Patti Smith's poetry.

Examining culture and the arts.
Jan. 11 2006 11:23 AM

Patti Smith, Meet Sylvia Plath

Rock stars who write poems.

Patti Smith in concert. 
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Patti Smith in concert

There is nothing tidy about Patti Smith. Her wiry hair is often tangled. She is called the "Godmother of punk," but her "punk" songs last much longer than the conventional three minutes, and have been known to involve digressions about William Blake. At the height of '70s nihilism, epitomized by the Sex Pistols ("I got no emotions for anybody else/ You better understand I'm in love with myself"), she remained a Rimbaudian troubadour devoted to the visionary tradition ("And I know soon that the sky will split/ And the planets will shift/ Balls of jade will drop.") Today, over lunch at a Midtown restaurant, she could be mistaken for a naif, speaking of art as a pursuit of the "good" and the "sacred." Except she knows perfectly well how she sounds. She is, she has said, an "unfashionably unreconstructed '60s radical." The truth is that Smith has little respect for categories. She is one of the world's most influential rock stars, yet she continues to write, of all things, poetry.

Last fall marked the 30th anniversary of Smith's Horses, her landmark debut album, which helped usher in the punk rock era. She observed the occasion by playing two sold-out shows at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York (and blowing critics away), and by releasing Auguries of Innocence, a slim book of verse robed in a modest gray dust jacket without any accolades from fellow authors. Over lunch, she was happy to talk about her poetic influences. "I've been slowly reading more contemporary poetry—someone like James Wright, or Sylvia Plath, who is probably my biggest influence among contemporary poets. I learned a lot from her rhythms, repetition, and her strong sense of poetic structure," she said, with unstudied enthusiasm.

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Readers might be forgiven for approaching Auguries of Innocence with trepidation. Musicians who write poetry don't exactly have a distinguished track record. In 1998, the pop star Jewel released A Night Without Armor, which was either "childish and silly" or "truly touching" and full of "true expression," depending on your critical vantage point and on your appetite for lines like, "How my belly/ hollows and aches/ craving seed/ craving kisses." In 2004, the Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan released a collection of poems titled Blinking With Fists. The promising synesthesia of the title gave way inside to sentiments such as "Lift your hand and let those birds soar with this sweet music," and "I am your eternal love." Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, a gifted musician with far more artistic cred than, say, Jewel, also hit some bumpy patches: "No one/ will tell you/ you are not/ a rainbow," he writes in his 2004 collection, Adult Head. David Berman's collection Actual Air is an exception to the rule. But even lyrical geniuses who try to make the crossing to literature's high ground have foundered in the shoals of their notebooks: Think of Bob Dylan's Tarantula.

So, it is a welcome surprise to discover that Smith's book is distinguished by its good writing. For one thing, she displays a true curiosity about poetic tradition, and her poems don't straggle down the page like pigeon tracks. And her willingness to write the way she wants to—out of an ecstatic heart—may come, for some readers, as a welcome antidote to what Dan Chiasson called the "studied aridities" of so much contemporary verse.

Smith was a poet before she became a musician. As a sickly girl in southern New Jersey, her romantic heroes were all poets: She pored over Robert Louis Stevenson, William Blake, and, later, Rimbaud. "I was writing poetry when I was a teenager—really bad jazz poetry, long poems on the death of Charlie Parker, things like that." When she moved to New York with Robert Mapplethorpe, then her lover, her interest was fed by the rebellious literary energy of the Beats. "When we moved to the Chelsea Hotel in 1969, I met a lot of poets and writers and developed my poetry more. In Brooklyn, I had worked on drawing, but in the Chelsea Hotel I saw Allen Ginsberg or William Burroughs every day. Gregory [Corso] was there, Jim Carroll—so poetry was a very strong force then," she said. One day, she asked the guitarist Lenny Kaye to plug in and add some musical accompaniment during a reading she gave in St. Mark's Church. Her performative gifts were self-evident, and she became a rock star almost instantly. In the oral history Please Kill Me, an early publisher of her poetry, Victor Bockris, recalls thinking, "She's an asshole, but she's really good."

Auguries of Innocence is a testament to her ongoing devotion to poetry—and not the poetry of her contemporaries. She adheres to poetic inversion and archaic language, and the poems are studded by her trademark French symbolist abstractions: "I saw the book upon the shelf,/ I saw you who was myself" (a la Rimbaud) and "I will sit here till dawn tripping/ the spine of the stars." The influence of poets like Baudelaire and Blake (whose "The Chimney Sweeper" she reprises here) is obvious, and her wide reading has resulted in a sense of how structure and sentiment intertwine in poetry. She relies on short lines and tercets for a hammering effect in "Birds of Iraq," a political poem that effectively intertwines Virginia Woolf's biography with events in Iraq. If there are a few too many invocations of moons, she also writes touchingly about loss, avoiding the usual clichés. She builds solid, blocky stanzas in poems like "To His Daughter," which is addressed to her niece, after her father (Smith's brother) died: "He is the gust that lifts a bit of sail/ To press your cheek, wipe the tears./ A bit of sail without moral/ turning like an apron on the cloud"—a nice little twist, since we associate aprons with mothers. She says that these poems are highly "personal," but the reader would be hard-pressed to find the therapeutic disclosure and earnest cris de coeur that animate the work of plenty of confessional poets (including Jewel).

Why, you might wonder, are so many musicians writing poems in the first place? After all, rock 'n' roll clearly trumps poetry as a popular art form. Perhaps it's that the authenticity of rock in the 1960s has been diluted in its middle age, when, as Smith puts it, musicians are "sleeping with business." Being a rock star demands a far more professional approach than it did in 1975—an approach that, whatever its upside, saps rock 'n' roll of some of its rebellious energy. For musicians like Tweedy and Corgan, presumably preoccupied by questions of authenticity, turning to poetry not only lends them artistic credibility, but may allow them to feel they're doing something pure again. (After all, there's no money involved.)

Whatever the case, Smith's poems are better than her peers' largely because she draws a firm line between her music and her poetry. Refreshingly, she doesn't assume that she can write poems just because she can write songs—even though the opposite assumption led to her success as a musician. What's more, unlike Christopher Ricks—the T.S. Eliot scholar who recently published an explication de texte of Dylan's lyrics—she doesn't think it makes sense to call song lyrics "poetry." She believes that rock is for the people, and that poetry is for God, or the muse. She is happy to have her poems find a home in the world, but their urgency is primarily a private one.

Reading Blake, she told me, "reminded me of how elegantly he lived through personal strife and poverty, how he kept his personal vision"—a vision she strives to adhere to herself: namely, that music, poems, and paintings can make us better people. If part of the reason we care about her poems has something to do with her being a rock star, that's OK. Another part of the reason is that Patti Smith herself, on the page as on the stage, is an undaunted embodiment of the idea that practicing art is a human necessity. It's an idea Blake would have liked.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.

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