Dec. 30, 2010
I love mankind most
when no one's around.
On New Year's Day for instance,
when everything's closed
and I'm driving home on the highway alone
for hours in the narrating rain,
with no exact change,
the collector's booth glowing ahead
in the tumbling dark
like a little lit temple
with an angel inside and a radio
which as I open my window,
a little embarrassed by
my need for change
(until the silence says
it needs no explanation),
is suddenly playing a music more lovely
than any I've ever heard.
And the hand—
so open, so hopeful,
that I feel an urge to kiss it—
lowers the little life-boat of itself
and takes the moist and crumpled prayer
of my dollar bill from me.
Then the tap, tap,
tinkling spill of the roll of coins
broken against the register drawer,
and the hand returning two coins, and a voice
sweeter than the radio's music,
saying, "Have a good one, man."
I would answer that voice if I could—
which of course I can't—
that I've loved it ever since it was born
and probably longer than that.
Though "You too,"
is all I can manage,
I say it with great emotion
in a voice that doesn't sound like me,
though it must be
It’s the birthday of poet, punk rocker, and National Book Award winner Patti Smith, (books by this author) born in Chicago on this day during the Great Blizzard of 1946. She was raised a Jehovah Witness in New Jersey, the daughter of a waitress and a factory worker. She grew up reading a lot of books --- mostly fairy tales, biographies, and travel books about Tibet and the Himalayas. Straight out of high school she went to work on a factory assembly line. At 19 she was pregnant. She gave her child up for adoption and she moved to New York City.
She didn’t have any money when she arrived. So for the first couple months, instead of going to movies or plays or anything else, she just walked around the city. She said, “I didn’t need any entertainment. . . . It was beautiful going to Washington Square or Tompkins Square Park and seeing people gathered to read poetry or sing or play chess. For me, New York meant freedom.”
She worked at Scribner’s bookstore in Manhattan, a job that she adored. They were required to read the New York Times Book Review, and she loved that people there “took book clerks seriously”. At the store she read a lot of French poetry and biographies of poets and painters. Outside the store, she spent time at the St Mark’s Poetry Project, and also wrote articles for Rolling Stone magazine.
She had some friends who’d moved to New York City before her, and she was supposed to stay with them for a while. She showed up at their apartment looking for them. But it turns out that they didn’t live there any more, and instead of finding them she stumbled across a sleeping art student, Robert Mapplethorpe, a man who would go on to become a famous photographer. But at the time, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe were each just 20 years old, and they became lovers and roommates --- inseparable young cash-strapped companions living out bohemian dreams in New York City. They rented the smallest room at the Hotel Chelsea, so they could reside in a place famous for housing writers and artists like Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Simone de Beauvoir.
She and Mapplethorpe vowed to support each other’s art. They would stay up on all night together working on their separate projects, and then take cigarette breaks to comment on each other’s work. She said, “We gathered our colored pencils and sheets of paper and drew like wild, feral children into the night, until, exhausted, we fell into bed.”
The two stayed close friends and artistic collaborators even after they ended their romance and Mapplethorpe discovered that he was gay. Their relationship is the subject of Patti Smith’s recent memoir, Just Kids (2010), which won this year’s National Book Award. The book has been described as “beautifully crafted love letter” to Mapplethorpe, who died in 1989.
He had encouraged her to draw, and she spent a lot of time hanging around the campus where he was an art student. Pretty soon she was writing poetry verses in her notebooks in addition to sketching up pencil drawings. She published her first collection of poems, Seventh Heaven, in 1972, when she was just 25.
She gave poetry readings around New York City, and became known for her dramatic delivery, in which she seemed to vacillate between anger and helplessness. One night, a friend played electric guitar on stage as she read poems. She said that they were aiming to “infuse new life into performing poetry---merging poetry with electric guitar, three chords—and to reembrace rock and roll.” To work at this ambitious project she formed a band, The Patti Smith Group. Four years after she released her first book of poems, Patti Smith released her first punk album, Horses (1975). It begins with the lyrics “Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine.” The album was wildly successful, and it’s considered one of the top rock albums of all time. Patti Smith is known as “the godmother of punk”, and in 2007 she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
She’s recorded a dozen albums, including Radio Ethiopia (1976) Easter (1978), Wave (1979), Dream of Life (1988), Peace and Noise (1996), and Gung Ho (2000). Her most recent one is a live double album with Kevin Shields, The Coral Sea (2008).
Her books of poems and drawings include Witt (1973), Ha! Ha! Houdini! (1977), Babel (1978), Woolgathering (1992) Stranger Messenger (2003) and Auguries of Innocence (2005).
She’s the subject of a recent documentary by Steven Sebring, called “Patti Smith: Dream of Life” (2008).
From the archives:
It's the birthday of poet Joshua Clover, (books by this author) born in Berkeley, California, in 1962. In 1997, he published his first book of poems, Madonna anno domini, and it won the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. And then nine years later, he published The Totality for Kids (2006).
It's the birthday of Rudyard Kipling, (books by this author) born in Bombay, India (1865). Though he'd never fought in battle, his poems about military life became classics among British soldiers around the world. When he finally moved to Vermont after the war, he began to re-imagine the India of his childhood and wrote The Jungle Book (1894), about a boy raised by wolves in the jungle.
Rudyard Kipling said, "If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten."
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