Patti Smith & A Brief Nod To William Blake
This was originally a part of an overly large out of control post that I have since sliced up. To see the various slices, go to Two Poets.
Which brings us to Patti Smith. Patti Smith is probably most famous for the song Because the Night. That is just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to multiple albums over the years she also has authored multiple books of poetry and prose. And that is her allure. She merges the two. She merges the musical, the lyrical and the poetic; the aural and written traditions. And yes prose must be included here too, but our focus is the poetic. She recites her poetry at shows, she recites others’ poetry during shows. She routinely celebrates poetry and poets through her music, through her shows. She is an artist, poet, and singer and the order can be argued.
Musically, she has recorded a range of albums. Most if not all of them with Lenny Kaye on guitar and Jay Daugherty on drums. A career which stretches from 1974 to the present. She just played Central Park this summer. There was a gap of roughly fifteen years. From roughly 1980 to 1995 where she settled down with Fred “Sonic” Smith, the guitarist for the MC5. Sadly he passed in 1994. In 1995 she put the band back together and has continued on ever since. It was Kaye who introduced the two. Prior to her involvement with Fred Smith she had a long term relationship with Allen Lanier, who was an original member of Blue Oyster Cult. There were discussions at some point of her becoming the vocalist for Blue Oyster Cult and she contributed lyrically to some of their songs.
In short, she was a vital part of the 1970’s New York music, literary and art scene, which was an amazing scene! A scene she got involved with through the bookstore she worked at and the poetry she read at St. Mark’s Poetry Project. Through these she came to be romantically involved with the artist and photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe, living with him in the Hotel Chelsea for several years. His images of her were used on several of her album covers and books. She published her first book of poetry, Babel, in 1974 and her first album, Horses, in 1975.
Just look at that period in that small slice of Manhattan – 1970 to 1975 and beyond. You had the likes of Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg still there. Ginsberg was a fellow resident of the Hotel Chelsea, where Patti Smith and Mapplethorpe lived. You had Andy Warhol with his Factory, which included the Velvet Underground. And then of course there was Lou Reed, and the New York Dolls including Johansen and Thunders. Folks such as Iggy Pop, and David Bowie would pass through for periods of time. There was Max’s Kansas City and then of course CBGB, but that was later. Through this prism she was only further exposed to art, verse and music.
But she shares in various places that she was familiar with Dylan, and more importantly poets such as William Blake and Rimbaud in her teens. Her fascination with poetry perhaps predates the rock. Perhaps she like many had her crush on Mick or Keith, but Rimbaud, I think, was her true lover. All of these just fed and cross pollinated each other, and then later on you add to that the art of Warhol and Mapplethorpe. Further, you find in her work references to O’Keefe, Rothko and Pollock and filmmakers such as Bresson and the list goes on. Her influences are all over the place, but again the deep ones, the ones that she started with, are the poets, specifically Blake and Rimbaud.
Blake and Rimbaud. Two very different poets. William Blake was clearly a romantic poet. Rimbaud was that bridge from the romantic to the modern. Blake lived from 1757 to 1827 and he not only was a poet but artist. He was not recognized for either his poetry nor art until well after he had passed. The man believed that man’s strength is his imagination. He questioned the consequences of Newton’s physics. Basically asking that if Newton was right, what kind of world did we live in? He valued the bible and Christianity but had no use for the church. He felt strongly regarding the freedom of both the races, black and white, and the sexes-male and female. He questioned the institution of marriage, though he did marry and was married for forty years. At that time marriage was still largely an economic matter, and something for the men to negotiate. Women still largely had no say in the matter. This was in the early 1800s.
So Blake the man certainly was of a romantic nature, valuing the imagination, stressing religion over science, but what of his poetry? In a quick scan of the poems in the book, William Blake Poems, which are poems Patti Smith selected you find nature and religious themes. After a quick introduction, she begins with a snippet from a longer work titled Jerusalem. This is followed by several focused on the seasons and then one titled Mary. I am taking a lifetime of work and condensing it into a paragraph. That is the flaw of such essays, but they still introduce us to possibilities.
I leave you with the below, again a certain focus on nature. There are some religious references, some moral component, a hint of sexuality too. Poems such as this can be seductive, and this is the first full poem Smith starts with in her collection of Blake’s work:
To The Evening Star
THOU fair-hair’d angel of the evening,
Now, whilst the sun rests on the mountains, light
Thy bright torch of love; thy radiant crown
Put on, and smile upon our evening bed!
Smile on our loves, and while thou drawest the
Blue curtains of the sky, scatter thy silver dew
On every flower that shuts its sweet eyes
In timely sleep. Let thy west wind sleep on
The lake; speak silence with thy glimmering eyes,
And wash the dusk with silver. Soon, full soon,
Dost thou withdraw; then the wolf rages wide,
And then the lion glares through the dun forest:
The fleeces of our flocks are cover’d with
Thy sacred dew: protect them with thine influence!
‘To the Evening Star’ is reprinted from English Poems. Ed. Edward Chauncey Baldwin. New York: American Book Company, 1908.
Arthur Rimbaud, the French Poet, is I believe the poet that grabbed Patti Smith. Both Rimbaud and Blake had an influence, but it is Rimbaud who took her in her youth. She did select Blake’s poems for the text I used. In the case of Rimbaud, however, she purchased the home he lived in during his youth. To own the residence of a mentor, to own where he lived, is significant.