There seem to be a few ways of knowing Patti Smith, among which are the ways of understanding her as a musician and relating to her as a writer. It feels like most often, you get stuck with the way in which you were first introduced to her work.
Personally, I have always known her as a writer who also made music, but it became clear to me that most other people didn’t see her that way. In fact, her writing often came as an afterthought to her musical career. The fact that when you search her name on the internet, the first thing to come up is “singer-songwriter” was a bit of a shock to me.
Smith’s blending of the two worlds, though, is a part of what makes her so special. She’s been described as the “punk poet laureate” more than once (which is, quite frankly, a title I am sad I can’t steal). Her music is what makes Smith’s writing what it is, just like her poetics lend themselves to the lyrics and rhythm that gives her music a deep, artistic quality.
For those who aren’t as familiar with Patti Smith’s literary career, it’s long and winding, and it stretches further than her musical career, if you can believe it. She came out with her first book of poetry in 1972, three full years before the release of the now-iconic album Horses. In addition to publishing two poetry chapbooks in the same year, her poetry collection, Seventh Heaven, contains 22 poems, many of which remain some of her most celebrated to this day.
Soon after, Smith followed up Seventh Heaven with Witt in 1973, and continued to publish poetry in subsequent years, even at the height of her music career. Her poetry has a post-beat generation quality. It’s wistful, still refined and literary, but at the same time, there’s a grittiness to it. And no, it isn’t the same kind of grit as Bukowski. There’s something carefree in it. Androgynous, even.
It wasn’t until 2010 that Smith expanded outside the bounds of poetry in order to write her acclaimed memoir, Just Kids. The thing about musicians and celebrities writing memoirs is that they’re usually never true memoirs. Except for the rarest of circumstances, “celebrity memoir” lives in a genre apart from the actual, literary memoir. Celebrity memoir is usually at least a little bit of a cash grab, and almost always involves ghostwriting. But Patti Smith was different.
Patti Smith never approached her memoirs like a celebrity—she did so as a poet. Just Kids was written to commemorate her time in New York City in the 1960s and 1970s, and her relationship to artist Robert Mapplethorpe. The memoir was beautifully written, with her signature grit and poetics baked into the prose. She more than proved that she could sit on a shelf beside Didion, di Prima, and Plath.
Just Kids won the National Book Award, which brought her into the literary spotlight for the first time to many. However, those familiar with her poetry were likely less surprised. Although, yes, her music is a deeply important part of her artistry – especially to the degree that it appears in her life experiences, and, therefore, her writing – she has slipped into the poet-memoirist persona that works so well for her.
What’s more, Just Kids was far from the end of her prose writing. Not only did she come out with 2015’s M Train, but she put out Year of the Monkey just a few years ago in 2019. It’s clear that her work in the literary world is far from finished, and that she’s just as much a writer as anything else.
If you haven’t read Smith yet, I suggest taking a dive into a few of her poems first, at least until you get too hungry for prose and crack open Just Kids, which, let’s be honest, you probably won’t be able to put down.