There are people who are so talented they can do whatever they want. One of these characters is Patti Smith, a woman that had no life expectations and that ended up being one of the most important rockstars of her time, considered a queen and a main representative of punk, as well as one of America’s finest poets. Why did she achieve all that recognition? Where does her talent come from, and how did she manage to overcome every tragedy in her life and transform it into beauty? She became very popular through her songs, especially with her album Horse (1975), and after some time touring, she just decided to take a break, not a short one, but a nine-year one. Why? There were mainly three reasons behind her decision. The first one was a terrible accident she had when she fell off the stage, breaking her back and her skull. Then she met and married Fred “Sonic” Smith (guitarist of MC5), and decided to move from NYC to devote more of her time to raise their kids. Finally, the last reason was that she realized fame and popularity were a void and corrosive atmosphere she didn’t really want to be part of. In that way, she went back to what she had actually dreamt since she was a little girl: becoming a poet. And, if you somehow share that passion with her, here is her own advice. So, take note.
Read whatever you can
“I think that it’s important that we learn from other poets before we abandon them and write our own.”
Not being able to do as much as a kid could do, she secluded herself in the many worlds books offered. Her father, a factory worker, was an avid reader who would always be seen with a book in his hands, while her mother, a devoted Jehovah’s Witness, instructed her family into the precepts of the Bible, which were of utmost importance. Naturally, all this literary influence helped her develop a sensitivity for words, giving her the knowledge and tools to create her own.
Look after yourself
“Live a life as full as you can so that you can do the work you want to do.”
Being the eldest daughter of Beverly and Gary Smith, she spent most of her childhood suffering from different medical diseases such as tuberculosis, hepatitis, and scarlet fever. From a young age she learned to live knowing that her life could end at any moment. Moreover, she lost her fear of death, and by doing so, she decided to make the most out of every moment of her life. Her suggestion also invites us to develop the ability to spot stories and characters in everyday situations.
“You have to practice your gifts.”
At some point in her youth, she decided she wanted to make a life of her own to explore what she was capable of, and moved to New York to become a poet. One of the most inspiring episodes in her life was when she met photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, with whom she moved to a hideous apartment with no bathroom. They had almost no money, barely scraping by to survive and pay bills. Yet she describes those as very happy moments, when both would stay up all night working on their creations. So, you must work really hard, even day and night, to develop your skills. If you’re doing what you like, you won’t even be tired of it.
“Our natural order is being destroyed, our natural way of communicating with each other is being altered.”
Talk to people face to face, forget about your gadgets for a while, and share with them any kind of experiences. Although she never thought of actually becoming a musician, once the opportunity arrived, she understood it was her chance to give a message for young people. She’s explained how at the time the world had already lost those representative voices that promised a change in society (Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X). In the same way, she’s stated that poetry can build a pure and direct bridge of communication. To achieve that sensitivity and power, you have to communicate directly with those around you.
“We should be acting on it. That’s what we had rock and roll for, that’s what we had a cultural voice for.”
Being a social activist most of her life, she’s always focused her poetic vision on topics that concern the world. As it was mentioned in the previous point, she believes poetry, music, and art should be used as a link to expose what’s going on with the world. But that’s not enough. It must work as inspiration to make people aware and push them to act. As a poet your job isn’t only to write and inspire others. You must also lead by example. Moreover, only by engaging directly will you be able to portray the truth.
Probably her most prolific and deepest works were created in the last 20 years. Perhaps experience and the multiple tragedies she’s experienced throughout her life made her more acute to understand the human experience better. I don’t know. The truth is that, as you could see, she’s not giving a very specific guideline on how to write the best poem. She’s telling us how to experience life in order to have the tools needed to let our imagination run amok and channel it on the paper. As she says, “there’s no real rules. I don’t know anything more than anybody else”.
Sometimes listening to great representatives of each discipline in the art can give us hints of how they approached their visions. Take a look at these and put them on practice: