“A Conversation with Patti Smith” landed on the first day of fall, and a rain spell had swept into Princeton with the season. Change—how steadily it comes and how to embrace it—was at the front of my mind as I gave a rainy Saturday morning debut for my coat, which had been shoved into my closet since April.
The talk took place in the Chancellor Green rotunda. Its stained glass gave off a gray glow, casting a haughtiness that Smith lifted as she entered the room with the two other panelists, Brigid Doherty and Hope Littwin. Smith, poet and staple of the 1970s punk rock scene, wore a relaxed black blazer and wide-legged jeans, not dissimilar to many of the students in the audience. At 77, the rock star is still stylish to a T.
The event had no agenda or premise; it was simply called “A Conversation with Patti Smith.” Still, people of all ages filled the seats to hear Smith talk about anything, a testament to the endurance of Smith’s figure across generations.
I was born at the turn of the century, decidedly after Smith’s height of punk rock fame, and came to the talk less out of reverence and more out of curiosity. What lessons did Smith have for young students, who met her art years after it was made, and for people who grew up with her? What experiences were of her moment, and what transcended?
Over the course of the hour, Smith let the audience peek into not just the fervor of the 1970s, but into her entire journey as a writer, setting forth a gently radical approach to writing and life that restructures the meaning of greatness; after all these years, she remains countercultural.
Smith’s artistic education took place in the 1970s at New York’s infamous Chelsea Hotel, where she formed serendipitous and generous mentorships with some of the most talented poets and artists of that time. Her account of New York City washed over me like a dream. Sitting in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel and smoking with Janis Joplin, basking in the counterculture that tied together artists in politics and dress, pursuing relentlessly the belief that art could defeat systems of domination—it is the stuff of cliches now, but all cliches have roots somewhere, and Smith had her hands in the dirt.
Smith would be the first to admit that her artistic education at the Chelsea Hotel is no longer possible. Her own daughter, she related, struggles to make ends meet to live in the city. But while there is no roadmap back to the 1970s, Smith still imparted wisdom that transcended that time, wisdom not just for artists but for anyone seeking to live a good life.
This wisdom centers on the personal relationship people build with themselves. What is important for life—and thus for creativity—is to know one’s vision, and to work towards it, whatever that may be. It takes concerted effort to know oneself, and courage to follow that self-knowledge, particularly when that path does not align with external standards of reward and praise. For Smith, poet and painter William Blake exemplified this approach to life. She remarked: “Despite the fact he had no proof from the world he was worth anything—he would have gotten 4 likes [on Instagram]— he did his work.” He “channeled the angels in whatever he did,” even though the people around him were unable to see them.
Smith directly addressed the difficulty of self-assessment in the digital age. With external validation quantified in likes, it is easy to substitute other people’s opinions for one’s own. Further, while the relationship with the self is perhaps the most important—and certainly the longest—relationship one keeps, the work that goes into it is not easily externally held. You cannot point to or photograph a healthy sense of self. And in a culture that values what can be shared, seen, and evaluated, the work of self-knowledge and self-assessment is especially difficult. There is little room for work that goes unseen in a culture that fetishizes the eyes of others.
Smith continues to follow her own vision in the 8th decade of her life. This dedication was and is not easy. She marked the 1980s, which the media usually sees as a lull in her life, as an especially difficult time to juggle her vision and life outside of art. Smith raised her two children during this decade, an accomplishment she declared as one of her proudest. As motherhood enriched her life, Smith continued to pursue her vision, balancing duties to others with her duty to herself. She adopted a personal practice of writing, setting aside 5:30 to 8 a.m. as time to create.
As she described her daily practice of writing, which she continues to maintain, the ritual reminded me of the words of Joan Didion: “character—the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life—is the source from which self-respect springs.” Here was someone who could sit proudly with the work they did, whether it was on stage or changing diapers. Here was someone who was able to take ownership over their life. As Smith said, “I assess myself by how I conduct myself in the world, was I a good person…by the work I do.”
Smith’s outlook is quietly radical, one that usurps the typical dynamics of success defined by external validation and reward. She is a walking, breathing, speaking vision of the capacity for people to pursue not just artistic greatness, but a great life in a much deeper sense. A greatness that abides in the unseen hours of early morning, in caring fully for the people around you, and in having the self-respect to know when you live in alignment with your values. Greatness that shines when the world clamors at your name, and when the world has no place for your vision. By working anyways, you make a home for it all the same.
Many thanks to McCarter, Debbie Bisno, and Paula Abreu for making my attendance at “A Conversation with Patti Smith” possible.
Photos courtesy of McCarter. Talk Presented by:
McCarter and the Humanities Council at Princeton University A Conversation with PATTI SMITH
Moderated by Brigid Doherty (Departments of German and Art & Archaeology) and Hope Littwin (Department of Music)
A program of McCarter’s Arts & Ideas – connecting Princeton University scholarship, campus life and community partners to the work on stage & behind the scenes. More: https://www.mccarter.org/tickets-events/artsideas/