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Patti Smith explains the two kinds of a masterpiece

Patti Smith has always had a unique perspective on the world. Anyone who has read her books, Just Kids and M Train, will understand where I’m coming from. The singer and writer inspects things with a telescopic eye, zooming into the finer details of everything she approaches, unravelling them as she goes.

It’s for this reason that Smith is often referred to as the ‘punk poet laureate’. Her work in the underground scene of 1970s New York blended music and poetry in a way that hadn’t been done since the beat generation. It’s not surprising, then, that one of her close friends was notable beat poet Alan Ginsberg, who joined Smith on Bob Dylan’s ‘Rolling Thunder Revue’ tour.

In her various incarnations as a performing artist, Smith created some of the most enduring musical works of the new wave era, including tracks like ‘Because The Night’, ‘Dancing Barefoot’ and ‘Gloria.’ So it’s fair to say that she can speak on the subject of what defines a masterpiece with some authority. And in a recent interview, she did just that.

After a long spell of reading nothing but the novels of Murakami, Smith gave some consideration to the way literary masterpieces can be placed in two categories. In her own words, “There are two kinds of masterpieces. There are the classic works, monstrous and divine, like Moby-Dick or Wuthering Heights or Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus. And then there is the type wherein the writer seems to infuse living energy into words as the reader is spun, wrung, and hung out to dry.”

Smith would seem to have identified an essential distinction in fiction. To the passive reader, literature serves only one purpose: to reel in a reader by offering up an irresistible plot. This type of book burrows to the very heart of its central characters and leaves you feeling as though you have experienced something very real, perhaps something even more real than reality. But this line of thought ignores books that rely on the incantatory nature of language. The strength of this type of fiction is not based on the gripping twists and turns of a thoroughly planned-plot, but on the musicality of its language.

According to Smith, examples of this type of masterpiece include “2666 or The Master and MargaritaThe Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is such a book. I finished it and was immediately obliged to reread it,” she said, before adding: “For one thing, I did not wish to exit its atmosphere. But also, the ghost of a phrase was eating at me. Something that untied a neat knot and let the frayed edges brush against my cheek as I slept.”

One wonders if the same distinction Smith identifies is true of other forms of art. I certainly like to think it does. Pop songs are built around a traditional structure, and half of the enjoyment people get from the songs of, say, Dua Lipa, is the satisfaction of hearing the way she hits those well-defined marks. Other forms of music, however, favour a more explorative approach, choosing to celebrate the chaotic and the unrestrained. Punk and free jazz are examples of this, as is the music of Aphex Twin. Neither form is inherently better than the other; it’s all just music. But it does demonstrate how stretchy music can be, how easy it is to re-shape and re-define.