Saturday, June 11, 2005

Poet and Prime Minister

Reading a French paper this evening, I encountered one of those "What do they think about us?" articles originally printed in the Spanish newspaper 'El Mundo' and translated into French. The author, apparently Spanish judging by the name, does a hatchet job on the new French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin under the heading: "Yet another Frenchman who thinks he is Napoléon!". To do justice to this article, I'll have to translate some of it again, this time into English.

"The press says that Villepin is the lapdog of Chirac, which is partly true. He is faithful, disciplined and a bit of a snob. He displays a prefabricated elegance and a metrosexual coquettry. He has thrived in the shadow of an organised power structure, has never presented himself for election and knows neither the ghettos of Marseille or the suburbs of Lille. His universe consists of Parisian salons, the world of the Guermantes. He plays tennis well and his hobby, like Churchill, is figurative painting. He is also a mediocre poet and a prolific writer of prose that is antiquated, lyrical and pompous. These texts are charged with metaphors and saturated with paradoxes. No, Villepin is not a modest man. He has that French narcissism mocked by Glucksmann and aspires to grandeur as much as, if not more, than Chirac."

A "metrosexual" is a term normally applied to French men in their twenties who are more interested in making themselves look beautiful than in finding a girlfriend. Apparently, they spend all their money on visiting beauty parlours and buying clothes. I have yet to meet one. As to the question: "Are metrosexuals homosexual or heterosexual?" in fact, that doesn't really matter "as they only love themselves." However, the implication in this article is that Villepin is a bit of a pansy (as well as a snob). That impression is reinforced by reference to the Guermantes characters from À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, by Marcel Proust. How does the writer know Villepin has never been to Marseille or Lille? So is he a bad poet because his work is charged with metaphors?. Think carefully before you reply. And how about paradoxes?. How outmoded can it possibly be to say that one thing is like another? Rather, it is at the heart of literary inspiration and imagination. How does the writer know he is a 'mediocre' poet? Is he narcissistic because he writes poetry, or because he plays tennis?

I react very badly to this article. I find it outrageous to attack a man's character simply because he writes, whether it is poetry, history or reflections on the society around him. In the case of Villepin, he writes in all three styles. I have never read any of Villepin's writing, but I intend to. And after reading this article I can say that I am glad to be working in and for a country where poetry and literature are treated seriously. Where, if a politician poses with a shelf of poetry books behind him (as I saw recently on the poster for our local conservative candidate) he is considered as a thinker rather than as effete.

For if we say that a politician should not be allowed to make his feelings felt in poetry, then we are essentially saying that poetry should know its place. But poetry is not like that. If poetry finds you, then you are a poet. You may be a 'mediocre' poet, but you are still a poet. And if you are a poet, you will know yourself and the world around you all the better for that.

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