Economics and similar, for the sleep-deprived

A subtle change has been made to the comments links, so they no longer pop up. Does this in any way help with the problem about comments not appearing on permalinked posts, readers?

Update: seemingly not

Update: Oh yeah!

Friday, January 02, 2009

Harold Pinter's poetry, a defence

(The Guardian blog didn't go for this, so my career as a noted obituarist has stalled a bit. Nevertheless ...)

Such a shame to hear of Harold Pinter’s death. What particularly makes me want to write something about him is that as the obituaries and tributes pour in, the majority of them are bound to focus entirely on his plays and activism, while regarding his poetry – particularly the later obscene and polemic verses mainly contributed to newspaper letters columns – as something of an embarrassment, to be glided over as quickly as possible and mentioned, if at all, as evidence of unabated political commitment in his years of decline.
Which I just totally disagree with; I found Pinter’s dramatical masterworks hard going, but his poetry grabbed me by the throat. The thing is, the guy was unbelievably good at swearing. Some people are really bad at swearing (Hugh Grant, for example) and some people are fantastic at it (Ricky Tomlinson). Harold Pinter was the only person I can think of, with the possible exception of Peter Cook, who raised to the highest levels of art. Pinter was to the Anglo-Saxon invective what Zinedine Zidane was to the head-butt.

Consider, “Democracy”, from 2003. “The big pricks are out; they’ll fuck everything in sight – watch your back”. Only one minor and one major swear-word, but my God, how offensive? If you could swear like that, you’d never have problems with your builders again. If you could swear like Harold Pinter, white vans would meekly draw aside and let you cut in to traffic.
Or American Football, from 1991. Working the second division profanity “shit” into an intricate fugue, Pinter creates a mosaic of foul images. “We blew the shit right back up their own ass, and out their fucking ears … Now I want you to come over here and kiss me on the mouth”. He ran a cricket team, you know – how would you fancy dropping a dolly catch next to the boundary, with a captain who could swear like that waiting for you in the dressing room?

It’s not as if Pinter didn’t give us a load of clues about what he was doing; as Michael Billington notes at the link above, the point of these poems were that they were brutal, unattractive and hard to look at, because they were describing a reality that was also brutal, unattractive and difficult to face up to. Lots of people thought that Pinter’s invective was counterproductive, and that it would have been better for him to make his points with the reasoned eloquence that he was certainly capable of, as in his Nobel acceptance lecture. Maybe, but on the other hand, lots of people thought that plays ought to have wisecracking dialogue, a couple of good songs and a pretty girl who finds romance in the last half hour, and Harold Pinter set them right too.

In the last couple of weeks, we’ve had quite a few journalists and commentators musing on the general subject of “Iraq, eh? What was all that about?”, helping themselves to lowballed estimates of the civilian deaths caused and concluding that it’s all very difficult and we can’t really tell what the long term consequences are. The great thing about Pinter’s poetry is that, for the few seconds you’re reading it, you’re absolutely transfixed and forced to think about the physical reality of what these news stories are actually talking about. A lot of people don’t want to do that, and I suspect that this is why they’re so keen to say that some of best bad language in English letters isn’t worth looking at. They’re wrong.
10 comments this item posted by the management 1/02/2009 05:57:00 AM

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