What is it Good For?

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(277)

Review of 'War', Harold Pinter, Faber and Faber, £5

I interviewed the playwright and poet Harold Pinter in November 2001. A story he told me on that occasion came to mind upon reading War, his short collection of eight anti-war poems and one speech.

At a function as part of a human rights delegation to Turkey, he asked a senior Turkish state official why the security forces torture Kurdish 'suspects' by attaching electrodes to their genitals. The official asked Pinter to leave on the grounds that the writer had insulted the official's wife by using the word 'genitals'.

Pinter's revulsion at the moral chasm between the official's indignation at the word and the acts perpetrated by those acting on his behalf became formalised in the extraordinary play One for the Road. This story, which resonates with questions of language and politics, is pure Pinter. There are few writers in the English language more acutely aware of the political power of words to both distort and illuminate the truth.

In War we see him use the most economical and angry language to articulate his rage at US imperialism and British support for it. In the four-line poem 'Democracy' he takes the macho language of the American right wing and turns it back on them:

'There's no escape.
The big pricks are out.
They'll fuck everything in sight.
Watch your back.'

Written in response to this year's invasion of Iraq, the poem relates back to a brilliant piece he wrote in 1991, at the time of the first US/British assault on Iraq. In 'American Football', also included here, he took a US pilot's comparison of a bombing raid on Baghdad with his first college football game and created an obscene, powerfully satirical critique of the war. 'We blew the shit out of them./They suffocated in their own shit!' says the imagined US airman. 'Hallelujah./Praise the Lord for all good things.'

This is poetry of the most unpretentious, excoriating, yet carefully measured kind. Pinter's writing exhibits an almost obsessive dedication to the exact use of language. It has been said that he is a great remover of words, and one senses here that the visceral political power of the poems lies to a great degree in his paring them back to create the sharpest literary weapon possible.

The verses bristle with anger, despair, mourning and defiance. In 'God Bless America' he writes, 'The gutters are clogged with the dead'. In 'Meeting', written after the Afghan war and as a premonition of the coming invasion of Iraq, he imagines 'the long dead' (perhaps from Vietnam, Hiroshima and Auschwitz) walking out to embrace 'the new dead'. In 'Weather Forecast', the most subtle of these poems, he greets the putative 'New American Century' with an apocalyptic vision in which the banality of everyday life is punctured by the realisation that: 'This is the last forecast.'

Accompanied by Pinter's brilliantly and uncompromisingly political speech in Turin in November of last year, this booklet of poems is a powerful expression of the anti-imperialist rage felt by millions around the world.