Harold Pinter Poetry: British Analysis
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1112
Poetry is a form that continually interested Harold Pinter. During sixty years of creativity, in addition to his plays and film scripts, he wrote innumerable poems, including nearly one hundred that were published. Some of his poems were initially published in now defunct journals such as Poetry London under pseudonyms such as “Harold Pinta.” Some of these poems have been reprinted in anthologies of prose and poetry, in private-press publications (such as Ten Early Poems under the Greville Press imprint), and in various editions of his Collected Poems and Prose and Various Voices.
Pinter’s first published work, including poems and prose pieces that appeared in his school magazine, belong to the period of the 1940’s and early 1950’s. “New Year in the Midlands” and “Chandeliers and Shadows” (from Poems) were published in Poetry London in the August, 1950, issue and the poem “One a Story, Two a Death” in the final issue. In the summer of 1951, Pinter’s poem “I Shall Tear off My Terrible Cap” (from Poems) was published in the Poetry Quarterly. “Chandeliers and Shadows” expresses desperation, depicting scenes of decadence and sexual depravity with a sense of chaos throughout the universe. In this poem, the insane and a random deity rule over a room, and God has been transformed into a monster.
Pinter continued to write poetry during his stay in Ireland. “The Islands of Aran Seen from the Moher Cliffs” (1951; from Poems), in five verse quatrains, extols the magnificent coast and the myths related with that area of Ireland. The Hackney railings and landscape of childhood are transformed into the Irish coastal countryside. Loss, deprivation, isolation, alienation, betrayal, and love are frequent themes in Pinter’s poems. “Episode” (1951; from Poems) is a poetic dialogue with a rejected main voice, an apparently successful rival, and a silent “she” over whom they feud. There are also poems of celebration. “Poem” (1953; from Poems), for example, focuses on love and stability: The final four words, which are repeated through the poem, conclude on a note of Pinteresque ambiguity amid the Irish coastal scenery.
Pinter used poetry to mark the key points in his life. For example, “Paris” (1975; reprinted in Collected Poems and Prose), with its two verses of four lines each, celebrates Pinter and Fraser’s initial intimacy. The longer “Ghost” (1983; reprinted in Collected Poems and Prose), in two six-line verses, was written after the death of Pinter’s first wife, Merchant, with whom so much of Pinter’s early work was interwoven. It begins with a startling image of strangulation and concludes with the image of the physical touch of a dead body, an image echoed in Pinter’s later poetic lament for his dead father, “Death.”
“Requiem for 1945”
“Requiem for 1945” (dated 1999; in Various Voices) is a poem of bleakness and political despair. Its language is relatively restrained, with a cumulative use in the poem of the definite article “the,” which occurs six times in the second, third, and fourth lines. A further ambiguity lies in the final word of the poem, “desire”: desire for life, for a different social order, and unfulfilled personal dreams are extinguished by death. The poem, unusual for Pinter, is a single verse of eight lines in length. Certainly it is a powerful poem of intense bitterness.
The eight poems found in War are full of imagery of death, destruction, and anti-Americanism. With titles such as “God Bless America,” “The Bombs,” “Democracy,” “Weather Forecast,” “American Football: A Reflection Upon the Gulf War,” “Death,” and “The Special Relationship,” these poems contain the violent, the vicious, and the visceral, along with expletives. They are overtly political, and they project hostility to the major international powers. “Democracy” consists of four separate, very short sentences; it is crude and representative of much of Pinter’s poetry at this time, the exceptions being “Death” and “Cancer Cells.” Dated August, 1991, “American Football” uses repetitive obscene language to express forceful disgust. It contains little subtlety but can be seen as an accurate image of the cruelty and violence of war.
“Death” (subtitled “Births and Deaths Registration Act of 1953” in Various Voices but not in this volume), one of Pinter’s best poems, was written after the registration of his father’s death. The poem, which marked a turning point in Pinter’s life, contains representative Pinter markers: repetition, the language of interrogation, repetitive questions, and echoing pronoun usage. The first two lines of the third verse and the last verse are run on. The poem has seven verses, with the first, third, and fourth containing three lines. The second and fifth verses consist of interrogative questions. The sixth verse has four lines, each of which consists of a question. The last verse has five lines, each starting with the same words, and the lines are run on with punctuation left out, even at the end of the final word of the poem. With one exception, at the end of the penultimate line, the words are monosyllabic. In the last verse, the form and content intertwine powerfully in this poem of personal lament for a dead father.
“Cancer Cells” and “To My Wife”
“Cancer Cells,” (2002; in Various Voices), is another poem reflecting a key turning point in Pinter’s life, his cancer. Pinter’s love for his wife is celebrated in “To My Wife,” (2004; in Six Poems for “A” and Various Voices). These two poems reveal differing verse forms. In “Cancer Cells,” two verses of two lines extend to a third. The subject of the poem, cancer cells extend into a fourth verse of seven lines and subside with treatment in the final verse of four lines.
“To My Wife” has five celebratory verses of two lines. The initial line starts with the pronoun “I.” The first word of the remaining three verses is “You.” In each verse, the personal pronouns effectively intertwine. The language is mainly monosyllabic with extensive repetition and tense interplay. The tender lyricism that is also present in plays such as Landscape (pb. 1968) and Silence (pr., pb. 1969) is found in Pinter’s late love poems that have Fraser as their subject.
“Body” (2006; appeared in the Saturday Guardian), an eight-line run on single-verse poem without punctuation, is obsessed with death and the distinction between the living and the dead. Repetition and very slight word changes are found in the opening two lines. A poem that begins positively is transformed by grotesque language in which Pinter’s obsession with dead bodies is evident. The poem is reminiscent of the disturbed states of paranoia found in some of Pinter’s earlier poems, “The Error of Alarm” and “Afternoon,” both dating from the 1956-1957 period and reprinted in Collected Poems and Prose.