Written in clear-eyed anger: Harold Pinter’s anti-war poems

Slaughter in Ukraine sent me back to poems Pinter wrote about US-led invasion of Iraq

As Russia's assault on Ukraine widens, Jewish refugees are leaving in droves from the Black Sea port of Odessa. Their departure recalls historic flights from the city amid persecution and pogrom. One who left was the grandfather of Harold Pinter, master playwright and a tenacious critic of military violence.

Ukraine's third-largest city and commercial hub is a key strategic and symbolic target for Vladimir Putin. Although it was long a jewel of the Russian empire, the city was also a pillar of Jewish life. Michael Billington, a critic, tells in his biography of Pinter how the Nobel laureate's maternal grandfather, Harry Moskowitz, was "barely able to write his name" when he left Odessa and "lived off his wits" when he arrived in London around 1900. As a girl, Pinter's mother Frances taught her father how to write. His other grandparents, from Poland, were also part of the immigrant wave of Jews in Britain at that time.

Pinter, who died at 78 in 2008, was a youngster in London during the Nazi bombardment, a fearful period of long blackout nights and mortal dread that life could be severed in an instant. A conscientious objector to army service, he refused the draft after the war. As a young man he became an actor, learning secrets of the stage that he would deploy with verve in his own work.

He drew a distinction between the 'search for the truth' in the ambiguous language of art and political language

He toured Ireland with a Shakespearean company led by Anew McMaster, an actor-manager of repute who was theatrical mentor to Micheál MacLiammóir, co-founder of the Gate Theatre with his partner Hilton Edwards.

He wrote more than 30 plays, stirring drama – including The Caretaker, The Homecoming and Betrayal – that marked him out as an innovator who could exploit gnawing silence to stunning effect. From this was coined the expression Pinteresque, which the Chambers dictionary describes as a style of portraying characters and situations marked by “halting dialogue, uncertainty of identity, and air of menace”.

Ardently opposed to the abuse of political power, Pinter was also a stark polemicist. "I'm haunted by barbaric acts around me," he once said. The slaughter in Ukraine sent me back to war poems he wrote in outrage against the US-led invasion of Iraq of 2003 and American interventions elsewhere. These short works are in a different order to the plays, although the menace is there, as insistent and blunt as the violent undertow that evokes the brutality of conflict.

After Lunch depicts “the many well-dressed creatures” as “they loll and lounge about” after noon “decanting claret in convenient skulls”. Lyrical this is not. Yet the lean economy cuts right in to what was obscured in the “shock and awe” jargon of conquest and airy euphemisms like collateral damage, surgical strikes, smart bombs and stealth fighters.

This is from Meeting: “There is soft heartbeat As the dead embrace Those who are long dead And those who are the new dead Walking towards them.”

Weather Forecast, published on the first day of the Iraq war, holds out the prospect of a “dry and warm” afternoon after a “cloudy start” but moves inexorably towards a catastrophic ending: “In the evening the moon will shine And be quite bright There will be, it has to be said, A brisk wind But it will die out by midnight Nothing further will happen.” Then, like the curtain finally falling on a blackened stage, he adds: “This will be the last forecast.”

Faber & Faber, Pinter's long-time publisher, collected eight poems in a 2003 volume so slim it was stapled together like a pamphlet. Read again as Putin's tanks blast Ukraine and millions leave their homes, they have the power to scour through dissembling tyrant talk of "special military operations". The same goes when he claims Russia and Ukraine are "one people" while laying the country to ruin and murdering its people. The same again when Sergei Lavrov, the pliant foreign minister, decries "pathetic shrieks" at the shelling of a maternity hospital.

Awarding Pinter the 2005 Nobel prize in literature, the Swedish Academy said his work “uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression’s closed rooms”.

Too ill to attend the ceremony in person, he gave his Nobel lecture from a wheelchair via a recorded video. He drew a distinction between the “search for the truth” in the ambiguous language of art and political language – “interested not in truth but in power” – before delivering a hair-raising excoriation of American foreign policy. He accused the US of lying to justify the Iraq war and said it “supported and in many cases engendered every right-wing military dictatorship in the world after the end of the second World War”.

We cannot know what Pinter would say about the new war in Europe. But we can imagine.

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