The Blog

Harold Pinter's "God Bless America"

The latest piece of Brit anti-war poetry hits the streets with an incoherence that must be seen to be believed. Sample line: "Your eyes have gone out and your nose" .

11:00 PM, Jan 26, 2003 • By J. BOTTUM
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

THERE'S SOMETHING IRRESISTIBLE about the anti-war poetry that's been pouring out of England. Came a Motion. Went a Motion. Came a Paulin. He went, too. Now Harold Pinter finds a printer: Something extra, just for you.

What's irresistible, of course, is the impulse to parody. The mockings of Andrew Motion's "Causa Belli," for instance, are all over the blogosphere (many of the best of them collected on Tim Blair's fine site). Now the web's parodic imagination has begun to savage Pinter's entry. (My favorite, so far, is from Loretta Serrano, a recasting of the poem to bounce along with the music for the Monkees' theme song.)

The septuagenarian Pinter deserves whatever obloquy gets poured over his head. I run hot and cold on his plays. On a cold day, I think he hasn't even been interestingly wrong since "The Homecoming" in 1965. More to the point, his forays into politics and social criticism have always been weak. This is the man, after all, who described the attacks of September 11 as merely a "dramatic act of retaliation" against America's "stranglehold" on the world. And his poetry (at least as instanced in the 1978 volume "Poems and Prose") was never much good.

This new poem, however, never even rises to level of silly. In trimeter, mostly dactylic, the unrhymed verse begins:

Here they go again,

The Yanks in their armoured parade

Chanting their ballads of joy

As they gallop across the big world

Praising America's God.

What are we supposed to do with this? It's hard to catch the rhythm on an initial reading: The first line's trochees don't sufficiently set up the second and third line's dactyls, and the fourth line's meter breaks down badly (with what seems, on first encounter, an opening anapest). Only with the fifth line does one finally get the Seussian rhythm--"PRAIS-ing-a / MER-i-ca's / GOD"; DUMB-da-da / DUMB-da-da / DUMB--strongly enough to go back and read the stanza.

Then, of course, there's the meaning. Forget whether armored parades can really chant while galloping and praising, and think for a moment about the fact that Pinter intends the singing of ballads of joy and the praising of God to be infallible signs of American murderousness. England has come a long ways since, with "trumpets sterne," Spenser began "The Faerie Queen" with the promise to sing of "knights . . . and . . . fierce warres." A long way, for that matter, since Wordsworth's "Who is the happy Warrior? Who is he / That every man in arms should wish to be?"

Back in 1969, Philip Larkin--mocking anti-war protests at the London School of Economics and the University of Essex (where Albert Sloman was vice-chancellor)--asked: "When the Russian tanks roll westward, what defence for you and me? / Colonel Sloman's Essex Rifles? The Light Horse of L.S.E.?" The answer to Larkin's question, unfortunately, was the Yanks' armored parade, the effect of which Pinter describes in his second stanza:

The gutters are clogged with the dead

The ones who couldn't join in

The others refusing to sing

The ones who are losing their voice

The ones who've forgotten the tune.

The light touch one wants for parsing bad poetry simply eludes me while reading this stuff. Would it help to point out to Pinter that the classical model suggests spondees are the best foot to substitute for dactyls? No, this is simply too vile. Maybe there are meaningful arguments against war with Iraq. But Manhattan on September 11 was the place where the gutters were literally clogged with the ashes of the dead. The Kurds and the Marsh Arabs are the ones who lost their voices under Saddam Hussein, and the destroyed Christian and Jewish communities are what have been eliminated because they wouldn't join in. Pinter's view of the world can exist, even in its own narrow logic, only by never mentioning the facts. It is Harold Pinter who has forgotten the tune. He concludes:

The riders have whips which cut.

Your head rolls onto the sand