Four Decades On, Patti Smith is Still the Godmother of Poetry and Protest

Few things match the feeling, as a fifteen-year-old girl, of hearing a woman in a classic rock song tell you: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.” At once, you’re aware of the magnificence of living honestly and boldly. You also realise that if you’re too nervous to attempt that yourself, you can always turn up the volume, and live vicariously through someone who’s less afraid. 

Discovering “punk poet laureate” Patti Smith four years ago marked the beginning of a slight obsession, one that extends to my love of her memoirs, in particular, M Train (2015). I frequently revisit its passages on love, loss, and creative freedom — often served with a cup of coffee, in the form of Smith’s signature black-and-white photographs. This book’s focus on the mind highlights what I love about Patti Smith: her fusion of the personal and political. Her words not only assert that we have an obligation to protest those who abuse their power, but that we also have a right to take time to care for ourselves mentally in demanding times. Almost forty-five years after her legendary debut album Horses, Patti Smith still embodies hope and change.

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M Train sees Patti Smith travelling from country to county, café to café, contemplating age and loss. But Smith defies the idea of women growing defeated with age; she is just as strong and in touch with the world as ever. Her strength surfaces in her reflections on great female artists such as Frida Kahlo, Sylvia Plath, and Virginia Woolf. In one of my favourite passages, Smith confesses her childhood belief that she “would never grow up”. “Now”, she writes, “I am older than my love, my departed friends. Perhaps I will live so long that the New York Public Library will be obliged to hand over the walking stick of Virginia Woolf. I would cherish it for her, and the stones in her pocket.” The beauty of this passage lies in Smith’s resilience, which overpowers her past wishes to stay young. Though Smith references Woolf’s tragic death, Woolf’s ever-important life inspires her to continue writing: “But I would also keep on living, refusing to surrender my pen.”

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Patti Smith’s admiration for dedicated artists who have survived oppression quickly makes itself known. In M Train, she journeys to bring stones from Saint-Laurent prison to Jean Genet, an ex-criminal who wrote of institutional injustice: “Jean Genet had written of Saint-Laurent as hallowed ground and of the inmates incarcerated there with devotional empathy.” Smith’s own “devotional empathy” surfaces in her representations of marginalised individuals, such as Genet, all the while never painting them as cliché, helpless victims. From speaking out about homophobia in Just Kids (2010 memoir) to focusing on urgent social issues online, Smith consistently dedicates herself to protest. Smith’s Instagram post depicting the Washington Square BLM protest is particularly striking, expressing the importance of public icons refusing to subscribe to white-centric activism. The caption reads: “We are all witnessing a / Movement, unprecedented / and unstoppable as the / waves of the sea.”

An undercurrent of the importance of mental wellbeing runs alongside the political tones in Smith’s work. Loss is a key theme in M Train, and the passages about Smith’s father are incredibly touching. Early on in the book, Smith writes: “My father claimed that he never remembered his dreams…. He also told me that seeing one’s own hands within a dream was exceedingly rare.” The book’s final lines before the Postscript read: “I’m going to remember everything and then I’m going to write it all down. An aria to a coat. A requiem for a café. That’s what I was thinking, in my dream, looking down at my hands.” This cyclical ending produces a final sense of emotional wholeness — of travelling through grief and making it through to the other side — the triumph of achieving something “exceedingly rare”.

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In her article about ‘Why Good Mental Health is Crucial For Activism’, Diyora Shadijanova writes: “Resilience means taking time to recover, practising self-care and seeking help when needed. It means building a strong support network around you.” Patti Smith’s career, M Train included, mirrors this cycle of self-preservation and outspoken activism. She sings that “people have the power”, but acknowledges that people have to take time to find this power in their own, stable selves. Patti Smith matters, to me and many others, because she pushes us to speak out on what we care about, but reminds us that we must not neglect ourselves in the process. This is the honesty and boldness I fell in love with at fifteen. I first read M Trainon the last family holiday I’d have before dissolving into a crowd in my first year at university. With this in mind, I think I discovered this book at exactly the right time. It made me realise that living honestly and boldly isn’t just for those who sing onstage. It’s for everyone who looks for all the vibrancies of the mundane and every day in a cup of coffee  — those who fall asleep with the hopes of finding their own hands.

Sylvie Lewis

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