When the Metro Is Free
Antidotes to Optimism


(Tuesday 03 July 2007- Morning Star)

RADICAL FRENCH POETRY: When the Metro is free



In May 1968, one of the demands of the striking French students was that the Paris Metro should be free. "Be realistic," ran another slogan, "demand the impossible."

If such utopianism sounds touchingly innocent today, it is a measure of how far the imagination has surrendered to the impossible conditions of "the real."

When the Metro is Free is a new anthology of counter-cultural poetry from contemporary France. It is a great introduction to modern, radical French poetry. People who want some relief from the inwardness of British writing should enjoy it.

These are sketches from the Left Bank of the contemporary imagination, postcards from France's literary counter-culture, poems snatched from the maelstrom of the contemporary. They are urban, urgent and vital, engaging with daily life and with the struggle to humanise it, representing the work of a group of poets gathered around the radical poetry publisher Le Temps des Cerises.

Edited by the British poet Alan Dent, it includes work by Francis Combes, Francoise Coulmin, Jacques Gaucheron, Gerard Noiret, David Dumortier, Veronique Vassiliou and Laure Limongi.

For Dent, these poets are the descendants of Apollinaire and Prevert, inheritors of the bohemian tradition of questioning everything, bearers of Marx's idea that nothing human can be alien to us.

"Mainstream French poetry is safe and polite, like in Britain. The publishing industry wants to make money and isn't much interested in work which puts that in question.

"But France also has the bohemian tradition which is fairly alien to British writing, just as it has the anarcho-syndicalist political tradition which so bemuses the British, especially the English.

"While British poetry was wondering if there was still honey for tea, Apollinaire was pulling the rug from under European poetry by writing ZONE. I wanted to bring some of that lovely, daring, subversive sensibility of French poetry to British readers," says Dent.

Dent is the editor of Penniless Press, a twice-yearly samizdat selection of poetry, fiction and criticism with which he conducts a one-man guerilla campaign against the British literary mainstream.

A French teacher in a comprehensive school in his native Preston, he despairs of the insularity of British society and of British poetry.

"We suffer from thickened Larkinism according to which everything foreign is suspect. The influences on my own thought and writing are mainly foreign and mostly European - especially Flaubert, Cervantes and Tolstoy - so I was eager to bring to British readers a taste of what's going on in French poetry, but not the poetry that Dominique de Villepin reads."

Le Temps des Cerises founder Francis Combes draws on History to demystify the absolutes of contemporary ideology. Francoise Coulmin explores the female narratives of history. Veteran Jacques Gaucheron recalls past conflicts and old comradeships.

Gerard Noiret fuses the banal and the extraordinary. David Dumortier takes us on a sharp-witted, amusing trip through the underworld of the Metro.

Although their approaches are radically different, they share the same existential charge, wrestling with the essential problem of modern life - the relationship of the individual to society.

"The book's unifying thread is enlightened materialism - freedom is the recognition of necessity. All the poets are disturbed by inequality, brutality, injustice and boredom. The idea of the Metro being free is joyous.

"Let's all work and enjoy our work. Let's work together in a spirit of generosity and share what we produce for the good of all. It's an antidote to the petty, mean-spiritedness of a society where everyone is counting their money and looking over their shoulder.

"The poets here know that sensibility is a product of circumstances and those of the contemporary world, of what Guy Debord called The Spectacle, make us suspicious, greedy, self-seeking, money-obsessed and unhappy.

"The book says that we must reject hubris and live modestly in the world, respecting nature, ourselves and one another. It is a book full of hope. One day, we will all ride on a metro that's free."

When the Metro is Free is available from Smokestack Books, PO Box 408, Middlesbrough TS5 6WA, priced 7.95 plus 50p postage.

To Smokestack


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Publisher: Redbeck Press (Jun 1999)
ISBN-10: 0946980616
ISBN-13: 978-0946980611

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