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Patti Smith on writing poetry

Noah's lullaby-writer-in-chief on the pure art of penning words

Patti Smith – the 67-year-old provocateur behind 1975's punk high-water-mark Horses – began as, and remains, a poet. Her tremendously well-received memoir Just Kids dealt with writing and rolling round New York with her partner in crime Robert Mapplethorpe, but her most recent work deals with something far older: the world before The Flood. Having written the lullaby for Darren Aronofsky's ecological, apocalyptic blockbuster Noah, she talked us through the steps for penning verse.

Read whatever you can 

I’m not a teacher, I’m not a professor, I’m not giving anyone a course in poetry. I would just simply say: “read everything you can.” I would never presume to tell anybody what they should read: I could offer them you know, the poets that I love. Rilke, Rimbaud. Blake, Walt Whitman, Alan Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, Wordsworth, Steven Spender. TS Eliot was a big influence on me when I was young. I read TS Eliot, and I read Sylvia Plath, and when I was a really young girl I loved reading William Blake and Carl Sandburgh. I read John Greenleaf Whittier. There’s something to be found in many of these great poets, I think. I think that it’s important that we learn from other poets before we abandon them and write our own.

Look after yourself 

The most important advice I could give to anybody is take care of yourself, number one. And live a life as full as you can so that you can do the work you want to do. I know myself included when I was young, I felt that I was robbed from a lot of experience because I spent so much time working. In a way, being an artist is like Jonah – you’re just dogged and dogged and dogged with having to do this task instead of being able to proceed with life. You go to a party and something that happens in the party moves you to start thinking of a song, or you meet someone who gives you a character in a story you want to write, and instead of engaging in this social party you’re losing yourself. You’re creating in your head, or weaving in your head. It’s a precious burden, but it’s a burden. 

Work hard

When Robert and I were young, we both had a strong work ethic. And Robert would sit up all night long working on drawings, or—he worked every day of his life. I bet if you went through Robert’s whole life there would be very few days where he didn’t do something. Whether it was a sketch or write down an idea, or take some photographs. And I can say the same for myself. Almost throughout my whole life, I’ve either written a paragraph or a line, or done something, because that’s what I do. And you have to practice your gifts or practice—you have to, it’s like going to the gym or something where you have to exercise these muscles. Your basic reward is always going to come back to the work. Because in this world where we live in, where the cult of celebrity seems such a prize, we forget sometimes about the actual work. Because it’s almost as if the work is just a stepping-stone for one to enter and bathe in the cult of celebrity. And that’s a fleeting and not an enduring thing. For me, the work is the most important thing. 

Communicate directly 

We have a creative impulse, and we create in performing or writing we’re channeling certain things. We’re channeling, hopefully, the purer circumstances. The further we can go in channeling. One of the things I find confining is that the very air that we live in, the very atmosphere, sometimes I feel as though we live within a net. I feel like we’re confining ourselves. We’re confining ourselves because you go to the ocean, you can’t swim on this beach because it’s polluted. It’s got some medical waste came up on it. You go to another beach and you go in and then you get some kind of weird infection. And we’re confining ourselves, we’re polluting our airwaves. And this isn’t some kind of conspiracy theory bullshit, this is the fact that as a human being, I find that the freedom that one has in sending their brainwaves out, in sending our feelers out to receive or to give, are hitting walls. 

Some of the walls are cellular, and some of the walls are just the way our culture is evolving. You know if you walk onstage with intent to improvise or to communicate in the highest way possible with some people, and everyone is on a cell phone filming you, you’re not having a sort of a telepathic moment with these people. You’re having a moment with technology and basically you’re being duplicated. And I know this might seem abstract but what I’m saying is that our natural order is being destroyed, our natural way of communicating with each other is being altered. And perhaps it’s the way of the future, but I’m not part of the future. I’m a 20th century person luckily living in the 21st century and hopefully for a long time. You know, the more that we do this we’re going to be communicating via technology and maybe in some very exciting ways. I don’t know because I don’t have that kind of imagination to imagine where we’re going with all of this, and I don’t even like to criticize it but I worry about our whole world being altered.


You know they’re altering corn to make ethanol, and then the seeds go into the air, fly into the air, fall into a corn field hundreds of miles a way and that seed germinates with real corn and then it’s altered. We’re altering everything. We’re altering nature. Some by design and some because we didn’t think it through. “Oh, didn’t think about genetically changed tomatoes and corn and things, the seeds are going to go taint the natural corn and taint it.” Well I don’t know that we should be making poetry about it, we should be acting on it. That’s what we had rock and roll for, that’s what we had a cultural voice for. 

Regard it highly 

Poetry, I think, is one of the most difficult of the arts. Maybe even the most difficult. Unless one is getting extremely specialized and you’re playing Bach or something really difficult in the structures, like long Wagnerian librettos. But the act of writing poetry is torturous – and sometimes magnificently transporting. But often, it’s just torturous. But poetry is a very high language, hopefully above all of this. But to me I think of poetry as very pure. There’s no real rules. I don’t know anything more than anybody else.