Patti Smith Critical Essays

Introduction

Patti Smith 1946–

American songwriter, poet, playwright, and journalist. Smith's works have synthesized the influences of French and American literary figures of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and rock musicians of the sixties into reflections of her own unique fantasies and visions. Her mergings of passionate stream-of-consciousness lyrics with rock and reggae rhythms, coupled with an exciting delivery in concert, have helped to move the image of the contemporary poet away from an ivory-tower stereotype. She uses powerful imagery in her poetry and song lyrics to frame subjects of violence, anarchy, and eroticism. She can, however, be delicate and sensitive, and often colors her work with religious themes and allusions, as with "Easter," which is based on the first communion of her greatest influence, French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud. It is this combination of rawness and tenderness that defines her art and seems to give Smith her greatest appeal. One of her major themes is that of artist as outcast, and she sees her own life as following that tradition. Smith moved to New York in 1967 after dropping out of teacher's college and working in a New Jersey toy factory, which served as the stimulus for her first song, "Piss Factory." She developed a legendary reputation as an unconventional journalist and started writing verses and plays in 1970. She coauthored the play "Cowboy Mouth" with Sam Shepard and began to give readings of her poetry in churches and small clubs, accompanied by rock critic Lenny Kaye on guitar. In 1974 she formed the Patti Smith Group and started setting her poems to music. One of the first performers to appear at New York club CBGB, a spawning-ground for New Wave talent, Smith achieved underground notoriety and cult status for her improvisatory lyrics, intense performances, and tough, cool style. Her work has been criticized for its shapelessness and lack of discipline, especially for the song "Radio Ethiopia," a torrent of words and feedback. She has also been considered pretentious and unoriginal for her conscious emulation of Rimbaud, Bob Dylan, William Burroughs, Mick Jagger, and others, and has been called sexually ambiguous for often writing her poetry from the male viewpoint. Smith has recently become commercially successful with "Because the Night," on which she collaborated with Bruce Springsteen. Her obvious pleasure in this achievement has been criticized, with both fans and critics expressing the fear that this success signals her movement away from her punk roots. However, Smith speaks directly to her young adult audience, and has said that she cares only about their agreement with what she says. She seems to understand their alienation from society and desire for freedom, and delivers her messages with sincerity.