[Saturday Reads] An Artist’s Manifesto in Patti Smith’s “Just Kids”

SaturdayReads

Myra here.

Every Saturday we hope to share with you our thoughts on reading and books. We thought that it would be good practice to reflect on our reading lives and our thoughts about reading in general. While on occasion, we would feature a few books in keeping with this, there would be a few posts where we will just write about our thoughts on read-alouds, libraries, reading journals, upcoming literary conferences, books that we are excited about, and just book love miscellany in general.

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I thought long and hard about whether this particular memoir would fit our reading theme and I realized that it does – as it speaks about how two teenage aspiring artists found each other in the streets of New York, with nothing but big dreams, a few sketches, and faith in their art – no money, no home, just sheer brazen courage with nothing to lose and the entire world to gain.

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Just Kids

Written by: Patti Smith
Published byEcco, 2010
Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

I have a special fascination for memoirs written by artists, creatives, academics, eminent people. This isn’t just casual curiosity as I often use this as fodder in my teaching as I note intersections between what the academic literature has to say about artists and creative people and what their memoirs signify about their creative process and their own talent development. When I learned about this award-winning memoir by Patti Smith while reading By the BookI knew it was a book that would speak to me. My own research work is on the psychology of artists – both young and old, and my own daughter is studying to be an artist/musician.

Just Kids isn’t a difficult read – but there were parts that were difficult to read as Patti searingly touches on her earlier life difficulties, her unplanned pregnancy, the humiliation that her entire family experienced with her disgrace, her dissatisfaction with her work as she felt in her bones how she was destined for a life filled with intense beauty and the pain and tragedy that occasionally accompany it. The book has a purposively-meandering quality to it in the beginning that captures her own creative journeys as she circumnavigated her way around her soul, finding her voice, losing it, and gaining it back with fervent experimentation, an ear for the strange and the remarkable, an eye for the bizarre and beautiful, and always the razor-sharp wit and unapologetic brilliance that often accompanied her seemingly-inevitable rise to fame.

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This isn’t just Patti’s story, however. It is a story that is inextricably linked with Robert Mapplethorpe, the dark to her light, the soul that matched her melancholia and the soundtrack that accompanied it, the man who dabbled with the forces of the devil that he sees in his mind, bargaining his soul for the sake of art, all to capture that elusive transcendent quality that flits and flies in his being – which Patti is able to understand with her soulful eyes as it speaks her language too.

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This is Patti’s tribute to a man who saved her from her ghosts, took on the bluntest edge of creativity’s knife, as she cleans up the blood and the dregs afterwards as fuel for her own energies, transforming all that is unreal and painful into something fleeting yet lasting at the same time through their art. As she noted:

There are many stories I could yet write about Robert, about us. But this is the story I have told. It is the one he wished me to tell and I have kept my promise. We were as Hansel and Gretel and we ventured out into the black forest of the world. There were temptations and witches and demons we never dreamed of and there was splendor we only partially imagined. No one could speak for these two young people nor tell with any truth of their days and nights together. Only Robert and I could tell it. Our story, as he called it. And, having gone, he left the task to me to tell it to you.

I was also especially taken by Patti’s response to Robert’s discovery that he was gay. Averse to anything that is akin to labels, Robert loathed the categorization, even as he was drawn to men and found his essence while in San Francisco – as New York signified Patti and all the brimming heterosexuality she stood for.

My reaction to his admission was more emotional than I had anticipated. Nothing in my experience had prepared me for this. I felt I had failed him. I thought a man turned homosexual when there was not the right woman to save him, a misconception I had developed from the tragic union of Rimbaud and the poet Paul Verlaine. Rimbaud regretted to the end of his life that he could not find a woman with whom he could share his full being, both physically and intellectually.

In my literary imagination, homosexuality was a poetic curse, notions I had gleaned from Mishima, Gide, and Genet. I knew nothing of the reality of homosexuality. I thought it irrevocably meshed with affectation and flamboyance. I had prided myself on being nonjudgmental, but my comprehension was narrow and provincial. Even in reading Genet, I saw his men as a mystical race of thieves and sailors. I didn’t fully comprehend their world. I embraced Genet as a poet.

We were evolving with different needs. I needed to explore beyond myself and Robert needed to search within himself. He explored the vocabulary of his work, and as his components shifted and morphed, he was in effect creating a diary of his internal evolution, heralding the emergence of a suppressed sexual identity. He had never given me any indication in his behavior that I would have interpreted as homosexual.

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It is not very frequent that the voice of the gay partner is heard in any narrative – reading Patti’s account provided me with an insight not just into the energies that fuel their passion for art but also the complexities and nuance of their relationship. While it strikes me as tumultuous, it is also undeniably filled with vitality in its intensity, just fire burning bright – it is a love that consumes, which is why it was important for them to each find their own voices separately in the end – allowing them to establish their own universes and rule over them.

The last few pages of the memoir haunted me especially as I read Patti’s poetry. She mentioned composing a song in memory of Robert’s lover and benefactor, Sam, called Paths that Cross. A fitting end, I thought to this long review.

Paths that Cross by Patti Smith

Speak to me, speak to me heart
I feel a needing to bridge the clouds, softly go
A way I wish to know, to know
A way I wish to know, to know

Oh, you’ll ride, surely dance
In a ring backwards and forwards
Those who seek feel the glow
A glow we all will know will know
A glow we all will know will know

On that day filled with grace
On the way to heart’s communion
Steps we take, steps we trace
All the way the heart’s reunion

Paths that cross
Will cross again
Paths that cross
Will cross again

Speak to me, speak to me shadow
I spin from the wheel, nothing at all
Save the need, the need to weave
A silk of souls, that whisper, whisper
A silk of souls, that whispers to me

Speak to me heart
All things renew
Hearts will mend
‘Round the bend

Paths that cross
Cross again
Paths that cross
Will cross again

Paths that cross
Cross again
Paths that cross
Will cross again

Rise up, hold the reins
Hold me, I don’t know when
Hold tight, bye bye

Paths that cross
Will cross again
Paths that cross
Will cross again
Paths that cross
Will cross again

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Winner of the National Book Award

#AWBRead2015 Update: 67 (35)

1 Comment on [Saturday Reads] An Artist’s Manifesto in Patti Smith’s “Just Kids”

  1. This is a powerful post, Myra. The words, poem, song of Patti allow for pondering. I love these lines:
    On the way to heart’s communion
    Steps we take, steps we trace
    All the way the heart’s reunion.

    Thank you for showcasing these works.

    Liked by 1 person

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