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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
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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

Your head is a pool in the dirt

Your head is a stain in the dust

Your eyes have gone out and your nose

Sniffs only the pong of the dead

And all the dead air is alive

With the smell of America's God.

I can't say "Your eyes have gone out and your nose" is much of a line of poetry. (A note to Andrew Sullivan: How about starting a new prize category? Call it the "Pinter Prize for Bad Political Verse" or the "Your Eyes Have Gone Out And Your Nose" Award.) The two previous five-line stanzas didn't lead us to expect a concluding eight-liner. And isn't this supposed to be where the poem reaches past sarcasm to achieve high moral seriousness? "Pong" is a massive failure of diction.

But the point is: America stands for death. That's expressed in such an anti-religious way, one gathers Pinter thinks God Himself stinks of death, which, in truth, the elderly playwright probably does--the old Swinburnian double bind in which Christians are denounced as childish at the same time that Christianity is blamed for killing off the childish joy of the ancient pre-Christian world: "Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath; / We have drunken of things Lethean, and fed on the fullness of death." (Still, at least Swinburne, unlike Pinter, actually understands how a three-beat metrical foot works.) But America is Pinter's burden here: America the violent, which stands so much for murder that its very God is death.

Absent from all of this, of course, is any hint of argument. Great political poetry is not impossible; try Andrew Marvell's Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland, for example, which ends in subtle warning: "The same arts that did gain / A pow'r, must it maintain." But such poetry has to argue something, and the old European culture seems now incapable of serious argument. "A civilization in decline digs its own grave with a relentless consistency," the theologian Bernard Lonergan once wrote. "It cannot be argued out of its self-destructive ways, for argument has a theoretical major premise, theoretical premises are asked to conform to matters of fact, and the facts in the situation produced by decline more and more are the absurdities that proceed from inattention, oversight, unreasonableness, and irresponsibility."

That's the real lesson in Pinter's poem--and Andrew Motion's, for that matter: the irresponsibility of it all, the posturing that takes the place of thought, the faded images that substitute for argument. The wrongness of America's descent upon Iraq is entirely a failure of American motives to be good enough to withstand these Europeans' scrutiny--primarily because (in a marvelous example of circular reasoning) America is by definition so corrupt that it cannot have a good motive for anything.

Are America's motives really that bad? You can see in them some self-servingness (beginning with the reasonable self-servingness of wanting the events of September 11 never to be repeated), and you can also see in them considerable idealism about the rights of freedom around the world. I tried once myself to write a poem that admitted we had sinned and, no doubt, would sin again--but are not thereby relieved of our duties. In a 1932 exchange in Christian Century, prompted by the question of whether the United States should intervene against the Japanese in Manchuria, the well-known Christian ethicist H. Richard Niebuhr wrote of what he called "the grace of doing nothing"--to which his brother, the even-better-known Reinhold Niebuhr, replied that the desire to wait for perfect motives translates into the inability ever to act. Because human beings are what they are, our motives will never reach perfection. We must attempt to do what ought to be done, despite the tangle of our natures, and act most times in imperfection.

Though Harold Pinter thinks that means "all the dead air is alive" only with "the pong of the dead," the air would be even deader--the pong of the dead even stronger--in his self-righteous world of mortal inaction.

J. Bottum is Books & Arts editor of The Weekly Standard.