29-Year-Old Patti Smith’s Poetic and Irreverent Monologue on Women and the Universe
“If you’re not into transforming stuff into art / Don’t worry about it / Just keep doing it and keep doing…”
By Maria Popova
On New Year’s Day 1975, the inimitable Patti Smith took the stage at St. Mark’s Church in New York in one of John Giorno’s experimental poetry happenings, and delivered a kind of free-flow monologue titled The Histories of the Universe. It begins with a description of the mummification process (“they made this mixture up of opium and salad oil and henna”) and unfolds into an ambling meditation on sexuality (“I was always jealous I wasn’t a homosexual.”), creativity (“If you’re not into transforming stuff into art, don’t worry about it. Just keep doing it and keep doing it…”), and an unspeakable wealth in between. With her fresh 29-year-old voice and her timeless irreverence, Smith pits her tongue-in-cheek delivery against her portrayal as pretentious by the era’s music critics. What emerges is cultural treasure.
The piece can be found on the 1993 compilation Cash Cow: The Best of Giorno Poetry Systems. Enjoy in full below.
The histories of the universe
lie in the sleeping sex of a woman
Now back in Egypt,
the Egyptian Book of the Dead was written because they got these women who were like, you know, that were before the time after 1852.
They got these women and they
Like put them in these tomb shapes
Like mummy shapes
Only they didn’t mummyize them
What they do is
They made this mixture up
Of opium and salad oil and henna
And they put it all over them
(first they’d knock ‘em out with a sledgehammer)
then they’d lay them in there and they’d wipe them all over
with this opiate henna oil
(maybe throw a little merc in, anything they could get in there)
and she’d be laid out
and then she’d start, like,
feeling all this stuff getting in her pores
and it would get deeper in her pores
and deeper in her pores
and into her veins,
and you know how, like,
the filaments are inside a
when you turn it on?
The next thing you know,
Her fingers are moving Egyptian style
Very rigid, very hieroglyphic
Anyway, she’d do this and the scribes would be standing around with their papyrus,
or papyrus or peanut butter bag wrappers-
forget that one.
They’re sitting around with their scrolls and anyway,
She’d start babbling…
…and she’d start babbling…
They’d write this stuff…
And then the other girl would start babbling
And she’d get to this point…
‘cause the thing about men
they do get Mayan
but they only do it once.
But only, you know, like, for a little while.
Then, but girls, I mean, it’s just an extra thing we got
You know, you just
Keep doing it, and keep doing it, and keep doing it and keep doing it.
And it’s really great if you’re next to a typewriter
Because, like, you start,
The first one you’re doin’
And you can’t quite write it yet,
But you got the plot.
And then you take the, and you wait,
And you only go so far,
You mustn’t pee your pants.
Then, you keep going, you keep going, you keep going,
And then it’s time to lie down on the couch and get out
Troky and anybody else who might be around.
And you open up to page 100
On Theolet Ledoux’s ‘Bitch’. paperback!
Then, you just keep, like,
Getting’ your fingers goin’ like graphite
Until it’s like a paintbrush and it’s making a scene.
And you go
And by the 8th or 9th one
You should be writing great stuff on the typewriter
And even if you can’t control it
Even if you’re not illuminated enough now
To know how to make a diamond…
Like, I didn’t know what to do with it for a long time.
What you do is, girls, is study Rimbaud;
Get his syntax and grammar down.
Study them all, but then,
You have to get into the next step.
You know in that letter where Rimbaud says,
He writes this letter and he goes,
‘In the future when women get away from their long servitude of men, etcetera, they’re going to have the new music, new forms, new sensations, new horrors, new spurts…’
Yeah, I mean…
And look, that was a hundred years ago, get cookin’.
I mean, it’s a long…
It was there a long time ago.
And who knows where the time goes?
Right now, that’s the formula.
It’s very easy.
Get the syntax down and then just record it.
For a while you might have to record it.
Just, just do it.
And you should see how better you walk.
It just does something to your walk.
If you can’t do anything with it
Don’t worry about it.
If you’re not into transforming stuff into art
Don’t worry about it.
Just keep doing it and keep doing it because by the
12th and 13th and 14th one you get into extraterrestrial stuff and they don’t let you write nothin’ down.
So you just,
you just keep goin’ through it,
you know, you just keep
what I was sayin’ is…
Guys and guys can do that
I was always jealous because I wasn’t homosexual
because they got all this Mayan stuff
and all this screen stuff
and I’d read all these books
and you know how it is
and I thought
but I can’t
and you know
and I have these dreams
that I could, like,
steal boys skins at night
and put them on and pee
and stuff like that
but now that I’ve found, like,
this new toy…
I’ve got seven ways of going
I’ve got seven ways to be
I’ve got seven sweet disguises
I’ve got seven ways of being me
right here is where I usually tell this story
I usually tell this story
I usually tell this story about something that
happened to me on one of these particular voyages
but I’ll make it real fast.
I was expecting to go to my usual stuff
with all these you know like like like
girl boy Moslem Christian angel guys
that have all these machines
all these neon machines
and they put you in
this like pine tree shape
but this time,
I don’t know how it happened,
I got to 16th Century Japan
and the neat thing about it was,
it was the first time that
really got to be a boy.
I was, like, this boy.
This ninja boy.
And he was totally in love with his sister,
who looked just like him.
And he wanted to become…
he couldn’t care for her,
he wanted her to have the best.
So he became the best archer.
And the King took him as his top archer.
And he took his sister to the palace,
and the King fell in love with his sister.
And the archer,
who had worked and worked and worked
to get his sister fine garments
didn’t mean to get her
fine garments in the King’s bed.
So when the King sent him out the next day
he was walkin’ through the fields
he had on his armor
and it was black and white squares
like a chessboard
he stood on the black square
and looked and saw how
the black square looked
like the back of his sister’s hair
he looked at the windowshape
in the palace
in the castle
over his sister
his black and white
he was so dazzled by that photograph
that he took off his armor
and laid his armor down
and took the dart
and aimed it swift
at the King’s heart
and he started walkin’
toward the castle
toward the palace
he was walkin’
he was walkin’
in this big step I am taking
seven seizures for the true
I’ve got seven ways of going
seven ways of loving you
Be free from all deception
Be safe from bodily harm
Love without exception
Be a saint in any form.
For more on Smith’s youthful adventures with Giorno Poetry Systems, see Dancing Barefoot: The Patti Smith Story, then revisit her lettuce soup recipe for starving artists, her poetic tribute to her soulmate, and her advice to the young by way of William S. Burroughs.
Photograph of Smith by Robert Mapplethorpe
Published August 7, 2012