"And All the Sinners, Saints": Patti Smith, Pioneer Musician and Poet

By Smith, Greg | The Midwest Quarterly, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

"And All the Sinners, Saints": Patti Smith, Pioneer Musician and Poet


Smith, Greg, The Midwest Quarterly


IN 1968, the year the Rolling Stones released their landmark masterpiece album Beggars Banquet, Patti Lee Smith was rooming in New York City with an undiscovered artist/photographer named Robert Mappelthorpe. She was not yet the subversive visionary poet or the rebellious rock-and-roll subculture icon she would soon become, but she was a young discontent with a brief art school background, a devotee of Rimbaud--and a rabid Stones fan. "[B]lind love for my father was the first thing I sacrificed to Mick Jagger," she wrote in a 1973 article for Creem magazine entitled "Rise of the Sacred Monsters," in which she recounts in prose poem form the importance of the Stones to the development of the sexual and spiritual aspects of her psyche, both of which would later manifest themselves as primary themes in her poetry and her music (211). That Smith, who had grown up a social introvert during the conservative late 1950s and early 1960s under the conflicting direction of a strict Jehovah's Witness mother and an outspoken atheist father (who managed to remain married to each other, somehow), would find release and inspiration in the Rolling Stones is not surprising. The Stones systematically thumbed their noses at all kinds of conventions and trends--social, political, and sexual--and got away with it, all the while asserting their positions as outsiders who understood and empathized with the anger, loneliness, and disillusionment felt by other outsiders. Although it was the mother who was the religious figure in her childhood, it is not hard to image Smith glimpsing herself in the song "Jigsaw Puzzle" from the Beggars Banquet album:

   There's a tramp sitting on my doorstep, trying to waste his time With his
   mentholated sandwich, he's a walking clothesline-- And here comes the
   bishop's daughter, on the other side And she looks a trifle jealous, she's
   been all outcast all her life....

Indeed, this lyric comes close to allegorizing what Clinton Heylin terms the "religious schizophrenia which would colour Smith's entire work" (104). On one side of the road is Smith's self (the bishop's daughter), complete with religious indoctrination, and on the other side is the tempting decadence of society (the tramp, who is, interestingly enough, male), smoking and wasting time. Implicit here is the idea that the bishop's daughter wants to cross the road and join the tramp in experiencing the earthy pleasure of sheer indulgence, and she is jealous because her religious indoctrination is preventing her from actually doing so. In her own life and in her careers in both poetry and rock and roll, however--careers that merged so often and in so many ways that there is no point in separating them exclusively--Patti Smith did cross the road and join the tramp, a move that resulted in the creation of poetry and music which is by frequent turns visionary, insightful, rebellious, tender, coarse, frightening, and informed on the whole with a raw intelligence and an aggressive immediacy and passion not seen often in the majority of mainstream rock and roll or in more "academic" versification.

Although it might be generally accepted that the aesthetic similarities of rock music and poetry are tenuous at best, it should also be kept in mind that both mediums often share in spirit and emotion what they do not in presentation; in other words, both poetry and rock music can have profound meaning to and impact on those who create and those who partake of either, despite the fact that most critics would agree that poetry is the "superior" art form. In this respect, then, the work of Patti Smith becomes very interesting and important for a couple of reasons. First, although music critics often speak of certain songwriters as being either poets or poetic in their endeavors (i.e., Bruce Springsteen), they often do so only in the most colloquial manner, because no matter how close song lyrics come to being what might conventionally be thought of as poetry--and in the case of an artist like Springsteen, this can sometimes be very close indeed--the fact remains that songwriters such as these pen lyrics, however sophisticated they may be, to be placed within a musical framework. …

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