Happy Birthday poet, performer and rock band leader Patti Smith! We’ll get to her, girls basketball, Arthur Rimbaud, and studying French in Iowa before we’re through today’s post.
There’s a lot of things that go into this Parlando Project existing. One thread of that origin begins: I came to admire poetry as a teenager and a couple of years later I started to write it. I did those things sensuously, without deep understanding of connotation or denotation. I loved poetry and I wrote poetry as music: organized sounds that attracted and pleased me.
Let’s follow that thread, barely woven. I took French in high school in my little Iowa town. The teacher was an interesting man, full of iconoclastic thoughts and some experience in France itself that I don’t recall the particulars of. He seemed rather bold in my little farm town mostly settled by Swedish immigrants some 80 years before, and I suspected then he felt immune to criticism because he was a fairly successful girls basketball coach.* French was the only foreign language offered in my small high school, but I was both aware of Iowa’s history as a French colony** and with bilingual French and English labels and signs from fishing trips deep into Ontario Canada. I was not even a middling student in the class. I did fine with vocabulary, reasonably well with the language rules and syntax, but I was bad at conversational French, both being slow to pick up the knack for spontaneous expression using the words and grammar, and abysmal in pronunciation. I was entirely incapable of making the mouth sounds required. I suspect this is neurological, I have a general problem with mimesis in music or speaking. People are often shocked at how bad I am at that kind of thing.
I did even more poorly in my freshman French class in my attempt at college. This was so even though by then I had an additional motivation: I had learned that French poetry was an important influence on Modernist English poetry. And then, after the Bob Dylan revolution in popular songwriting, French poetry was often cited as an influence on Dylan, and so then by one remove from Dylan, a reflected influence on others who sought to write unusual lyrics using expanded forms of expression.
Let’s skip forward to the fall of 1975. I’m living in a trailer in the middle of Newburgh New York, a small descending city beset with racism and mid-70s industrial ennui, working in the busy E.R. that served as the last resort of the uninsured sick and wounded of the area. I eagerly snag the first LP by a poet who has formed a rock band, and who has been performing 68.2 miles away down the Hudson river in Manhattan. A bootstrap magazine down there would put a label for her band and the bands that were performing around the same time and place: “Punk.***” Like most genre labels, that’s too reductionist, but there you are.
The album “Horses” by the Patti Smith Group presented something important to me, then, and from the uncoiled, frayed thread that unravels from there to now. It’s highly audacious and retains a considerable level of originality even today. I’ll allow that audacious may be the friendly way to say pretentious — the difference may be how much the results work for a listener. I can somewhat understand those that down-rate or even dislike the record, for even though some reject it for ignorant or stupid prejudices, others have valid reasons from their experience and ways of looking and doing. This is the nature of art, and it is almost required of art that breaks new ground. One must go on one’s nerve to be different — and nerve is another way to say that you fully risk pretending to validity and worth.
Horses is halfway a rock song record, and the other half is something else. Yes, Smith sings on the record, but often words are chanted, spoken, prayed, reduced to sound collages halfway between puns and scat singing. If one was to compare it to the singer-songwriter records of it’s day or to a hip hop record closer to now, it’s closer to the later but still its own thing. In the context of then and now, Horses is less likely than records of either the 1975 or 2021 poles to represent itself as a first-person narration of the singer. For much of the record’s running time Smith speaks as fuzzily defined protagonists that however lacking in biographic detail don’t seem to be herself. Rappers may like to put on exaggerated and boasting personas, and lately gender fluidity has found its way into hip hop, but Smith is male or of indeterminate gender for almost the entirety of her first record. Sexualized violence and unilateral lust occurs in a state between fantasy and reality. Visionary states of consciousness are entered into extravagantly, yet this never seems much like a psychedelic record of a few years before. Is it more gothic than many of those? Perhaps — but too Horses seems more consequential, and less a novel pipe dream.
Around this time, following my own thread, I began reading in translation and slowly translating to English a handful of French poems. I still “understood” little of that poetry, and didn’t even like all of it. I gravitated to the Surrealists mostly, but I had paperback volumes of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations and A Season in Hell, and I knew that the Surrealists thought him a Surrealist before their time. Yet to this day, I’ve not really come to grips with Rimbaud. Translation is one way to deeply understand, and that’s a route I’ve taken in the past couple of years with him.
From left to right: the most well-known photo of Rimbaud while he was still writing poetry, Patti Smith’s iconic Horses cover photo taken by Robert Mapplethorpe and a photo from the time of the Paris Commune in 1871 that has been identified as likely of Rimbaud.
Even superficially one can see the linkage between Smith and Rimbaud in the most hermetic piece on Smith’s record, “Land.” A protagonist character that may persist throughout this more than nine-and-a-half-minute piece, Johnny, seems to be a melding of one of William Burroughs’s Wild Boys**** and Chuck Berry’s persona of Afro-American guitar-playing crossover success, Johnny B. Goode. In place of Berry’s refrain of “Go go, go Johnny, go go” Smith substitutes “Go Rimbaud, go Rimbaud.” But Smith’s Rimbaud influence seems to be even deeper, merging somewhat too with her partnership with the young Robert Mapplethorpe. If decades of exposure to Rimbaud hasn’t greatly increased my understanding and/or appreciation for Rimbaud, I’ve oddly been able to appreciate Patti Smith from the first words I read of hers on the page, and from the first words on Horses.***** It was famously said about the first Velvet Underground record that few bought it, but everyone who did started a band. Horses sold a bit better, despite its originality and outsider stance. A lot of Horses’ listeners started bands too, and more than a few of us found it more than a demonstration of how to express unusual things within the context of an irregular rock band — we remember it helped us survive and find meaning in that survival. Does that sound sappy to say? Sound like late-adolescent hero worship? Examining myself I don’t think it’s as much of that as it sounds like. Maybe I’m wrong? I’m beyond caring this late in my life what that was, or why — I’m more at grateful I survived and can do this Project now.
Those who know Rimbaud’s biography or work from its appearances here or elsewhere will know how unique and audacious he was too. The most famous single fact about him is that he stopped writing poetry as a teenager, so his entire collected works are the works of a minor. Some of it conforms formally and shows a careful versifier, and some of it out-Whitmans Whitman in free expression of physicality and sexuality.
I awoke at 3 AM this morning, deciding I had to do something today for Patti Smith’s 75th birthday. My sleepless mind half-dreamed and solved that it needed to be something by Rimbaud. Despite reduced higher brain functions, I downloaded a collected works and began searching. Life situations will not allow me to complete any piece started as late as today by end of the day. So, this is Part One, all I can complete. Below there’s an audio piece containing my translation of one of Rimbaud’s best short, rhymed lyrics performed with a little Patti Smith Group feel to the music. The piece is Rimbaud’s “Eternity,” and it’s been one of the most popular ones the Parlando Project has presented. If you’d like to read my translation of the lyric or my original thoughts on the process of creating it, you can find that here. To hear it, you can use the player below, or this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.
*Girls basketball was a big thing in Iowa outside of its largest cities who were uninterested in girls sports at that time. In those days it was played with special rules using 3 on 3 teams separated in each half of the court. This meant that girls that didn’t have shooting talent could play only defense and rebound, and girls whose talent was shooting could be very effective and dominate without having to be quite the all-around athletes that modern women basketball players are asked to be. This allowed good coaching and gritty players from small towns to beat many larger schools in the single-class annual state championship tournament which was broadcast live and covered extensively in the newspapers.
**Like snooty Parisians, even rural un-degreed Iowans of my time would know to discretely sneer “out-lander!” at anyone who pronounced our state capitol with un-French final “s” sounds. Beside that historical French connection, my aunt and associated pair of cousins had been posted with her husband in France with the Army, and those cousins were bilingual as they learned speech. She herself spoke French with a decided American southern accent, a little like American Creole. I loved that aunt so much, this might have also been a factor.
***I keep reminding my contemporary teenager that “punk” at its American inception didn’t mean a single style. It was more at the “irregulars” —those whose lives had not necessarily been as musicians — being pressed into service as the more exclusively musical Sixties predecessors died, became depleted from drugs (cocaine in particular gave too many a “best consumed by” date), or just became regimented in a new record industry that understood how to constrain musical artists into commercial money-makers. Speaking in the context of Rimbaud, I could note that “punk” originated as slang for a less successful/powerful criminals and by extension into less-powerful young men in homosexual relations.
****I’ve read and enjoyed a lot of those labeled “Beats,” but for some reason I’ve never really wanted to read Burroughs. I have no idea if that’s my loss. All I know about him is what others have said, but Smith has spoken of Burroughs’ influence, so I don’t need to draw the connection myself. “Land” itself was the hardest song on Horses for me to appreciate and enjoy. I’d been through some incidents of sexualized violence in my teen years and Smith’s use of that motif, while not exactly “triggering” in the modern parlance, wasn’t easy to appreciate.
*****I do own a copy of the indie single that preceded the LP, but I bought it after the LP came out. I first ran across Patti Smith on the page as a writer, before Horses. One early example I recall was a prose-poemish piece of hers called “Dylan’s Dog.” And I knew from notices that she and Lenny Kaye (another person I knew as a “rock critic” before I heard a note of his music) had been mixing electric guitar with poetry. By 1974-75 in Newburgh I was far enough away and far enough poor that I was disconnected from New York City, and so I missed out on the NYC CBGB’s scene.