Patti Smith: Our Punk Poet Laureate Who Allows Herself to See Life Like No One Else

Patti Smith, Women Who Inspire

I first read Patti Smith's memoir Just Kids in July 2012. I remember devouring the confluence of poetry and prose created by a woman who, until that time, I simply revered as the performer and lyricist who put herself -- in all her androgynous glory -- on the cover of her debut album Horses. I knew her as an icon who paved the way for women in the male-dominated 1970s New York City punk scene. That achievement alone is enough for any music fan and feminist to fall in love with Smith. But, for me, Just Kids -- which still sits on my nightstand nearly four years later -- introduced me to a vulnerable and honest Patti, a punk poet who channeled her passion into purpose by feeling the weight of life and loss, love and loneliness, past and present in equal parts. It is that self-realization, authenticity, and vision that makes Patti Smith worthy of our praise this Women's History Month.  


Just Kids, a book that beautifully illustrates Smith's symbiotic relationship with artistic soul mate Robert Mapplethorpe (the Diego Rivera to her Frida Kahlo), also made me nostalgic, made me quietly yearn for a bohemian era that came to a close before I was even born. It made me angry at a world currently ruled by clicks and likes and consumerism. And it made me want to sift through Patti Smith's life to discover the secret to her continued success despite the fame and fortune that she dismissed as corrosive.

Who She Is
Born in Chicago in 1946, Patti Smith spent her teenage years in the New Jersey suburbs, where she was plagued by illness but found solace in books, dead poets, songwriter musicians, and the Bible (although she eschewed organized religion early on). She admits that she was different growing up. She was a child who was "totally seduced" by the work of 19th century bohemian poet Rimbaud and found his symbolic presence in the music of Bob Dylan. She was also wise beyond her years, and realized at an early age (as she wrote in Just Kids) that she was "never going to achieve perfection."
Smith arrived in Brooklyn in 1967, leaving behind a factory job (upon which her song "Factory Piss" is based), an accidental child she gave up for adoption, and a life that restricted her creative desire. The city welcomed her -- penniless, but with perseverance -- as did Mapplethorpe, who shifted from a onetime romantic partner to an integral part of her artistic soul. Manhattan's Chelsea Hotel, which she referred to in her memoir as a "doll's house in The Twilight Zone," also welcomed her as she toiled as a poet and performance artist. And the music world, which was losing so many visionaries at that time, most definitely welcomed her onto the stage of legendary rock club CBGB. She was ultimately welcomed into notoriety with her groundbreaking 1975 album, Horses, which she began with the words, "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine." But these words, from one of her poems that she put to music, weren't really about religion, as she once explained:

It was a declaration of self, not so much about Jesus. He is the vehicle, but I was declaring my existence, my right to make my own mistakes, my right to make my own choices. I was defining the type of artist that was entering the domain of rock & roll and the type of artist that I was, one who was going to make her own decisions. I'm not groomed by anyone.

How She's Shaping History

Often referred to as our Punk Poet Laureate and the Godmother of Punk, Patti Smith has a resume that reads of accolades and achievements that paved the way and consequentially groomed many visual artists, poets, writers, musicians, photographers, and activists like her. (She railed against the Iraq War and AIDS and poverty and the human stain on Mother Earth.) She is a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee, a winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction, a recipient of the Polar Prize (which honors lives dedicated to all forms of arts), a legend named a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture, and a Woman of Valor according to ROCKRGL magazine. Her views are complex and sometimes controversial, but she always remains true to herself.
Patti did not dream of fame and celebrity as we know it today. Instead she once declared in an interview that she wanted to simply make an impact:

When I was young, all I wanted was to write books and be an artist. I got sidetracked, almost as a mission, to give something to the canon of rock'n'roll in the manner in which people I admired had. In other words, forming a cultural voice through rock'n'roll that incorporated sex and art and poetry and performance and revolution.

I'd like to think that some of the powerful female singer-songwriters I listened to (on repeat) as a teenager -- Fiona Apple, Tori Amos, PJ Harvey, Alanis Morissette -- owe a part of their success to the cultural voice Patti formed. It's a contribution to the musical canon made not by her focusing on the fact that she is a woman, but by her acting like an artist equal to that of men. I just wish that Patti would realize the feminist that she's actually become.

On a more personal level, her memoir Just Kids continues to give a generation of young women yearning for the same kind of artistic freedom and fulfillment a silent confidante who is present in the pages of the book that lay on their nightstands. Now we also have her memoir M Train, in which she admits her obsession for travel and television crime dramas, her love of coffee, and -- in the first sentence -- that "it's not so easy writing about nothing." To a writer, that validation is everything.

More from The Stir: Courtney Love: The Grunge Queen Feminist Our Teenage Selves Needed

Her Words to Live By

Patti Smith is a woman famous for her words -- ones that seemingly come easily and naturally. But the words she now tells her own two children (and probably her grandson) are the ones that carry the most weight:

All I can say is, anything that I do, if I put it out into the world, I do the best I can. If I look back at it, I can cringe and say I had so much hubris or I'm singing through my nose, I'm so nasally. But I always know that that girl did the best that she could at that time in her life. That's all you can ask of yourself. By the way, that's what I tell my kids, too. Do the best you can.

She also passes along the words told to her by Beat writer William Burroughs -- words she adhered to when she felt that the fame she achieved in the '70s wasn't allowing her to grow as an artist:

He told me, 'Always keep your name clean.' We all make mistakes and we do things that might be wrong, but in choices, if you want to be an artist, if you want your work to be meaningful, then don't compromise it. Don't compromise your name. Basically, keep your name clean. He was more talking about work. That was good advice. Sometimes we get offered things or things come our way that are hard to walk away from because they're so tempting or maybe it's something we don't really believe in, but it's so much money. I always think about that. What would William do? I'd say that was a pretty good piece of advice.

Why She Inspires Me
Patti Smith, who never wanted to be a parent, now says her proudest achievements are her kids, who were born during the time when she left the spotlight of NYC (to which she eventually returned) for a life in Detroit with her husband, musician Fred "Sonic" Smith. She once told an interviewer, "When I shut my eyes, [my greatest days have] to be my wedding night, the birth of my son, and the birth of my daughter. If I'm not allowed to have three, then I would just say, the day I was born, because I'm so happy to be alive."

And being happy to be alive is something that I admire in a woman who has lost so much and has felt so much kinship to a world that left her. She lost the artistic solace she found in Robert, who photographed her for her iconic album cover, to AIDS in 1989; she lost the love she found with her husband when he died in 1994; she lost a city once steeped in creative energy. She writes in Just Kids that even when she lived in the doll's house of the Chelsea Hotel, she felt its ghosts, "sniffed out its spirits as I silently scurried from floor to floor, longing for discourse with a gone procession of smoking caterpillars." She certainly succeeded in bridging that procession of greatness to the present.

As a former adjunct English professor, I once shared the tradition of keeping Just Kids on my nightstand with my students and included Patti Smith's words as required reading in my class. Why? Because to be a good writer and reader and participant in life, one has to approach the world the same way Patti approached hers. This allowed her to document her love story with Robert in what inevitably became a love letter to a city that nurtured the artist as a young girl.

"I wrote down what happened, every day," she explained once in an interview. "I have little notations like 'Cut Robert's hair,' 'Met Janis Joplin,' 'Got a new book store job,' 'Met Salvadore Dali.'" That appreciation for the process, for both the milestones and minutia of life, for the intersection of the past with the present, is what makes Patti Smith see the world deeply and passionately. It is what makes her able to reflect that in her prolific body of work, especially in her award-winning memoir. For it is in that memoir that she recalls Robert telling her, "Patti, nobody sees as we do." 

This, though, was how I saw her in 2012 at Madison Square Garden in all her then 66-year-old glory. Rock on, Patti.


Image via Christopher Felver/Corbis
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