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an interview with
patti smith on auguries of innocence

By Todd Baesen

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.

-William Blake

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.

Several 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."

The 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.

TODD BAESEN: Where did you take the cover photo of Auguries of Innocence?

angelsPATTI 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.