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UNTIL recently, cultural privilege defended its investments behind words like “tradition,” “standards” and “taste.”
These days, of course, power has to dress up in democratic rags in order to get what it wants and to keep what it already has.
The current turf wars over access to the financial rewards of poetry — prizes, commissions and corporate book sales among them — are being fought via rather different terms like “honesty,” “immediacy” and “authenticity.”
Now poetry is show business and big business. Yesterday’s elitists are today’s populists.
There is a poem by the French communist Francis Combes in If the Symptoms Persist (Smokestack, £8.99) which usefully sets arguments about cultural privilege in the wider context of economic power and powerlessness in contemporary society.
“A young beggar met in the Metro/had written these words/on a piece of cardboard hung round his neck:/'As the burning forest/shouts towards the river’s water/I appeal to you:/Please give me/something to eat.'/And it seems/People were giving./(Which would tend to point to/the usefulness of poetry/in our societies.)’
A former general secretary of the Union of Communist Students and a French Communist Party councillor, Combes has translated a number of poets into French, including Heine, Brecht, Mayakovsky and Joszef.
He's a founder of the radical publishing co-operative Le Temps des Cerises — named after a song about the Paris Commune — and was for many years responsible for putting poems on the Paris Metro.
If the Symptoms Persist draws on the tradition of Victor Hugo, Louis Aragon and the idea of poetry having a useful public function. This, for example, is Combes’s ironic recipe for making money out of poetry.
“Take a dose of empty sentiment/(Nostalgia used to be recommended, but no longer works)/add a few words dispersed over the page/so as not to get to the end of the line/(Avoid above all saying anything too clearly/and precisely) break up the sentence/so the white is eloquent, no need to beat it to stiffness ... Sprinkle the whole with a handful of ampersands/and one or two old rose petals/(an old trick, always effective)/and you will have a thoroughly edible poem/(an appropriate poem, which makes no noise)/To be commercial a bit of exhibitionist sex/and good marketing won’t come amiss.”
It is also a book about poverty, homelessness and inequality, snapshots of urban Paris in the 21st century:
“In the belly of Paris/under the Forum des Halles/just next to the underpass/which no cars take/along the fast lane/a man has set up/his sofa/his telly/his radio/a computer screen./Here, he is sheltered,/warm, in the exhaust fumes./Here, no-one disturbs him,/but from where he is/he can’t see/the light at the end of the tunnel.”
And it’s a book of gentle humour and savage irony.
“Near the metro, a homeless man/watches as they pass, those who are going to work/in offices and workshops/for France/(France which is a great power)/he wonders,/the homeless man/sitting on the ground,/on who/and for whom/she exerts her power, France?”
It is that rare thing, a collection of poetry that is both useful and necessary, as in Capitalism: Wanted Dead or Alive.
“It’s more than two hundred years old/(but its family is much older)/It turned the world upside down/(although it always acts in the name of progress) ... Several times, people believed they had it under lock and key/But every time it escaped without a caution ... However, it isn’t invincible/and sooner or later it will be killed/because our survival/depends on its elimination.”
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