The Punk Poet Laureate: Patti Smith
By Nina Mouawad
72 years of a life that has been dedicated to art. That is the only accurate way to describe Patti Smith in a single sentence. To say that Patti Smith is a musician, poet, photographer, even artist would be a simplification. A limitation. I almost cringe saying it, but she’s a living legend.
She had a relatively uneventful life (artistically speaking) until the age of 21 when she moved to New York and literally winged it. She worked in a bookstore for a while with fellow poet Janet Hamill, and went on to meet one of the people who would impact her life the most, Robert Mapplethorpe, or, in Smith’s words, a “genius”. She and the photographer went on to live what can be considered the “typical” bohemian lifestyle that defined the experience of many artists living in New York in the 60s and 70s categorised by relative poverty and moving around, but also a fundamental sense of community.
For a while, Smith and Mapplethorpe lived in the infamous Chelsea Hotel (even the room Dylan Thomas had stayed in for a while) which situated them in the ideal setting for meeting and learning from others attempting to glorify and experiment with art during that era. Among those the duo met were Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg, and Sam Shepard - Smith even co-writing a play with the latter in 1971. In a later reunion with Ginsberg, they reminisced about their first encounter, which saw the Beat poet offer the hungry, skinny 22 year-old girl whom he mistook for a boy a sandwich. This specific setting offered Smith exposure to a community of budding artists and impacted the opportunities which were later provided her in both learning and recognition. It is a privilege she turned into a lesson and later a legacy.
Her wide range of artistic output during this early period exhibited her raw talent for artistic creation, which continued to find several mediums for expression. Patti Smith dabbled with writing poetry, plays, journalism pieces about music and rock bands, and then moved on to producing her own music and incorporating spoken poetry into her widely successful first album Horses. The iconic photo album which has defined part of Smith’s image was even taken by Mapplethorpe. Patti says in her Nation Award winning novel Just Kids, which is dedicated to Robert, that “there was never a question that Robert would take the portrait for the cover of Horses, my aural sword sheathed with Robert’s image”.
Despite the couple’s romantic relationship having ended by this time, their relationship had always transcended any earthly romance so that what ensued was as powerful with Robert’s death as it was in the beginning. What defines this iconic relationship was the support they provided each other to experiment and develop their talents no matter the financial and familial obstacles they had to repeatedly face. That they loved each other up until Mapplethorpe’s death in 1989 is unquestionable. And that it anchored their artistic visions if not their mutable artistic identities is prominent in the influence each has had on the other’s work. Patti Smith may in fact be a living legend, but she has called Mapplethorpe “the artist of my life”. Both moved on to other lovers and friends, but it is this essential period in each others’ lives that situated them on the road they had taken, even if at some point down that road, as all roads are destined to, it diverged in two.
Patti Smith’s story has earned its time in the sun not because of any individual accomplishment she has had in her work as a musician, a poet, an artist or even a scholar despite her many successes. But she embodies the universal need for evolution and interdependence that a healthy, productive and artistic community relies on. For whatever reasons, Smith found herself provided with the opportunities and support which helped her develop into an artist and then in turn, she became the support for others to grow and develop. Even in the technological age of the twenty-first century, 72 year-old Patti Smith uses her online presence and her Instagram platform to share some of her photographs, poems, music and thoughts. Every experience is a new opportunity to learn, to develop, to become. Patti Smith was lucky early on in her life to have learnt that. And she is allowing others to learn this through her presence, her story and her voice. “When I was younger, I felt it was my duty to wake people up.” We’re waking.
Nina Mouawad is a Lebanese writer, poet and Master’s student of English Language and Literature at the University of Balamand. Her work has appeared in Act One: Cutting Edges, Rusted Radishes and The Bosphorus Review.