on April 8, 2008
Poetry is something that is too hard, too strange, too weird. Who buys poetry books anymore? Patti Smith's weird, strange, sometimes baffling but ultimately satisfying collection of poems, prose and auguries (omens and portents) is a book that poetry needs; it is gentle, soothing, challenging and mysterious.
A generation ago, New York went through one of its recurring radioactively artistic periods, the mid to late 1970s, the flowering of the punk rock scene, the de-flowering of the mega-arena rock of the day. Patti Smith became one of the shining stars of the New York punk world by reciting her wildly ecstatic poems with friend Lenny Kaye's guitar accompaniment. With loud guitars, her poetry became punk. Poetry for the masses. Well, maybe not. With the release of what became a landmark in American music, Horses, (1975, recently re-issued and expanded on Arista Records) Ms Smith began a career in arts and letters that saw a peak last year with her being decorated by the French Minister of Culture as a Commandeur of the Order of Arts and Letters. Not bad for a scraggly, skinny androgynous girl from New Jersey who looked like Keith Richards if you squinted.
But her influences are not the usual suspects. Not Dylan, not Burroughs, not even Ginsberg. This is not just another boomer nostalgia thing. Ms Smith finds heroes and models in the visionary, romantic, hallucinatory 19th century words of William Blake, Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine. Ms. Smith's title itself is homage to Blake's own Auguries of Innocence, written two hundred years ago in another age, perhaps wormhole connected to ours, one with empires ebbing and flowing across the earth, cruelty abounding, leaving innocents as victims. Unabashedly political, a rhythmic trance in short sharp lines as bleak and dark as a night of shock and awe, Birds of Iraq, the book's centerpiece, leaves no Iraqi innocent behind. "March twentieth/Awake spring./The birds are silent./It is happening again./I rise yet cannot rise./I take to my bed/Wind the sheet/About my head./It is coming on/A nerve storm" This is strong stuff. Perhaps Birds of Iraq is a companion piece to Ms Smith's recent song Radio Baghdad, a hypnotic meditation over dark pulsing guitars that is rock `n roll--but not poetry.
Perhaps less convincing, but still with a wordsmith resonance is The Long Road. "We tramped in our black coats,/Sweeping time,/Sleeping in abandoned chimneys,/Emerging to face the rain./Wet, bedraggled, a bit gone,/Trudging the grooves,/chewing bulbs,/We were so hungry, tulips/blazed with ragged petals...../Happily, we begin again." One cannot resist seeing cherished boomer Woodstock images that may drive those of lesser age crazy. But so what? It's her poem and she can do whatever she wants with it.
She says she is an "unfashionably unreconstructed `60s radical." That, and the music of poetry are not bad things to have around during these troubled times.