Patti Smith on Listening to the Creative Impulse and the Crucial Difference Between Writing Poetry and Songwriting
“In times of strife, we have our imagination, we have our creative impulse, which are things that are more important than material things. They are the things that we should magnify.”
By Maria Popova
“Poetry, like all art, has a trinitarian function: creative, redemptive, and sanctifying,” Vassar Miller asserted. “It is creative because it takes the raw materials of fact and feeling and makes them into that which is neither fact nor feeling. Redemptive because it transforms pain, ugliness of life into joy, beauty. Sanctifying because it gives the transitory a relative form of meaning.”
The same could be said of the art of Patti Smith (b. December 30, 1946) — an artist who found her calling at an early age and refused to limit the creative impulse to a particular discipline. Although best beloved for her music, Smith has composed poetry, performed literature, written exquisite prose, taken some stunning photographs, and explored this trinitarian function of art across an indiscriminate range of creative expressions.
Smith is one of the forty-seven musicians included in More Songwriters on Songwriting (public library) — the follow-up, a quarter century later, to journalist Paul Zollo’s 1991 compendium of interviews with legendary musicians, which gave us such timeless, timely gems as Leonard Cohen on democracy and its redemptions and Bob Dylan on the unconscious mind and the ideal environment for creative work.
Smith echoes astrophysicist and novelist Janna Levin’s theory of not giving anything up and reflects on her lifelong commitment to channeling the creative impulse into whatever medium it wishes to be manifested:
I have always considered myself as a writer. I wouldn’t categorize myself as a songwriter… It’s just one of the things that I do. I do so many things. I just spend my time on whatever way I’m trying to communicate, whatever it calls for.
Like Leonard Cohen, Smith found her first love in poetry — her early music sprang from poems she had written in her late teens and early twenties. But as deceptively similar as songwriting and the writing of poetry may seem, she insists on a crucial difference of animating motives:
Poetry is a solitary process. Songs are for the people. When I’m writing a song I imagine performing it. I imagine giving it. It’s a different aspect of communication. It’s for the people. We always write a certain amount of poetry for the masses. When Allen Ginsberg wrote “Howl,” he didn’t write it for himself; he wrote it to speak out. To make a move, to wake people up. I think rock and roll, as our cultural voice, took that energy and made it even more accessible.
When I’m sitting down to write a poem I’m not thinking of anyone. I’m not thinking about how it will be received. I’m not thinking it will make people happy or it will inspire them. I’m in a whole other world. A world of complete solitude. But when I’m writing a song I imagine performing it. I imagine giving it. It’s a different aspect of communication. It’s for the people.
Smith considers the nature of the creative process in songwriting:
It’s a channeling. Burroughs always called it a shamanistic gift. Sometimes I feel I am channeling someone else. Part of it is experience from performing and understanding that, as a performer, one has a mission, like Coltrane, to take your solo out to talk to God, or whoever you talk to, but you must return. So it has structure. That’s one way that I write. Others take quite a bit of labor. Often the simplest song is the hardest to write. “Frederick” was very hard to write because in its simplicity I also wanted it to be perfect.
I’ve always wanted to write a song that everyone could love. That’s the one thing that I feel I haven’t achieved. Writing a song that when you hear it, everybody is happy. When we’re in Italy and we break into “Because the Night” and there are twenty thousand people singing, it just brings me to tears. So I know that people must experience a certain amount of joy.
When it comes down to it, I might write poetry for myself or poetry for the gods of poetry. But I write a song for the people.
And yet the notion of “the people” is elastic and always shaped by how one identifies and orients oneself relative to the body of culture. Smith reflects on how this notion has evolved for her over the course of her half-century career:
When I wrote the lyrics for [my 1975 debut album] Horses I had a particular body of people who I was speaking to, and that was the people like myself, who I felt were disenfranchised. The more maverick person. I wasn’t really addressing the masses. I didn’t even think I had anything of interest to share with the masses. But I felt that I had something to share with people like myself. So my early work was really written to bridge poetry and rock and roll and to communicate, as I said, with the disenfranchised person. And I think in that way it was successful. But in the eighties, when I stopped performing and I got married and had a family, I became more empathetic to social issues and the humanist point of view. And I think my lyrics had changed. I was speaking to a larger body of people. As a mother, you want to speak to everyone.
With an eye to her song “Blakean Year” — a tribute to William Blake and his transcendent struggle, the lyrics to which came to her in a dream — Smith considers the deeper message of the song, which is perhaps the most elemental message of all art which serves that trinitarian purpose and, in doing so, moves us to the core:
In times of strife, we have our imagination, we have our creative impulse, which are things that are more important than material things. They are the things that we should magnify.
(This longtime philosophy of hers is what inspired the eighth of my 10 most important life-learnings from the first ten years of Brain Pickings.)
The remainder of More Songwriters on Songwriting features conversations with icons like Paul Simon, James Taylor, Aimee Mann, Elvis Costello, Ringo Starr, Rickie Lee Jones, and Sia. Complement this particular fragment with Patti Smith on time and transformation, what makes a masterpiece, how illness expands the field of creative awareness, and her advice to the young.