The Literary World of Patti Smith

Updated on February 19, 2018
harrynielsen profile image

The biographies of the literary greats tells us many things about these authors and the times in which they wrote.

Patti Smith Performing

Patti Smith performing in Germany in 1978, from wikipedia, photo by Klaus Hiltscher
Patti Smith performing in Germany in 1978, from wikipedia, photo by Klaus Hiltscher

Smith at the Nobel Gala

Later this week Patti Smith will perform a Bob Dylan song at the Nobel Prize gala, which will be held in Stockholm on December 10, 2016. The song to be performed is an old 60s classic called A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall. At the same time Patti will accept the literature award, which the Nobel Prize committee has decided to bestow on the American troubadour and folksinger.

The Poetry of Patti Smith

Before Patti became the "Godmother of Punk", she wrote poetry, she published poetry and then she read her poetry in public. Like thousands of other writers, who had gone down this same road, these literary activities, though high-minded in nature, did not garnish her much critical acclaim or financial success.

In 1972 and 1973, Patti Smith published five chapbooks of poetry with her first being titled Seventh Heaven. Then Patti had an inspiration. At a poetry reading held at the St. Marks Church in Greenwich Village, she brought along a guitarist, who accompanied her during her performance. Right away, her poems took off as songs and soon thereafter Patti Smith was a successful recording artist.

Many successful musicians have published books of poetry after their initial success, but few have first published written poetry before turning to song and music. The only other that I can think of is Leonard Cohen, who wrote poetry and two novels before becoming a recording artist.


Patti Smith As Seen by Robert Mapplethorpe

Patti Smith on the cover of her album, simply called Horses
Patti Smith on the cover of her album, simply called Horses

More Than Just a Rock and Roll Singer

In 2010, Patti Smith won a National Book Award for her nonfictional recollection of her early years with avant-garde photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe. Titled Just Kids, the memoir details Greenwich Village in the late sixties, as seen by Patti and her friend, lover and muse, Mr. Mapplethorpe. Since its release, the book has received mostly good reviews, as the story journeys back forty years, to a time when music was king.

Presently, it is starting to look like Patti is definitely not a one hit wonder in the literary world, for she has another publication out. Another memoir, M Train, was released in 2015. The book is not as linear as Just Kids, for though it contains some details about Patti's life with Robert Maplethorpe, the crust of the story is about Patti's life after the famed photographer died. As one reviewer put it, M Train is not so much about achieving fame, but how to survive it.

With two published manuscripts, Ms. Smith is moving towards a literary career, equaled by few, if any rock musicians. With these achievements, it is not at all surprising that she was invited to perform at the 2016 Nobel Prize gala. Not bad for a college dropout.

A New York Punker

Patti Smith performing at Cornell University in 1986
Patti Smith performing at Cornell University in 1986

A Mainstay of the 70s Punk Scene

The Punk Wave was not exclusively a New York City movement, but the city definitely became one of the major hubs for the driving, raucous new sound. Besides the Patti Smith Group, the New York scene was defined by the likes of such bands as the New York Dolls,the Dictators, the Ramones and the Talking Heads, who actually got their act together in Rhode Island.

Punk had a raw rock drive that was often accompanied by poetic lyrics and a highly visually-oriented stage performance. During this time Patti Smith distinguished herself with a strong lyrical force that not only expressed itself onstage and in her recordings, but also in the written word as well. In fact, her first album, Horses, included some material that can best be described as pure poetry.

During this highly creative period (1974-1979), the Patti Smith group released four albums.

A Return to Writing

In the mid nineties, before she started to write her memoirs and after the death of her husband, Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith did some things that she had always done. Beginning in 1992, she wrote two very short books and then in 1996 went on tour with a newly formed band. The books, Woolgathering (1992) and The Coral Sea (1996) are noteworthy because they are both about the size of a pack of cards and consist of autobiographical material. In a way, they could be seen as forerunners to her two widely-read memoirs that were put out more recently.

Questions & Answers

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      • harrynielsen profile image
        Author

        Harry Nielsen 13 months ago from Durango, Colorado

        I'm impressed by her writing (literary) ability.

      • Robb Hoff profile image

        Robb Hoff 13 months ago from Cincinnati, Ohio

        Her Dancing Barefoot is one of the most truly magical songs ever.

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gcbuG2w0Kzo

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