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Poésie dans le Métro: Poetry as Commuter

Essay by Anna Aublet

If you go underground to ride a Parisian subway these days, or take a bus to go about your daily routine, you might find yourself staring at a poem by Jacques Prévert, and accidentally reading it. We move from flash mobs to flash poetry. Many poems written by writers, known or unknown, are posted up on subway platforms, in trains and busses. Poetry has come to fill the foggy gap that separates the two rounds of the presidential election (that Emmanuel Macron will win). The idea is not new, but it developed greatly after the attacks and poetic lines are now spread all over the walls of the city like a protective spell. It is quite interesting for poetry to be shared like that in public transportation, in those transitory places that are always in movement. It makes the poems move forward, gives them dynamics and energy and reminds us that poetry itself is both a vehicle and a passenger: it commutes, literally.

So poetry has found a new space in the city. It is not the thing of fancy cafés, it belongs with the drifters, the rats and foul smells of the underground. The subway is the symbolic locus of the margin, the in-between, it lays at the frontier between the visible and the invisible. From the water spouting out in the Parisian gutters to keep the streets clean to the magmatic chambers, the unfathomable guts of the earth are a fertile ground on which to sow poetic seeds. Prévert’s poem “Éclaircie” celebrates the poetic power of a metro daydream and repeats like a mantra: “I am in the metro, I doze off, I fall asleep, a woman I love comes and sits next to me”. The inaugural poem of the poet’s first collection Paroles, opens on a list and develops the anaphora “those who”, cracking and fissuring the language and digging straight down to the ground as he did in this famous instance I read in the subway just last week:

Une pierre
deux maisons
trois ruines
quatre fossoyeurs
un jardin
des fleurs
un raton laveur

Une douzaine d’huîtres un citron un pain
un rayon de soleil
une lame de fond
six musiciens
une porte avec son paillasson
un monsieur décoré de la légion d’honneur

Une autre raton laveur1 […]
from “Inventaire”

The inventory, the list, the catalogue, the register, the record, the directory functions as an antidote, a counterweight to the neon advertising board standing next to it in front of the anxious passenger on the platform. It bypasses the codes of advertising hype and diverts its direction. Prévert intended to start with the ground below his feet, the prosaic world of the ordinary,“a stone”, “a garden”, “flowers” and so his poetry has quite naturally made its way to the underground to become the fellow traveller of all the Persephones of Paris. It is a meeting that is taking place in this display of poetry, between life and art, between poetry and its bemused readers.

William Carlos Williams, who compared himself to a stray dog in a park at Paterson many years ago, would come forth leaping and exclaim: “[Poetry] belongs there, in the gutter”,2 it sprouts where you might least expect it and cracks the asphalt like a flower, “saxifrage / is my flower that splits / the rocks”.3 Poetry is better suited for the subway than the school where so many of Prévert’s poems were learnt by heart and recited by unwilling pupils. Now his poem “le Cancre” [school dunce] finds itself plastered next to an advertisement for a big tutoring company: irony. But at least, poetry is used as a true williamsian field of action”: it is not buried in time but moving in the belly of the city.

1 Jacques Prévert, Œuvres Complètes, Gallimard, bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Paris, 1992, 131.
2 William Carlos Williams, Selected Letters, New Directions, New York, 1957, 263.
3 ————. Collected Poems, Vol II, New Directions, New York, 1988, 55.

Anna Aublet writes from Paris.

This essay first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #22