Tag Archives: Patti Smith

Woolgathering – Patti Smith

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Woolgathering is a curious little book. Patti Smith wrote it, on demand, for the publisher of Hanuman Books who was a friend. The books were as small as chapbooks so she wrote something more like runes or fragments of poems than a continuous story.

Parts of it read like a nervous breakdown set to words.

Some of it is poetry.

Most is reminiscence and reflection but some seems made up.

The language is oddly mannered, European and old-fashioned, sprinkled with jarring words like ‘kink’ and ‘hairy’ and discordant images like ‘razor blades’ and ‘walkie-talkie.’

She circles back again and again to rubies and blood. She tells a heartbreaking story of the death of her childhood dog. She moves in some mystical fog and dreams about dancing on clouds.

Reading Woolgathering, I was alternately irritated and fascinated. Is this book a spell or a self-indulgence?  I couldn’t tell. But a few bits about India I recognized. And cattail punks and minnows from the creek of my own childhood I remembered.

I decided it was an artifact, a thing mind-made or handmade in a slow time out of time. It holds blurry photographs from family albums. The focus is off, just slightly, a metaphor for another way to see.

Woolgathering   Patti Smith | New Directions Books   2011

Howl — Allen Ginsberg

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Maybe it was reading Patti Smith’s memoir that sent me to the poetry shelves for Howl. I have a City Lights pocket-size square of a book, slightly warped from some dousing or other—probably one of the upstairs neighbor’s floodings. I hadn’t read it for years. Hadn’t seen Ginsberg for years either.

But he used to show up sometimes at the loft with the bathtub and toilet behind a curtain in SoHo where a dancer lived and held open meditation sessions. A Tibetan monk ran the talks and meditations—I think he might have lived there, too, in a curtained-off corner of the huge open space. We arrived to share momos—Tibetan dumplings—on feast days, talks and reflections and a meditation on others. We sat on cushions scattered around the floor and I don’t remember if Ginsberg ever talked—I think not. I was a little bit in awe of him then but not entirely.

The first time I saw him was in Miami at an elegant party in the fabulous home of wealthy Cuban exiles who were feting some arts group or museum or something. My life in Miami had a lot of yacht racing and little-black-dress parties in it. Ginsberg smiled politely and shook the requisite hands but kept mostly to himself–introverted? bored?–and kept his eye on a skinny young guy in black jeans and black shirt. When the guy slipped over the low wall off the patio and vanished into the night, Ginsberg disappeared, too. I never actually made his acquaintance.

I owned Howl by then, though. It was a rough intrusion into my Pablo Neruda/Audre Lorde/translations-of Rumi/Yeats/Whitman/Dickinson world. The life Ginsberg described was so unadorned, so graphic, so frightening in its poverty, bruises, depravities and blood. At the same time, the poems—the volume contains “Howl” and a number of additional poems—were so clear-eyed, appreciative of beauty amid the ruins, hopeful in an uncompromising grimly optimistic way. The poet seemed to me to have extraordinary courage—and he owned language the way a master artist owns the colors of his paints.

Back in the day, Howl was grabbed by the local constabulary and the U.S. government and subjected to an obscenity trial. Today, most of the material, if not all of the specific language, is available on nightly TV. Howl’s depictions of the chasms of experience between the artists and the merchants survived the passage of time. We still starve our poets and parade them at receptions. A few have the self-preservation, or self-gratification instinct to duck out the back. We still relegate the insistent questioners to the fringes and celebrate the mediocrity that feeds commerce. We still regard imagination and idiosyncrasy with suspicion or contempt. We’re still not getting it right.

Howl peels back the covers and exposes the raw heart. Ginsberg’s poetry embraces life. He elevates a dead sunflower in a railyard to something holy. He exults in a litany of Holy!s like the repeat Sanctus in a liturgical chant. His beat poet friends, lovers, coldwater flats and filthy streets are holy. His sin and his salvation is that he wrote it true, used his own unrefracted lens, left the dirt and snot on the images, saw those as holy, too. Howl hasn’t lost any of its power in more than half-a-century. It’s worth a revisit.

 Howl and Other Poems   Allen Ginsberg | City Lights  37th printing

Just Kids – Patti Smith

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Patti Smith’s National Book Award-winning memoir of her twinship with Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, is many things. It is a primer on how to follow an inchoate longing and become an artist out of nothing and nowhere. It is a testament to a bond so unbreakable it survived gut-wrenching poverty, sexual ambivalence, homelessness, hunger, and an assemblage of male lovers—some his, some hers.

The two kids who swanned around Greenwich Village, Coney Island and the Chelsea Hotel in their thrift store costumes fed each other, supported each other, used each other in their art, moved apart and came together from their earliest days in New York City to Mapplethorpe’s death at 43 from AIDS in 1989. Along the journey, Smith discovered how to merge her poetry with rock and roll and Mapplethorpe turned away from his Catholic boyhood into a fascination with hustling, S&M and a singular vision of photography. Her first album, Horses, with an iconic cover photo shot by Mapplethorpe, exploded into public consciousness. His evocative and disturbing photos, collages and drawings established him as a polarizing rebel who inspired love and hate in equal measure.

Smith writes description in poetic riffs that transform memory into dream. She has clear recall of telling moments with the pantheon of musical, literary and artistic greats who hung out at Max’s Kansas City, the Chelsea Hotel, CBGB and Horn & Hardart’s. Allen Ginsburg once supplied the missing dime that allowed a starving Smith to snag a cafeteria sandwich then, ever on the prowl, asked her if she was a boy or a girl. Smith once cut her long hair in the style of Keith Richards and earned instant acceptance from some hard-sell members of Warhol’s crowd. Mapplethorpe saved Smith from a dinner date gone wrong by pretending to be her boyfriend—and then he became her boyfriend. They were silly, naïve, intensely serious about becoming artists, worked on their art day and night, shared a single hot dog, a single museum ticket, a single room with a hotplate, a single vision that filled their empty bellies and warmed their unheated digs.

Just Kids is the “this happened” and “then that happened” and then “this is who was there” formula of celebrity memoirs that capture a rich period in time. But it’s much more. It’s the story of a connection that seems almost mystical to Smith. Mapplethorpe embraced his homosexuality but turned to Smith as his permanent muse. Patti Smith went on to marry and have two children. The last photograph Robert Mapplethorpe took of her includes her infant daughter, reaching out to him from her mother’s arms. When they were young, hungry and just starting out, a tourist urged her husband to take a picture of Smith and Mapplethorpe at Washington Square Arch in the Village, a hangout for colorful types all dressed like impoverished artists. The husband surveyed the two of them, real artists deep in anonymity and still searching to define their art, and said “Nah. They’re just kids.” They were. But he missed a great shot.

Just Kids   Patti Smith | HarperCollins   2010