index on Censorship. One day a letter arrived at the office from Harold Pinter, containing the text of a poem he had written in response to that con-flict. It had, he said, been turned down by the London Review of Books, the Guardian, the Observer and the Independent. The implication was that work that criticised US foreign policy was unwelcome to the mainstream press; that Pinter was, in short, being censored and Index should do something about it.
"Hallelujah!/It works./We blew the shit out of them.//We blew the shit right back up/their own ass/And out their fucking ears . . ." his poem began. There was considerable division among the staff over whether Index should publish it. Not because of its subject matter or the use of four-letter words (though this caused some concern - Index had just lost a major grant because it had published the word "cunt"), but because of its quality as poetry. It occurred to me that the newspaper editors who had rejected it had perhaps pleaded moral cowardice in preference to telling the great man that his poem wasn't very good.
In the event, our editor, Andrew Graham-Yooll, decided to publish it, alongside an interview with Pinter in which he detailed the history of its rejection. For the newspapers, the use of "fuck" gave serious pause for thought (indeed most papers are still wary of using it). The Guardian's then literary editor pleaded that his was "a family newspaper"; the Observer admitted that members of staff were divided over whether to publish and that "many readers would be offended".
Pinter rightly argued that the language used was justified by the subject matter and that the offence caused by seeing the word "fuck" in print was nothing compared to that caused by the sight of charred and broken bodies which had lately been littering the Iraqi desert. In truth, the language shouldn't have posed any problems in a poem. But this poem was more akin to a piece of journalism or political propaganda (albeit one with short, heavily indented lines). The Observer's editor, before getting cold feet, initially planned to publish it on the leader page.
The poem, "American Football", is included in this very brief collection - one should perhaps rather call it a sprinkling - of eight short poems and one speech on the subject of war, democracy and the eternal perfidy of Uncle Sam. The other poems are similarly visceral: "well-dressed creatures" eat lunch among dismembered corpses, "decanting claret in convenient skulls"; there are falling bombs, "big pricks", more dead bodies, more fucking. The harsh immediacy of the imagery is, I suppose, intended to reconnect the reader with the brutality of war, which can too easily become sanitised. It certainly doesn't hurt to be reminded that war really is hell.
But war is also the outcome of a complicated political, economic and cultural process.The central problem with Pinter's poems is that they elide observations on the obscenity of death and killing with moral judgements about that process; on this gut basis, poetry can be nothing but crudely pacifist. Where other forms of discourse (political journalism, to take the obvious example) are able to construct a nuanced, thoughtful, ambiguous relationship with the situation in question, the queen of the arts is reduced to a barely articulate howl of disapproval.
"Pinter's response to world events is always pure and simple," the publisher's blurb tells us. I don't know about the purity, but simplicity there is in abundance.
Adam Newey is poetry editor of the NS