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David Solway on Great versus Awful Poetry; Yeats versus Pinter

Spent most of the day avoiding reading.

Attended a very successful audio/video presentation by Julian Barnes beamed into about a dozen of us at Collected Works bookstore in Ottawa. Barnes was charm itself. He read from Nothing to be Afraid of for about 20 minutes and answered questions for 20 more, after which he signed cards for various members of the audience. I had a chance lob a few easy ones at him, the responses to which I’ll divulge shortly. I did then read for a while at the nearby Bridgehead coffee shop. Anthony De Sa’s Barnacle Love. But it was one of those days where every word is a fight, bobbling around, appearing in the wrong order. Perhaps it was all that free-trade bean juice. Then back home to write the following narrative of the second part of my conversation with David Solway:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the ‘Second Coming’ is at hand.
The Second Coming!
Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Was Yeats’s writing of The Second Coming motivated by politics, by a grand Viconian view of history? By current events? Personal Crisis? One doesn’t know. With Harold Pinter however, it’s hard not to read his God Bless America as anything but political. This is because Pinter’s poem is motivated, says Solway, by sheer hatred. In Yeats there is not hatred. His poem is born out of a grand historical anxiety. Out of fear and instinct. A sense of the cyclical in human existence. A recognition of the rise and fall of civilizations. Yeats saw a world filled with inordinate tumult and uncertainty in 1919, much as we find it today. A void which some new pagan messiah would soon fill, staring with us into a dangerous, unprecedented, unpredictable future. He felt something big was due to happen. Yeats’ poem invites us to stand with him at the beginning of a new phase in the cycle of history.

Just as the falcon circles the sky, so the word ‘Turning ‘ repeats, and comes round on itself, replicating, reenacting syntactically, the behavior of a gyre, a sort of vortex. Gyres were important symbols for Yeats, representing the cyclical. We see this circling too in the internal rhyme of the line, the use of vowels.This plus Yeats’s exquisite use of consonants and their sounds…

 "The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
  The ceremony of innocence is drowned"

…and presence of the sibylline, in "passionate intensity" all work together to make this poem memorable.

The title’s Christian metaphor appears in the second stanza, referring to the arrival of a new leader or mentor coming out of Spiritus Mundi to greet an unsettling future. A man’s head and a lion’s body bring up the Sphinx which sounds historic, poetic echoes of the mystery and obscurity found in Oedipus’s riddle. "Slow thighs" and desert birds example the powerful imagery this poem contains. This monster conveys imminent danger, the lurid, mysterious quality of an unknown event about to occur, which promises to have, as Solway puts it, "stigmatic" repercussions.

The poem models the poetic craft, both in its use of rhetorical tools, and its sheer memorability. There is no one particular theme, rather a spectrum of possible themes.

None of this appears in Pinter.

God Bless America

All you get is sectarian hatred, says Solway, words without mediation. If he’d been able to convey this hatred using technique, rules of language, musicality, gerundive or managerial metaphors, then maybe we could say that despite disapproving of the subject, we appreciate and acknowledge its poetic value, admire the way it is stated. We may not agree, for example, with Celine, but we acknowledge there is something to learn from him. But there is a line; a line beyond which lies pure evil. Mein Kampf exists beyond that line, says Solway, a line difficult to define, but known when apprehended. That which wishes to destroy gratuitously. That which promotes and encourages hatred. That which, when reading, we become party to. Polluted.

Although Solway doesn’t put Pinter in this category, he cannot, based on the man’s poetry, take him seriously. God Bless America (please see below) is nothing but the expression of unadulterated vitriol. It, says Solway, is awful poetry. Awful because it has nothing of what Yeats has. "No resonance, no linguistic viability, no metaphor, no aphorism, no historical echoing sense, no musicality playing any kind of terpsichorean tune on the tongue. No distance between the emotion that welled up in Pinter like an artesian fount, and the language he used to convey it. No prophylactic between the poem and the poet."

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.
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 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.

Pinter,  like Chomsky, would be nowhere without America to attack says Solway. If he’d written something like this in China or in Putin’s Russia, he’d have been killed by now, ruled a dissident and shot in the former, poisoned in the latter. I point out that Pinter isn’t trying to justify Russian or Chinese behavior, rather to say that their actions have gone unchecked, unscrutinized. Solway responds that America is now the world’s whipping boy. This poem exemplifies one man’s ancestral hatred of one nation. What mutilates it is something Solway calls ‘selective disattention’. The poem itself is not set within context. It is nothing but pure anger, visceral peroration.

Yeats’s use of vowels and syllables aids in the recall of words, which re-enact their own themes, in the mind. The achieved objective is memorability. Anaepests, dactyls, alliteration and lyricism are all successfully recruited and deployed in the mission.

Your head rolls onto the sand

Your head is a pool in the dirt

Your head is a stain in the dust


All Pinter offers is confessional expulsion. Farts from the gut, says Solway; unmediated bile from the thyroid, the intestinal coils, the inner snake. Writing out of pure hatred becomes propaganda, says Solway, writing out of pure love, becomes sentimentality. Poetry is language mediated by history, tradition, principles of language itself. There must be a prophylactic distance between poem and poet. There is no such distance in Pinter. This is not even a poem says Solway, who finds none of the criteria, principles or articles which make a poem what it is, in any way evident in anything Pinter has written, including, no, especially, this:


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


That’s a poem? asks Solway. This is what he got a Nobel Prize for? This is nothing but invective; blasphemy; pure self indulgence.

I question whether Solway thinks Pinter knows anything about traditional poetic form. No. I don’t think so he says. There is no history. In a good poem history is implicit because if a poet is serious she has done her work. There is a sense of what has gone before. A sense of what you can or can’t say because of what has already been said; styles and tics which must be superseded, using language and its infinite extendibility to say the same things in new ways.

But what if one admires Pinter’s directness, for example; Solway throws his arms up. I’m not here to impose my opinion. All I can do is tell you what I think, based on my reasoning and a lifetime’s experience of writing and reading poetry.

It’s hard not to agree with him. Can anyone say anything positive about Pinter’s poetry?


This was an easy exercise. Contrasting and comparing the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ is enlightening, as is comparison, and attempts to rank the ‘good’ against the ‘good.’ Something I hope to get at in a future post. 

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6 Responses to “David Solway on Great versus Awful Poetry; Yeats versus Pinter”

  1. Steven Augustine Says:

    Unfair comparison, though, isn’t it? Yeats was writing for the ages; Pinter was writing for the month and year he wrote his poems in; he was using his fame as a platform from which to jolt the reader, with unadorned statements of torture and perfidy,  into reconsidering the very powerful propaganda we’ve been raised to believe in.  His Nobel speech was an extension of this effort and, without a doubt, impressed more readers/listeners, that year, than Yeats, despite Yeats’ exquisite, immortal Art. Pinter’s Art is not poetry; his poetry is not immortal. But his courage and frankness (after the deaths of so many of the dwindling frank and brave, like Vonnegut) are needed.

  2. Steven Augustine Says:

    "Pinter,  like Chomsky, would be nowhere without America to attack says Solway. If he’d written something like this in China or Putin’s Russia, he’d have been killed by now; ruled a dissident and shot in the former, poisoned in the latter."

    And that’s a *very* naive statement. Why kill a man/woman if you can make her/him look like a crank instead? Killing a dissident makes a martyr; surely that lesson has been learned by now. 

  3. Nigel Beale Says:

    I thought Pinter’s Nobel Prize speech was a superb bit of propaganda. And I agree it takes balls to speak your truth so frankly. I admire his ability to maintain coherent speech during such waves of outrage. I must say however that in  selecting him as Prize winner the committee proves once again that they know nothing about literature, and care even less for it. The decision was purely political.    

  4. Steven Augustine Says:

    "I thought Pinter’s Nobel Prize speech was a superb bit of propaganda."
    Well, Pinter, being pretty good with words (that Nobel wasn’t for poetry, of course, it was for his arguably worthwhile plays), knows that the only counter for propaganda is counter-propaganda (larf). Not that calling attention to the hundreds of thousands of arguably avoidable deaths in Iraq, as a direct result of American "intervention", should be considered an exercise in disinformation. Even the "low" figures (ie, those conceded by the American government) are appalling. Did those Iraqis really have to die in order to be "free"?
    Back to Lit. Wouldn’t it have been more fruitful to compare Pinter’s poetry to something a bit closer in style and intent  (yet different enough to make an interesting contrast)? Say, Zbigniew Herbert’s (English-translated) stuff? Comparing Pinter’s poetry to Yeats’ is a bit like putting a Faberge egg next to a doorknob and declaring the doorknob, in comparison, worthless.   Whereas the truth is that each is worthless as a substitution for the other.

  5. Nigel Beale Says:

    Steven: Doorknob assumes too much functionality. Road apple is a better descriptive I think.

  6. Steven Augustine Says:

    Road apples and oranges, Nigel!

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