Devotion

 

Patti Smith opens Devotion with a riff on inspiration, which she invokes as “the unforeseen quantity, the muse that assails at the hidden hour.” Yes, the unforeseen quantity . . . although we might refer to it as the unforeseen quality as well. Who understands how inspiration operates, the way a set of glimmers or observations coalesce inside the mind and are transmuted into image, thought, or narrative? Even those who do creative work are hard-pressed to offer more than homilies. I think of William Faulkner, who once explained that “the tools I need for my trade are paper, tobacco, food, and a little whiskey.” Or Albert Einstein, who suggested that “imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world.” What they — and Smith — are saying is that it’s impossible to pinpoint how, exactly, an idea or piece of work comes into being, that if not mystical exactly it is at a level beyond conscious reckoning. “Most often,” Smith elaborates, “the alchemy that produces a poem or a work of fiction is hidden within the work itself, if not imbedded in the coiling ridges of the mind.” In that regard, perhaps, the most definitive statement she or any artist can make is something like this one: “I had inadvertently produced evidence, annotating as I went along.”

For Smith, that is a matter, as much as anything, of process, the way our work often surprises us as it finds its form. And yet, lest this seem too mechanical, Smith remains attentive to what she might refer to as the holiness of the task. There’s a reason her new book — which grew out of the Windham-Campbell Lectures she delivered at Yale last year and kicks off Yale University Press’s series “Why I Write” — is called Devotion; she is, as she has long been, devotional in her approach. Think of that famous opening to her debut album, Horses: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.” The line projects a tone of punk rock swagger, a sneer in the face of expected pieties — until the verse resolves in an unexpected couplet: “My sins my own / They belong to me.” Attitude becomes acceptance, or better, a posture of responsibility. “[T]here are precious words to grind,” she writes in Woolgathering, which is my favorite of her books, an impressionistic anti-memoir in which childhood memories blur into imagination, or spiritual practice, or something that is equal parts of both. I don’t want to make too much of this; like all artists, Smith recognizes that what she does is hard work, days and months of staring down both blankness and self-doubt. Nonetheless, as she observes in her poem “The Writer’s Song”: “it is better to write / then die / a thousand prayers / and souvenirs / set away in earthenware / we draw the jars / from the shelves / drink our parting / from ourselves / so be we king / or be we bum / the reed still whistles / the heart still hums.”

Devotion emerges directly from such territory: The book is a meditation on creativity and its (dis)contents. Divided into three parts, it asks us to consider the relationship between inspiration, work, and aftermath — not by explaining but by illustrating the ways they interact. How does Smith achieve this? She begins with a section entitled “How the Mind Works,” which could be a missing chapter from her preceding book, M Train. What makes M Train so vivid is its quality of serendipity, of unfolding in the present; reading it feels like accompanying Smith on a journey, both exterior and interior, physical and emotional, in which neither she nor we are sure where we’ll end up. The first part of Devotion has a similar quality, beginning with a description of a film about the 1941 forced deportation of Estonians by the Soviets, then offering a few lines, a few brief sequences, in response. Afterward, we follow Smith to her neighborhood café, where she reads Patrick Modiano while pondering her inchoate desire to put something on the page. The references to other artists, other work, have long been part of Smith’s method; she likes to wear her influences on her sleeve. Here, that means less her usual heroes (William Burroughs, Rimbaud, Robert Mapplethorpe) than a related set of ghosts, mostly French — Camus and Simone Weil, primarily — which is only fitting since much of “How the Mind Works” takes place in France.

Smith’s point — that we can never shed the artists who have come before us, nor should we want to, for they make us who we are — sits at the very center of her project, which has always (among other things) positioned her in a lineage. Thus, she invokes Schiller and Joyce and Goethe, as well as other “ghosts of writers” who have walked the path she now treads. “I knew Genet,” the head of the French publisher Gallimard tells her, “softly, looking away so as not to appear immodest.” For Smith, this is all part of the atmosphere — of Paris, yes, but also of her inner life. The writing, when it comes, grows out of both impulses, or maybe it begins at the moment they coalesce. Either way, it is at the seaside town of Sète that she begins what will become the second part of the book, a long fable named Devotion, which traces the relationship of a teenage ice skater, the daughter of an Estonian couple lost in the deportations, and an older man who becomes her fateful love. “Her mind was a muscle of discontent,” Smith writes, describing her protagonist, a line so stunning it stops me short. This is how the particular bleeds into the universal, how the experience of this young woman speaks to a condition that is shared, I believe, by nearly all of us. “Languages are like chess,” she tells the man, to which he replies, “And words are like moves?” The porousness, the extent to which we are aware of, although undistracted by, the presence of the author in the background, is a key intention of the book.

On the one hand, this has everything to do with Smith herself; she always sits at the center of her work. For her, writing (or music or photography) is an interior exploration, although it also is, it must be, something more. At times, this has led her to indulgence: Radio Ethiopia, for instance, an album I adored when I was younger, if much less so now. Still, this is what is so astonishing about her career and what motivates Devotion — the way that, as she has gotten older, Smith’s vision has expanded, framing her self-awareness not as self-absorption but rather a deep dive into everything, the exhilaration and the terror and the transcendence that we all share. “What is the task?” she wonders in the closing lines here. “To compose a work that communicates on several levels, as in a parable, devoid of the stain of cleverness . . . What is the dream? To write something fine, that would be better than I am, and that would justify my trials and indiscretions. To offer proof, through a scramble of words, that God exists.”

I’m not entirely sure about the God part, although really that’s a matter of semantics, since what Smith is asking for has less to do with any deity than with the intention to write beyond oneself. That is the point of Devotion, and its message also: art making as inspirational act. Such inspiration is less a search for a starting point than a mechanism for connection, a desire to communicate. “Why do we write?” Smith asks, and the answer comes encoded in the question, as of course it must. “A chorus erupts . . . Because we cannot simply live.”

 

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