As a child, I was bored by history class. I frequently confused dates and never gave a damn about the battles of the Civil War I jumbled together. It wasn’t until high school that a teacher challenged my view of history by redefining it as a series of changes in society incited by the actions of an impassioned person — a poet, an artist, a revolutionary with a cause. After that moment, I often pondered the tangibility of these shifts in society. Do we somehow know when we encounter a person or idea that will be engraved in our cultural history? Sitting in the audience of the annual Windham-Campbell lecture on Monday, I finally got my answer.
Patti Smith, the keynote lecturer, entranced the room with her whimsical prose as she read an excerpt from a recent work entitled “Devotion;” with her, we delved into a world much like our own, but haunted with the ethereal beauty of spinning trees and magnetic attraction between strangers. The story was largely inspired, she said, by a trip she took to Paris in the midst of a spell of writer’s block.
“A writer who isn’t writing going to talk to journalists about writing,” she joked of the trip. Right, Patti. That’s all you had to offer.
The muses she encountered in Paris serve to show her idiosyncratic genius: the Simone Weil biography she hurriedly grabbed on her way to the airport, a televised figure skating competition, a plate of scrambled eggs. These inspirations amalgamated in an ineffable moment of inspiration catalyzed by a word she saw etched on a tombstone: devotion. In a feverish frenzy, she proceeded to write the eponymous story in a mere six hours.
Oh, did I forget to mention that this happened in Albert Camus’ bedroom? She was invited to stay at his erstwhile home, and his daughter allowed her to examine his final manuscript. Smith said it was “like learning to write all over again” to see his thoughts and edits scrawled across a page. It was not much later that she committed an “act of reckless sacrilege” in his bedroom — beginning her own new work.
Her experience with writing “Devotion” was deeply connected to literary history. She spoke of feeling the racing heart of Camus in his manuscript text and the overwhelming nostalgia of imagining late French poets wandering the streets. Her work has long been influenced by the work of French Romantics, perhaps most notably in her album cover for “Horses,” which features her in a Baudelairean outfit. It was of these greats she seemed to speak when she ultimately answered the question posed at the opening of her lecture, “Why do you write?”
“Because we cannot simply live.”
Note the plurality. It was at this moment that she answered my questions with a resounding “yes.” In the web of history, Patti Smith put punk in its place among the poets. She was not merely herself on the stage, she was, as she wrote in her New York Times best-seller “Just Kids,” “full of references.” References to Rimbaud and Genet, Sinatra and the Beat poets she befriended weave through her work, her speech, her eccentricities and have acted as a marvellous bridge between distant high art and postmodern expression.