Harold Pinter’s poetry

I know the place.
It is true.
Everything we do
Corrects the space
Between death and me
And you.

– Harold Pinter.

Now that Pinter’s finally won the Nobel, I figured I may as well get around to reading his poetry. While I’ve read a fair amount of Pinter’s plays (most of them so long ago that the memory of them is fairly blurred, though) I’ve never really read much of his poetry – the little of it there seems to be. So I figured I’d get a book out of the library and start plugging away.

I was disappointed. I suppose it’s because I was extrapolating from his prose style, but I expected something dry and quiet and exact, like a cross between R.S. Thomas and Philip Larkin. One of the Pinter’s greatest gifts, in his plays, is his ability to use silence, to write lines that can be read between. It’s a gift that would serve him extremely well as a poet.

So it’s a pity that he doesn’t use that gift more. Oh, these are not bad poems, exactly – there is some fine wordplay here, an exquisite feel for language, phrases of polished obsidian (“So grows in stream of planetary tides / The sun abundant in hanging sands”; “Suggested lines my body / consume, in the day’s graph”) and the heady confidence of a writer who, unable to find the exact word he wants, is not afraid to make it up (eskimostars, tickshop). The problem is that there is little more to these poems than this fine parade of phrases, so that the final effect, when you step back, is of something unanchored, almost incoherent. The writing is brilliant, but it fails to become anything more than clever words on a page, so that unlike with his plays (which move the imagination to fill in what the author has not supplied) there is almost no emotional content to these poems – they feel like warm-up exercises, the shavings of a great writer sharpening his wit before putting it to use.

Nor does Pinter have a particularly keen ear for the sound of his poems. His poems, though technically competent enough, don’t always read well, and in the absence of any overarching image or idea, the sheer density of words (Pinter seems to delight in complex syllables) seems redundant, artificial. Overall, the poems sound and feel strained – as though they were unwieldy concentrations of larger prose pieces that didn’t quite work.

This is not true of all the poems though. In the three dozen or so poems I read, there were three or four where Pinter did manage to focus and discipline his muse – and the structure this provided gave rise to some truly exceptional poetry. The short piece on top is a good example of this, as is:

I have thrown a handful of petals on your breasts.
Scarred by this daylight you lie petalstruck.
So the skin imitates the flush, your head
Turning all ways, bearing a havoc of flowers over you.

Now I bring you from dark into daytime,
Laying petal on petal.

What makes this poem work, makes the use of petalstruck and havoc seem right and beautiful is the consistency of the overall image – by showing us the one single vision that underlies the poem, Pinter makes it come alive for us. Unfortunately, only a few of his poems are able to do this.

Bottomline – I think I’m going to stick to reading Pinter’s plays from now on.

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