American Football

Michael Billington: 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 in full:

American Football (English)
American Football (Italian)
American Football (Dutch)
(A Reflection upon the Gulf War)
(Una riflessione sulla guerra del Golfo)
(kanttekeningen bij de Golfoorlog)

It works.
We blew the shit out of them.

We blew the shit right back up their own ass
And out their fucking ears.

It works.
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 the mouth.


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
e giusta.

Gli abbiamo fatto saltare i coglione in frammento di polvere.
In frammento di fottuta polvere.

L'abbiamo fatto noi.
Adesso voglio che vieni qui e che mi baci.


Het werkt.
We hebben er de stront uitgeschoten.

We hebben de stront opnieuw in hun eigen kont geschoten.

Het werkt.
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,
Aan flarden.

We hebben het gefikst.

Nu wil ik dat je naar me toe kamt en me op de mond kust.


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 did
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 No.
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 the poem.
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.
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