It is significant that on the death of Graham Greene in April
1991 Pinter praised him for his ability to look beyond political
rhetoric at the reality of 'a tortured naked body'. Pinter's own
obsession with the gulf between language and fact prompted him
in August that same year to write a poem called 'American Football
- A Reflection on the Gulf War'. It was rejected for publication
by the Independent, the Observer, the Guardian (on the
grounds it was 'a family newspaper'), the New York Review of
Books and the London Review of Books. The last named,
in particular, aroused Pinter's ire by accompanying rejection
with the assurance that the poem had 'considerable force' and
that it shared the author's views on the United States. Since
the poem has been so little read and circulated, it is worth reproducing
We blew the shit out of them.
We blew the shit right back up their own ass
And out their fucking ears.
We blew the shit out of them.
They suffocated in their own shit!
Praise the Lord for all good things.
We blew them into fucking shit.
They are eating it.
Praise the Lord for all good things.
We blew their balls into shards of dust,
Into shards of fucking dust.
We did it.
Now I want you to come over here and kiss me on
Gli abbiamo fatto cagare sangue
E poi glielo abbaimo ingoiare
Gli abbiamo fatto cagare sangue.
Sono romasti soffocati nella loro merda!
Sia lodato il signore per ogni cosa buona
Gli abbiamo fatto saltare i coglione in frammento
In frammento di fottuta polvere.
L'abbiamo fatto noi.
Adesso voglio che vieni qui e che mi baci.
We hebben er de stront uitgeschoten.
We hebben de stront opnieuw in hun eigen kont
We hebben er de stront uitgeschoten,
Ze zijn in hun eigen stront gestikt!
Loof God voor al het goede.
We hebben hen in de klotestront geschoten.
Ze eten hem op.
Loof God voor al het goede.
We hebben hun ballen aan flarden geschoten,
We hebben het gefikst.
Nu wil ik dat je naar me toe kamt en me op de
What Pinter is clearly doing in American Football
is satirising, through language that is deliberately violent,
obscene, sexual and celebratory, the military triumphalism that
followed the Gulf War and, at the same time, counteracting the
stage-managed euphemisms through which it was projected on television.
General Schwarzkopf talked of 'surgical bombing' and 'collateral
damage'. Perry Smith, a retired general and CNN analyst, claimed
that the Gulf War would 'set a new standard' in avoiding civilian
casualties. When an Iraqi air-raid shelter was hit, American officials
quickly went on television and claimed that it was 'a command-and-control
facility'. Death was smothered in the language of technology and
bureaucracy. But as the New Yorker reported on 25 March
1991, Operation Desert Storm not only involved massive civilian
casualties but 'battle carnage on a scale and at a pace equal
to some of this century's most horrifying military engagements'.
Pinter's poem, by its exaggerated tone of jingoistic, anally obsessed
bravado, reminds us of the weasel-words used to describe the war
on television and of the fact that the clean, pure conflict which
the majority of the American people backed at the time was one
that existed only in their imagination. Behind the poem lies a
controlled rage: that it was rejected, even by those who sympathised
with its sentiments, offers melancholy proof that hypocrisy is
not confined to governments and politicians.
From Life and Work of Harold Pinter by
Michael Billington, Faber and Faber 1996
|"Blowing up the Media" article in
Index on Censorship, vol 21 No 5 May 1992, reproduced in Harold
Pinter, Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics 1948-1998 page 214
|I started to write this poem on the
plane going to the Edinburgh Festival in August 1991. I had a rough
draft by the time we landed in Edinburgh. It sprang from the triumphalism,
the machismo, the victory parade, that were very much in evidence
at the time. So that is the reason for "We blew the shot out of
them." The first place I sent it to was the London Review of Books.
I received a very odd letter, which said, in sum, that the poem
had considerable force, but it was for that very reason that they
were not able to publish it. But the letter went on to make the
extraordinary assertion that the paper shared my vies about the
USA1s role in the world. So I wrote back. 'The paper shares my views,
does it? I'd keep that to myself if I were you, chum,' I said. And
I was very pleased with the use of the word 'chum'.
So I sent it to the Guardian and the then literary editor
came on the telephone to me and said, 'Oh dear.' He said, "Harold,
this is really ... You've really given me a very bad headache with
this one.' He said, 'I'm entirely behind you myself, speaking personally.'
This is my memory of the telephone conversation. 'But,' he said,
'you know I don't think ... Oooh, I think we're in for real trouble
if we try to publish it in the Guardian.' Really, I asked innocently,
why is that?
He said, 'Well, you know, Harold, we are a family newspaper.' Those
words were actually said. 'Oh, I'm sorry,' I said, 'I was under
the impression you were a serious newspaper.' And he said, 'Well,
yes, we're also a serious newspaper, of course. Nevertheless things
have changed a bit in the Guardian over the last few years.'
I suggested he talk to some of his colleagues and come back to me
in a couple of days. Because, I said, 'I do believe the Guardian
has a responsibility to publish serious work, seriously considered
work, which I believe this to be. Although it is very hot, I also
think it is steely. Hot steel...' He called me in two days and said,
'Harold, I'm terribly sorry, I can't publish it.' He more or less
said, It's more than my job's worth. So that was the Guardian.
I then sent it to the Observer.
The Observer was the most complex and fascinating web that
I actually ran into. I sent the poem not to the literary editor,
but to the editor himself. A couple of days later, he called me
and said that he thought it should be published. He thought it was
very testing. Probably going to be quite a lot of flack, he said.
But he thought it should be published, not on the literary pages,
but on the leader page. It was a truly political poem, he said.
So I was delighted to hear that. He'd send me a proof, which he
The next Sunday nothing happened. And then the following Sunday
nothing happened. So I called the editor. He said, 'Oh dear, Harold,
I'm afraid that I've run into one or two problems with your poem.'
I asked what they were. 'In short, my colleagues don't want me to
publish it.' Why not? He said, 'They're telling me we are going
to lose lots of readers.' I asked, Do you really believe that? Anyway,
we had a quite amiable chat. He said, 'I want to publish it but
I seem to be more or less alone.' I then said, Look, the Observer,
as a serious newspaper, has in fact published quite recently an
account of what the US tanks actually did in the desert. The tanks
had bulldozers, and during the ground attack they were used as sweepers.
They buried, as far as we know, an untold number of Iraqis alive.
This was reported by your newspaper as a fact and it was a horrific
and obscene fact. My poem actually says, 'They suffocated in their
own shit.' It is obscene, but it is referring to obscene facts.
He said, 'Absolutely right. Look, I want to publish the poem. But
I'm running into all sorts of resistance. The trouble is the language,
it's the obscene language. People get very offended by this and
that's why they think we are going to lose readers.' I then sent
the editor of the Observer a short fax, in which I quoted
myself when I was at the US Embassy in Ankara in March I985 with
Arthur Miller. I had a chat with the ambassador about torture in
Turkish prisons. He told me that I didn't appreciate the realities
of the situation vis-a-vis the Communist threat, the military reality,
the diplomatic reality, the strategic reality, and so on.
I said the reality I was referring to was that of electric current
on your genitals. Whereupon the ambassador said, 'Sir, you are a
guest in my house,' and turned away. I left the house.
The point I was making to the editor of the Observer was
that the ambassador found great offence in the word genitals. But
the reality of the situation, the actual reality of electric current
on your genitals, was a matter of no concern to him. It was the
use of the word that was offensive, but not the act. I said I was
drawing an analogy between that little exchange, and what we were
now talking about. This poem uses obscene words to describe obscene
acts and obscene attitudes.
But the editor of the Observer wrote to me and said he couldn't
publish, with great regret. 'I've been giving serious thought to
publication of your poem on the Gulf
War. As you know, my first instinct was in favour, despite warnings
by senior colleagues that many readers would be offended ... I admit
to having cold feet.'
Recently an Observer columnist spoke of his paper's rejection
of the poem and referred to his editor's concern 'for its shortcomings
as a piece of verse'. But nobody ever said, 'We don't think this
poem is good enough. It is not a successful piece of work.' Nobody
has actually said that.
I then sent the poem to the literary editor of the Independent,
saying I hadn't sent it to him in the first place because I did
not think the Independent would publish it. But now that
everybody had turned it down, the London Review of Books,
the Guardian and the Observer, perhaps I was wrong
about the Independent! To cut a long story very short, the
literary editor wanted to publish it but he felt he had to show
it to the editor. The editor sat on it for a few days and then made
no comment except to say the Independent was not going to publish
the poem. And I've never had any explanation. Nothing. It was simply
I did send it to the New York Review of Books, just as a
laugh. The editor thanked me warmly for but said he was afraid they
couldn't use it. So I did not waste any more time. I heard that
a magazine called Bomb, a very well-produced publication
in the West Village, might be interested, and indeed they published
It was finally published in Britain in January 1992, by a new newspaper
called Socialist, with a limited circulation. But as far
as national newspapers go, in Holland it was published in one of
the main Dutch dailies Handelsblad - in no uncertain terms,
too, with an article written by the editor about the rejection in
England. And it was published in Bulgaria, Greece and Finland.