telepathic wisdom rhythms

[from "Sexual Bruisings: The Poetry of Patti Smith," by Kate Ballen, Oxford Literary Review, 1977]

Seventh Heaven, Telegraph Books
Witt, Gotham Book Mart

Patti Smith first received her telepathic wisdom rhythms in the petrol scented plains of America's "Garden State," New Jersey:

words of power, words of light, as innocent and
corrupting as an alley, as seductive as the pigeon
blood. the white whore. the metaphor. alchemy of the

She soon jumped her small town compass, slipping into her sexy black pants, balanced out by her schoolboy jacket. In the late sixties and early seventies Patti Smith was a member of Warhol's androgynous beauties living under the fluorescent lights of New York City's Chelsea Hotel...Her performances were sexual bruisings with the spasms of Jagger and the off-key of Dylan. Her musical poems often came from her poetical fantasies of Rimbaud:

Oh arthur arthur, we are in Abyssinia Aden making
love smoking cigarettes. we kiss. but its much more.
azure. blue pool. oil slick lake. sensations telescope.
animate. crystalline gulf. balls of colored glass
exploding. seam of berber tent splitting. openings,
open as a cave, open wider. total surrender.

After a few years Patti Smith became known outside the New York poets and Rock Underground. Heated, rich, her movement is now metaphor.

She had two books of poems published in the States, Seventh Heaven (1972) and Witt (1973). As the story goes in Tibetan Tantric Style, Patti Smith sits at her typewriter until she feels really sex at which point she masturbates. Once the climax has been brought on she immediately begins writing. This rushing fastbreath is sensed in almost all of her poems with no warning words and rhythms jump out at you and rip-out all your teeth. The poetry uses much of her voice rhythms. The oral poetics sometimes seem pretentious, their fifties bop and french surrealism, without her voice:

and god created seventh heaven. saying let them all
in. and caused it to be watched over by the bitch and
the aeroplane.

This is the preface to Seventh Heaven. The password to Seventh Heaven, the main experience of almost all her poems, is longing. The bitch and the aeroplane, both of which can feel so free, are the subjects. The poet says of herself.

My step is heavy
but i can fly like an angel.

There is a strange mingling of the female Confessional Poet and the self-conscious rock star in Seventh Heaven. It is female poetry which feels male. Many of the poems are lost love fantasies in which Patti Smith goes gazing after superwoman: Edie Sedgewick, the real heroine of Dylan's Blonde on Blonde with her white white bones, and Marianne Faithful with her little girl mouth. When she deals with Eve, the "poor sweet bitch," in the title poem, perhaps because the poet is personally less tantalised, Patti Smith goes all out in transformation. She leaves little of the action unspecific in this poem, whereas Genesis leaves much explicitness to the imagination. The erotic fantasies bring Eve's crime of curiosity to the realm of the first human ecstasy. The colloquial language and the Baptist Sing Out Rhythm turn the poem into a modern stylized gospel:

think of Satan as some stud
maybe her knees were open.
Satan snakes between them.
they open wider
snakes up her thighs
rub against her clit for awhile

more than the tree of knowledge was about
to be eaten...she shudders her first shudder
pleasure pleasure garden
was she sorry
are we ever girls
was she a good lay
god only knows

The lyrical love poems in Seventh Heaven written in longer sentences are less fantastical and more personal. The Black Mountain touch of Robert Creeley can often be seen in her emphasis on specific words with the french romance emotions:

victims of the conceit that women were made for men.
radium. I turn out the light. I would not touch her.
after a while desire is overcome. sooner or later desire
hides behind the skin. retracts. retreats. then sleeps
and sleeps and keeps on sleeping.

In many of the poems Patti Smith is visually and rhythmically experimental. She will often repeat words with slight sound variations. She creates beautiful concrete poetry:

Amelia Earhart

Patti Smith also experiments with the traditional storytelling rhythms. In "Mary Jane," the drug chant, the rhythms create an incantation with the power of the tribal prayer directed towards the Shaman:

heart wing aviator
way out of here
out out there
wing of a plane
take my bone in you baby
mary jane.
Seventh Heaven concludes with the same sort of amusing energy often found in a minimal painting. The overwhelming whiteness prevented from going void by some tempting black coloring. The rhythms of the lines repeat after the book is closed like the scratches on a Rolling Stones' record:

come to me my
pretty pretty
In Witt the poems tend to be written in longer lines with less rock rhythms. The poet's sense of humour is extended to include the reader by using the New York Poet's technique of 'we' instead of 'I'. Many of the poems attempt to decode history, memory, the common daydream. The book begins with this notice:

These ravings, observations, etc. come from one who,
beyond vows, is without mother, gender, or county,
who attempts to bleed from the word a system, a space
base. no rock island but a body of phrases with all the
promise of top soil, or a star, a core: a center that will
hold, blossom and vein the atmosphere with vascular
tissue beams that illuminate and reveal.

The poems in Witt are often philosophical Blakean jewels whose climax is sweet immediate union. The poems are the experience of courtship with the angels. The tone of the poems exudes the fact that a risk is just a risk:

I ride the stallion thru the dust storm, my guardian
rides along side me. I have been warned beforehand
that this is a life or death ride. no grays. no subtle
shades. no middle ground.

The words of Frank O'Hara, the genius of the New York School of Poets, start "Rape." O'Hara's amusing sense of conversation is soon joined with apocalyptic-acid 'mushroom-cloud' images and American jukebox crooning:

yum yum the stars are out. I'll never forget how you
smelled that night. like cheddar cheese melting under
fluorescent light. like a day old rainbow fish. what a
dish. gotta lick my lips. gotta dream. I daydream.
thorozine brain cloud. rain rain comes coming down.

The love poems in Witt alternate. The poet looks at herself writing and laughs; "Christ the crap you write when somebody gives you the sack." Usually her personal love turns out to be a tourist postcard, an illusion of grandeur. Worship and attachment is written in a more lyrical, metaphorical language: Patti Smith's Wasteland makes her divine lovers visible by their mummified fetishes. What exists in the Universal Cycle are the artists. There is no mention of Jesus' foreskin still existing in Patti Smith's historical conception:

april is the cruelest month etc. what remains?
brian jones bones, jim morrisons friend jimi hendrix
bandana. sweatband angel. judies garland. the
starched collar of baudelaire. the sculptured cap of
voltaire. the crusaders helmet like a temple itself.
rimbaud's valise. his artificial limb genuflects. surreal
space. brancusi bird brain.
The last poem in Witt, called "Translators," written in the hebraic rhythms of Ginsburg's Kaddish, ends after a physical atomic blast with the optimistic line; "the landscape is moving." In Patti Smith's poetry the Voice has remained and traveled on from the arabs singing algebraic muzak to the ancient tone of Godhead:

...soon the arabs fell back but the voice remained and
traveled on. like loving arms embraced to earth.
saturn arm bands. wandering star. perfect harmony.
ha ha he he

The prayer of Witt and the essence of Patti Smith's poetry, passion, is experience -- cruel, fantastic, unlike anything else:

to know love without exception to be a saint in any form

Copyright © Kate Ballen 1977

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