patti smith on auguries of innocence
To see a world
in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the
palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
Patti Smith's latest book is a masterful culmination
of all her poetic work to date, drawing as it does on her long and varied influences,
including Arthur Rimbaud, Joan of Arc, Pablo Picasso, Virginia Woolf and of course,
William Blake, whose famed poem Auguries of Innocence, has been borrowed as the
title of this superb collection. It is Blake, the visionary British artist whose
influence is most pronounced on the 26 poems included here, but especially on
"Worthy the Lamb Slain for Us," which directly addresses Blake's poem
"The Lamb." Here, Ms. Smith gives Blake's innocence an edge of modern
day horror, relating it to modern man's cruelty, as demonstrated by this passage:
"And he, a governed soul, broad shouldered with eyes like Blake, lamented
who bred thee, nursed thee on mead and flowers, as he ripped her apart."
For readers expecting a kinder gentler Patti Smith, it's
best to be forewarned, as this book, despite its title, is no collection of innocent
auguries or vapid verses. Indeed, Smith gives us a vision of atrocities and horror
which might give even the most seasoned reader a reason to stand up and shout
against the fear and madness that seem to have descended on today's world like
a biblical plague of locusts. Smith addresses global injustices, animal extinction,
death, sorrow and loss, and does it all with the voice of a true seer. As Blake
did, Smith contrasts the inherent innocence of children against the unholy terrors
of their exploitation, whether as in Blake's time, by taking children and turning
them into mistreated laborers, or as is done today, by stripping away their innocence
through various forms of mass media, an even more insidious method, since it can
happen so subtly that a child or parent may never notice it occurring.
of the poems are vivid and horrific reminders of what the so-called civilized
leaders of this planet have done in the name of peace and progress during the
last century. Namely, bombing innocent men, women and children who have no connection
to the political agendas or visions of grandeur espoused by their misguided leaders.
Three separate poems address specific bombings, including George Bush's bombing
of Baghdad, Iraq, Ronald Reagan's bombing of Benghazi, Libya and Adolf Hitler's
bombing of Guernica, Spain. And ironically, Smith is able to transmute the horrors
of modern warfare into a truly touching and beautiful artistic vision, as in the
lengthy poem, "Birds of Iraq" where Patti speaks about the supposed
sanity of America's launching a preemptive strike on Iraq, by contrasting it with
the madness and hallucinations of Virginia Woolf, whose loss of control over her
own life, ultimately resulted in her tragic suicide. Likewise Pablo Picasso's
outrage over the bombing of the Basque village of Guernica resulted in that artist's
masterpiece, and Ms. Smith imagines the horrors of the that fateful Spanish day
in 1937 without flinching: "...She crawled with one shoe the other foot gone
a trail sticky and warm... dripping blood from the wounds of Spain."
following interview took place when Patti dropped by the KUSF studios to do a
memorable on the air poetry reading during her two-day visit to San Francisco
(November 13 - 14, 2005). It is supplemented with Patti's extensive comments made
during her two subsequent poetry readings in San Francisco, and her in store appearance
at Tower Records.
TODD BAESEN: Tonight in San Francisco,
you'll be doing your first full-length poetry reading since your new book of poems, Auguries of Innocence has come out.
PATTI SMITH: Yes,
and the Victoria Theater show was something we added at the last minute, and I
think it will be really fun. Lenny will come by and we'll read poems and do some
songs and things. Lenny and I are here celebrating the 100th anniversary
(Laughter) I mean the 30th anniversary of Horses and because I have a new
book out, we've been lucky enough to visit all these cool places. I haven't really
read the Auguries of Innocence poems out loud too much, only a couple of
times, so it will be really interesting for me to get the opportunity to read
them here tonight.
TODD BAESEN: I haven't seen too many reviews
of Auguries of Innocence.
PATTI SMITH: No, as far as
I know, there haven't been any reviews. But I'm very happy with the book, although
I actually had an argument with my publisher about the cover. I said, "why
does it have to say 'Poems' on the cover." You don't put 'novel' on a book's
cover. So we compromised by making 'Poems' real tiny. Originally it was real big.
BAESEN: Where did you take the cover photo of Auguries of Innocence?
SMITH: That's a Polaroid I took when we were on the road and playing a big club
in Hamburg (The Grosse Freiheit 36). I went exploring and I noticed this door
that led to a tinier club that was all boarded up within the big club. I went
in there and it was really dark and dusty, it was like being in The Twilight Zone.
It had these old tables and chairs that had been there for years and they were
all covered with dust. But along the wall, for no reason I could comprehend, there
where these friezes of cherubs. I guess they were sculptures, except they were
carved into the wall. I couldn't really see them, because it was so dark, but
I lit a match and was able to get enough light to take Polaroid's of these two
children. They really fascinated me, and while I was staring at them a little
poem came into my head. So I writ this little poem, The Oracle while I
was looking at the children who are on the cover of the book.