Patti Smith

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Jonathan Cott

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 997

The writer Grace Paley once talked in an interview about the fact that many women missed the sense of boyhood when they were children, "the freedom and excitement of boyhood," and that girls would try "to invent some kind of risky, boyhood life for [their] girlhood—which creates imagination, which means imagination."

Patti Smith—poet and rock-and-roll star—accepted her boyhood life right from the beginning. "Female. feel male," she wrote in her little book "Seventh Heaven." "Ever since I felt the need to choose / I'd choose male."…

A kind of cross between Alice in Wonderland and Huck Finn—a working-class kid who took off from the New Jersey backwater to become a poète maudit in New York City—Patti Smith seems to have nurtured her contradictions not so much with "joy and terror"—as Baudelaire said he nurtured his hysteria—but with a tomboyish sense of comedy and curiosity. (p. 9)

Her sensibility is one that borrows and embraces Gnostictinged, heterodoxical ideas and feelings that have appeared in the cosmogony of William Blake, the ritualism and paranoia of Baudelaire, the illuminations of Rimbaud, the menacing sexual fantasies of Lautréamont, Bataille and Genet. And her esthetic program is one that owes an incalculable debt to Antonin Artaud, who, in the words of Roger Shattuck, "concocted a magic amalgam of theatrical style, occult and esoteric knowledge … antiliterary pronouncements, drug cultism and revolutionary rhetoric without politics."

Patti Smith has taken this magic amalgam and manifested it in what she calls "3 chord rock merged with the power of the word," claiming that rock-and-roll is "the highest and most universal form of expression since the lost tongue (time: pre-Babel)." Certainly, since the 1960's, rock-and-roll has been a perfect arena for sympathetic magic and convulsive theatrics, for ecstatic poetry and collective transcendence. As with Artaud, however, it is hard to separate Smith's poetry and recordings from her public persona, for she has been producing—as Susan Sontag has said of Artaud—not so much a literary and musical body of work as a "self." And it is a self that consciously draws on the mythological presence of rock stars such as Jim Morrison and Lou Reed (both of whom are also published poets), Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix.

As an intense, thin, almost etiolated figure … she imitates and mirrors the image of the androgynous male rock-and-roll hero, which allows her to avoid the stereotyped victim-or-vamp role-playing of most female performers. And by adopting a paradoxical theatrical stance—one that confuses male and female roles and that combines the acoustic magic of Rimbaud and the Ronettes—Patti Smith has been able to develop, explore and create a certain shamanistic presence that has eluded many aspiring rock-and-roll seers and heroes. (pp. 9, 29)

And in the role of shaman she bridges this world, the underworld and the heavens, and brings back news from the shadows; she contacts ghosts, makes love with the dead and transforms herself into animals (a black-haired, blue-eyed skunk dog in one poem). As she said in an interview with Amy Gross in Mademoiselle: "I get into so many genders I couldn't even tell you. I've written from the mouth of a dog, a horse, dead people, anything. I don't limit myself. Some of the best sex I ever had was with Rimbaud or Jimi Hendrix. I call them my brainiac-amours. Nothing sick about it, ya know. I get a lot of good poetry out of it. Me and Rimbaud have made it a million times."

To many people, most or all of the above will sound demented if not pretentious. And to them, her new book "Babel"—about 60 lyrics, poems and prose poems (most of them previously unpublished) that are set in lower case typeface with expressive but intentionally crude punctuation and spelling—will prove to be the work of an overwrought poetaster suffering from dysphoria and delirium tremens. To me, it is an alternately dazzling, uneven, arousing, annoying, imitative, original work.

Of course Patti Smith sounds like everyone who has influenced her—especially Lautréamont, Rimbaud, Bataille, Burroughs and Paul Bowles—and even like those who probably haven't—Mina Loy and Else von Freytag-Loringhoven come to mind. Of course her obsession with "love / and sex drugs and death," with "the freedom to be intense," with her pantheon of heroines including Joan of Arc and Marianne Faithfull, and with the ideas that vision places one in a state of grace and that "the cross is just the true shape of a tortured woman" are hyperalgesic pubescent and adolescent concerns. As Baron von Hugel once wrote, true illumination results in a special sweetness of temper; and in "Babel" there is more violence than grace, more bravado, swagger, machine-like lovemaking, "cooked" lesbian encounters, embodiments of rapists, masturbatory fantasies of sexual vengeance, reveries of saints and studs, Ethiopians and lepers, "disintegration and bending notes."

But out of the "realm of dreams and of fever" and in the "forbidden cinema" of her naturally hallucinating mind, Patti Smith has also given us some wonderful passages….

The 16th-century Venetian courtesan poet Gaspara Stampa used outworn Petrarchan forms and imagery to write powerful sonnets on the themes of "fever and love." Patti Smith employs such overused surrealistic ideas as "the omnipotence of dream" and "the disinterested play of thought" to give us a number of poems—and two wonderful records …—that have more energy and passion than many well-regarded works by American surrealists like Parker Tyler and Philip Lamantia. And if Patti Smith lacks the range of poets such as Diane di Prima, Anne Waldman and Carolyn Forché, she must still be praised for her insistence that one "never let go of the fiery sadness called desire," for her striving to attain the kind of vision Rimbaud nicknamed "voyance"—and this at a time when many writers settle simply for being voyeurs. (p. 29)

Jonathan Cott, "Rock and Rimbaud," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 19, 1978, pp. 9, 29.

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